Philip Hensher: Stay at home with your Stradivarius

The international orchestra scene isn't something one regards with a great deal of affection
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The Independent Online

A first-rate game of Unforeseen Consequences is being played out between the Government and professional musicians. It's fair to say that when security concerns led to a tightening of rules for international travellers, nobody much was thinking about Stradivarius. If you were getting on to a plane, at first no hand luggage; then only a very little. No exceptions, no danger.

Anyone who has travelled in the last couple of months will have noticed how much longer it now takes to get through British airports, in either direction. To some people, however, there is much more than mere delay and inconvenience at stake.

Few professional musicians are willing to confide their instruments to the gentle hands of Heathrow's baggage handlers. That is understandable. Musical instruments may well be the most valuable objects which which people routinely travel. An ordinary player in a professional orchestra will already be in possession of an instrument worth thousands, or tens of thousands of pounds. If the instrument - particularly a stringed instrument - is of some age and quality, not even necessarily a Stradivarius, the value can head up into the millions. Not something you hand over lightly, particularly since they are delicate objects.

Before now, airlines were happy to let players take their instruments on board. When it came to cellos, which are larger than previous hand-luggage restrictions, they were prepared to sell an extra seat for the cello to sit in. All that has come to an end now.

Mark Elder, guest conducting at the Last Night of the Proms, focused in his speech on the difficulties this is presenting. One concert in this year's season, from the New York-based Orchestra of St Luke's, had to be cancelled for this reason. Plenty of soloists are finding that, to fulfil overseas obligations, they are having to make lengthy journeys by train within Europe or, to get to America, are going by train to France, flying to Canada and then continuing by road or rail. As Mark Elder said with wit, but not much exaggeration, this time next year, we may be listening to concertos for laptop and orchestra. Soloists are not very likely to go on thinking this travail worth the candle.

The situation is being examined; it seems likely that official sources underestimated the importance of an instrument to a musician. Tightening security has led to problems before - in March, the Hallé cancelled a US tour when they realised that the new obligation to arrange individual visas in person at the US Embassy in London would add £45,000 to their costs. But these new restrictions inadvertently ask too much of musicians.

It's worth saying that the situation presents an economic problem, rather than a cultural one. Most orchestras and classical music promoters exist on the borders of profitability, if that. They rely very heavily on the glamour of international soloists, and on famous visiting orchestras.

You can ask a great deal more for a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic than you can even for the London Symphony Orchestra. Curiosity abroad means a British orchestra in Japan, say, will find itself playing to larger audiences than it would at home. The touring business has come to be a vital part of most musicians' income.

It's that which will be damaged by these restrictions. If a British orchestra, or a British soloist, is restricted to playing to British audiences, its market of customers will have shrunk considerably. If those British audiences aren't asked so regularly to shell out for a glamorous European or American orchestra, then the income of the whole business will shrink considerably.

In cultural terms, however, it looks more like a reversal to a previous state of affairs. It's only in the last 20 or 30 years that classical music has become so very much an international business, with players flitting to and fro, and orchestras increasingly acquiring the same ideally glossy international sound. It's very striking, now, how similar the Los Angeles Philharmonic sounds to the Berlin Philharmonic, which in turn sounds very much like the London Symphony Orchestra. Only degrees of virtuosity tend to distinguish orchestras.

That never used to be the case - I well remember the shock of first hearing a great Eastern European orchestra, or a Russian one, or the orchestra of La Scala, and hearing a distinct sound very unlike the refined, transparent one of the English orchestras I was used to. Those traditions have started to be ironed out: even the Vienna Philharmonic sounds distinctly less woodily Viennese than it used to.

I don't say it's a good thing that musicians, for a while, will be travelling less. It would be tragic if musicians, who are not on the whole the best paid of professionals, lost income, or if any orchestras went under through financial troubles. But the international concert scene isn't something one regards with a great deal of love or affection; I much prefer an orchestra which has built a rapport with an audience, and developed its own local sound, to one which, in the last week, has played The Miraculous Mandarin in four different cities in four different countries.

If we, as a national audience, could bring ourselves to support our national orchestras and musicians so that they could manage financially without touring, then these restrictions might unexpectedly lead to something of a renaissance.