The Last Night of the Proms as we know it?

PUBLISHED: 14:55 14 September 2018 | UPDATED: 14:55 14 September 2018

EU flags are flown at Last Night of the Proms in 2017. Photograph: BBC

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Now is the ideal time to alert audiences to how Brexit stands to adversely affect classical music in this country, writes ALIYE CORNISH

“Music is not mere entertainment, but rather one of the most powerful forces for good that we have. It makes us smile. It makes us weep. It brings us close to each other. We live in a world that all too often seems dominated by division… it has the power to unite us in beauty and in strength”.

These were words from the conductor laureate of the BBCSO, Sir Andrew Davis, when he addressed the 6,000-strong audience in the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday night’s Last Night of the Proms, with countless thousands listening and watching across the globe. This year, in addition to the many Union Jacks which traditionally adorn this event, the EU flag was extremely prominent.

These were offered for free to raise awareness of the plight facing UK musicians after Brexit. I supported this movement, as I am a freelance viola player who has appeared in several Proms over the last few years, most notably with Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, and this year performing in Handel’s Theodora with Arcangelo. The act of giving flags was reported as a ‘hijacking’, but in the context of the support that we experienced from the music lovers in the audience that feels like a misplaced description.

Sir Andrew’s words will ring true for anyone who enjoys classical music. What many people don’t realise is that music is also hugely beneficial to our economy. The Incorporated Society of Musicians report that the music industry as a whole brings in £4.4bn for our economy every year. Writing on the Musicians’ Union blog earlier this year, the Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire stated that music generates £2.5bn of export revenue for the UK. Musicians are hugely concerned about losing freedom of movement. In the wake of the Proms, now is the ideal time to highlight the issues ahead and alert audiences to how Brexit stands to adversely affect classical music in this country. There is no point having these conversations in six month’s time.

In a poll by the Incorporated Society of Musicians, a third said that 50% or more of their income comes via work in the other EU member states. So, following the vote to leave the EU, where does this leave us?

As it stands, my colleagues and I plan to undertake EU work post-Brexit. We hope that the UK achieves a deal with the EU, and we know that in this instance musicians will retain freedom of movement until the end of 2020, under a transition period.

With the eventual, anticipated loss of freedom of movement UK ensembles will be required to provide instrument carnets, work permits and/or visas to support our touring activities. Realistically the admin costs will need to be added on to the fee. Will a promoter in the EU want to book a UK group, or would they prefer a cheaper group from an EU member state operating without the costly burden of bureaucracy?

If music colleges have to charge EU nationals the rates which currently apply to non-EU countries, many will simply not be able to come. The UK has already lost two of its most prestigious training opportunities to Brexit; the European Union Youth Orchestra and the European Union Baroque Orchestra. Our musicians will now miss out on these valuable career-shaping experiences.

It has been 18 months since the UK government triggered Article 50. Since then we have heard nothing about freedom of movement regarding services. We have just under 200 days until we leave the EU. The uncertainty in our sector of industry, as with so many, is bad for business, and the failure of the government to address this vital issue is an absolute dereliction of duty. At the time of writing Nigel Farage has taken his dog-whistle racism act to half-empty halls in Australia, whilst chortling into his pint. David Cameron disappeared which such alacrity that I’m surprised Theresa May hasn’t contacted him for tips on how to make a speedy exit. The less said about Michael Gove the better. Our sector is one of many which stand to be disadvantaged by the various versions of Brexit which we see proposed. And looking at our politicians for reassurance what do we see? Clowns to the left of us, and jokers to the right.

Orchestras such as the Oxford-based Instruments of Time and Truth have immediate concerns, as they tour to Spain from the UK for a week next year, leaving on March 29th. As of today musicians are being asked to check if they have at least three to six months left on their passport.

Artistic Director of the Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh, sums up the situation as follows. “Let's be realistic - leaving the EU is not going to prevent the Berlin Philharmonic appearing at the Proms. Nor will concert halls and opera houses in Vienna, Paris or Madrid cease to engage the most renowned UK soloists and singers. But the axe will fall very hard on the thousands of hard-working UK-based freelance musicians in orchestras, choirs and all sorts of musical ensembles across the EU, who are likely to face drastic loss of earnings.”

I end with an endorsement from mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly DBE, “The BBC Proms season is the greatest music festival in the world. It welcomes excellence from abroad and so the audience is bound to reflect this sense of unity. Music-making should be barrier and boundary free and in my understanding, Brexit is about limitation, narrow mindedness resulting in impoverishment. I whole-heartedly endorse Aliye’s thoughts and will add that when we are in peril, music has the duty to carry a powerful and important message.”

Aliye Cornish is a viola player, teacher and arts consultant

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