x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

New spirit grips the arts inspired by funding cuts

As musicians take to Europe's streets to protest against cuts in funding, an examination of a new and unexpected phenomenon is unfolding.

When most people think of classical music, they think of peace, not protest.

Often associated with the traditional establishment, the genre is more likely to conjure up images of white-gloved conductors and elderly patrons dozing in the front row than of riot police and guerrilla demonstrations.

This season, however, that has changed. Following continent-wide public arts cuts, Europe has been swept with passionate, genuinely angry demonstrations by classical musicians and those who appreciate them, putting music in the news like never before. With riots outside Milan's La Scala opera house and classical protest mobs popping up across the UK, music fans are finding a new, militant voice.

But why exactly are classical music lovers so angry? And can their protests have any effect in an era of general downturn and civil strife?

Whatever the answer, the protesters are certainly making themselves heard. On December 7, La Scala was rocked by furious demonstrations by arts workers before a performance attended by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano. While only a small splinter group locked horns with riot police, their anger was matched by many on the other side of the police lines.

Commenting from the podium, the visiting conductor Daniel Barenboim stated: "I am speaking on behalf of all my colleagues who play, sing, dance and work - not only in this magnificent theatre - to say how much we are worried about the future of culture in this country and Europe." His words were met with loud applause, even from Napolitano himself.

While angry demonstrations are perhaps something of a way of life among Italians, Europeans with a more traditionally restrained demeanour have also been taking their protests on to the streets. In October, the central station concourse in The Hague was taken over by a classical flash mob of musicians who risked losing their livelihoods, highlighting their plight to the public by cropping up out of nowhere to play the Mambo from Bernstein's West Side Story (they also delivered a petition to parliament).

And in normally muted Britain, copycat flash mobs calling themselves "guerrilla orchestras" have performed impromptu in cities across the UK this month, protesting against the abolition or slashing of funding for music education. There's a palpable sense of resistance across the musical profession. As Heather Bird, a double bassist, music teacher and the mastermind behind the UK protests comments: "There is definitely a new attitude around - talking to people in major orchestras, there's so much strength of feeling, so much intensity. People are willing to protest in all sorts of new ways they would never have done before."

Responsible for this new spirit is a wave of drastic arts cuts throughout Europe. Despite having grand opera as one of its most famous cultural icons, Italy is cutting government grants for musicians by 37 per cent, making life all but untenable for many institutions and ensembles. In Holland, meanwhile, the authorities have gone even further, proposing to close the respected Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre altogether, kissing goodbye to four of the country's leading musical ensembles in one fell swoop.And in Britain, it's the proposed slashing of funding for music education, in some cases to the extent of abolition, that is causing the most anguish. Music colleges are in danger of losing their funding altogether, meaning that many of them face closure, while some local authorities have already axed all musical instrument teaching in schools.

These cuts make for grim reading, but for some supporters of austerity measures, they are justified. Wouldn't it be ironic in a period of economic depression, the argument goes, to protect funding for art forms most commonly associated with the prosperous? However, the protesters' response seems to be that, by introducing cuts, governments will turn the specious association of classical music with wealth into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At present, classical music remains an affordable art form - tickets at London's Barbican Hall, for example, start at around Dh45 - while many ensembles are heavily involved in programmes designed to reach out to new audiences. As Jules Buckley, the organiser of The Hague's flash mob (and visiting conductor at Holland's threatened Metropole Orchestra) points out, it's often the most non-elitist ensembles that are cut.

"The Metropole Orchestra has been nominated for three Grammy awards this year for jazz and pop, it's worked with people like Basement Jaxx and Antony and the Jonsons - how can you say that's elitist? If you cut funds and abolish what is literally the only ensemble of its kind in the world, you just won't get that culture back."

If support is slashed, many fear that only the wealthy will have the means to afford non-subsidised concerts, while musicians working outside establishment venues will be especially likely to fall by the wayside. As Bird points out, slashing music funding is also likely to limit access to music for anyone in the next generation who doesn't have high-earning parents, a point that touches on another contentious issue in the UK at the moment, the question of university tuition fees.

"I went to the Royal Northern College of Music," she says, "and there's no way I would have been able to go if I'd had to pay fees. I had free double bass lessons as a kid and would not have been able to play or attend subsidised youth orchestra courses if I'd have had to pay for them. So I would not have been doing what I love today, or teaching kids to do the same. In five or six years' time if these cuts go ahead, we just won't have enough players to do something like the guerrilla orchestras any more."

Classical music lovers' newly strident public voice is no isolated phenomenon, of course - it's part of a general mood of resentment against Europe-wide austerity programmes. While the need for some public spending cuts is widely acknowledged, many people feel that the public at large is being punished for the mistakes of bankers perceived as the recipients of lavish state subsidies through bailouts. The now relatively impoverished public who have paid off the banks' debts are expected to see their own cultural lives decimated for a generation, all in the name of common sense.

At the more conservative end of the political spectrum, there is also concern that music cuts will damage Europe's international standing. While still one of the world's wealthiest and most productive areas, Western Europe is increasingly being challenged by other regions. China and the US overshadow it politically while the Middle and Far East are currently both more economically dynamic.

What Western Europe does possess, however, is a cultural infrastructure unrivalled elsewhere in the world. With music, theatre and art subsidised at high levels, the region remains eminently attractive to companies looking for good living conditions for their employees. If you cut funding to the arts, then the region risks losing one of its unique selling points.

Even taking these plausible arguments on board, there's no denying that protecting music funding is a hard sell in times of general cutbacks. Indeed, it's possible that governments selected the sector for cuts because it was seen as a relatively soft, undefended target. It is perhaps surprising then that the current wave of protests is proving quite effective. Footage of The Hague's flash mob demonstration became a YouTube hit and helped create a wave of criticism that made the Dutch government back down, agreeing to keep the Netherlands Broadcast Music Centre open, though cutting its funding by a still drastic half.

In Britain, meanwhile, coverage for the guerrilla orchestras has seen the anti-music cuts movement grow rapidly, with another much larger (and peaceful) flash mob concert planned for the near future.

Despite general frustration among Europe's musicians, the new classical protest movement remains a largely decorous affair. In Holland, Buckley insists: "There's simply no point in putting on anything but a positive demonstration." And in the UK the guerrilla orchestras' performances of the Mission: Impossible soundtrack are unlikely to provoke a police baton charge just yet.

Nonetheless, the message behind the demonstrations is pointed enough: if governments starve European classical music and music education of support, they can't take it for granted that their countries' musical excellence will survive on its own.