Researchers from the Charité Medical Hospital in Berlin have issued new guidelines on separation of the seating of orchestra musicians during the coronavirus pandemic, and the figures don’t look promising for resumption of symphonic concerts.
The guidelines recommend that string players be positioned 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) apart, wind players 2 meters (about 6.7 feet) distant from one another, with brass musicians playing behind plexiglass shields, and with conductors positioned at least 1.5 meters from the nearest player.
Given the size of most concert-hall stages, those numbers suggest that a chamber orchestra is the largest group that could be accommodated. And given the distances between musicians, significant issues of ensemble sound arise.
If this guidance is followed by orchestras, listeners could expect to hear more baroque, classical, modern neoclassical and large-scale chamber repertory such as octets and nonets, not much from the romantic era, none of the late-romantic and early modern big-orchestra blockbusters, and markedly different orchestral sound textures, more dependent than ever on the acoustics of the performance space.
Details on the guidelines from Vienna’s Wiener Zeitung newspaper (in German, English translation enabled):
Preliminary findings from researchers at the Bundeswehr University of Munich, examining “both the spit-like (ballistic) spread of larger droplets and the flow-related spread of small droplets (aerosol) when making music,” suggest that professional choral singers spread larger droplets half a meter (about 1.8 feet) or less, and that most wind musicians project droplets 1 meter or less.
Their report is summarized in this article from the Swiss online newsletter Katholisches Medienzentrum (in German, English translation enabled):
(Note that the Munich research addresses professional singers, who are trained not to emit as much air as amateurs in vocalizing.)
None of that touches on the issue of social distancing in seating audiences. Is it economically feasible to stage a concert in which patrons need to sit six feet apart – in effect, leaving two-thirds of seats vacant? One European source tells me that concert promoters there are considering schemes in which patrons are required to purchase multiple seats, or even rows of seats, to attend performances.