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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Faint-hearts are doing us a favour

By Norman Lebrecht / November 14, 2001

FAR more interesting than anything that is being performed at the moment is the list of cancellations, which lengthens by the day. It is not just musicians who have joined the chicken run. Strapping great footballers, wiry cricketers, bustling Japanese businessmen - all have found compelling "family" reasons for suspending a flight plan that never took family into much consideration before.

But while the faint-hearted wait for world tension to abate, there are signs that the concert circuit has learned some tough lessons in recent weeks - and is drawing appropriate conclusions.

Consider the prospects of Anne-Sophie Mutter, the German violinist who dropped out of a second US tour last week feeling "extremely anxious" for her children back home. The motherly Mutter is one of the highest-paid soloists, demanding a nightly DM 100,000 after tax (about £31,000), plus first-class air-fares, hotel suites and baby-sitters. In return, she gives a wintry smile. The last time I heard her, she played the Dvorak concerto - all of 31 minutes - gave two stiff bows and was gone, stonily refusing an encore.

In the US, where she cancelled dates immediately after September 11, she was back to top-bill a tour by the Trondheim Soloists, only to fly home almost upon arrival. The tour was saved by Joshua Bell stepping in, but three cities refused to accept a substitute and the Norwegian ensemble was left out of pocket and in limbo. Some of its players may have felt "extremely anxious" for their children, who will be getting smaller presents this Christmas as a result of Mutter's defection.

No soloist is ever sued for breach of contract, which allows them to get away with most misdemeanours short of blue murder.

However, a change of mood is in the air and Mutter may find her schedule a little less congested in the medium term. Nor is hers an isolated dip. Orchestral managers are using the emergency to cut back on soloists who have wavered in this crisis. "We'll honour current commitments," says one manager, "but that's as far as it goes."

Festival dates are being dropped, programmes revised. "We should all be pulling together," wail the artists' agents, but solidarity was the first casualty after September 11, when stars looked to their own safety.

Retrenchment is also hitting orchestral travel. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which was to have toured Europe next year, found it could not pay its fares when the sponsoring airline, Ansett, went bust. Ireland's National Symphony Orchestra was told last week that RTE, the national broadcaster, will not cough up for its next swing to America - or, indeed, for any foreign travel.

This is dreary news for players who like their duty-frees, but it's a healthy development for the art as a whole. Tourism has exploded in the past 20 years as cities and industries have employed orchestras as musical ambassadors to show the world the greatness of Toulouse or Toshiba. Sometimes an ensemble has triumphed abroad. More often, it has merely made weight in a metropolitan arts centre's so-called "international" series.

The main beneficiaries of mass travel have been artist agencies, which make 10 per cent on every hotel bed and bus seat occupied by a supplementary second oboist. The fixers' downturn will be acute, but less touring should mean better music. It will sharpen standards at major concert halls and encourage distant orchestras to recover an indigenous sound that has been, in many cases, eroded by over-exposure to international expectations. When the Dubliners fly again, they will sound more Irish.

Our hemisphere can happily survive a decade or two without hearing an Australian orchestra. Australia, if it wants a cultural clap on the back, may find it more profitable in the meantime to invest the travel budget in resettling a boatload of Afghan refugees.

Even conductors in their ivory towers are having to revise their attitudes. One of the first cancellers, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is back in London this week, feeling misunderstood. After September 11, he pulled out of a one-night season-opener with the Philharmonia under pressure from his Los Angeles orchestra. Occupationally, Salonen was far too grand a maestro to explain his dilemma to the dumped Londoners. His agent brushed them off with "logistic reasons".

The players were incensed and Salonen has been bruised by their reaction. Next time he unsettles the livelihood of 100 musicians, he will pick up a phone and tell them himself. In times like these, maestros are being brought down to earth.

The Aftermath of the World Trade Center Tragedy

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001