Climate change and coronavirus– the double whammy that could change the arts' obsession with ‘international'

Andrew Mellor
Thursday, October 29, 2020

Covid-19 has forced artists to re-examine the need to travel in order to perform

In the heady days when touring around the world was bread and butter for a musician, the  Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment announced that its players would travel by train for one of its European tours. ‘OAE fights climate crisis with refusal to tour by plane,’ read the headline in Classical Music.

This was all very well and good, but the current closing down of international travel during the pandemic has meant that the orchestral sector has had to completely re-think the usual global merry-go-round of visitors in the form of conductors and soloists. Most of us are now locked in our local bubbles. The idea that soloists and conductors can be flown in to a city from any corner of the world, week after week, seems like a distant dream (or if you're a climate change campaigner, a distant nightmare). The incessant globetrotting of yesteryear now seems all the more extraordinary considering that, according to market research indicators, it’s repertoire that sells, not artists (beyond a handful of household names).

Conspiracy theorists point to the stranglehold of the agencies, which use certain artists as bargaining chips to allow access to others. It’s easy to see why orchestras want to work with the best musicians out there, many of them indeed accessible only by those agencies. But the result isn’t just more cost and far higher carbon footprints, it’s the slow merging of our orchestras into generic, indistinct ensembles who all host the same artists playing the same repertoire.

Perhaps one of the more positive legacies of the pandemic is that we're more inclined these days to buy locally. There’s an orchestra in Sweden that has gone a little further than the OAE, declaring it will no longer hire soloists or conductors who can’t make the journey to its concert hall by land or sea. The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra’s decision was almost immediately branded parochial by the cultural elite of Stockholm. But surely the opposite is true. The most parochial act for a local orchestra in a minor city is to try to ape the illustriousness of the Vienna Philharmonic by banging on about ‘world class’ and ‘international standard’ performers – and making its audience pay for them. It is far more sophisticated and nuanced, the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra successfully suggests, to make art that reacts to the people and events around you by using the people and events around you.


It is far more sophisticated to make art that reacts to the people and events around you by using the people and events around you

Helsingborg is small city in Sweden, but it’s a train ride away from two major European capitals and an even shorter train ride away from three conservatories and six other symphony orchestras. Even as Covid-19 continues to decimate global culture, it is managing to present a full season of concerts this autumn. One of the reasons for its survival is that it has a strong local base of excellent artists with a loyal local following. ‘The industry leads us to believe that flying someone in somehow adds to the experience. But there’s no artistic reason to do that; it just draws everyone into the same view of what’s good or bad,’ its boss Fredrik Österling told me in June.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra enjoyed its greatest chapter employing a conductor from up the M6 in Liverpool. Two of its best conducting discoveries, Alpesh Chauhan and Michael Seal, came from is own youth orchestra and adult orchestra respectively. Its current chief conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyl returns to the podium at Symphony Hall this month for the first time since lockdown.  She may be from Lithuania, but her commitment to her orchestra is such that she’s resident in Brum for weeks on end. Some of the CBSO's most fascinating programming strands look inwards to Birmingham – to its links with Mendelssohn, Elgar and Asian music.

Meanwhile, the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra is pragmatic enough to admit that what works in a corner of Sweden won’t work everywhere (though it’s ironic how many artists have sought it out, from around the world, to say they will travel by land or sea for days on end to participate in its seasons). But it serves as a good reminder – in its reactive, locally sourced seasons – that any organisation reliant on flying creativity in is probably missing more than its environmental targets.