On Music

High notes go wrong

Flying is a macho thing for musicians. It shows they are in demand and living the good life

SSix miles up, the maestro knocks back his Rémy Martin, unbuckles his seat belt and goes for a stroll among the orchestra, who are flying economy. They lunch on cardboard sandwiches and tepid tea and face long queues for the only working toilet. On landing, they are loaded onto a bus and dispersed to matchbox rooms in Holborn, Hamburg or Hangzhou, it hardly matters where since the only view is a bare courtyard or a blank wall.

Welcome to the glamorous world of orchestral touring.

High above, any day of the year, you’ll find half a dozen symphony orchestras flying aimlessly for reasons that are neither economic nor sustainable. The recent decision by the rock band Coldplay to quit touring should have sent a signal that the flying has to stop until concerts are carbon-neutral, but symphony orchestras reject issues of conscience that conflict with their perceived self-interest.

Every transatlantic flight uses 493kg of CO2 per passenger, roughly as much as an earthbound person consumes in a whole year. A player flying from London to Rome leaves a 234kg carbon gap (figures from Atmosfair). That’s without configuring the environmental cost of flying giant packing crates of musical instruments. Orchestras are killing the planet, and for no good reason.

On hearing of the Coldplay ban, I did a quick damage count. The New York Philharmonic, I found, flew seven times in 2019, which seems reasonable. Three of those flights were on China tour, the rest in the US. The Berlin Philharmonic flew 15 times, mostly in Europe, which is crazy. They could have taken the Carbon-neutral train, where they can practise cello in the corridor and not fear having their double-basses getting crushed to matchwood in the aircraft hold.

London’s orchestras are the worst offenders. The London Philharmonic flew 22 times in 2019; on releasing this information they asked me to add that “Future touring in Europe will be done almost entirely by train.” Good for them. The London Symphony Orchestra flew 44 times this year, practically every single working week. Flying is a macho thing for musicians. It shows they are in demand and living the high life. They post selfies from Shangri-La when the rest of us are stuck at desks. They have sex in four-star hotels that no one back home need ever know about and they eat breakfast that someone else has cooked. What’s not to like? “It’s a bonding exercise,” says one ex-manager, with a wink.

What orchestras refuse to acknowledge is that they are flying an illusion. Back in the day when they waxed fat on record deals symphony orchestra were brand ambassadors, selling tons of vinyl and turning a profit on tours. No more. The record biz has died, their concerts lose money and the only cogent reason to fly is to fill the diaries of musicians who cannot get enough work at home. What keeps orchestras in the air is the fear of looking down and seeing a black hole. London has twice as many orchestras as it can sensibly sustain. The only way to keep them going is by keeping them in the air.

Set aside global warming for a moment and consider the contiguous human toll. Orchestra musicians are away so much from home that relationships fray and mental health suffers. Absence makes it harder for them to take private pupils, let alone maintain a professor’s teaching schedule at a conservatoire. Nor is there much left by way of glamour. Trained to tell B from B-flat at fifty paces, they suffer ear damage on takeoff and landing, along with desensitisation from the sonic gunk of airport and hotel lounges. Their instruments are constantly at risk of damage. Yet they fly so much and so frequently that they haven’t the leisure to ask: what’s the point?

Now is the time of year for musicians to reflect, around the table with family and friends, on the world they are destroying. Not just the planet, but the ground they stand on: their economic base. Before mass travel, each orchestra had a loyal following like a football club, fans who came to every concert knowing most of the players and greeting them by name. That bond is broken. Concertgoers have grown so indifferent to playing personnel that a fine orchestra like Birmingham’s CBSO can go four years without appointing a concertmaster, the most influential musician on stage, and no member of the discerning public bothers to complain.

US orchestras, the half-dozen big ones at least, are more grounded. Their player contracts are for 20 hours a week, giving them time for practice, pupils and audience relations. This is made possible by a starter salary of $100,000 a year rising to $300,000 for a principal. British musicians, miserably paid, put in 70-hour weeks just to pay the household bills and doing no one much good in the process.

What is needed — and the Arts Council knows this all too well — is a new strategy for music in the UK, a public-private funding plan to create a viable twenty-first century economy without musicians having to roll out of bed on frosty mornings and rush to an airport at the drop of a Luxembourg invitation.

Yes, Luxembourg has a swanky hall and secretive banks that sponsor foreign orchestras. But the time is past when we let anyone from Luxembourg dictate terms. This is about the survival of music in the United Kingdom and it requires our musicians to get their feet back on the ground.

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