As the Greek government dithers over the future of public broadcasting, members of the abolished ERT ensembles continue to turn up for work every day, giving free concerts at night Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist completing a Masters degree in journalism at Cardiff University, has obtained access to the embattled, improverished musicians. Here is her report, exclusive to Slipped Disc.
It’s five in the evening and the musicians are trickling in, perspiring heavily under the weight of their instruments in the merciless Greek sun. “This is not a time to be at work,” cellist Claire Demeulenaere says with a wry smile. “We usually rehearse in the morning. But now it’s different because we’re at war!”
It might sound a little melodramatic, but it’s not a complete exaggeration.Since 11 June the musicians of the ERT musical ensembles – the symphony orchestra, the contemporary orchestra and the chorus – have been among 2,700 employees fighting for their jobs and the survival of Greece’s only public broadcaster.
The announcement had been sudden. Citing a need to save money in times of austerity and crisis, the government decided that ERT – described as corrupt and wasteful – was in need of a complete overhaul. By midnight on 12 June the transmitters had been disconnected, cutting ERT’s channels to black. While much of the coverage that followed has focused on democracy, press freedom and the political tussle that followed (seeing the three-party coalition government reform into two parties), the ERT orchestra has kept a relatively low profile.
The shutdown of ERT overturned their usual routine, and they’re forced to take it day by day. They meet for a short rehearsal every evening before carrying their own chairs and music stands down to the temporary stage erected outside the ERT building, so as to perform for their crowd of supporters. Every day they play a new programme, delving into their repertoire of Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven (among others).
“It’s very difficult to make music when people are so sad and so terrified,” says guest conductor Miltos Logiadis, who has worked with the ERT orchestra for 23 years. “But we try.” The ERT orchestra has received plenty of support from other Greek musicians.
On 14 June all the orchestras and musical ensembles in the Athens area flocked to ERT to stage a huge concert that lasted for over four hours. “It was unbelievable. It was the first time we saw all our orchestras and bands playing together in a very, very small studio. I don’t even know how we fit!” guest conductor Michalis Economu told Greek citizen journalism community radiobubble. “We didn’t know what was going on outside, we were in the building and it was full of people. And then when I went out I saw people crying and kissing and hugging me, and watching the videos. We had no idea that we were possibly writing history at that moment. It was the most emotional and most important concert of my life.”
The concerts aren’t the only thing that will be lost if the orchestra is officially disbanded. As a public institution the ERT orchestra also participates in many educational programmes. “The orchestra is not just important to symphonic music, but also to children and schools,” Miltos says. “We did a lot of outreach and now that’s all over too.” Every once in awhile the orchestra opens its doors to schools, inviting children into their studios to see their instruments up close and learn about the different sections. Some children even get to try their hand at conducting.
“Thousands of children came every year. I think that is very important,” says violist Antonios Manias, who trained in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “One of them could become a great musician. Not just in Greece; anywhere.”
Times are bad for Greece. Some don’t feel like the country can afford the luxury of ERT’s musical ensembles. Greece is bankrupt, they say, and cuts need to be made. While ERT and its journalists might be important to the country in terms of press freedom, disbanding the orchestra is seen as an unfortunate necessity.
This argument doesn’t stand for very long. Firstly, ERT gets its funding from levies added to household electricity bills, and therefore doesn’t draw on the national budget. Secondly, ERT made a profit of about 90million euros in 2012. The closure of ERT would not save Greece any money, much less the closure of the musical ensembles.
The orchestra has never been a big draw on ERT’s resources, anyway. Antonios estimates that the running costs for the three musical ensembles were only about 0.5% of ERT’s entire budget. Since the crisis their salaries have been modest – we were told by various musicians that the most senior member of the orchestra made about €1200 a month. More junior members took home about €700 a month.
Still, it seems as if the government is pressing on. It’s been two weeks since Greece’s State Council ruled that ERT should resume broadcast, but the network is not back on air. The journalists are holding press conferences, criticising the government on their livestream broadcast.
The musical ensembles lack the same media savvy. The only thing they can do is what they have always done: play music. And so they do, every night, performing for anyone who shows up outside ERT’s headquarters. They do not charge anyone to watch their performance, nor are any of the musicians paid for their work. “We won’t permit this orchestra to die in our hands,” says Antonios. “I don’t want to say to my child, ‘The orchestra played their last note in the national anthem that day.’ I want to say that they shut us down and we came back stronger. We will keep fighting with our music.”
text and pictures (c) Kirsten Han/Slipped Disc, all rights reserved
Here’s a video reminder of the orchestra playing its last salaried concert, in tears.