Japanese Orchestras Fight for Survival amid Pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Gunma Symphony Orchestra rehearses in Takasaki on Jan. 29.

Local orchestras that have long contributed to promoting culture have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic as revenues are drying up due to cancellations and postponements of musical performances, nonetheless are searching for ways to continue their activities.

Gunma Symphony Orchestra and its about 70 members — some wearing masks — performed Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, colloquially known as “From the New World,” in late January at a Takasaki hall. At the rehearsal held the day before the concert, acrylic boards were set up in front of the conductor as well as the winds, and the performers used social distancing to prevent infections.

Gunma Symphony Orchestra was formed in November 1945 and is known as a pioneer of local orchestras nationwide. It usually performs between 130 and 150 concerts annually, including regular concerts and so-called mobile music classes touring schools.

However, the orchestra expects to play only 50 performances in fiscal 2020.

About half of the orchestra’s ¥800 million annual budget is generated from performance proceeds, such as ticket sales, and the other half comes from prefectural and city government subsidies, among other sources.

Its income has dropped sharply, and the orchestra is currently surviving on employment adjustment subsidies from the central government.

“How our orchestra’s founder had felt at the time can be attuned to the coronavirus era,” said director Hiroyuki Watarai. “I want the orchestra to continue its performances even though it’s difficult to do so. We cannot stop the lights of art and culture.”

According to the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras, which comprises 38 professional orchestras, more than 1,500 concerts have been canceled or postponed since last year. Orchestras that do not receive support from local governments and companies will be in the red if about 80% of seats at events are unsold.

Institutions are turning to alternative measures to keep the music going.

The Chiba Symphony Orchestra is uploading to its homepage and YouTube videos of performances filmed at members’ homes that viewers can watch for free. Some members are teaching private lessons.

The orchestra said it has received positive feedback from viewers who said the performances cheered them up. And although it is difficult to make money from the videos because creating ones commensurate with pay-per-view distribution quality would involve filming and editing costs, the orchestra said it will continue posting videos to stay active.

The Sapporo Symphony Orchestra launched a crowdfunding campaign last year asking donors to “be closely related to Hokkaido’s only professional orchestra” and gave away calendars, vouchers and other items for chipping in. The orchestra raised about ¥26.6 million.

The Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras also called for donations and collected about ¥17.7 million as of December. Contributions are used for orchestras to provide web broadcasts and take infection control measures.

“Music is by no means unnecessary or nonurgent,” said the association’s executive director Hiroshi Kuwabara. “Audiences may not return to halls so quickly. We’re treading a thorny path, but we want to see what each orchestra can do amid the coronavirus disaster.”