After these long lockdowns, what a pleasure to finally attend concerts and new musical seasons. For instance, in 2020, the MusikFest Berlin was online-only; this fall, it featured live performances by nine of the best international music ensembles and orchestras in addition to prestigious orchestras and ensembles from Germany, with a varied and daring program, including a great deal of contemporary music. Among these guests were the London Symphony Orchestra, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi, choir from London; the Lucerne Festival Contemporary Orchestra from Switzerland; the Orchestre Les Siècles and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées from Paris; the “nomadic collective” Mahler Chamber Orchestra; the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam; and Collegium Vocale from Ghent.
The London Symphony Orchestra concert at the Musikfest, conducted by Simon Rattle, was a repeat of the premiere of Ondřej Adámek’s wonderful “Where are you?” in June 2021 by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischer Rundfunks, also under Rattle’s baton. The same program (Adámek’s piece and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6) will also be performed this season in Lucerne, Bucharest, Luxembourg, Dortmund and Antwerp. Other orchestras are equally active. The Berlin Philharmonic will tour this season to Lucerne, Paris, Aalborg, Aarhus, Malmö, Vienna, Ljubljana, Odessa, and Zagreb. The Concertgebouw had to cancel its tour to Moscow, Seoul, and Japan due to COVID-19-related restrictions, but will go to Iceland (Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky), Hamburg, and Bucharest instead. Carnegie Hall in New York is promoting concerts by “the world’s greatest orchestras”: this year the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Britten, Elgar, Host), the Vienna Philharmonic (Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky) and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (Bruckner’s Fourth).
However, I’m finding it less and less enjoyable to go and listen to Beethoven, Bruckner or Prokoviev interpreted by these internationally-touring orchestras when I realize that at least 80 people took a plane for a single concert; particularly when I know that I can listen to a similar interpretation of the same piece by a more local orchestra. I then measure the egoism of this pleasure–though I love to hear these pieces live!–against the future of my children, my students, and an entire generation that will face dramatic shifts and difficulties. I consider the tribulations of all those people around the world, from Bangladesh to Kenya to Florida, where people are already suffering acutely from climate change. Going to concerts by touring orchestras becomes a self-serving and irresponsible pleasure, like driving a SUV in the city, flying to Barcelona for the weekend (or rocketing into orbit on SpaceX), making money in non-sustainable industries, or buying non-fair-trade clothes and meat from carbon-intensive livestock farms: since I can pay, I can blindly enjoy.
Could there have been other possibilities to limit the extensive air travel of entire orchestras? Take the example of Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. What if he had asked the original performer, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, to play Adámek’s piece again in Germany and Switzerland, instead of the LSO? What if the European tours of the LSO could be grouped together, eliminating the need for separate trips from London and back? Is there a way for renowned festivals and concert halls to invite fewer exceptional ensembles and orchestras, for longer periods of time, so that they could present more complete (and, incidentally, more original) programs–instead of only one concert with the kind of traditional program played by so many others? (In comparison, dance and theater groups make more effort to distinguish themselves from each other in terms of content.) Could concert organizers group tours so that each stop is located less than, say, four hours away by train from the others? (The LSO told me they have formed an Environmental Action Group to study the problem of sustainable touring, while adding that “one of their core activities is to perform live music to international audiences.”)
Each flight an orchestra takes involves at least 80 musicians and orchestra staff. In economy class, this represents about 20 tons of CO2 and high greenhouse gas emissions for travel within Europe; 150 tons of CO2 for a flight to New York; and 230 tons of CO2 for Los Angeles or Tokyo. 20 tons of CO2 is more than three times the yearly emission of CO2 per person in Italy, Great Britain or France, and more than 10 times the yearly emission of CO2 per person in many countries in South America and South Asia.
The last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has just reaffirmed what we all have known for too long. We are running out of time. If we fail to reduce our emissions by 50 percent in this decade, then the goals of the Paris Climate Accords will be unattainable. The time to act is now. For everyone, everywhere.
The question of international travel for professional musicians is certainly complex: Some of these orchestras offer a unique, irreplaceable sound and repertoire that is valuable on a global scale. Moreover, the world of music is extremely competitive and precarious. An international reputation is a crucial criterion for the careers of musicians and musical institutions alike. And for concert halls, the participation of international guests is an important barometer of prestige.
Another argument is that festival and tour organization is complicated and inflexible: Free time slots have to be found that work for both guests and hosts, and the orchestras can’t always travel by train due to time constraints and economic factors. For political reasons–deplorably!–train fares are often higher than air fares. In addition, stays in hotels and additional working days are needed when traveling by train. (Maybe one day, train carriages will be developed which can be used as rehearsal rooms.) Last but not least, the concept of “savant music” was shaped at the end of the 18th century by this very notion of internationality (Handel being played from Italy to England, for instance), as opposed to the more local “folk music,” and this idea still impacts our quite past-oriented Western musical world.
The solution will not come from one musical group alone, as these orchestras and ensembles, even the most internationally-recognized ones, compete fiercely with each other. They risk high losses if they reduce their international travel or increase their travel costs and constraints. But there is an extreme urgency to act.
It is imperative for all international festival curators, concert-hall managers and international orchestras to work together and create a label and code of good conduct. (There are many experts who could advise them.) It is time for the organizers to invite fewer international orchestras and ensembles, and if they do so, for longer periods of time. Venues need to create the kind of logistical networks that allow touring in reasonable increments by train. Funding and programming policies should be adjusted to prioritize sustainable criteria–the intelligence of the artistic content as well as the respect for the environment–rather than profit and prestige. And it is high time for everyone involved to make transparent the carbon footprint balance of their activities, following a logic of ethical accounting: We can’t only measure our success by what we produce, but also by what we destroy.
As artists, we claim to stand above short-term commercial logic and to contribute to our common human cultural heritage. This seems to me utter hypocrisy when at the same time we are destroying the natural heritage of the planet and damaging the lives of future generations and all living children.
As a composer, I have decided to drastically reduce my professional and private travels–even when it hurts my career and the needs of me and my family. In the small center for contemporary music I run at the conservatory where I teach, the University of Music and Theater “Felix Mendelssohn-BarthoIdy” in Leipzig, I have made a commitment to our students that I will no longer invite participants who fly especially for our projects.
Because it is a complete and unbearable contradiction to prepare the future of these students while simultaneously and actively destroying it–just as it is a contradiction to claim to write the future of musical history while simultaneously casting a shroud over our life on this planet. ¶