How the arts can overcome Brexit and Covid

How the arts can overcome Brexit and Covid


norman lebrecht

January 22, 2021

In the Spectator this week, I have laid out some paths to artistic regeneration once the two great clouds have passed over.

Among other things, I warn that…:

 … Not all of our orchestras will survive 2021. One chief conductor, nameless for obvious reasons, expects two to go bust in London and two more in the regions.

It’s imperative that we use the Covid down time to build for the future. No point in looking to the Arts Council, which inhibits more than it stimulates, or to arts boards, which are made up of honours seekers and the idle rich.

The arts think they will muddle through this crisis as they always do, but nemesis is knocking at the door. No Eurekas are coming out of Zoom conferences and no one has yet figured out how to make money from streaming concerts and opera. Two years’ revenues will have been lost before full performance is restored. What’s needed is a central figure, a musical tsar with Downing Street access, a new face who can water some green shoots and spread hope of revival.

Read on here,



  • Counterpoint says:

    An insightful and realistic article NL. Some common sense and practical solutions.

  • Counterpoint says:

    One further thought in support of NL’s future pathway for British classical music. By the time it is safe for air transportation to resume in a significant way after the pandemic I believe and hope that there will be such a strong collective environmental conscience against flying that ‘business’ travel will be viewed with hostility. Rather than fight this and argue it is essential for casting directors and artist managers to travel the globe to find talent, the classical music sector should make a virtue of a ‘home-grown talent’ philosophy. This would underpin NL’s call for a charismatic person or two as ‘flagships’ for classical music to open the doors of political power.
    PS please no replies to this post along the lines that ‘the current deplorable Tory Government doesn’t give a •••• for the Arts’. That negativity will get the art form we love precisely nowhere.

    • Miko says:

      The current Tory government doesn’t give a shit about the arts (unless the messaging will help prop up English nationalist messaging in some way).
      You’re welcome.

      • Maria says:

        How do you know? Ate you a performing musician!? Fact? Sounds like Trump-speech and often equates with arrogance and being a know-all. Seen many at the politicians at the opera – London and Opera North, and at concerts in Manchester at the Halle, and the theatre. Your comment says more about you than the Tories or indeed Labour!

        • Miko says:

          I am a professional musician as it happens. So any insight you might need, do get in touch.

          • Les says:

            I’ve always admired the dexterity involved in strumming a banjo and playing a harmonica whilst walking down the street with a drum on your back and cymbals between your knees.

            Impressive, and social distancing shouldn’t be a problem.

          • Miko says:

            You should take that up, Les: with your wit that’s the only way you’d ever make money in the music business.

    • Alan O'Connor says:

      Air travel is negligible in terms of damage to the environment.

    • Allen says:

      “please no replies to this post along the lines that ‘the current deplorable Tory Government doesn’t give a •••• for the Arts”

      Good, because compared with Germany, for example, UK Governments generally don’t, and this is regardless of colour. Yes, it fluctuates a bit, but not that much.

      The right-of-centre lean towards self sufficiency whereas the left-of-centre are suspicious of elitism and, increasingly, white domination. This leaves the arts in the UK stuck between a rock and a hard place.

      • John Borstlap says:

        This is the difference between the UK and the continent, where the arts have been part of national identity from medieval times onwards (except the Netherlands, Switserland and Andorra). Even Belgium, which has no national identity to speak of, is a very cultured country in terms of state support. The importance of the arts for national identity (Kulturnation) is one of the few very valuable inheritances of the Ancien Régime.

        (And yes, both the entirely flat and the entirely mountainous country are not really European countries.)

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    >>The ROH fielded fewer England players than Chelsea football club.
    LOL. This is a very well-written article. There’s vast talent here in UK

    • Adrienne says:

      “The ROH fielded fewer England players than Chelsea football club.”

      Probably just as well, otherwise it would be run by “Little Englanders”. Can’t win.

    • Gary Freer says:

      Chelsea were forced to give more opportunities to young English players during a recent transfer ban. Now they struggle to get a game and some have had to go out on loan. Vast sums have been spent on hyped continental imports to little effect. NL clearly knows his footy. Excellent article, containing much that was true even before Brexit and Covid.

  • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

    This is an interesting take. I have not read the full article as it’s behind a paywall (and, bluntly, I’m not prepared to pay a penny toward a magazine that gives a platform to the likes of Douglas Murray and is all-too-comfortable with all things far right. But I digress).

    I wonder whether this may lead to changes at the top of UK arts organisations as well. It’s well known that UK orchestras have a fondness for choosing chief conductors from anywhere so long as it’s not the UK. Not always, of course; and at the moment there is an abnormally large number of home grown music directors in place (Rattle, Elder, Gardner, Brabbins at ENO).

    But: looking at Finnish orchestras the other day, I was struck that every single one of them has a Finnish chief conductor. I don’t know if that’s normal or not, but it does at least suggest that the Finns take seriously the need to bring on home-grown musicians.

    This isn’t to suggest we should go full-on UKIP-style ‘British jobs for British workers’, but I am continually amazed by how so many British musicians, at all levels but particularly the top, are passed over in favour of those from elsewhere. Perhaps it’s time that, rather than focusing on touring abroad (which for obvious reasons is likely to be reduced for the foreseeable future), we started looking seriously at finding more places in the UK for orchestras to play, and getting local musicians to work in their own communities. Id love more orchestras to be seen as key parts of their local scene.

