When the Vienna Philharmonic finishes its New Year’s concert on the first day of 2021, no one will be in the audience to clap.
Normally, some 50,000 people apply for tickets to the annual tradition. But this year the seats in the frescoed great hall of the Musikverein will be empty for the first time since the event started in 1939, owing to the pandemic.
The orchestra is finding a supportive audience remotely, however. Seven thousand people from up to 90 countries have registered to send audio broadcasts of themselves applauding from their homes.
“We need to have hope,” said Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, who will lead the concert for the sixth time. “The Musikverein for the first time without music on the first of January would be like a grave, it would be the worst sign, a negative sign for the entire world.”This concert, which includes a line-up of Viennese composer Johann Strauss Jr’s waltzes and polkas, usually draws an audience of some 50m people and has become a symbol of Austria and the cultural importance of its capital.
“The music we are playing has lifted us through so many crises,” said Daniel Froschauer, the philharmonic’s first violinist.
Performances such as the New Year’s concert have been able to continue in part owing to generous emergency support for the arts. Austria’s federal government provided €220m in addition to its regular cultural budget of €466m to support artists and cultural organisations. The government also reduced value added taxes for the cultural sector and offered access to the Kurzarbeit furlough support scheme, film-making subsidies, vouchers for cancelled events and replacement for sales lost during lockdown.
Many of the greatest classical musicians, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Gustav Mahler, lived and worked in Vienna, so the genre is important to Austria. In the early months of the pandemic, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz personally pledged to support the necessary conditions for performances, said Mr Froschauer, who is also the chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic’s board. Classical music is a big draw for tourism, a sector that accounts for 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product. The creative sector employs about 5 per cent of the workforce.
Ahead of the New Year’s day concert, musicians and staff are being subjected to a regime of daily Covid-19 testing before entering the Musikverein’s gilded halls. Although live audiences are banned until at least January 6, Mr Froschauer said: “We feel privileged we are able to play, and we do so with the mindset that we know so many people cannot.”
Austria has successfully held several large cultural events in 2020, including the 100th Salzburger Festspiele, a month-long annual theatre, music and opera festival which took place with socially distanced seating and regular Covid testing for performers. It sold 76,000 tickets and organisers said no Covid-19 infections could be traced to it.
Other Austrian venues have also tried to keep doors open, at least to performers. Jazz club Porgy and Bess, in central Vienna’s first district, converted most of its winter programme into online concerts streamed in real time where viewers could pay what they liked. Often the shows drew a much larger audience than the club’s seating capacity.
“We want to send a signal that we don't give up because of the virus,” said artistic director Christoph Huber, noting that his club’s ability to host concerts and continue paying musicians — through a combination of state and audience support — was rare. Mr Froschauer, who studied music at the Juilliard School in New York, said Europe’s cultural workers were lucky in comparison to the “horror scenario” in America.
The US had record deaths owing to Covid-19 in December and does not have a robust social safety net for artists. More than half of actors and dancers, and almost one-third of musicians, are unemployed, according to the US National Endowment for the Arts.
But while Austria’s orchestras and other high-profile arts organisations have received substantial state support, many cultural workers, especially young freelancers, struggle.
In May, culture minister Ulrike Lunacek resigned saying she had not been given enough resources to assist culture workers. “This is not worthy of one of the richest countries in the world,” she said.
Baritone singer Marko Trajkovski, 26, who has lived in Vienna for eight years, had so many performances cancelled in 2020 that he had to take a job selling jeans at a new clothing store.
His partner, composer Oskar Gigele, also 26, worried about the long-term effects the pandemic will have on opportunities in the performing arts for young people.
“This crisis is thinning out this generation — people are giving up . . . If you’re not employed already, you don’t have a chance to get in somewhere, or to get any funding,” he said. “There is no money left right now.”
Even for storied institutions such as the Vienna Philharmonic — which has survived the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, annexation by Nazi Germany and the devastation of the second world war — the future is uncertain.
The Philharmonic made it to Japan in November for a 10-day tour, but plans for a large US tour in 2021 have been postponed indefinitely. Tours are important for revenue, and Mr Froschauer said the group was considering going instead to China and elsewhere in Asia, where Covid-19 cases are far lower.
“We usually plan three years in advance, but now it is about two weeks,” he said.