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Inside an abolished orchestra, playing for its life

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.

 ert musician

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.”

ert orch

 

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.

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Comments

  1. Juanita says:

    “The orchestra has never been a big draw on ERT’s resources”, that’s not the point, the point is that many orchestras are unsustainable, as in, unprofitable (this is usually its own management’s fault).
    Look at the Megaron Hall, a beautiful hall under terrible management and they had to sell it, for the same reasons.
    Another analogy, Greece: a beautiful country, under terrible management and that cheated its way into the euro currency … sorry, but it’s time to pay the bill!

    • Cal Stuart says:

      Hi Juantia,

      It’s worth understanding ERT was running on a surplus budget before the closure (which makes the whole scenario even more bizarre), and in this case the orchestra was sustainable. Yes, the arts are usually among the first to be affected during financial difficulties, though there is a strong feeling from many that the arts maintain a culture and need to be preserved, especially in a time of crisis.

      While there are many serious issues with the Greek government, the orchestra was basically collateral caught in politiking from various sides. One of the main problems in Greece at the moment is many people are becoming numbed because of the political issues over the last few years, and losing something which is largely considered a cultural institution is even more hurtful, and by virtue of this, make any recovery even more difficult.

      The Eurorisis has gone beyond the point of handwaving and finger-pointing; it’s is something that’ll encapsulate a whole generation who had nothing to do with any of the original problems. It’s nigh-on impossible to pay the bill when caught in a cycle of cuts and austerity, and losing ones’ culture just serves to enhance this spiral.

      Those are my thoughts, anyway. Feel free to disagree.

      • Stephen says:

        or agree wholeheartedly. Globally, it seems, the same play-book is being used for a wide variety of commonwealth “issues.” of which culture is only one. The current economic issue is increasingly being seen by some as a contrivance based on something to do with credit and a presumed “debt”.

        if a government is in debt, who is it in debt to?

    • Both the EBU and ERT’s union have pointed out that shutting down ERT would cost the government more money than keeping it running, so I don’t know what bill will be paid here.

  2. Petros Linardos says:

    Does anyone know whether the ERT ensembles will be included in the NERIT (ERT’s successor)?

    • No, there’s no such indication, the only mentions were about channels and radio stations, but nothing about the ensembles.

    • The problem is that I’m not sure if anyone knows! It’s actually ridiculous how up-in-the-air everything is at the moment.

      The State Council ruling that demanded that ERT resume broadcast until the new broadcaster be set up did not actually include the musical ensembles. However, when PASOK gave its statement it said that it wanted ERT to resume broadcast with 2000 employees, including the ensembles. New Democracy appeared to agree to this, but nothing seems to have developed out of that agreement yet.

      And, as some orchestra musicians have pointed out, this “retaining the orchestra” proposal from PASOK doesn’t give any details – what would the terms of their contracts be? I’m not sure how many musicians could afford to work for 300 euros a month, especially when one of the cellists told us that one of her cello strings could cost up to 100 euros.

      Not a lot has been made clear about NERIT, so we don’t know if the ensembles will be included, or if any of the original ERT staff will be included.

  3. James fys says:

    The management of that particular orchestra was not unsustainable,just as the whole ERT corporation was not either.The public Television was disbanded for political reasons like the perfect scapegoat,to please the hawks of troika who asked for human sacrifices in the public sector. We are talking about the national television and radio orchestra. No other European government has ever dared to destroy one of its tv-radio symphony orchestra. Attention:we are talking about Greece, a country with the fewest orchestras within the European continent. The lack of this music ensemble will make the culture and the people of this country spiritually poorer. As far as the financial status you mention,other countries cheated too .Please be more carefull when you call Greek people to pay the bill:Austerity has caused a dreadful wave of misery,poverty and unemployment across all southern euro countries,not to mention the billions of euro,northern countries like Germany,have gained from interest rates of the so called EFSF out of Greece’s misery.

  4. James fys says:

    Did you read the article? The orchestra was not unsustainable.ERT was profitable indeed and potitical reasons were to prevail in this story..Keep in your mind that Greece is the country with the fewest orchestras within the European continent. Disbanding the oldest orchestra of the country is a shame to all civilized world.As far as the financial comments you make,please be more carefull when you address to a society in a humanitarian crisis.Other countries also cheated,never were humiliated. The first to pay the bill would b Germany and other north European euro countries,which made money out of Greece’s misery through the high interest rates of EFSF,the last three years.

  5. Kris helsen says:

    Greek taxpayers subsidized 90% of ERT s operating costs through a levy on their electricity bills. Why should they subsidize a network that nobody watched? Its four channels combined had an audience share of less than 15%!

  6. Alexandros Rigas says:

    To make you understand how Greek Govermenments operate all these decades, I did a quick translation of a recent posting from a Party formed 2 years ago by, let’s say, intellectual people; it depicts the story well:

    - “Let’s shut down ERT”
    - “Not ERT.”
    - “Then who?”
    - “To close the Hellenic Aerospace Inductry (HAI).”
    - “Not HAI”
    - “Then who?”
    - “To abolish the Municipal Police.”
    - “Not the Municipal Police.”
    - “Then who?”
    - “The school guards.”
    - “Not the school guards.”
    - “Then who or what”?
    - “But the perjurers”!
    - “Not possible; the departmental councils do not operate.”
    - “Then the public servants not coming to their work.”
    - “There is no legal framework.”
    - “To challenge those who entered the government with fake degrees.”
    - “There is no law.”

    The epitome of the national plan to exit the crisis! Otherwise, we live four years with success story! There have been so many but the only thing is the 1.5 million unemployed, of course from the private sector. And of course, the latest bailout money is approved. Even with installments…”

    Have a nice day,

    Alex

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