I was lucky – privileged even – to be invited by the Southbank Centre to watch Daniel Barenboim rehearse with the Berlin Staatskapelle for his run of Beethoven and Schoenberg concerts. I am pleased to report that the maestro’s temper was under control. Orchestra and conductor were at one, laughing and playing together, thoroughly comfortable with each other’s company. Watching them rehearse was an intimate experience, like looking through a window at a group of old friends chatting round a dining table.
Jude Kelly, the South Bank’s artistic director, said her staff had to jump to one side to avoid the stampede of punters charging to get tickets when they went on sale in September. You can’t get one now unless you are willing to commit murder or at the very least grievous bodily harm. You can still see him though. The South Bank is relaying the concerts to big screens in the Royal Festival Hall where the public can watch free of charge. Radio 3 is broadcasting them live, and BBC 4 will show a documentary about the performances later this year. Hundreds of thousands, probably over a million people, will hear Barenboim play. This is exactly how self-confident public servants should behave. They are not patronising the taxpayers who subsidise them by giving them populist tack, but using every method they can think to bring them one of the world’s great artists: high culture but not elite culture.
As I watched, I thought that Kelly and her colleagues were doing everything right, but the one thing they could not do is do it on the cheap. Either you pay to bring Barenboim and his enormous orchestra to London, or you do not. I suppose you could cut back a little, although I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell the maestro that he had to stay in an Ealing B&B. Even if others dared, I doubt it would make much difference. Only wealthy countries can afford cultural events of this grandeur.
Everywhere I go in the public sector I meet people filled with dread. Of course there is waste and of course the state does many expensive things we can do without. But the scale of our debt means that cuts will have to go beyond the trivial and the profligate. For the Barenboim concerts substitute any public spending you favour – new aircraft carriers, free home care for the elderly, rises in disability benefits, university philosophy departments…take your pick. We will soon be losing projects of real value and the public sphere will feel shabby and mean.
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