Bail out our musicians or risk losing them for ever, say classical music stars

By Vanessa Thorpe

Leading figures in classical music say many highly-trained orchestral musicians are giving up on music as they face homelessness and hunger this autumn. Speaking to the Observer this weekend, the internationally renowned conductor Sir Simon Rattle warned that an “exodus is happening right now”, while top English soloists the violinist Tamsin Little and the pianist Stephen Hough both spoke of despair and desperation among even successful performers.

“Next month, we will all expect to hear the traditional sound of music as we commemorate Armistice Day,” said Little, an acclaimed virtuoso musician who trained as a child at the Yehudi Menuhin School. “But consider who is playing all this beautiful music for us and where it will come from in the future?”

When the Last Post sounds, Little suggests, it will be heralding the end of Britain’s celebrated musical culture if there is no rescue for thousands of professional freelance musicians without work. She called on the government to support more distanced concerts to make them commercially viable for venues.

Earlier this month, leading orchestras and music festivals received a first government bailout grant, including Rattle’s London Symphony Orchestra. But there is renewed concern that the majority of musicians who are freelancers have no safety net while only a few socially distanced concerts are staged.

Tamsin Little
Concert violinist Tamsin Little has called for more government support for struggling musicians. Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega

“While some of us working in established institutions have been fortunate to be given grants that help us to hang on, the vast majority of freelancers are in a desperate situation,” said Rattle.

Institutions such as the LSO, BBC Radio 3, London’s Wigmore Hall or Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk, home of the Aldeburgh festival, have been creating as much paid work as possible since the lockdown eased, staging performances in front of reduced audiences and for live broadcast. But it is a tiny proportion of the scale of music once made.

“My worry is that so many musicians will be forced to leave the profession that we will not be able to return to anything like the cultural life that we enjoyed previously. And that this exodus is happening right now, and that it will not be noticed until it is too late,” said Rattle.

The controller of Radio 3, Alan Davey, said he hears worry and sometimes despair from musicians on a daily basis. “Everything that was certain for the next year has been thrown into complete uncertainty.

“Music has got me through this so far, but musicians are particularly exhausted now because of the effort of finding new ways to reach audiences.”

Radio 3 now stages concerts every week for live broadcasts that go out around the world, including a current residency at the Southbank Centre and upcoming events at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. “What we are doing is a small thing, but if we can find ways to do it safely we will keep on, of course, because it matters.”

Davey’s words were echoed by Cheshire-born concert pianist Stephen Hough: “It is strange, then distressing, to find oneself suddenly cut off from the joyful exhilaration of making music for an audience,” he said this weekend. “Musicians almost always chose this life not because of financial rewards but because of an inner necessity to communicate the beauty to others. And then … the concerts stop and the money stops too – voice silenced, and pockets emptied.”

But Hough said he has found hope by playing at the Wigmore Hall and with the Liverpool Philharmonic, where he performs this week to a small crowd and an online ticketed audience. “It feels like a healing of the soul.”

Petroc Trelawny, breakfast presenter on Radio 3, fears the new generation of young musicians will miss their moment to start a career while older audiences will lose the concert-going habit. “You have only a few years to sell yourself as a young performer,” he said. “You start out at the age of seven or eight, with the same commitment a doctor makes but with no guarantee at the end at the best of times,” he said.

Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough rehearses at the Wigmore Hall in London for a performance broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“There are wonderful things still happening, of course, but there is a danger in taking comfort from that. The vast majority of concerts are not happening. It is pretty grim for most musicians and they are very tired.”

Trelawny added that he knows of one “really very famous name who his hit massive financial problems”. The difficulty for freelance musicians, he said, is that even those with viable careers rarely earn enough to save. “Many had just banked on being able to carry on.” For some performers the sudden drop in income has already forced them out of their homes or made the weekly shop unaffordable.

He paid tribute to organisations, such as the Oxford Lieder festival, that are “still heroically staging distanced events and online concerts and paying musicians a normal wage” from any remaining funds. He also praised local musical groups, such as one in Kendal which has moved into the local church to allow smaller concert audiences to socially distance. “At the beginning of this, musicians tried to raise our spirits and now they need our help because there is no national organisation protecting them all,” he said.

Little, who is playing out her last season as a violinist through the pandemic, having already decided last year to quit at the top of her career, urged music fans to support performers. “A huge percentage of us now have no work and yet we all expect music to be everywhere around us, on the radio, on television and in films. And musicians create great value for this country in terms of culture and the wider economy,” she said.