St Mary’s Perivale in the pandemic

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has affected virtually every arts organization in the UK.   At St Mary’s Perivale we have responded by becoming in effect a broadcasting centre, using our excellent video facilities and thus have been able to continue supporting musicians and providing solace and entertainment for our many supporters, living both locally in Ealing and around the world.   Since March 15th , we have broadcast 43 live concerts and 53 concert recordings, and paid over £15000 to musicians.  This article describes the sequence of events.

Our 2020 concert series progressed normally until Sunday 15th March.  By then we had held 29 concerts to a live audience, and had also been streaming the concerts to a virtual audience as an adjunct.   Then partial restrictions were introduced, and we held two excellent concerts in an empty church on Tuesday 17th March (Konstantin Lapshin piano recital) and 18th March (Michael Foyle (violin) and Maksim Stsura (piano)).   Then the total lockdown ensued, and we were unable to continue with ‘live’ concerts.   Fortunately we have a library of about 400 concert performances, recorded since 2016 in high-definition video, and we were able to stream selected concert recordings instead of live events.   

Our video system will be the subject of a separate article, but in brief it was developed over a period of several years by Simon Shute, aided by George Auckland.  Both were friends living in Ealing who had retired from distinguished careers at the BBC.    Initially the recordings were designed to provide musicians with a momento of their performances, in standard definition video.  In August 2016 high-definition cameras were installed and since then all performances have been recorded and are permanently stored ‘in the cloud’.   The system has been gradually refined and improved and we now have 7 HD cameras, and two high-quality microphones.   In December 2018 we commenced live streaming of concerts via Youtube.   This was always regarded as an adjunct to the main focus of the concert, which was the experience of the audience gathered in the church – until the pandemic.

So at the end of March we selected out 53 concerts from our library of recordings, for streaming, and commenced broadcasting them on 8th April.   At that stage very few organizations were streaming concerts, and we found ourselves in competition with the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Met for our virtual audience !   We broadcast a teatime concert at 4 pm every day for 53 consecutive days.   The average viewing figures, kindly provided by my colleague Roger Nellist, were 42 concurrently with the concert, 129 by midnight on that day and 192 a week later.   A questionnaire survey showed that 48 out of 67 respondents thought that the streamed concerts were ‘important’ or ‘very important’.    We paid all musicians whose recorded concerts were broadcast, and their payments totalled £6500.     We asked the viewers to donate towards the cost of paying the musicians, and were gratified by their warm response.   This major project was only possible because of the hard work of our superb technical team, preparing the recordings for broadcast.    They comprised Simon Shute, George Auckland, Andrew Whadcoat, Patrick Magill, and Tim Hart.    

Recorded performances can never have the ‘frisson’ of a LIVE event, and following the relaxation of restrictions we were delighted to restart LIVE concerts in an empty church on Tuesday 2nd June.  We held a total of 17 concerts in June and July     Viewing figures for these LIVE events were markedly increased, compared with the recorded ones, with 64 watching the concert concurrently, 237 by midnight later that day, and 435 by a week later.   Our audience has included viewers in 47 countries so far.    We paid a total of £2500 to the musicians giving these concerts.  

So our video and streaming facilities, which were developed as an interesting adjunct to our concerts, have proved crucial to our survival over the past few months, and we have been able to support musicians and maintain our historic building    We have now held a further 20 concerts in the Autumn, with average viewing figures of over 400.   Over 3000 viewers watched the St Mary’s Perivale Beethoven Sonata Festival in early October, with 32 pianists playing all the sonatas.   We have paid £6500 to musicians in the past two months, so total payments to musicians in the lockdown is over £15,000.   Donations have been remarkably generous, and have almost kept up with our payments to musicians, perhaps because our supporters realize that there are no paid staff at the church.   

We intend to continue broadcasting 3 concerts per week, over the next few months, and are planning a Chopin Festival in March and another Beethoven Sonata Festival next October, and a series of lectures by key figures in the piano world, as in our Sunday lecture-recital on Liszt piano music by Leslie Howard.  Our small venue makes it difficult to comply fully with Covid regulations on a socially distanced audience, so it may be several more months before we can welcome back our ‘physical’ audience.   Meanwhile, we hope that viewers will continue to enjoy our ‘virtual’ concerts, as a substitute, and that we can continue to provide performing opportunities and financial support for our musicians in these difficult times.   Huge thanks are due to our recording team, under the direction of Simon Shute, and including Roger Nellist, Patrick Magill, Andrew Whadcoat, Rob Jenkins and Truus Bos.