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Antony Ernst in Copenhagen

The last article I wrote for this publication was about my then-new position as head of production and artistic planning at the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg. Almost seven years later I have moved on, and in January started as Orchestra Director of the Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen. Then, I was looking forward to coming to grips with the state subsidised structure and its effect on programming. Now, although programming remains part of the job, the stakes are higher and the challenges of a different calibre.

Perhaps a bit of context is called for: Copenhagen is home to three main orchestras. The main symphonic orchestra is that of the Danish Radio, now called the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. It is based in the brand new concert hall (Koncerthus) and of course has a large broadcasting and recording program. There is also the Copenhagen Philharmonic, which with fewer resources and subsidies has reinvented itself as the ‘open to anything’ orchestra, doing outreach, commercial and corporate gigs, and accompanying touring opera and ballet as well as traditional symphony concerts. This is based in the Tivoli concert hall, and these days lives a relatively precarious existence. Several other ensembles have been dissolved in recent rounds of cuts.

For its part, the Royal Danish Orchestra (Det Kongelige Kapel) claims, not without cause, to be the oldest orchestra in the world. It started as King Christian’s trumpet corps in 1448 and has been a continuous part of the Danish musical establishment ever since. It is now the orchestra attached to the Royal Theatre, and plays for the opera and the ballet, as well as maintaining a concert series of its own when the orchestra and the venue can be made available. Physically, it is based in the new Opera which was opened in 2005, but also plays regularly at the Gamle Scene (Old Stage), the historical theatre in the centre of Copenhagen where most of the ballets are performed.

I should mention that the Royal Danish Orchestra, like a football team, gives each Kapelmusiker (the official title of one of its members) a unique number. Our recently recruited concertmaster is Kapelmusiker Nr 1069. There are several second generation members of the orchestra (even one third generation member) and the devotion and loyalty that the orchestra evokes among its members are striking. Age itself is no guarantee of quality, but it so happens that the orchestra can be considered one of Europe’s best kept secrets. I’m new enough to the position that it doesn’t feel like blowing my own trumpet (so to speak) to claim that this is an absolutely first class band. A recently released live recording of Bruckner 8 under Hartmut Haenchen should convince, if I do not.

If you look at the news of the last few years, however, you will mainly find reference to budget cuts and controversy. This is the orchestra which in 2015, when faced with a 10% reduction of its forces, instead voted unanimously to take a 10% pay cut and keep their colleagues. It was an extraordinary gesture which is a genuine expression of the fierce solidarity which the musicians have to each other and to their ensemble. The orchestra, given what it has been through and the way that it has dealt with it, is a very tightly knit group with a lot of pride but somewhat battered self esteem. Individually (and I have made a point of having a one-on-one meeting with each orchestra member) they are deeply committed, positive, enthusiastic about the ensemble they belong to, and about their colleagues. As a group, they are wary and bruised, hoping for better but fearing the worst. This gap between the individual and group mentality is striking, but reassuring – it shows that if the group can be reassured, then the positive qualities of the individuals will come through even more.

The budget cuts of which this was a part took their toll on the administration too – there have been reductions, resignations and a lot of churn in recent years. To give a bit of background, the Danish government has been making reductions of its overall budget by 2% every few years. This isn’t targeting the arts specifically – it is an overall budget reduction exercised equally across the public sector, and in fact the first major pushback understandably came from the health and education sectors. The decisions as to how to implement the cuts made at government level is left to the discretion of the various agencies affected. The Royal Theatre (that is, ballet, opera, orchestra and drama) has had to find ways to exercise and deal with these cuts, which has not been easy on the organisation, as the theatre is almost entirely government funded. There are a number of generous charitable foundations which provide tagged project funding to the theatre, but one of the consequences of living in a Scandinavian social democracy is that private patronage and corporate sponsorship are rather rare – people tend to feel, understandably enough, that they have already paid for the Royal Theatre with their rather high taxes.

I have arrived as part of a change which brings in a new head of the opera, a new chorus master and, as it so happens now, a new intendant. The budget pressure is not reduced, but there is a sense that a new team may have a different approach to tackling it. It was telling that when I asked the head of the opera (during one of our phone calls early in the application recruitment process) how the orchestra would feel about having a non-Dane in this position, he replied that the orchestra was clear that they wanted someone from outside the Danish cultural fishbowl – like any country with a smallish population (Denmark has 5.7 million), there are a limited number of available and experienced locals at any given moment. The idea was to change things rather than to run in the same tracks.

Arriving into a situation of change of course requires a different approach from arriving in a stable situation: instead of learning about the status quo with a view to integrating yourself into it, you learn about it with the awareness that some things will need to change, and the question is which things, and how they will change. It would be premature to try to be more concrete about these – I am now in the middle of a strategic planning process with the theatre and the musicians which will clarify these issues in the coming months. It adds an extra level of analytical responsibility to what is already a sharp learning curve, the more precipitous slopes of which I have been traversing since I arrived.

