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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Bands play on as crisis looms

By Norman Lebrecht / February 21, 2001

The bad news outweighs the good for the world's orchestras

FOR those readers who have been clamouring for good news, here's an inch or two. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, last sighted in deep waters, has announced a small profit. Well, not exactly a profit once you count the extra three million NZ dollars the government had to pump in to keep the flagship afloat, but nonetheless a return to stability. And here's another heart-warmer. The San Diego Symphony Orchestra which went belly-up in 1996, amid fears of a domino-like collapse of US regional orchestras, has bounced back with a young artistic director, Jung-Ho Pak, and is showing a modest surplus of $386,997.

All good news, then - just don't read on. Last week, the NZSO admitted that, despite subscriptions rising 17 per cent under its British music director, James Judd, the budget remains so precarious that all risk must be ruled out. It has, therefore, wound up an exciting joint venture with the Waikato tribe, which packed the Sydney Opera House during Olympics 2000 and went some way towards healing national rifts. As for San Diego, much of their profit appears to have come from concerts of popular classics and a tour with the blind tenor, Andrea Bocelli.

There is no miracle cure, no panacea, for the orchestral malaise. I have just returned from an international piano festival at the Lincoln Theater in Miami, where the Florida Philharmonic sells less than 70 per cent of a mere 700 seats, mostly to over-seventies. The orchestra almost failed to play at all this year. The players, on pay strike, decided that the orchestra was worth saving only when their music director, the aforementioned and well-travelled James Judd, renounced his $250,000 salary in order to win them a rise.

The plight of the Florida Philharmonic is instructive when studying the role of orchestras in present-day society. The mass taste for high art was nurtured in the late 19th century in spas and seaside resorts - places such as Scheveningen in Holland, where the Berlin Philharmonic earned its summer keep, and Bournemouth where a pier band evolved into a year-round symphony orchestra.

The middle classes proved partial to good music, especially when it rained. Music always sounds more appealing when an audience is relaxed and has nothing better to do. But go find a seaside town today that puts on a symphonic menu for tourists: nothing, so far as I can tell, from Blackpool to Brindisi.

Orchestras have become stratified, self-absorbed and scared of innovation. They have lost touch with social flux and lack confidence to break out of stiff shirts. It makes no sense, for instance, to give concerts at seven or eight in the evening when most people want to eat. But to play at six or at 10 would entail change - a deadly noun that sends conductors, agents and unions scurrying for their contracts.

When the next crisis comes around, they will blame society and its elected authorities for failing to support a heritage that defies the passage of time. US orchestras were appalled a fortnight ago by a New York Times polemic, arguing that they now occupied "the sidelines of culture" and that their decline was "unstoppable". Europeans have grown accustomed to that reality. Only in five or six metropolises - Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Munich, Helsinki and perhaps St Petersburg - has the orchestra maintained its cultural centrality. London, which once styled itself "orchestral capital of the world", is now a shanty town with tatty halls and dull fare.

Just how myopic orchestras have grown is illustrated by a forthcoming study of the Halle by Robert Beale (The Halle - A British Orchestra in the 20th Century, Forsyth, £14.95), which strives to understand how a foundation stone of Mancunian civilisation could have come within hours of insolvency on February 5, 1998. Beale's trawl through the Halle's paperwork reveals an organisation in thrall to its founder's vision, dated 1858, and blankly unable to grasp the demands of the city and the Arts Council for a clearer, more flexible game plan.

At no time did the Halle look into the surrounding streets, let alone the future, and ask itself how it might fit into post-modern clubland Manchester, with shorter concerts at varied hours of day and night and an interactive agenda attuned to current need. Has the Halle learned a lesson from its darkest hour? It has an energetic new music director, Mark Elder, and chief executive, John Summers. Like the Titanic, however, it cannot change course quickly. Whether it can dodge the next iceberg is not a race on which I would advise you to bet.

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999