Lebrecht to orchestras: Stop flying

Lebrecht to orchestras: Stop flying


norman lebrecht

December 19, 2019

In the new issue of The Critic, out today on all good newstands, I address the unspoken evils of orchestra touring.

Here’s a sample:

Every transatlantic flight uses 493kg of CO2 per passenger, roughly as much as an earthbound person consumes in a whole year. A player flying from London to Rome leaves a 234kg carbon gap (figures from Atmosfair). That’s without configuring the environmental cost of flying giant packing crates of musical instruments. Orchestras are killing the planet, and for no good reason.

On hearing of the Coldplay ban, I did a quick damage count. The New York Philharmonic, I found, flew seven times in 2019, which seems reasonable. Three of those flights were on China tour, the rest in the US. The Berlin Philharmonic flew 15 times, mostly in Europe, which is crazy. They could have taken the Carbon-neutral train, where they can practise cello in the corridor and not fear having their double-basses getting crushed to matchwood in the aircraft hold.

London’s orchestras are the worst offenders….

Read on here.

Think before you fly.


  • Esther Cavett says:

    So what will NL be doing when, say, Israel Phil ask him to give a talk ‘Wither Mahler’ (or something) ? Go by boat ?

    • John Borstlap says:

      There’s nothing against slow travelling. And if you are not bound by a local job with a 40 hrs week, you can work on the boat or train. The point is, that unnecessary flights can be avoided – when commercial thinking takes back seat at the efforts to save the planet. When the Middle East wil be burning, and this time not because of warmongering but because of climate changes, there won’t be an Israel to travel to.

  • V. Lind says:

    Are trains carbon-neutral? Not if diesel-powered, and not if you include infrastructure costs in carbon emission calculations.

    On the whole, though, they are probably a better option than flying, at least in Europe. Possibly in Asia and certainly in Japan. North American train “service” is a joke, particularly in the US but regrettably also in Canada.

    Safer for the instruments, though, aside from the preponderance of musicians who seem to forget instruments on trains!

  • Yogi says:

    The emissions from plane flights are about 2% of the global total. The percentage of flights that carry an orchestra must be minuscule. You are talking absolute rubbish.

    • Gordon says:

      Absolutely – we shouldn’t take responsibility for anything ourselves – as individuals we don’t make a difference – it’s someone else’s fault, right? And as individuals and influential groups we absolutely shouldn’t make a statement to the contrary in solidarity which might contribute to change.

      Planes are only 2% of contributions to emissions, cars are only maybe 10%, beef farming is maybe only 10%, dairy farming is only maybe 5%, whatever, there’s no point in addressing those issues separately to take them down one by one. There is a broader alternative as outlined here in great detail by Yogi.

  • Brian Cooper says:

    Have you cancelled your 2020 book tour to the US and Canada, Mr Lebrecht?


    As for taking the train in Europe, it’s a great way to get around, although, say, Cracow to Lisbon may be tricky.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      1 I am keeping it to a minimum
      2 I am an individual, not a whole orchestra
      3 There is no-one locally who can do what I am there for.
      I hope that answers yor question.

      • Emil says:

        Keeping it to a minimum is worthy, of course. More broadly, however, if we want to tackle the climate crisis, we must wholly change practices – including at the individual level – and not merely doing the same things we’ve always done in less polluting ways. We must change ‘what’ we do in itself, not only how we do it. That includes questioning whether in-person book tours across the Atlantic are necessary, whether in-person academic conferences are a worthy model (a growing debate in my field), whether global orchestra tours are necessary, etc. As much as being there in person is desirable, it is an open question whether the costs outweigh the benefits. The question is certainly worth raising.
        One (imperfect) option, of course, is also to compensate the carbon emissions by a donation to an ecological program such as Atmosfair.

      • Bill says:

        Keeping it to a minimum would be not going. Every little bit helps.

        One wonders about the carbon footprint of the whole affair, whether you fly or not.

