Back when the UK was assumed to be leaving the European Union on 29 March, the Aurora Orchestra was invited to Brussels to participate in Klarafestival: specifically, an evening of words and music ‘celebrating cultural links between Europe and the UK’. And because arts organisations in general (and orchestras in particular) change direction with the agility of a supertanker in pack ice, it went ahead regardless. The cellist Nicolas Altstaedt played John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil with exquisite purity of tone. Ian Bostridge sang Britten’s Les illuminations: brisk, earthy, vividly theatrical. The Aurora Orchestra’s strings, playing standing up, flashed and bristled back at him.
Musicians like to talk about the power of their art to unite and heal. To really sour a mood takes words, though the programme book had promised ‘critical reflection’. A diversity of opinions, then, on a complex subject? If Sulaiman Addonia’s short story ‘A Wild Call’ hinted at grey areas, the other perspectives on offer seemed to have been locked down since June 2016. Jonathan Coe read from Middle England: it was all Thatcher’s fault. Ali Smith read a passage from Autumn — ‘All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti’ — and in the capital of the EU, the crowd laughed and applauded. Like the Bourbons in 1815, they’d learned nothing and forgotten nothing. A steady if sentimental Remainer myself, by the time Smith walked off I was ready to buy Boris Johnson a pint.
In fairness, it’s unlikely that the musicians knew very much in advance about an event that felt like it had been designed by committee — and even if they did, the notion that they were sharing a one-sided political platform probably wouldn’t have arisen. The classical music business is so uniformly pro-Remain (in public, anyway) that it’s effectively perceived as a neutral position. It isn’t up for debate. The CEO of one major orchestra emailed his employees pre-referendum advising them which way to vote; no one I’ve spoken to finds this strange.
Then again, why would they? Like any industry that relies upon frictionless international movement, and in which relationships extend across national borders, British classical music faces serious disruption post-Brexit. The full extent of the damage remains to be calculated, though while bosses and big-name maestros uphold the party line (the sky is falling!), chat to the underpaid, exhausted twentysomethings who do the administrative legwork of the orchestra business and the response is more pragmatic. ‘There’ll probably be a few more forms to fill in. We’ll just get on and do it,’ one told me. But in orchestras you keep your head down, you play the notes, and you don’t contradict the people who talk loudest.
Elsewhere in the sector, however, intelligent people keep making themselves look silly. Nothing quite as stellar as Waldemar Januszczak’s ‘You can’t be an art lover and be pro-Brexit’, although the composer Howard Goodall brandished Handel as a poster boy for freedom of movement, and ended up looking only marginally better informed than Jacob Rees-Mogg. A promoter at the Albert Hall asked a soprano to refrain from wearing an EU flag sash on stage. Censorship! yelled classical Twitter. Dame Sarah Connolly rallied colleagues to sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ outside parliament — in German. Yep, that’ll get the Leave heartlands on side. And there’s a rancid minority who’ve always equated ‘their’ music with moral and intellectual superiority, and who’ve taken a spiteful glee in being proved right. Imagine, those Leave-voting gammon probably enioy André Rieu!
For the most part, though, British classical music is the domain of decent, reasonable people whose self-image is intimately tied up with continental culture. They saw no great need for change and, over and above their very real practical worries, have come to conflate the EU with Europe: as if access to Brahms’s chamber music is contingent on membership of the Common Fisheries Policy. It doesn’t make their anxiety any less genuine, and in times of uncertainty, music can be a comfort — as long as you don’t overthink it.
In Brussels, Altstaedt finished by conducting the Aurora Orchestra in Haydn’s Farewell symphony — a piece of double-edged symbolism whose effect was surprisingly emollient. But then, Haydn does that. The integrity and fundamental compassion of his art has a way of putting transient quarrels to shame. One by one, the players left the stage. And then they returned, and Bostridge walked out to join them in the Beatles’ ‘In My Life’. It was unexpected and poignant, and you just knew they were going to spoil it — the arranger would slip in a quote from the ‘Ode to Joy’, or something. But they didn’t. The melody fell in soft Liverpudlian cadences; the words conveyed regret without rancour, and for the first time in a very long night, it felt as though music might have some small capacity to help set things right.