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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Way to go, LSO

By Norman Lebrecht / April 23, 2003

For a town that considers itself the orchestral capital of the universe, London came pretty late on to the scene. Vienna and New York founded orchestras in 1842, Paris in 1874, Boston in 1881, Berlin a year later. Charles Halle assembled a concert ensemble in Manchester in 1858, almost half a century before London had one. Even Bournemouth got in ahead.

The catalyst for London's orchestral ascension was, and remains, a blend of bloody-mindedness and showmanship. The London Symphony Orchestra, whose centenary season is announced today, was formed by Proms orchestra rebels.

They refused to accept conductor Henry Wood's demand that the same men who turned out for rehearsal should necessarily turn out for the concert. What's his problem? asked the lads. If the Savoy needs a last minute extra fiddle in the Palm Court, the best player takes that top fee and sends a deputy to Wood's concert. S'only fair, innit?

The mutineers formed their own company - one share each - and gave their first concert on 9 June 1904 under the august German conductor Hans Richter, who had premiered Wagner's Ring and two of Brahms's symphonies. He was followed by Arthur Nikisch, known as The Magician for his hypnotic eyes, and soon after by Edward Elgar, England's greatest composer.

No band on earth commanded talent of such calibre. As for the players, they impressed Ralph Vaughan Williams as "giants". The LSO toured the country tip-to-toe, entered Paris in 1906 and sailed to America in 1912, fixing London on the musical map.

There ended the revolution. For the next 80 years, the LSO was locked in a ceaseless battle for survival, through two world wars and a surge of competition. The BBC started a salaried orchestra in 1930; Sir Thomas Beecham trumped it with the London Philharmonic. In 1945 the Philharmonia was formed as EMI's studio orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic as Beecham's last trump.

London had more concert bands than most nation states, and the LSO was, for much of the time, the weakest and most turbulent. In 1959, a stroppy player called Neville Marriner broke away from the second fiddles to form the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The secessionist urge endured, as did the showmanship. Other orchestras might play a more muted pianissimo, but the LSO under Istvan Kertesz and Andre Previn made up with a swagger what it lacked in finesse.

The turning point in the orchestra's fortunes was an act of piratical opportunism. One Friday afternoon in 1966, the LSO manager, Ernest Fleischmann, got wind that the Corporation of the City of London was about to give the Philharmonia an exclusive residency in the long-planned Barbican Centre, removing them from the fratricidal South Bank fray.

Over the weekend, Fleischmann and his chairman, Barry Tuckwell, put together a winning counter-bid. Although the manager was sacked, the LSO occupied the Barbican in September 1982, and nearly went bust.

An inaugural cycle of Berlioz and Tippett, serially repeated in an appalling acoustic to meagre audiences, brought creditors to the door. Every player put in ¢G43 a week to keep the company going; as directors, they stood to lose their homes. I remember seeing Peter Hemmings, manager at the time, sitting at an empty desk, waiting for a call that would parachute him to a safer job.

A cellist, Clive Gillinson, went to the office to try to make sense of the books. Eighteen years later he is still there, having restored the LSO to cock of the walk. Proceeding cautiously at first, Gillinson convinced the City that any orchestra resident in the problematic Barbican would need extra subsidy. He then took the City cheque and shamed the Arts Council into matching it.

Today, the LSO gets ¢G3.2 million a year in Arts Council and City of London grants - twice as much as any other British orchestra, though barely a third of the Berlin Philharmonic subsidy. Its roster includes, as it did in 1904, most of the world's top batons - Rattle, Jansons, Gergiev, Haitink, Pappano, Maazel, Boulez, you name it - with Sir Colin Davis as music director and ex-chiefs such as Previn dropping by for old times' sake.

Player-for-player, the band has never sounded better. Gillinson changed the way its members thought about their working lives, encouraging them to try teaching, social outreach and solo work as part of their careers. Some of the country's finest chamber musicians now play in the LSO. The orchestra has its own purpose-built education centre, its own record label, a winter residency in New York. It is several streets ahead of the game, and the game has barely begun.

Over the next two seasons, the LSO will be cutting ticket prices to as little as ¢G5, or ¢G3 for students. It will cost less to hear the LSO live in the Barbican than to see a Hollywood movie at your local multiplex. This staggering reduction is not being paid for by government agents of social inclusion. The cost will be covered by internal trims, allied to rising sales. The LSO plays to a respectable 80 per cent average attendance; raise that to more than 90 and the price cut will turn to profit.

It is initiatives such as these that have made Gillinson's the most hunted head in arts management. He has been pursued for the hot seats at Covent Garden, ENO, the National Theatre and two of America's top five orchestras - at well over double his present salary. What keeps him at the LSO is a simple blend of loyalty and conviction: a devotion to family life and his fellow-players combined with a belief that the LSO can lead the world. "I think we can create the most extraordinary music situation anywhere in the world, here in Britain," he proclaims. "The LSO is already the equal of any other orchestra ... we can take it further."

Which is not to rule out trouble ahead. The orchestra needs to replace Sir Colin Davis, 75, with a younger figurehead, at a time when talent is scarce and expensive. The concert industry is in decline and, in London as elsewhere, classical music has fallen behind the shock-and-shop attractions of the visual arts. It has become harder than ever to raise corporate investment in the ephemerality of sound.

Despite such rumbles, the LSO is on a roll. With the Barbican restored to acoustic excellence and LSO Live CDs among the best sellers in Japan, the orchestra is a trailblazer once again, in defiance of convention and inbred British indifference. "Be there" declares its new slogan. "Hmm, might try it," you think.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001