        • Robert von Bahr says:

          why pick at Norman Lebrecht, who, like everyone else, has to make a living and tout his goods?
          But Emil and others are right – we really all have to chip in on a personal level, as otherwise every industry (except steel, oil and cement) can state truthfully that their contribution to the pollution is so small in comparison with the whole that it really doesn’t matter. It does, and we must take responsibility for our own choices. My wife goes to China, playing solo with orchestras, but I refuse to accompany her – I can’t defend that on any level. We live in a house that is energy-positive, that is, creates more energy than we spend, incl. charging of 2 Teslas. That’s a choice we could make – and did.
          BIS has totally gone over from plastic cases to our invention “ecopaks”, fully certified reused cardboard, eco-glue, soy colours, which also weighs in at 42% less, reducing transport fuel in addition to looking much more beautiful. More expensive than plastic, but a choice.
          I still think there is a small chance of making the world survive (especially if certain presidents don’t get re-elected), but we must all of us, individually, take our responsibility.
          Well spoken, Emil!


          • John Borstlap says:

            Entirely agreed. That is how it should be done.

          • Alan K says:

            Your last paragraph is ridiculous. The US has substantially reduced it emissions over the past decade due to substitution of natural gas for coal and as a result of fracking. The US contribution has dropped to around 15 pct compared to 35% for India and China. The notion that Warren or Sanders would save the world is beyond (you fill in the blank). Maybe they will increase tax credits for Hollywood producers buying $100,000 Tesla electric cars. The dumb Germans shut down Nuclear plants because of a Tsunami in Japan – I believe their emissions have increased! But of course America is the stupid place

          • Emil says:

            Not sure who you’re replying to (layout can be confusing), but: natural gas is still highly polluting and certainly not a long-term solution (plus, fracking is hugely destructive of natural resources, environments, and living conditions). That is, in fact, the whole point. Doing things in a slightly less polluting way (driving cars that use a little less petrol, planes that produce a bit less carbon) doesn’t cut it. The objective – indeed, the requirement – is to tend to zero, not to aim for pollution lite.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Best is to return to pre-industrial travel conditions: roads are now much better than in 1800 so journeys will be long and slow, but certainly more agreeable. And think of the booming hotel business along the roads.

          • Alan K says:

            Improved efficiency in resource use should always be the goal. But implementing measures that will have no perceptible impact on climate change and which will harm the economy is a fools errand

      • V. Lind says:

        Keeping it to a minimum would mean travelling by train within North America. Bet you won’t.

        Can’t blame you for doing this, but your response is the same as that, alas, of most of us — I am all in favour of working toward saving the planet — as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my plans.

        • Mr. Knowitall says:

          V., have you tried traveling by train in North America? It’s almost impossible, with the exception of the northeast corridor, which stretches from Boston to Washington DC.

          • V. Lind says:

            I live in Canada. We were practically created by a railroad (though it is criminal what has become of some of the services). But you can still cross the country on one train.

            I know the US rail service is yet another of its signal failings to keep up with the civilised world, along with health care and gun control.

          • Cubs Fan says:

            You have it exactly backwards. The US used to have a decent rail system from the east coast to the midwest. The enormous expanses to the west were another matter. Then came the automobile: in it’s forward thinking, to become modern and civilized, the US collectively decided that cars were better: you could go where you want, when you wanted. Trains were (and still are) looked upon as anachronistic and wasteful. Some cities that have extensive subway (underground) services struggle with the enormous expense, crime, and filth. Too bad we never had the foresight to build sometime like the tube in London.

          • American says:

            The railroads and train travel in the U. S. were destroyed by the tire/oil/auto industries, who purposely tore up thousands of miles of track, all with the support of lawmakers, of course.

          • MusicBear88 says:

            Even traveling between Boston and New York by train I have had some kind of mechanical difficulty on almost 50% of the trips that I have taken. Granted this has not been a huge number but after a couple of hours sitting on a concrete platform in the middle of Connecticut in August, I was less than keen on making a habit of it.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I have reduced my carbon footprint by reducing my time at SD and writing on paper instead of with Sibelius, and by changing from telephone to letter writing, and fired my chauffeur, sold my cars and using horse riding for the longer trips. I gave up golf, because it is bad for the environment, especially my environment. Life has improved quite much in terms of quality and health. So, it can be done.

      • M McAlpine says:

        Actually a plane uses just as much fuel if it flies an individual or a whole orchestra. There is actually no-one locally who can play like the Berlin Phil either.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    It would be a torment to live in a place like Australia if we were no longer allowed to fly to the old world. I hope there will be technological solutions to environmental problems. The idea we will have to make huge sacrifices to save the planet is not realistic. It will never happen.

