Concert halls are back. But Visa arrears keep musicians out.


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When the Seattle Symphony finally performed to a full audience last month for the first time in a year and a half, something was missing: its musical director, Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who couldn’t get it. visa requirements to travel to the United States.

The New York Philharmonic had to find a last-minute replacement this week for famed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who also couldn’t get a visa. The Metropolitan Opera had to replace two Russian singers in its production of “Boris Godunov”. And the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a British chamber orchestra that has visited the United States regularly since 1980, had to abandon a 10-city tour.

While the easing of restrictions on coronaviruses has allowed the return of live performance, many cultural organizations are grappling with another problem: their inability to bring artists into the United States due to a long backlog of applications. visa requirements at American embassies and consulates. The delays have hampered many industries, but they are particularly disrupting classical music, which relies on stars from around the world to tour major concert halls and opera houses.

Many artists have been caught in the middle, forced to dip into their savings to make up for lost concert expenses and scramble to fill their schedules.

“It’s like training for the Olympics for four years and then at the last minute learning that you can’t compete,” said Arthur Jussen, a Dutch pianist whose engagements with the Boston Symphony Orchestra have been. canceled this month due to what the orchestra described as “unprecedented delays” in obtaining its visa, just weeks after a failed 14-concert tour of China with brother Lucas . “It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”

The classic touring industry was one of the first sectors affected by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, and now it may be one of the last to recover. Dozens of performances have been canceled in recent weeks in China, Australia, Japan and other countries with drastic travel restrictions and quarantine rules. The pandemic has helped deepen concerns about the viability of world tours, which have long been seen as a vital but costly part of the classical music ecosystem.

But some of the more acute problems are surfacing in the United States.

While the Biden administration plans to lift the pandemic-era ban on travelers from 33 countries next month – allowing fully vaccinated visitors from the European Union, China, Iran, the South Africa, Brazil, India and other countries – the backlog of visa applications remains a problem.

Even in normal times, it can be difficult for visiting artists to obtain the visas they need to perform in the United States. Now they face even longer queues and staff shortages at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The first appointments available for visa interviews in some cities are for next spring, months after some artists have scheduled performances.

The government has allowed exceptions to the travel ban, which remains in effect until early November, for visitors who can prove their work is essential to the U.S. economy. But consulates have been inundated in recent weeks with such requests, adding to the build-up. And some fear that lifting the travel ban could lead to more visa applications – and more delays.

The State Department, in response to questions about the delays, said the pandemic had resulted in “deep cuts” in its ability to process visas. “As the global situation evolves, the department is looking for ways to safely and efficiently process visa applications around the world,” the department said in a statement.

In the United States, visa issues inject uncertainty into an already challenging fall season, including lukewarm ticket sales and the continuing threat posed by the Delta variant.

Arts groups are asking the government to speed up visas.

“The main concern is that this would have a chilling effect on international cultural activity and all it has to offer,” said Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy at the League of American Orchestras. “When arts organizations can’t rely on the process to work, it makes it very expensive and somewhat risky. “

Problems hampered some of the reopening festivities. For months, the Seattle Symphony had promoted the return of its musical director, Mr. Dausgaard, stranded abroad since March 2020, for its opening gala. But he was forced to cancel at the last minute due to visa issues.

Mr Dausgaard, who is now on track to secure his visa so he can travel next month, said the restrictions meant he and the orchestra missed opportunities to develop, including performing new works. together.

“It’s super painful to see ideas, especially those related to recordings or touring or something bigger than a single gig, go away,” he said. “The most painful is the lack of contact with the musicians. “

Even some of the industry’s biggest stars have been affected by the delays, including Lang Lang, the famous Chinese pianist, whose visa to enter the United States for concerts last month was only obtained. the last minute.

In an interview, Mr Lang said he hopes the restrictions around the world will eventually be lifted so that tours can resume.

“It is essential to show our audience that the concerts are back,” he said. “The world needs live music. “

Outside the United States, the obstacles for touring artists are also formidable.

China, once a bustling and lucrative market for touring, including for many US orchestras, has also remained closed to most foreigners, including performers.

Wray Armstrong, who runs a music agency in Beijing, said many ensembles cannot afford the time and money spent on quarantines, even if they can get visas. “We just have to be patient until the rules change,” he said.

China’s strict quarantine rules, which require isolation for up to three weeks for anyone entering the country, have had the effect of deterring many Chinese artists from traveling. Composer and conductor Tan Dun has canceled almost all appearances outside of China since the pandemic began, delaying the premieres of several works, including “Requiem for Nature,” which he was due to conduct in Amsterdam next month.

Travel restrictions have added to the pressures on many orchestras, which have traditionally relied on touring for their branding and prestige. The pandemic has prompted many to cancel their overseas travel plans or consider cutting spending; some large orchestras are considering sending smaller ensembles instead.

Renowned conductor Zubin Mehta said it is important for American orchestras to maintain strong touring schedules so that they can develop and show the strength of music in the United States internationally. .

“An orchestra always comes back from a great tour a better orchestra,” he said. “A large American orchestra playing in Berlin and receiving a standing ovation is a reflection on America. “

For artists facing delays in entering the United States, the experience has been trying.

Stephen Stirling, principal horn for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, said the ensemble’s fall tour would have helped him make up for some of the thousands of dollars he lost in fees when could not have happened during the pandemic.

Mr Stirling said it was shocking to face travel restrictions at a time when many cultural institutions are reopening across the world.

“Most people’s business is picking up, but we’re still getting cancellations,” he said. “The sooner things can get back to normal, the better. We are desperate to tour again.

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