‘Has this been the happiest year of my life?’ I found myself asking recently. It has certainly been topped with the arrival of a third granddaughter last month. (My first, little Sara Maria, died a few years ago.) The birth of Rosie Elisabeth has taken our joy to cosmic levels, but 2023 has been a succession of delights, mainly connected to the concerts I’ve been able to conduct around the globe, from St Louis to Tallinn. After the evils of lockdown, many of us worried that musical life would never return. But it has. I will never, ever take cultural life for granted again.
One highlight this year was the culmination of a huge project at my festival in East Ayrshire, the Cumnock Tryst. ‘Celebration of the Coalfields’ allowed us to work with ten local groups who created their own music and songs, which were subsequently orchestrated for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The groups then joined the orchestra to perform the new music in festival concerts. The local MP Allan Dorans tabled an Early Day Motion at the House of Commons congratulating us, which was a delight.
Sometimes the arts have a more unsettled relationship with politics and ideology, however. A few weeks ago, a new organisation was formed – Freedom in the Arts – which warned that artistic free expression is under attack. Its launching letter to the press (which I signed along with more than 1,000 others) spoke of ‘a new set of moralistic and political attitudes which many institutions and activist groups have adopted as dogma’. A lot of these complex and contested issues – some of which I don’t fully understand yet – seem to revolve around race and sex, and the new body is worried that a large number of arts institutions are discriminating against artists and audiences who do not subscribe to their views.
Yet political interference in culture is not new.