Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
Life for London musicians has just got a whole lot worse. On top of collapsing record revenues, lousy wages, the hassle of crossing the river south to north from rehearsal to concert hall and post-9/11 US visa stress, since last month’s terror threat they now have to check in their precious instruments as airline cargo or find another way to fly.
The passionate Last Night of the Proms appeal by conductor Mark Elder for a special exemption for playing travellers echoed rumblings among musicians, classical and jazz, that they are being penalised by their country’s security alert and that musical life will suffer in consequence. For want of visiting soloists, warned Elder, ‘next year we should all look forward to Concerto for Laptop and Orchestra.’
Elder, 59, music director of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester and before that of English National Opera, is no stranger to Last Night provocation. In 1982, after the Falklands War, he was stood down by the BBC after suggesting that the flag-waving jingoism of Rule Britannia should be abolished. It took 24 years for him to earn a Last Night recall and his views this time have captured national attention and alerted an official response. Musical travel rules, we are told, are ‘under review’.
However, much as I sympathise with suffering musicians, it strikes me that Elder picked the wrong cause (albeit for the right reason) and at the worst possible time - two days before the fifth anniversary of the security lapse that allowed the deaths of 2,749 men and women in New York on 9/11. The Last Night oration that rose in my mind was Leonard Slatkin’s in 2001, appealing in subdued tones for civilised nations to rally around a set of common values. Elder, by contrast, diminished the occasion and missed an opportunity.
What he was seeking was extra privileges for an already privileged minority. The ban on carrying instruments in cabin does not affect orchestral musicians, who pool their tools for loading as cargo. The ones who are affected are the international premier class of violin and cello soloists and a handful of jazz musicians whose instruments are insured for upwards of half a million pounds or are so personal to the players that they cannot be replaced.
This elite – we are speaking of no more than 200 or 300 artists – have found a way around the restrictions by taking Eurostar to Paris or Brussels and catching an onward connection. Inconvenient, true, and a terrible waste of time and money but surely preferable to a breach in the security firewall that protects everyone else who flies.
If an exception were made for concert soloists, executives would demand to carry their laptops, nursing mothers their baby kits and would-be jihadis their special-mix drinks. It is not even in the musicians’ own interest to set them apart as a special case for that would separate them from the rest of the human race at a time when their greatest need, in classics and jazz, is to be seen as integral and essential to the emotions and rhythms of the modern world.
Mark Elder knows as well as anyone how tough it is to ply the musical profession in 21st century Britain where average earnings for orchestra members hover around £30,000. Where musicians once ranked in salary and status with schoolteachers, they now make less than bus-drivers and hardly dare to look abroad, so vast is the differential. Last week the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of America’s Big Five, announced a basic players salary of $118,040 (£63,300) for a 20-hour week – that’s twice the pay in top UK bands for half the work. Simon Rattle in Berlin has racked up similar rewards for his musicians. What conductors should be concerned about is not a concert for Laptop and Orchestra but one for high-paid soloist and vanishing band.
There is no easy remedy for raising musical salaries other than extra subsidy, and that is neither forthcoming nor justified in present circumstances. This week, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra marks its 60th anniversary concert, an event celebrated by few but itself since the RPO, which offers neither diversity nor novelty, draws a million pounds from an Arts Council which has given up funding orchestras on the basis of artistic merit and practices the New Labour creed that ‘all must get prizes’.
When I heard the RPO last week with their rarely sighted Italian music director Daniele Gatti they gave an enjoyable account of the Shostakovich tenth symphony in which two of the wind soloists were outstanding and the others quite ordinary, the performance itself distinguished by an absence of sonic character. This could have been any ensemble of modest accomplishment from here to Adelaide.
The RPO resides at Cadogan Hall, where its manager, Ian Maclay, is artistic director. If it were to vanish overnight, it would – apart from ill-suppressed glee at other bands – leave no ripple on the public pond.
The crisis in British music has less to do with airport bans than with a surfeit of subsistence bands and a satisfaction with the second-rate that is dragging down the morale of our musicians. Mark Elder had his chance to speak out for quality, and he chose instead to speak for comfort and convenience. Such a waste.
In what some will decry as cart before horse, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is putting the next instalment of its Mahler cycle on line before it comes out on disc. The series, under Michael Tilson Thomas (ex-LSO), has won rave reviews as a sonic spectacular rather than as a thoughtful interpretation. The sixth symphony sold a healthy 18,000 copies worldwide on high-definition SACD.
The fifth goes online today at I-tunes, three weeks before the disc will reach shops and e-tailers. Like any long symphony for large orchestra, it’s a terrible drag to download track by seven-minute track – when will I-tunes wise up to classics? - but at $12 for 75 minutes many will see this as a giant step towards the day, not far off, when symphonic downloads overtake and replace the prerecorded compact disc.
Wary of the music-biz backlash that followed the BBC’s Beethoven giveaway, Finnish Radio has come up with a novel way to make the national heritage universally available. From this weekend, the Finns are putting all concerts and the station’s music archives online. No downloads are offered, but anyone needing a remote bit of Sibelius or composers more obscure should be able to access them freely. The new conductor in charge is Birmingham’s ex, Sakari Oramo, and there are four world premieres coming up. There is a helpful link in English.
Norman Lebrecht's response to just criticism:
Many orchestral musicians have written to me reporting that more of them than I was aware carry their onw instruments onto aircraft.
I should have pointed out that all period and chamber bands carry their own instruments. Whenever I have travelled with big orchestras, arrangements have been made for instruments to travel separately but I understand that this is not universally the case.
It does not, however, alter the essence of my argument. I believe it is not in musicians' interest to be treated as a special case in security matters, nor was Mark Elder right to have used his platform to make what was essentially a lifestyle point when he could and should have made an artistic one.
As far as soloists are concerned, my sympathies are on the side of the working classes, which is to say the working musicians. When one soloist earns more for half a concert than the entire band for a whole evening there is a discrepancy - moral, social and artistic - that needs to be addressed and adjusted.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]