    This isn’t to underplay the excellent outreach and community stuff UK orchestras do, but is to suggest that there could be more of it and more widely available. Let’s see.

    • Player says:

      Dear Ghost of CK… you may remember that, years ago, dear old Peter Jonas tried to get you interested in subscribing to the Spectator, but you turned it down. Not on grounds of being right-wing, but because the articles in it were just too short and lacking detail. You preferred the New Yorker. Happy to remind you of this, now you are no longer incarnate but still (presumably) in character!

    • Alexander Hall says:

      I’m afraid you are misinformed or wilfully ignorant apropos Finnish orchestras. Nicholas Collon takes up his appointmnt as Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestraa. And, yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, he’s not Finnish.

    • Alan says:

      What a ridiculous comment that the Spectator is a far right magazine.
      It also gives voice to many left of centre politicians/commentators.
      And recently, under Nelson it is less right wing.
      I take the magazine every week and Murray does not write for it very often!
      Please, facts!

    • M McAlpine says:

      Pity you don’t read the Spectator. But then lefties tend to want to bury their heads from the truth when it hurts

  • Miko says:

    The “golden age” post war era?
    Do me a favour, Norman. Evoking the blitz spirit (but selecting your terms of reference for The Spectator of course).
    This article is a nonsense throughout, other than being a clarion call for brexit parochialism. The music business is circling the drain, Norman, and you are peddling the final plunge.
    This country’s state support of the arts is shameful at the best of times. Why not call the Tories out for that? Oh yes, I remember, because you like them.
    And btw, post war it was more than just “knot of Hitler refugees” who hugely influenced the rebuilding of a non existent orchestral scene: they were numerous, talented, essential creatives without whom your dewy eyed nostalgia would have had no story to distort.

    “Opera Dons and Divas”…FFS.

  • Tony Britten says:

    Worth reading. Whilst I am strongly against the petty nationalism that passes for UK Politics at the Moment, the ideas of nurturing the home grown talent in this article may literally make the difference between survival or success for so many music institutions. But as Norman says, it will take some fundamental changes in the way the classical music business is run – will the establishment be forward thinking enough?

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Remember Sir Thomas Beecham “I may not be the best conductor in England, but I’m better than any damned foreigner ” 😉

  • Hayne says:

    Think long term. I don’t know about Britain but in the US, music education is worse than abysmal. That is the future audiences. As it is, most parties don’t give a damn about that.

  • buxtehude says:

    In this article NL chooses to see Brexit as forcing a healthy return to buying local in classical performance and authorship; he decries job-share conductors &c; he cites 1946, when the ranks of opera performers were rebuilt from scratch and the results acquired a local flavor with bonhommie thrown in for free.


    But any survivors of those audiences of 1946 are now in wheelchairs at best. What percentage has been replaced? I’m afraid to guess. In the Lebrechtian future, today’s hard-pressed concert promoters — the people who have to somehow sell tickets And paper the house where they fail — will be without the hype value of international reputations, however ill-deserved. You can imagine the rest.

    “British only” can do a lot of harm, BTW as we shall learn again and again in the brexit dawn. It was Beecham’s harping on this note which made Covent Garden unendurable for Raphael Kubelik. But even if these adjustments come about and amount to more than provincialism, they will save neither opera nor classical music on the emerald isles, however shrunken.

    I have a suggestion that should go more to the point. I am steeling myself against the hoots and jeers that will greet it, be hurled against my pseudonym, and once prepared I will reveal it.

  • Petty Larker says:

    ‘Covent Garden’s Jette Parker programme trains Ukrainians and Uruguayans ahead of Glaswegians and kids from Grimsby.’

    I have to say, Norman, that your journalistic spin never ceases to amaze. When I was on the Jette Parker Programme there was a Ukrainian, a Uruguayan, two Glaswegians AND a kid from Hull (a short row away from Grimsby). Alongside Aussies, Kiwis, Koreans, Americans, South Africans, but not outnumbering young artists from London, Ireland, Wales, the Midlands, Devon, and, somewhat improbably, Penzance!

    • Miko says:

      Mr lebrecht shamefully spinning the “bloody foriners, cumin’ over ‘ere taking our jobs” nonsense.
      Dangerous dog whistling stuff that readers of the Spectator et al lap up.
      The same instincts that eventually led to the kind of “logic” used to hound Jewish musicians out of German and Austrian orchestras in the 1930s.

      Face the truth of your politics Mr Lebrecht. You are pandering to the most dangerous instincts.

  • David Woodhead says:

    A post-Covid, isolated Brexitland with cycles of symphonies by Vaughan Williams and Malcolm Arnold etc? You could throw in Warlock, Finzi and other bits of what Elisabeth Lutyens called ‘cow-pat music’, too. And you wouldn’t need to wait for the end of the pandemic because they would be played to empty halls, so no social distancing problem. God save us from Lebrecht’s bleak cultural insularity.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Thanks for the article Norman. Some good common sense here. With the plethora of talent we have in this country (our local amateur orchestra requires a grade 8 even for an audition) surely we have enough to provide good music without the constant import of overseas players.