    • Emil says:

      Three points:
      1- The idea is increasingly realistic. More and more people avoid flying, avoid unnecessary solo car journeys, etc. If infrastructure and political power follow, it may be possible.
      2- The notion of climate justice may well, in my opinion, treating people differently (for instance, remote isolated communities may have to continue burning fossile fuel for electricity, while people in cities should not). Thus, it could be acceptable to assume that people in Australia, South America, etc. may have to fly more than someone living in Europe or the US.
      3- Part of what will be required to tackle this crisis effectively is a de-centering of powers and exchange. There will have to be multiple poles and centres of culture, commercial exchange, etc. In other words, it is not acceptable that one is either in Europe or the US, or ‘out of the loop’.

    • Bruce says:

      “The idea we will have to make huge sacrifices to save the planet is not realistic. It will never happen.”

      If we won’t make sacrifices voluntarily, we will eventually be making them involuntarily.

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    Better to give this advice to sport teams. The amount of orchestral touring compared to sports teams’ travel is miniscule. Touring helps spreading the cause of music whether there is a local orchestra or not.

    • Emil says:

      I remember Arsenal being criticised a few years ago for flying charter from London to Manchester. Ridiculous.

    • John Kelly says:

      This is quite right, the amount of flying around in the USA of sports teams is way way more than all the orchestras in the world flying around combined. It’s most teams, weekly. The NFL and the NBA alone must exceed every earthly orchestra’s combined annual air travel by a considerable margin. I am not suggesting this should stop, we know that Boeing and Airbus are trying to produce more efficient planes, but to pick out orchestral tours as a significant or even insignificant contributor to global warming is pointing to the wrong place, there are MANY much worse offenders. I don’t disagree that being judicious isn’t important and that this isn’t an issue, it is. If everyone did a bit in the right direction it would help, and we should. But let’s not worry about broken windows when the neighborhood is enduring other much more major crime which needs attention…………..

  • sam says:

    kinda odd to pick on orchestra musicians touring.

    I mean, an orchestra member taking personal vacation with all his/her luggage along with spouse and kids consume way more C02, why not suggest no American orchestra musicians should take personal vacations to Europe or Asia (and vice versa)?

    Realistically, at this point, we’re all fucked anyway, we’ve reached the point of no return. I say let’s all trek up that New Zealand volcano and live out last non-eco-tourism dream.

  • Calvin says:

    Frankly if, as reported here recently, a six or eight city tour costs upward of $2.5 million, the money would be better spent replicating the Berlin Phil’s amazing streaming app. It is not the same as a live concert to be sure, but the outreach is greater, the exposure in more pervasive and more in-depth, and it makes the players minor rockstars.

  • MacroV says:

    I would certainly agree that orchestras should travel around Europe by train whenever possible, but touring orchestras are a tiny percentage of air travel. And while we do have to consider the cumulative impact of many small actions, climate solutions still are going to rely on major changes in energy production/use by the major polluters (US, China, India, Brazil…).

  • C Porumbescu says:

    Two points:

    1 – no orchestra tours for fun: or at all, unless it’s going to break even or make a profit. If someone pays, they tour. No illusion, just market forces. (There are occasional exceptions when funders – public as well as private – lean upon orchestras to undertake economically non-viable tours; but this too is a trade-off against continued future funding).

    2 – if you chat to CBSO audiences you’ll quickly realise that there’s an intense awareness of the individual players. Regular concertgoers will be able to name most of the principals and a good number of the other players (and in some cases their partners and kids too). There was a standing ovation last week when long-serving first violinist David Gregory’s retirement was announced; and everyone knows which woodwind principal has just had a baby son. The issue of the leader vacancy is frequently discussed (including in the local press, in articles which have even been reproduced on this site), and I suspect most regular concertgoers in Birmingham could tell you the names of at least two of the recent candidates. But by and large there is an understanding that player-led recruitment is a slow process.

    • Calvin says:

      Nice to know that about the CBSO’s local audience, but I am just as aware of the individual players in the the BSO living thousands of miles away. The CBSO and other orchestras are highly unlikely to have that type of exposure, but it is within reach with money well spent.

  • Karl says:

    If people really cared about slowing CO2 emissions they would be advocating for more nuclear power. France has been doing it since the 1970s. It has an extremely low level of carbon dioxide emissions per capita from electricity generation. As for safety nuclear power causes fewer deaths that solar or wind energy.


    • Brettermeier says:

      “As for safety nuclear power causes fewer deaths that solar or wind energy.”

