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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Top brass paid for top brass

By Norman Lebrecht / November 15, 2000

THE next time you hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (they play in London on December 7), watch out for the trombonist - he's British. For the first time in almost 160 years, the self-selecting and not famously cosmopolitan members of Europe's most elite ensemble have offered one of their gilded seats to a graduate of the Darwinian school of cold showers and funding scrums that makes British orchestral players the hardiest on earth.

Ian Bousfield, trombonist of the London Symphony Orchestra, was solicited earlier this year to audition for Vienna's principal position. He blew away 14 competitors in a screened audition and has played so sweetly ever since that the VPO has shortened the usual probationary period from two years to four months and, all tones being equal, his installation will be confirmed in January.

A small step for one man, but it signifies a mighty upheaval in the upper echelons of orchestral society. The Vienna Philharmonic has traditionally passed its positions if not from father to son then from teacher to pupil. There are names in the band that have remained constant since Gustav Mahler was chief conductor.

The register is dotted with Czech, Slovak and Hungarian suffixes from former imperial provinces, and it is generally assumed that the inimitable Vienna Philharmonic sound is preserved in much the same way as Camembert keeps the taste of its cheeses - by having them manufactured by the same sort of chap in the same sort of way. The bitter struggle to resist the admission of women players is a token of how fiercely VPO members value the immutability of tradition, and how greatly they fear demographic change.

That change is steadily being thrust upon them. There are now three Australians in the orchestra, one of whom, Toby Lea, is a principal viola-player. There are also two Americans, a Canadian, and both harpists are French. Over the next four years, seven viola-players are due to retire and it is a safe bet that most of the newcomers will be foreign and probably female.

The pressure for change has come primarily from guest conductors who, accustomed to industrial-strength precision playing in American orchestras, have complained about Viennese frailties - notably the trombones and tuba - without recognising that those wavery underpinnings were part of what audiences identified as the Vienna Philharmonic sound. In reinforcing the bottom line, the VPO are trading a pfennig of distinctiveness for a schilling of excellence, but they are also giving the green light for an acceleration of orchestral homogeneity and inequality.

Musicians born before the age of recording relate that it was possible to travel from Hamburg to Hanover and hear the same Beethoven symphony played in completely different ways. Once comparisons became easily available and conductors turned into commuters, few orchestras kept their distinct sound.

Among the US Big Five, only Cleveland still yields an identifiable timbre. In Europe, the last defenders of distinction are Vienna, the Concertgebouw, St Petersburg and Leipzig, and resistance is crumbling.

Like football teams, big orchestras are now expected to buy talent if they cannot raise it. The New York Philharmonic, richest of US bands, habitually poaches principals from its rivals. Vienna's entry into the transfer market is bound to transform the European rules of play.

Bousfield was, by all accounts, happy at the LSO, but it paid him barely £40,000 a year before tax and he was having to work up to 60 hours a week. In Vienna, he will work 39 hours a month at the opera for the same salary - topped by fees for Philharmonic concerts, which can be as much as £12,000 a head for the globally televised New Year's Day gala and £18,000 for a festive month at Salzburg. A musician does not have to be mercenary to spot the difference.

What we are witnessing is the emergence of a three-tier system, in which a handful of wealthy Champions League orchestras will snap up all the top players, the national leagues will wither for want of charisma, and the regional orchestras will stand no chance at all. The welcome triumph of a British player in Vienna will sound the death knell for British orchestras, unless they are sensibly funded.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999