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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Show's coming off the road

By Norman Lebrecht / April 11, 2003

Players in one of Europe's finer orchestras flew into London last week, found their concert had been cancelled and left town without staying the night. No tickets had been sold, they were told. The musicians were surprised, but not astonished. An awareness is dawning across the musical world that the age of orchestral touring is over, leaving gaping holes in the concert calendar and another economic nightmare.

What happened to the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague is not unusual. Ranked third in Holland behind the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Residentie wanted to show off its Dutch conductor, Jaap van Zweeden. A nine-stop UK tour was booked, topped by a glamorous night last Wednesday at the Royal Festival Hall. Every self-respecting orchestra feels a need to test itself in London's ultra-competitive environment.

The event was printed in South Bank brochures, but two months ago the orchestra's management discovered that its sums did not add up. When no sponsor was found to plug the gap, it pulled the concert, forfeiting a substantial deposit. The players, informed only as they arrived in London, were told that the cancellation was down to lack of audience interest. Both versions were true: subsidy for touring is drying up and great cities have grown saturated with fly-in orchestras. It is hard to pack a hall in London for any lesser band than Vienna or Berlin.

Happily, the Residentie tour went on to break even in eight towns, from Sheffield to Southend, returning home yesterday with a clutch of local reviews and a resolution among the players never to set out again without checking beforehand that they were expected.

Such blips used to occur only at the seedier end of the orchestral scale, a register occupied by ensembles of low pedigree and occasional quality, mostly from underdeveloped parts of eastern Europe, where an enterprising impresario can pick up a chamber orchestra for the price of a pack of fags, paying the players a $10 per diem. But the touring blight has been creeping upwards, causing gritted teeth at premier organisations.

The Philharmonia Orchestra has just totted up a two-thirds drop in touring revenues over the past year. The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields which has, for four decades, spent more time abroad than within sight of Nelson's Column, has ( players tell me) great white gaps in its diary. The Academy won a Queen's Award for Industry for its foreign endeavours. Now, like other travelling players, it faces straitened circumstances.

The slump began after 11 September, when the concert season was disrupted by airline chaos and artist panic. Many US orchestras refused to fly abroad, among them Minnesota and Baltimore. The Berlin Philharmonic turned up at Carnegie Hall in reduced formation, leaving its chickens back home.

At the outset of the Iraqi war last month, Rotterdam refused to fly to America with its music director Valery Gergiev (he replaced them with his Kirov orchestra from St Petersburg) and several Residentie players dithered about coming to London after Saddam reportedly threatened a rocket attack. The chief executive and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic funked a London trip "'due to the international situation".

The impact of these uncertainties on a tottering concert economy, already depleted by audience anxieties and sponsorship stasis, was catastrophic. Venue managers began planning for a pared-down, post-touring future. That downturn has just kicked in. Globetrotting, an essential staple of orchestral life, has had its day. What replaces it is unclear.

The loss is as much cultural and communal as it is financial. Orchestras are welded more on the road than in rehearsal. On home turf, players hardly get to know one another. The bonding that distinguishes one community of musicians from another takes place in the bars and beds of foreign hotels.

Getting away from it all allows players to experience a different concert environment, and with it a different way of playing together. I will never forget watching the London Symphony Orchestra at its first rehearsal in Salzburg 15 summers ago. The musicians looked around the Festspielhaus stage in amazement. They were hearing one another as they never could in the Barbican's muffled acoustic.

Suddenly, they sounded world-class. Last year's £12 million Barbican refit was due, as much as any other factor, to demands arising from the LSO's epiphanic self-realisation while on tour in the high spots of Europe.

There can be broader social benefits to playing away. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra returned last night from a German tour, where it was parading not only the musical progress it has made under Sakari Oramo but the attractions of Britain's midriff.

The tour was paid for by West Midlands Advantage, a public body engaged in regional promotion. Pittsburgh, as keen as Birmingham to shed its grimy industrial past, is sending its splendid symphony orchestra with Mariss Jansons to play at the Barbican next Sunday.

Such forms of local sponsorship are bound to sustain a measure of orchestral shuttling in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the universal decline in touring leaves halls and orchestras in a quandary: how do they fill the diary and balance the budgets?

A solution glimmers. Over the past 18 months, surely the toughest time the performing arts have experienced in living memory, cool-headed strategists have ruled out the whistle-stop tour in favour of settled residencies. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for instance, no longer lumbers through Europe for three weeks each summer. It visits two or three festivals and flies home, minimising risk while maximising its relationships, both within the ranks and with the audiences it entertains.

The LSO has established a winter's week at the Lincoln Center; the Philharmonia has similar plans at Carnegie Hall. Both want to be seen as integral to New York culture, and both are able to raise finance from companies that like to be associated with excellence, transplanted from London to Manhattan rather than merely passing through.

Residency makes better budgetary sense than one-night stands. It also makes better music. It is undoubtedly the way ahead. Sometimes, as Maynard Keynes might have put it, economic depression can yield the spark of artistic regeneration.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001