East, west: which sounds best?
Sunday Telegraph - 27 March 2005
As more Eastern European orchestras go on tour in Britain, Jasper Rees hears what effect this is having on musicians.
This winter, Britain has seen a glut of Russian and East European ballet and musical companies touring the country. Apart from the Moscow City Ballet, which earlier this month completed a 14-week, 22-venue tour of the regions, the Russian State Ballet of Siberia has been on a 13-week tour of 13 venues.
The Chisinau National Ballet has been here for 10 weeks and 13 venues, while the Ukrainian National Opera of Odessa is with us until June. The Latvian National Ballet was in Cardiff over Christmas, the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre has recently come to the end of its 14-week, 23-venue tour. And, this month, the Moscow Ballet La Classique has arrived for a six-week tour visiting an impressive 36 venues. While this influx of foreign touring companies means that audiences outside Britain's larger cities are getting to see international performers with greater ease than ever before, it also has an impact on the work available to British-based companies.
At the same time, British companies have reined in on touring, or carried on touring but without an orchestra: the Royal Ballet, for example, has not toured major works since the early 1990s. Matthew Bourne's New Adventures is on a national tour visiting 12 venues in as many weeks, with a revival of Highland Fling choreographed by Bourne to the music of La Sylphide, but it will not be performed to live music. As with Moscow Ballet La Classique on its visits to Catford, Billingham and Consett, Bourne's troupe, despite visiting venues large enough to accommodate an orchestra, is dancing to canned music. (When New Adventures reached Sadler's Wells, however, it was accompanied by an orchestra: Sadler's Wells chose to pay for one itself.) A spokesman for Bourne's company explains that the decision to tour without an orchestra is an economic one: the Arts Council funding for the tour is insufficient to take a 30-piece orchestra on the road.
The Moscow City Ballet has just completed its tour of the British regions. Comprising 14 weeks and 22 venues, it was the company's 13th season supplying ballet to the provinces, which was good news for the British orchestra booked every year to travel the country with them. Or it was good news until this year, when, for the first time, the ballet company was not accompanied by the National Ballet Orchestra, an orchestra of British musicians. Instead, Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, the veteran impresarios who promote the MCB in this country, secured the services of an orchestra from Latvia. The Hochhausers have been trying to hire a foreign orchestra since 2000, but this is the first time they have been able to negotiate the strict rules governing work permits for foreign musicians.
In previous years, work permits had been sought for first a Ukrainian, then a Russian orchestra on the grounds that Moscow City Ballet is a "unit company" -- that is, it works with its own Russian musicians for a significant portion of the year. However, as an MCB programme for a performance in Bath last year revealed, 1,369 of the 1,818 performances in the company's 14-year history have taken place in this country. On MCB's comparatively few appearances in Russia, the company has been known to perform to a CD recording.
It could even be argued that if the Moscow City Ballet had a resident band, it was the National Ballet Orchestra. So why did the Moscow City Ballet dispense with the services of an orchestra it had relied on since the company's inception? "They wanted to have an orchestra with whom they could always travel," explains Lilian Hochhauser. "It's altogether more satisfactory to rehearse with this orchestra which knows them. They feel much more relaxed. If an orchestra is working solely with the company, they can iron out difficulties on the way. The problem with British orchestras is they use a lot of deputies. You would find during a tour that lots of the musicians change."
In recruiting Latvian musicians, the Hochhausers have benefited from a change in European law. When the EU expanded, Britain and Ireland were the only countries that omitted to attach any safeguards to the directive concerning free traffic of goods, labour and services between member states. As one of the side-effects of this, freelance musicians (as opposed to touring orchestras) from economically depressed new member states are now free to seek employment in the European market. And because so many British musicians are freelance, and because so many promoters refuse to enter into trade agreements with the Musicians' Union, "musicians are more vulnerable to this directive than any other profession," says Horace Trubridge, a spokesman for the Union. "I wouldn't want to promote the idea that these Latvian musicians aren't good at what they do," says Trubridge, "but we've spoken to the Latvian union and none of their permanent orchestras is taking on this work."
