At the beginning of 2019, Helsingborg’s symphony orchestra and concert hall announced to only collaborate with artists willing to come to Helsingborg by train (or ferry), starting with the 2020/21 season. Fredrik Österling is not only a composer but also the manager of Helsingborg’s Konserthus, which means that he is both the artistic and administrative manager for the symphony orchestra as well as for the concert hall.
Before the start of this concert season, six students of the group UdK for Future talked to Fredrik about what the climate crisis means for Helsingborg and the classical music industry as a whole.
Merle: Why did you start thinking about the connection between your daily work as a concert hall manager and the climate crisis?
Fredrik: It started with me making the decision that we as an orchestra should put ourselves in dialog with the community around us. We should be able to move quickly towards subjects that interest us as an artistic entity and not only curate routine programs with Beethoven, Brahms, etc. When I programmed a composer who is part of the LGBTQ community, that stirred an uproar in a part of the local community here in Helsingborg. A group of people wrote me an anonymous letter and I decided to take this letter and compose music to the text, and it was called the fag-train, an expression that was written in the letter. This became a viral story that was discussed, both in Sweden and abroad. So my case was proven: If we do things like that, we not only can be part of an ongoing discussion but also move forward artistically with the orchestra music. That has been lacking for many years in the orchestra community; that we should be a part of the present society, not only a museum for older societies or older art objects, which of course is still pretty much what we do. So now we had opened this window and we started to discuss things, when one of our great cello players in Sweden came to visit us who demanded to go by train from Stockholm, which – in our land of business – is a very unusual thing for a soloist. He also asked us: “What are you doing to compensate for the fact that you are flying in soloists and conductors on a weekly basis?”, which is the case for most concert halls all over the world actually.
We started to discuss this in my artistic board and I very soon came to the conclusion that in this matter people very quickly start raising the flag of “artistic quality”. So we started to discuss what artistic quality is. We decided that if we work hard, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to fill our hall and let our orchestra have distinguished and great encounters with conductors and musicians of a higher level when we bring them by train.
Of course this would exclude – at least in the direct sense – people coming directly to us from the U.S. or from Latin America. We slightly minimize the choice – but at the same time we can focus on other aspects of music as well. So we decided to go ahead and the response was amazing, very inspiring to see also that other orchestras have made decisions that go in the same direction. But of course work became different for us, slightly more challenging.
David: I am really interested in the process of the decision-making because we are trying to get our university to do something about the climate crisis and it is really hard work. One argument we always hear is that it needs to be a democratic process and that the director needs the entire university behind him to make the decision to, for example, call out the climate emergency. You talking about just making the decision sounds so easy. Was it a top-down decision or did you involve the orchestra?
Fredrik: Of course I would be very foolish if I didn’t have some kind of democratic process. My artistic board consists of some seven musicians, but we are very clear about my mandate to decide. If they say “No” I still can go ahead. In no way could there be such a process trying to involve the whole orchestra before making the decision. Then you would have immediately a huge debate where the outcome could be anything, so instead I made the decision and I presented it to the whole orchestra and then the debate started. But they see that I am committed to this, which is important. Then my job is trying to facilitate that road I decided for and make a road-map together with the organisation. It’s a democratic version of dictatorship (laughing).
I think when it comes to things like climate change and climate crisis then you can’t really wait around for too long. “You will see”, I told them, “that when we go out and show the business that we decided to do this, there will be a huge debate, there will also be criticism, but some will follow, there will also be a massive support for this choice” and that’s what happened. It’s a balance, you have to be willing to take risks. But I think, if you are not willing to take risks, then you shouldn’t be a leader at all.
An orchestra is a really weird workplace, it’s a weird entity that is very hierarchical in itself. And it’s a very problematic environment to have any type of democratic process within. I’ve been working quite hard to get that kind of process rolling within my orchestra, to make the tuba player speak up or the second violin in the third row to dare to say anything when the concertmaster is in the room.
And also the repertoire is narrowing down. It gets less and less diverse. This, I think, is another way of looking at sustainability, social sustainability: If an orchestra addresses only one group of people in society and plays the music they prefer and that they’ve become used to, you never explore any other roads.
