Populist pianist: Valentina Lisitsa is an online sensation (Sam Jones)
What on earth was I going to tell the Dutch? On a long train ride to Amsterdam I had to think of something to bring cheer to a culture that was being politically gutted.
A right-wing government planned cuts of up to 60 per cent in arts budgets, threatening the abolition of Holland's oldest opera company, several orchestras, any number of theatres and galleries and — as it happened — the organisation that had invited me to keynote its conference, the Dutch Classical Music Meeting (DCMM), which every two years showcases creative innovation.
It was not so much the savagery of the cuts as the rhetoric that accompanied them. An incoming minister bragged of never having visited a museum and, taken to see van Gogh's, declared a preference for Disneyland. These new populists decried, in the same contradictory breath, the "Islamisation" of Holland and its "elitist" cultural heritage. Media that once fawned on culture had turned collaborationist and spat on it. This was ten degrees of climate change and there was no strategy to tackle it.
The arts in Holland had always had it so good. There were orchestras at 40-km-intervals across the land. The Concertgebouw hall in Amsterdam, playing 75 per cent full, was deemed perfectly efficient. A mistrust of tall tulips prevented anyone from standing up and suggesting improvements. I tried it once, at a convention of Dutch orchestras, and saw faces in the audience shut down like sunflowers at dusk. But that was 2007. Now the house was burning and they summoned a fireman. What jet of cold reality could I direct at the blaze? And how might it relieve the arts sector in other countries that were facing lesser, though mounting, pressures?
In the first place, I advocated that we recognise the collapse of four pillars that had upheld the orchestral economy since 1945. Recording was no longer a commercial activity; tours were drying up; private and corporate funding was imperilled in recession; and states which once regarded arts patronage as a civic duty were either retreating from the commitment or, more often, imposing onerous obligations in exchange for the next cheque.