"Hochhausers have made money out of Moscow City Ballet for many years while employing a UK band,'' says Anne Collis, a musical contractor for, among others, the National Ballet Orchestra. "They wouldn't have done it if they hadn't made money. What they're doing is making a lot more money by employing non-UK musicians on rates that unskilled people would think twice about. It's been devastating for the 25 musicians who've have had that three months' work for 13 years. Most of them don't know where they can replace that income." Lilian Hochhauser denies that profits have shot up. "It doesn't work out any cheaper,'' she says. "The company have been trying to work with their own musicians for years and it's the company's decision to work with their own musicians. They don't want to come and be greeted by a strange band. They want to work with their own people."
British musicians remain convinced that it's a question of economics. When one of the members of the National Ballet Orchestra wrote to her MEP, Charles Tannock, to advise him of the situation, he advised her to "make your rates competitive". But it's not as if the musicians were earning a great deal in the first place. The minimum wage negotiated by the Musicians' Union for opera and ballet orchestras working outside London is pounds 300 per week for principals and pounds 285 for the rest. They also receive pounds 228.50 subsistence, out of which they have to pay for travel, food and accommodation. The entire classical industry is subject to a seismic cultural shift. The pop market now appeals not only to the young but also to the middle-aged, who in the past might have been expected to switch to classical music as their tastes matured. In fact, today, people in their 40s buy more pop CDs than their children do.
Nor are musicians from Western Europe immune to geopolitical forces. The break-up of the Soviet Union has had a huge impact on music here. While British musicians may have a reputation as being among the best sightreaders in the world, there is a reluctant understanding in the profession that little can stop the majority of recording contracts migrating East. But what makes some British musicians feel more actively aggrieved is the number of Eastern European musicians coming here to find performing work. The aggrieved claim that they would find it easier to accept the economic realities of modern touring were it not for the suspicion that the British audiences who pay the taxes that subsidise the theatres are not, for all the allure of a ballet company of post-Soviet provenance performing from a roster of old favourites, getting value for money.
"The main point to me," says Dave Lee, a leading British horn player, "is this issue of exploitation of Eastern European labour going on which the British public is blissfully unaware of... When the theatres use public money, the anger tends to bubble up a bit." "We are more than happy to test the theory that foreign orchestras are better," says Trubridge, of the Musicians' Union, "but the only way you test it is by having a level playing field. If it costs the promoters the same to have musicians from outside the UK as inside, then let's see which they'd rather employ."
There is also some concern about the conditions of employment experienced by the non-native touring musicians. One hopes, for the sake of musicians performing in this country, that conditions are rather better here than those described by one musician with a leading Polish orchestra on a tour of Germany and Switzerland. The promoters, he says, "looked for the cheapest possible hotel. It doesn't matter if it's 300km from the concert hall. You don't have time to relax or have a decent meal or practise. They want you to be there, to play a more or less better or worse concert, and then they put you on the bus. In some circumstances, we don't even have breakfast. People take a lot of food in suitcases. "When we fight with managers or directors, they say, 'There are five or six Ukrainian or Russian orchestras waiting to do this job and they will work for half.' The sad thing is that the level is rather poor on tours. It's not a high-level conductor. He is just doing it for the money. Sometimes you feel like a whore, stealing work from home orchestras, touring slummy hotels and starving before concerts. But some colleagues think it's a free-market rule. We are now in the European community and we are simply cheaper. And whoever is cheaper wins."
For British orchestras tendering for touring work, it seems the only relevant question now is: "How low can you go?" "Musicians can't work for the minimum wage,'' says a National Ballet Orchestra violinist, "that's a ridiculous suggestion. To get a nice violin is about pounds 20,000 or pounds 30,000. I bought a bow for pounds 6,000. Why should you do five years studying at college just so you can earn a wage you can earn if you do cleaning? I can't see how the music profession can keep going in its current form. There is not enough work for musicians."