The classical music world is now bringing in conductors and soloists from all over the world with fees that have been exponentially increasing since the Sixties. In those times soloists could just have a little bit more pay than the concertmaster and the conductor would have maybe slightly more than the soloist. But today there is no comparison between what a conductor gets as a fee and what people are willing to pay for the tickets. We’re kind of stuck in an eternal system where we need more and more money from the state or the local government to sustain the orchestra. But there are many aspects of sustainability. It’s the repertoire, it’s social aspects, the audience. And I think what all managers would wish for, is that musicians become more active in committing to change.
David: If you’re already that famous that you don’t need to fly anymore because you can get concerts locally, the decision is easy. But if you’re not that famous you need to travel, play wherever people invite you to play.
Fredrik: Yeah, I can see that. There is a risk for some kind of segregation, also regarding the differences in equality between men and women. If you travel by train you need to be away longer. And who are the ones paying the price for people being away? Mostly the women of a society, as statistics show. I see that if we’re going down that road, we will have to think about bringing families to Helsingborg instead of just the soloist.
We see that we have very many different types of musicians, soloists and conductors. Some are very happy to go to Helsingborg from the south of France or Spain by train. Some think it’s the most ridiculous idea ever.
I really think that greed has been a strong driving force in our business, also behind the fact that the repertoire within the orchestras has been shrinking in diversity. You can earn more money as a conductor if you play with 10 orchestras in a month. So instead of having to study new repertoire they do their Beethoven-cycle at every place they go. Before the 50s, before the jet era every orchestra actually sounded different to each other. But now all of that has become more or less integrated and you have a very globalised sound which has many many good things about it. But it just turns to show that it’s not only negative if you start having local discussions about how music should sound or could sound. And getting other influences from other parts of society.
Lukas: Do you work with artists that are on European tours for example coming from the United States and asking “if I’m here doing my European tour I could come to Helsingborg by train”?
Fredrik: Yeah, we try to find solutions like that if we can. We are not banning people who have at some point in life flown. We’ve been successful in finding that kind of compromise, finding people, soloists that are on European tour or that are at the Danish Opera (which is just an hour’s train ride from here) for a longer period of time. Then they can come to us and play a concert during that period.
Merle: Can you talk about actual financial consequences? Do you have trouble earning the money you need to run your business or is there any governmental funding to help, to pay the extra money you need to be more climate friendly?
Fredrik: What we see is that in some ways it’s higher costs to pay for the time for some soloists and some conductors. But on the other hand since we are searching in a different way we also find solutions for conductors coming from very close to us from Norway or Denmark or Finland. That takes down a bit of the costs we usually have from just routinely calling people from the States or Japan or China or whatever. Suddenly we have come closer to home and this makes some of the business a bit cheaper. Not less in quality but cheaper. On the other hand we’ve seen an increase in ticket sales because of the way we are placing ourselves in the debate of the society. These past two months there have been two very critical articles about me as a person and as a professional and the local newspaper is now doing an investigative piece about the changes in the concert hall. So all of a sudden we are subject matter of everyday people. People outside of our classical music bubble know about Helsingborg’s symphony orchestra now. We see that curious people who normally wouldn’t come to the concert hall want to buy a ticket for this weird concert with a symphony orchestra and singers from the Sami people that we combined in a concert. So I think if you only want to do business as usual, that is you want to present only the centre pieces of the Romantic period, then I think it would be much more expensive. But if you’re willing to change other parts as well, to experiment with actually putting yourself in dialog with your community, making projects with people and artists that you normally wouldn’t meet, then I would say you can create a new type of scenario all together and actually without making deficits.
David: I have a question concerning music production: Do you already have expectations concerning ecological sustainability in general when you go and record an album?
Fredrik: We discussed the way we present the product rather than the recording session itself. Should we actually produce a piece of plastic that we use as a card of introduction to people? Or can’t we just publish a recording on Spotify or on our own websites in the best possible resolution and quality? When an orchestra gets a new chief conductor for instance, the first thing that happens is that they make a plan for recording CDs. And often it’s a young conductor who needs to do her or his own recording of either Beethoven or Brahms. I mean: There is an horrendous amount of CDs with all the Beethoven or all the Brahms symphonies. I don’t think there is time enough to listen through them all.
