If the atmosphere in Tokyo at the moment is relatively radiation-free – apparently it is less than in the cabin of the aircraft which flew us here – the mood among the local population is one of getting on with life. Apparently they collectively held their breaths (and stopped drinking the water) for about 24 hours at the time of the earthquake, and then turned what was left of their attention to abusing the Tokyo Electric Power Company.
One of the things they have got on with is attending concerts of Western music. This will come as bad news to all the groups who decided to cancel their recent tours to Japan on grounds of danger to health – quite a long list, headed by James Levine and several of his top soloists from the Metropolitan Opera in New York; with Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale of Gent coming somewhere in the middle. These people are not popular, and their respective agents are furious – which has made ours all the more cock-a-hoop. In two weeks he has hosted Gustav Leonhardt and the Tallis Scholars (separately) to packed houses.
We have been here many times: a fact which has only been made possible by the size of the audiences. But even after fourteen tours I still wonder why people from such a different culture turn out in such numbers to hear Latin-texted Christian music, sung unaccompanied in vast and rather anonymous symphony halls. After all, this worship of other, inexplicable cultures is a rare phenomenon on the international scene – where else do people idolise other races for their achievements, and seem to ask nothing in return? The Japanese even buy and translate as much of the Western press as they can find on their favourite groups, tending not to risk elevating any person or group to hero status unless they have clearly attained this in their own countries first. Imagine this happening in Western Europe itself, let alone the Arab world. But the trick is that, unlike these others, the Japanese do not for a single second fear of losing their own identity in any situation. They can throw themselves so headlong into other ways of being because they are so immoveably secure in who they are that it never needs parading or reinforcing. You might say we don’t forget who we are either, but for some reason we are infinitely more cautious in the approaches, and need constant reassurance.
Looking at this scene from the perspective of the stage, I can’t help thinking that Britain has never had such a good and reliable export as its classical
musicians. All the attention of the official bodies which promote us abroad is focussed on manufacturing industry, in which we often seem to struggle even to be noticed. But compare this to the ease with which our singers and orchestral players generate opportunities for employment around the world. British standards in the basic techniques of performing music, alongside value for money through the most fluent sight-reading that there is, are as marketable as any invention in aerospace, and more identifiably British. And although our itinerant musicians presumably do not generate as much return as our engineers, neither do they cost so much to maintain, ultimately leaving a more fragrant sense of what our culture has achieved than anything else can. Is there any support, any Queen’s Award, forthcoming to our musicians? Not that I’ve come; and we are up against ensembles on the continent which are heavily subsidised by their governments, far in excess of what even our symphony orchestras receive.
No doubt the rule of ‘if it ain’t broke, there is no need to throw money at it’ is at the back of every civil servant’s mind when music is being discussed, if it ever is. But as an example of what might benefit from some funding, take Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium. It is almost never toured abroad because it costs so much to put on. It is also fiendishly difficult. I was told of a recent rehearsal of it where the conductor was waving his arms around ineffectually out front as usual, when the mobile in his pocket rang. With one hand he carried on doing the big four-in-a-bar he has to do, while with the other he answered the phone. A voice said: ‘Hello maestro. Joe Bloggs here. I’m the bass in Choir Eight. Where are we?’ It would be good to get beyond that stage of competence on a fairly regular basis, and to do so in countries like Japan.
If flag-waving is what governments like to pay for, I can think of no better one to wave than Tallis and this particular masterpiece.
This article appeared in the Spectator magazine, dated 18th June 2011