      Yes!!!!11! The MSM never talk about radiation poisoning caused by wind energy! Total coverup and / or false flag operation!

      Talking to people like you makes me wonder if we ever have been to the moon. Not because I think it was faked. No. But I think humanity is too gormless.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Agreed with Norman. Unnecessary tours can be avoided. Playing more at home has also the benefit of developing a more individual sound. In earlier times, orchestras had a much more individual character (if we can believe the reports) because they formed a more local identity, and this created a greater variety among orchestras. Also, chief conductors remained longer at one orchestra, imprinting their personality more clearly on the ensemble.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Re: local sound.

      In the past, there was much less guest-conducting so orchestras mainly played with their local conductor who developed his particular sound. Flying in a different conductor for barely rehearsed concerts means everyone plays a kind of homogenized international sound.

      Musicians were also recruited locally in the past, again helping develop a local sound. They often played instruments unique to the locality or region (very few orchestras still do this).

      Touring has very little impact on “local sound”.

  • Robert Roy says:

    I always think of Elton John sending his private jet from the United States to the U.K. for Marks & Spencer’s muffins…

  • When i was a boy the Internet was supposed to make it unnecessary for anyone to travel anywhere, even to work.

    Your virtual reality tele-screen was going to give you a front seat at every meeting, every concert and every event.

  • Dennis says:

    There may be legitimate reasons for some orchestras to curb travel tours – expense vs. ROI, etc. – but Euro-leftist hand-wringing about carbon emissions from airplanes is not one of them.

    I wish I had the means and opportunity to travel more just to spite the carbon emissions and climate change cultists. The whole climate change movement is less about climate or the environment than it is about socio-economic/political power and control.

    If all carbon emissions ended tomorrow, the climate would still change, because it always has since the beginning of time, is beyond the control of humans, and will continue to change until the sun becomes a red giant and incinerates whatever remains of earth about 5 billion years from now.

    • Emil says:

      Congratulations on deliberately doing something you know is wrong just because someone hurt your feelings.
      I mean, what evils would happen if we stopped polluting and climate change is a hoax: you mean we would get clean air and water, all for nothing? The horror!

  • Alan says:

    The new issue!? I’m still waiting on the first one!

  • D says:

    Interesting topic. It’s such a cultural thing. Touring means you are good, others want to hear you, you are special. It’s not just the pros that travel (both musicians and sports teams). It’s students! Travel teams mean you are better than the local teams and you get to spend your parent’s money keeping the hotel/travel industry alive in hopes of a college scholarship. Many US High School orchestra/band/chorus make a yearly pilgrimage to Disney/Carnegie Hall or other festival/amusement parks to be adjudicated by local music educators. And sell lots of useless goods as fund raisers. There are many jobs supported by this industry.
    Yes, the digital concert hall is wonderful, but there is something about “live” music that is special. Recording didn’t replace live music, the internet has not replaced live music. Those that experience live music know that the experience is more enriching.
    Sadly, we need leaders and real thinkers to address the climate problems. No one wants to give up their professions and habits, but seem to want others to give up what they see as the problem.

  • engineers_unite says:

    This is all utter bollocks.
    The climate has always been changing and has ZERO to do with CO2.
    CO2 levels FOLLOW global temperatures, not cause anything,- it’s 0.02% of the earth’s gas inventory which is barely enough. Halve it and millions will die of FAMINE!

    The artic is NOT melting, sea levels are NOT rising (not any faster as for the last emergence from the last mini ice age), – period when millions in Europe died of famine from failed crops, and we can be truly grateful the glaciers have retreated.

    In the last mini ice age people were praying for them to retreat up the valley from its invasion of Chamonix.

    In the medieval warm period (WMP) and Roman 1st century, temps were a good 2C higher than today….our modern optimum..is lower, and has greened the earth making it possible to feed the population more reliably than any time in the last 1000yrs.

    AGW – is a religion, a destructive religious cult.
    Ignoring this nonsense will be compatible with the possible new Dalton minimum about to hit the world in the period 2020-2035.

    As it stands the EU is de-industrialising on a basis which will impoverish the entire western world, and result in people freezing to death.

    This rubbish about not flying is yet another case of virtue signalling.
    Well at least more seats for us, and less waiting in queues.

    Good riddance to the idiot musicians who want to join the “global climate emergency” bandwagon!