Nika: For me one of the greatest examples of diversity in music might be the Russian manager Sergei Diaghilev who did ballet shows in Paris. He could only go beyond Swan Lake and all this classical Russian ballet repertoire because he could cross borders, go to Europe and work with European artists and artists from all over the world. He mixed experiences and that’s why he created something new. So are you not afraid that you are kind of closing borders? If you have only artists with one history and one perception, one understanding of the world, your orchestra will not develop in more diverse ways.
Fredrik: This is a very relevant question! This image that you painted at the end, a world that is closing on itself, that’s the actual situation we face today within the orchestral world, because everyone is striving, gravitating towards the same centre. They all have approximately the same way of looking at repertoire and how we should play this repertoire, so there is no new oxygen entering that system. So it doesn’t matter whether you bring someone from Russia or China.
By the way Diaghilev went a lot by train, I think. Traveling will still be part of the DNA of the classical music world, but it has to be done in a different way. And I think it’s a possibility for us to start doing just that, to start questioning the routines of our daily work that kind of rests on the diversity that once was, but now is no more. So I totally agree, we need diversity, we need these forceful artistic meetings, but they are not taking place today. It’s more like you have a global CD player playing the same things all over in approximately the same way. Many people have asked me just that: “Is that some kind of nationalism in disguise?” But it’s not. In our orchestra we have 22 nationalities represented. You don’t need to understand Swedish to be able to play in our orchestra, because you understand the music. But there is also a little bit of an issue with that, because if we all know that this is the way the business should be done – is it really art then? Isn’t art also about doing the unexpected or being able to question things? Or is it playing Beethoven in all movements that are written? Why not put a mad soprano Aria between the first and the second movement and play the last movement backward and start with that? I mean, this is a possibility, but a possibility that no one takes, maybe for good reasons, I don’t know. But I just mean that if the map is already written then it’s an art world that will suffocate itself.
David: I loved the way you answered the letter about the LGBTQ-concert and where you just wrote a piece. Was there something similar happening after your decision of not flying anymore? Was there a lot of dissent that you maybe creatively worked with?
Fredrik: We had a response from a composer in London who had seen the story somewhere in the newspaper. And he wrote to me and said that he was so inspired by this decision that he wanted to write a piece that described the train journey from London to Helsingborg. And the last bit from Denmark to Helsingborg is by boat, a ferry powered by battery. So we started discussing and I listened to his music and I said: “Fine, we will commission a piece by you.” So he came to us by train, taking up sounds as he went on the train. He went to a concert and listened to our orchestra. Now we are opening the season with his piece based on this train journey to Helsingborg. And we hope to make the same journey to London on a sustainable tour. But I really like the idea of art being in dialog all the time.
Merle: I have a question about the crisis we are facing with COVID-19. Will climate justice be of any concern for any orchestra now or will they just try to go back to “normal”? The standard repertoire, this narrow road you described … Is this the safe option a lot of people will choose now? And trying to be more climate friendly is not a topic for anyone because they just want to survive somehow?
Fredrik: That’s a huge risk that I see too that the orchestras will want to go back to something that looks like normal as quickly as possible. At the same time I read an article in the Guardian the other day where Simon Rattle and other people say that it’s unthinkable to go back to a situation where you pack 90 musicians on an airplane and go to play in a city where there is already a good orchestra playing the same repertoire. He calls it some kind of narcissistic behaviour. So the discussion is there and it is growing.
It’s also a risk if you go back to playing only this core repertoire you will also risk ending up like some of the Dutch orchestras. They got enormous cuts a few years back. And they had relied on their subscribers to help them or that the outcry from the subscribers would be so strong that the politicians wouldn’t dare to go ahead. But actually they were too few. The subscribers represent an aging group of the population almost everywhere. And if you haven’t started building trust with other groups in society for classical music and also for the other things we do, then I think going back and narrowing down will only backfire in the long run.
Jesko: So let’s assume that in 20, 30 years many of your colleagues will be following your idea. What would have happened on the way till then?
Fredrik: I would love it to be a situation where orchestras start to behave like artistic institutions, that is that all of a sudden we see a bigger form of diversity within the whole classical industry in the world. For example: In Helsingborg we are doing this but in Toulouse in France they have an orchestra doing completely different crazy stuff … If you go out on the internet you find a much more colourful pallet of classical music. So that’s one thing. I also hope that this would include that the orchestras in 20, 30 years will have a stronger relationship with a broader part of the community they are working in.