The London Orchestra’s “miracle” trip to France despite Covid and Brexit


Simon Rattle, music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, considers it “a miracle” that they are heading to France for their first international shows since the pandemic, although Brexit still poses a long-term threat.

The logistics of moving nearly 100 musicians and all their instruments for a four-week residency at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in the south of France were tricky at the best of times.

In the midst of a pandemic, with ever-changing rules on overseas travel and quarantines, they have become devilishly complex.

“I think the Aix festival, which has been one of the boldest and bravest summer festivals, was tearing out what was left of their hair in recent weeks,” Rattle told AFP .

He was speaking before the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) left for the festival, which runs from June 30 to July 25.

It took a flurry of diplomatic activity that reached the culture ministries of the two countries for an agreement to be reached.

As most were vaccinated, the orchestra was allowed to travel between their hotel and the rehearsal venue during their quarantine.

“It’s very symbolic that we were able to make it happen,” said Kathryn McDowell, LSO’s executive director, adding that the orchestra has been crossing the Channel since 1906.

But even though the immediate challenges have been overcome, the problems of Brexit and the near total lack of government support for musicians in Britain are only just beginning.

“It’s a complicated time, you know, in a country that doesn’t financially support culture like most of Europe does,” Rattle said.

– “Imminent disaster” –

The LSO has been a regular visitor over the past decade to the Aix Festival, one of the world’s premier opera and classical music events alongside Salzburg and Beirut.

But his days of regular trips across the continent may be numbered.

Since Britain’s exit from the European Union, its musicians are no longer guaranteed visa-free travel to the EU, resulting in high costs and administrative burden for touring.

Orchestras face the additional difficulties of transporting equipment in heavy trucks, which are now only allowed at three stops in the EU.

Singer Elton John is among many warnings of “impending doom” to British musicians if they lose the chance to tour abroad.

For now, the LSO, which had been booked for the Aix Festival canceled last year, is delighted to be back on the road.

He will play not one, but two operas: a modern creation, “Innocence”, and a classic by Wagner.

“It’s a complete miracle,” Rattle said. “Playing an opera like Tristan und Isolde is almost beyond pipe dream.”

– ‘Insane in every way’ –

But Brexit will likely push the LSO to review its financial model, since it relied on European emissions for 40% of its revenue before the pandemic.

That said, environmental concerns may have forced a change in any case.

“Last year we should have been on tour 99 days a year, which of course is insane in every way possible, both for the planet and for people’s energy and sanity,” said Rattle to AFP.

“But that was the only way an orchestra like this could survive.”

Much of the problem, he said, is the lack of government support for musicians in Britain.

LSO members don’t get paid, they get paid when they play.

“Most European orchestras, almost without exception, have a salary, and they were able to live,” said Rattle.

“We had to become pirates, in the best possible way.”

He said the LSO should now “invent a whole new financial way of life in which playing in Europe is not the main part of our support”.

It’s hard to swallow for such an international orchestra, made up of 26 nationalities.

Brexit “is a story of unintended consequences. No one has really thought about the effect on the culture sector in England,” said Rattle.

“But of course no one wants this to be a disaster.”

bur-ram / eu / mbx

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