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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A time to show courage

By Norman Lebrecht / October 10, 2001

LIFE goes on, we keep telling ourselves, life must go on. We cannot allow mass murder to disrupt civilisation. We have a duty to our children to hold the line. That, at least, is what responsible citizens are saying. Artists are another matter. Artists have different priorities. They respond to crisis with a heightened sensitivity.

The first thing many of them did after September 11 was to cancel everything. While world leaders appealed for normality, Madonna, Bob Dylan and Janet Jackson led a wave of music stars who called off overseas tours, mostly in Europe. Life feels so much safer behind 12ft electronic gates.

In the classical lily-pond, there have been comparable acts of heroism. Nine days after the attacks, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu pulled out of all engagements at the Metropolitan Opera this season, saying they were "very concerned" about flying. Among Alagna's cancellations was a fund-raising gala for terror victims.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra turned up at Carnegie Hall in a reduced formation, substituting Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies for Mahler's Seventh. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani extolled their solidarity, but insiders said the orchestra had been unable to rally enough members for a Mahler symphony onto the flight.

The Minnesota orchestra, ambassadors of the great Midwest where men are truly men, called off next month's trip to Japan for reasons that were, said the players' chairman, "certainly tempered by safety".

London has, unaccountably, been hardest hit by cancellations. The Philharmonia Orchestra lost both conductor and soloist, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yefim Bronfman, for its season-opening concert last month, as well as Yevgeny Svetlanov and Andras Schiff for the next two. The London Philharmonic lost the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. More artists are dropping out by the hour. Svetlanov and Schiff were suffering from debilitating medical conditions. The others have some explaining to do. Mutter's grounds were apparently personal. The US-based Bronfman declared that he was "not travelling anywhere" for the time being. Another pianist, the Hungarian Zoltan Kocsis, said he has "decided never to fly again". We may be witnessing the birth of a brave new breed of earthbound soloists.

But the question with widest ramifications concerns Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose conduct has been somewhat opaque. The Finnish conductor, based in Los Angeles, cited "logistic reasons" for cancelling the Philharmonia's curtain-raiser. Be that as it may, his withdrawal created a logistical nightmare.

The South Bank called off the press launch of a festival of music by Magnus Lindberg, Salonen's friend and compatriot. Sony's plans to record Lindberg's music with Salonen were put on hold. The Philharmonia are not at all sure that Salonen will turn up next month when the festival takes place. Since there has been no rush on the box office for rocky Finnish modernisms, they could be excused for calling it off - but London orchestras are made of tougher stuff.

In times of war, every sensible person reassesses his or her responsibilities. We have duties towards ourselves, our dependants and those who depend on our actions. As a conductor, Salonen will know that his decision to fly or not to fly affects the income and ulcers of a hundred musicians every night. These, however, are mundane practicalities. It is at moments like these that an artist is called upon to fulfil his calling. A musician has two obligations: to the music he performs and to the spirit of the times. Beethoven means much more when the rockets roar.

The greatest artists proved their greatness under such conditions. Myra Hess could have retired to the country during the Blitz but elected to play daily recitals in Trafalgar Square. Sir Henry Wood bludgeoned the BBC into sustaining the Proms. Arturo Toscanini stayed in Italy to confront Fascism until he was physically beaten to the ground. Isaac Stern flew to Tel Aviv in the Gulf war and played his violin in a gas-mask.

These are the benchmarks for musicians in times of stress. This is when artists earn their keep, and our respect. Those who, for whatever reason, have quit flying and hit the bunkers have done nothing wrong in either the civic or moral sense. But they have let down the profession of art, and art will be the weaker for their obvious self-concern.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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