Canthe Music Take Flight Again? 音樂能否再次起飛?

Richard Fairman 理查德·費爾曼

It was summer 10 years ago and the check-in area at Gatwick Airport was even more crowded than usual. Two long queues straggled a few desks apart and the people in them were calling across to each other noisily, comparing notes on their upcoming trips.

These were two British orchestras setting out on tour. With the explosion in music festivals, the summer months have become a busy travel period for international ensembles, jetting around from Lucerne to Edinburgh, Salzburg to the BBC Proms in London.

Not this year, of course. But the big question is what will happen to orchestral touring in the future, as cultural organisations struggle back into life, blinking in the light of a new world shaped by the financial ruin left by the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a big market. This year's Lucerne Festival was to have included visits by two orchestras from Berlin, two from London, two from Vienna, as well as orchestras from Amsterdam, Birmingham, Helsinki and Munich. Salzburg's intended line-up included many of the same; also on the touring circuit were Pittsburgh and Perm in Russia, and we will never know what the BBC Proms originally had planned.

“This is an important part of our business,” says Donagh Collins, chief executive of Askonas Holt, the London agency that handles touring for many of the world's top orchestras. “Over the past 10 years touring has grown to about 20-25 per cent of our revenues. Most of what we handle is long-haul tours and each of those will bring in income of millions of euros. The Berlin Philharmonic tours regularly to Asia, which is an essential part of their business model. The London Symphony Orchestra will spend around 100 days per year abroad and that contributes to how they make a surplus.” The LSO estimates that the total income from its overseas projects reaches about £8m a year.

It is not hard to see why the immediate outlook is bleak. Airlines might be keen to see these mass bookings return but most orchestras are likely to have more pressing priorities.

“Of all the hard-hit areas of the music industry, touring is the one most difficult to predict,” says Collins. “I am not so naive as to think it will bounce back over the next two to three years. We had the climate change issue before and now that is compounded by coronavirus.”

At this lowest point, he is keen to stress the positive. “As a child living in Dublin, I was hugely influenced by the opportunity to see the great international orchestras,” he says. “I passionately believe that touring has a future. Getting orchestras out of their hometowns is important, as they make high-profile ambassadors, especially for cities like Chicago and Philadelphia.”

The question is what form will future tours take? A vaccine would clearly change everything. Otherwise, the most likely way forward will involve the protocols already in use in south-east Asia, such as testing, temperature checks, masks and protective screens, though preferably not the financially devastating reduction in audience numbers caused by social distancing.

Collins envisages a deeper rethink. “We have to judge what place touring will occupy in an orchestra's programme in future, and what justifies its ambition. There will be a new reality emerging over four to five years.”

He foresees tours being fewer and farther between. Some of the ideas already being formulated to deal with climate change will get a boost — more sensible itineraries, fewer planes, more train journeys, and lightening the load, both of the number of people travelling and the cargo. Collins suggests that orchestras might leave some bulky instruments, such as a marimba or a bass drum, at distant venues and rent them out to local orchestras, so as to bring the freight bill down.

Whatever happens, the globalisation of music is unlikely to shudder to a halt. Modern technology has made online stars out of the world's top-level orchestras and musicians, so the desire to see them for real only looks likely to increase.