LONDON: It’s a resonant moment of European cultural harmony: a Swedish soprano and a pan-European orchestra are rehearsing a Bach cantata in a medieval English church.
With Britain about to leave the European Union, it’s also a poignant one.
The ensemble rehearsing in a York church is the European Union Baroque Orchestra, founded 32 years ago to use classical music as a melodic cultural ambassador for the European Union.
Since then it has been based in the countryside near Oxford, each year assembling some 20 young musicians from across the continent and sending them on international tour. Now, because of Brexit, it has to leave its English home.
Next year the orchestra will move its office and legal base to Antwerp, Belgium, so that it will still be in the European Union once Britain quits the bloc in 2019.
“When the Brexit vote happened last year it was more a question of when, rather than if,” said the orchestra’s British director-general, Paul James. “Because it clearly made no sense to run a European Union entity from outside of the EU.”
James, who has led the orchestra since it began in 1985, said Britain’s vote in June to leave the 28-nation European Union hit him “like being winded in the stomach. I’ve really felt physically ill, depressed.”
A similar malaise is felt in rehearsal rooms, concert halls and artists’ studios across Britain as Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to begin the UK’s two-year countdown to EU exit this week.
No one is sure what will happen once Britain leaves the bloc, which has brought near-borderless conditions for artists to travel and work. Will Europeans need visas to perform in Britain, and vice versa? Will musical instruments require travel papers to cross the English Channel?
“In our world most of the musicians are freelance, they rely on the possibility of free movement, both of their performances and of their friends and collaborators,” James said. “The cross-border collaboration is massive in our business, and this will severely restrict that.
“The top stars will always be able to move around. They have secretaries and assistants who can fill in forms for them for work permits and visas and so on. But I think for the average jobbing musician who will be a freelance, it’s going to be very difficult for them to get work.”
Brexit will involve unpicking and re-stitching thousands of intertwined rules and regulations covering everything from fishing to financial services.
The arts and cultural sector is keenly aware that it is unlikely to be at the top of the negotiations list, despite its importance to the British economy. The UK government says the creative industries — a category that includes music, movies, games, publishing and TV — are worth 84 billion pounds ($105 billion) a year to the economy.
Many in the sector are concerned for their future after Brexit.
The London-based European Union Youth Orchestra has drawn up contingency plans to move. Chief executive Marshall Marcus told The Observer newspaper that “for some time we have been forming our plan to be ready to relocate, if and when this becomes necessary. Or indeed simply advantageous.”
Britain’s National Youth Theatre, whose alumni include Helen Mirren, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Craig, worries that red tape and visa fees will stop its young performers visiting other European countries.
“For a company like ours to go and tour to Europe — our fellow neighbours, our creative partners — it will cost on average per head £600 to £1,000 [Dh2,767 to Dh4,613],” said the theatre’s chief executive, Paul Roseby. “Which is the difference between one person going abroad and 40, as far as our economics are concerned. It simply won’t happen.”
The UK government says Brexit will allow the country to expand its international horizons, strike new bilateral partnerships and become a truly “global Britain.” But those who want to remain in the European Union — including most people working in Britain’s creative industries — fear the opposite.
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Nick Clegg said leaving the European Union might sap Britain’s world-conquering creative energies.
“My fear is that — not immediately, but over time — we just lose that edge, we just lose that ingenuity which has always put us at the cutting edge of the creative industries,” said Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister. “It’s the cumulative effect of thousands and thousands of small impediments.”
Meanwhile, the EU Baroque Orchestra is completing its final season as a UK-based ensemble. On a visit this month to the handsome cathedral city of York in northern England, the musicians held a session with local children before rehearsing with soprano Maria Keohane for a concert at the medieval St. Margaret’s church.
It may be among their last shows in Britain, if future paperwork and expenses prove onerous.
Four days later, they were at the baroque church-turned-concert hall of St. Augustine in Antwerp, which will be the orchestra’s base from 2018.
For the musicians, it’s sad to see the pool of talent, and the borders of the union, shrink.
“It’s a pretty scary thought somehow, that it’s less everyone together and more us and them,” said Isabel Franenberg, a Dutch-British viola player with the orchestra.
“That’s pretty much the opposite of what the idea of this orchestra is, where it’s ‘let’s take away the boundaries and start talking to people.’”
Concertmaster Bojan Cicic, who began his musical career in his native Croatia in the wake of the 1990s Balkan wars, said musicians and other artists would try to counter a political climate that imposes “unnecessary borders”.
“Nobody’s particularly happy about it,” he said. “We just have to make what we can and try and stem the tide, as it were, with people that we reach, through concerts, CDs or any other way in our job as artists.”