Could classical musicians be ‘radically local’?

9th June 2020 | Concerts, Musings, Travel | 1 comment

We’re hearing a lot about the days of heedless international travel being over for classical musicians. In today’s Guardian, Charlotte Higgins does an admirable job of summing up some aspects of the situation.

It’s worth remembering that darting about to play in San Francisco one night and Frankfurt the next is quite a recent thing. Not so long ago, if a renowned musician from New York was invited to play in London, they’d spend weeks crossing the Atlantic on a boat. They’d stay in London for some weeks to make it worthwhile. And going further back in history, musicians had to cope with enormous discomforts when they travelled from city to city. After a bone-shaking journey in a horse-drawn carriage from Salzburg to Vienna, Mozart no doubt wanted to stay put for a while.

Coronavirus and its effect on public life has made us all wonder how we could do things differently. ‘The immediate future for classical music may be radically local,’ writes Charlotte Higgins, ‘with small groups of musicians bringing their art to communities outside of traditional concert halls’. Which many of us would be perfectly happy to do, if there were a way of making a living from doing so.

All through my career I have been laughed at by colleagues when I said I’d be quite happy to play all my concerts in a hall at the end of my street and be home by 10pm for a glass of wine by the fire (instead of creeping wearily into a darkened house at 2am after a long drive down the motorway). They laughed because they knew you could never get a local audience night after night in the same hall. You might be lucky to fill that hall once a year.

At the start of the 20th century, there was plenty for musicians to do locally. There was live music in hotels, restaurants, music halls, cinemas, ballrooms, theatres. There was Gilbert and Sullivan, dance, opera. Palm Court orchestras played light music one day, classical overtures the next. Lyons Corner Houses employed live musicians in all their establishments. This, of course, was at a time when in order to hear music you had to go to where someone was playing it. But those days are gone. Restaurants and hotels now use Spotify, YouTube and so on.

Now, professional performers cannot make a life by performing in the place where they live. Many of them teach, but performing is what they have trained to do and what they yearn to do. They know the audience in their home town isn’t big enough to support multiple performances by the same people. So they have to travel to where the audiences are.

Somewhere else, perhaps in many other places dotted around the world, there are audiences who like to hear you every year or two. Gradually you build up a network of those places. You have no control over how far apart they are or when they are likely to invite you, so you end up with a patchwork of concerts.

Ideally you’d get out a map and arrange your concerts in a sensible geographical order. In my experience that is rarely possible. One place only has concerts on Mondays. Another only puts on concerts in the summer. A third only has space for you 2 years from now on a particular Saturday night. You’ve wanted to play there for years, so you commit to the date. Then another concert series invites you for the night before that, 500 miles away. Before you know it, you’re zigzagging across the country or continent like a pinball.

Now that Lyons Corner Houses and their ilk have gone, there’s only one way I can see that musicians could stay ‘radically local’. For that, we’d have to borrow an idea from Scandinavia, where some musicians are employed on government schemes to live and perform in parts of the country not well served with live music. They are employed almost as if they were civil servants, but they are ‘civil musicians’, if you like.

I once met a string quartet in Norway whose job was to live in a rural region (a spectacular one) and play a certain number of concerts in the community. They were given modern houses and generously funded by the state so they could play concerts for free. Local people enjoyed having ‘their quartet’. The musicians’ workload wasn’t onerous – due notice had been taken of their need to practise and rehearse together.  Their task was to establish a presence in the community, do some work with local young musicians, and play a handful of free concerts every month.

In today’s Guardian article, the artistic director of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg is quoted as saying, “We are not afraid, because culture has great importance in the public realm in Germany and we cannot be allowed to fail.”

By contrast, we classical musicians in the UK are afraid. If only we could feel so secure!

1 Comment

  1. Mary Cohen

    The tradition of funding local musicians goes back a long way in Germany. Ambrosius Bach, father of Johann Sebastian, was a ‘Town Musician’ in Eisenach. But even then a town might only pay for two or three…


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