All this is in the context of a personal cultural change: when we left Strasbourg just after New Year, my wife and children went back to Australia as part of our plan to ease the transition. The kids, who have lived in France for the last six and a half years, got their first full Australian summer (up until now the only period we had had time to go to Australia in was the northern summer, ie southern winter); they got to spend a solid block of time with grandparents, family and friends; we stayed on the right side of visa regulations (as our French residence permits were contingent on my now expired contract there); and, not least of all, their first impression of Copenhagen would be in April rather than January. My first impressions of Copenhagen had been in November and December for the interviews and early visits, and now I arrived in January to start work in earnest. January is dark and cold – if you bike to work, as most Copenhageners do, there are days on which, upon arrival, you will not feel your face any more. The harbour froze over (although the locals tell me this is unusual). On the other hand, there is always a fresh sea breeze, and having grown up by the ocean and after almost seven years spent a long way inland, even a freezing sea breeze is a relief.

It may sound strange but one of the first thoughts to run through my head about Copenhagen was ‘we have now left the bounds of the Roman Empire’. Strasbourg started as a Roman camp, and in some indefinable way, the mentality of formerly Roman Europe is still evident: there is a sense of the superiority of the institutions of the state and their procedures. There is a feeling that the groups or factions with which you are affiliated are profoundly important, and your being seen to adhere is significant. There is a cultural precedent of the ‘elsewhereness’ of decision-making, which means that hierarchy and cabinet-style decision-making is the default model. None of this is criticism – it’s simply an observation of what seems to me to be an underlying residue of the Roman Empire (somewhat potentiated, in the case of France, by Louix XIV and Napoleon).

In Denmark we are well beyond the limes (frontiers) of Rome. The cultural residue here is of Germanic and Norse laws and institutions, most of which are determined by the historically dominant struggle against the elements and outside groups. In practical terms this means decision-making by consultation and consensus – something which comes down directly from the Vikings. It means that the state is the framework within which we operate rather than the mechanism by which we do it. It means ‘hereness’ of decision-making which involves communal and personal responsibility. It means that the wellbeing of parties affected by a decision is an integral part of the decision-making process. Although it is closer to what I grew up with – after all, the struggle against the elements is an inherent part of Australian culture too, albeit different elements – it’s still a new and different way of working.

A parenthesis – Denmark is very aware of being a small country and a minority culture. This, it is safe to say, is not the case with France. For example, the French (and I do not reproach them for this) expected axiomatically that I speak French. In some cases it was two years before I even found out that one of my colleagues could actually speak English. In Denmark I have found myself in a meeting of 18 people of whom I was the only non-Danish person, and they have without any preamble started the meeting in English. I have actually had to insist on parts of meetings being held in Danish because otherwise how am I going to learn?

And learning Danish is a curious challenge. Although the Danes don’t expect people to learn the language (small culture, remember?), it is of course far preferable to do so. And yet, although Danish may be conceived as a midway point between German and Norwegian, with many common roots with English (remember who settled most of England in the 9th century?), the spoken language still has an even more arbitrary relation to its spoken form than French does. It means that reading Danish is relatively uncomplicated, but speaking and understanding it are another ballgame entirely. It adds a peculiar terror to house hunting when you can’t even be confident of pronouncing the name of the suburb properly. The suburb of Rødovre, pronounced something like ‘Ghreuthour’, is a case in point. At least, I say to myself, it’s not Finnish.

Denmark being a small country and culture has other effects. One is quite familiar from the Australian and New Zealand cultural scene – there is a concern about the nature and content of Danish culture. Who will promote Danish singers and musicians, or Danish conductors and composers, if not the Danes? With the Danish government coalition currently including a nationalist party, this has been given a higher profile in recent years. As with Australia and New Zealand, a lot of the great Danish artists have the predominant part of their career elsewhere; but (again like Australia and New Zealand) many make an effort to stay in contact with their roots. From Europe, however, the Danes can go home by train…

For our part, we’ve now found somewhere to live, downsizing along the way (rent doesn’t go as far in Copenhagen as it does in most places); we’ve found a school for the kids and we’ve managed the work permit/visa/healthcare card obstacle course. This, it has to be said, is very streamlined and hi-tech compared to the French system. We have bikes – this is essential. We now know that where the Eskimo have 20 words for snow, the Danes apparently have 15 for yoghurt. And on a professional level, as I settle in to the privilege and responsibility of guiding a great Danish institution through the shoals and into clear water beyond, I’m in the curious but satisfying position of feeling that all of the various byways and jumps in my career to date somehow retrospectively make sense, as in order to fulfil the tremendous potential of this orchestra I need to bring to bear the skills I’ve accumulated across 20 years of opera and orchestras. It’s nice to be useful.

Antony Ernst, © 2018

Photo by Anton Karatkevich on Unsplash