Climate action may offer a boon for Irish musicians

A reduction in international visits could change the face of classical music in Ireland

 Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a UN climate summit  in New York City, US, in September. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a UN climate summit in New York City, US, in September. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

 

Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s fury is one of the defining expressions of our time. She’s right. She knows she’s right. And most everyone else knows she’s right, too. The only real question is what am I – and you and everyone else – going to do about it?

Not enough, in all likelihood. The negative consequences will be widely but unevenly spread. Consensus is hard to find, not just globally, but also nationally and locally. Vested interests are hard at work. And none of the world’s economic blocs function in a way that is likely to facilitate the necessary.

So. The house is on fire. But what’s going on in the music room? Is anyone there paying attention? A recent article by Jasper Parrott in The Guardian says yes.

Parrott is the head of the agency HarrisonParrott, which he co-founded with Tony Harrison in 1969. His most famous client is Vladimir Ashkenazy (whose autobiography, Beyond Frontiers, he co-authored in 1984) and his agency, which has added branches in Munich and Paris to its home base in London, represents nearly 60 orchestras and ensembles.

The article is a response to an earlier Guardian piece by Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, which looked at the issues for bands that tour globally. Parrott does not just keep classical music in the frame. He also highlights his own stature.

He writes: “In recent decades globalisation has opened markets and created audiences for western classical music far from its original roots in Europe. In the last 12 months alone HarrisonParrott has organised 38 international tours to more than 200 countries, many involving American and European orchestras travelling to Asia, which usually entails well over 100 people flying to different cities. Our roster is around 190 musicians, and many of them perform upwards of 100 concerts a year around the world.”

Ireland, too, sends performers abroad – Crash Ensemble, the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Irish National Opera all have important international footprints. But in terms of large groups the country receives far more than it sends. A quick calculation says that the National Concert Hall’s programme of own promotions for the current season is set to bring in the region of 500 performers – including orchestras and ensembles from Britain, Europe and Japan – to Dublin.

Parrott believes that “music and arts professionals must take a stand rather than blindly continuing with business as usual”. He instances how violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, well known to Irish audiences from appearances at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, raised money for environmental projects by performing works written in response to the climate crisis with Orchester des Wandels (the Orchestra of Change).

He quotes Norwegian conductor Tabita Berglund, who has pointed out that “travelling back and forth, visiting a new orchestra every week, is not ultimately sustainable. There are more clever ways of organising ourselves, and these might bring new perspectives and values to our musical life.”

Real-life consequences

Parrott does not delve deep into the real-life consequences for audiences or working musicians. And the implications of his thinking will inevitably have a much greater impact in low-population Ireland than in Britain, and a greater impact in Britain than in the much larger market of continental Europe, where long-distance, eco-friendly travel by train is possible.

Del Naja’s article revealed that Massive Attack “discussed ending touring altogether”, which he impressively describes as “an important option that deserves consideration”, before unimpressively adding: “In reality, however, an entire international roster of acts would need to stop touring to achieve the required impact.”

The world of concert-going may look very different in 10 years’ time

“In a major employment industry with hundreds of acts,” he then concludes, “this isn’t about to happen.” In other words, not in my back yard unless all the neighbours do it, too, which pretty well sums up what has been the most common response to radical intervention.

But the logic of Del Naja and Parrott’s articles is worth thinking about in an Irish context. Fewer large-scale international orchestral visits is on the one hand a loss, but it’s also an opportunity. Think how orchestral achievement and morale in Dublin would be affected if the local orchestras got to play with the great conductors, instead of all that glory attaching to big-name orchestral visitors.

In the broader scheme of things a reduction in international traffic would create greater opportunities for musicians living in Ireland. This would require a raising of performing standards if there were not to be an artistic loss for audiences. And it would probably require someone to fill one of those gaps in Irish musical life that’s all too obvious but still rarely spoken about.

There is no real equivalent in the world of classical music in Ireland of a HarrisonParrott agency, although they are to be found in other European countries with a similar population. And there’s nothing much in the way of career-development guidance for either performers or composers.

If Jasper Parrott’s vision of classical musicians confronting their climate change responsibilities is correct, the world of concert-going may look very different in 10 years’ time.

Oh, by the way, Greta Thunberg’s mother, mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman, has already stopped flying.

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