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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Stretching the band

By Norman Lebrecht / January 7, 2004

The future for symphony orchestras is to emphasize their otherness, their existence as a refuge from mundane reality and their togetherness as a model of human conduct says Norman Lebrecht.

A Royal visitor, meeting and greeting members of the London Symphony Orchestra after a concert was heard to remark, 'isn't it wonderful how they all play together?'

As truisms go, this was truer than most. In an age of soundbites and fast-food, the gathering of up to 100 men and women almost every day and night of the year to wrestle with thickets of notes that were composed, mostly, long before they were born is, by any stretch of the imagination, one of the wonders of the world. The modern orchestra, whether in rehearsal togs or white tie and tails, is a model of utopian human cooperation under near-impossible conditions.

Near-impossible, both culturally and economically. Symphony orchestras exist to perform a narrow strand of Eurocentric music. Their art is unashamedly elitist, in that it requires intensive preparation and is accessible only to those who are willing to invest sustained concentration and aesthetic discrimination. It does not move with the jagged rhythms and demographic shifts of our jittery times.

Economically, it makes no sense at all. A sold-out symphony concert at the Royal Festival Hall yields an average loss of £48,000. It costs £1.9m a year in state subsidy and as much again in private fundraising to keep a London orchestra afloat. And yet, against all rational prognostications, five symphony orchestras and a dozen chamber ensembles flourish in this city of 12 million inhabitants, reaching (at an informed estimate) no more than 30,000 active concertgoers.

The noose is getting tighter. The classical record industry, a mainstay of orchestral earnings for nearly a century, has expired beyond hope of resuscitation. Overseas tours are being choked off by terrorism fears, fragile economies and random uncertainty. The London Symphony Orchestra, which is due to perform next week in New York and Chicago, has been hit by a US Embassy demand for special visas that will snip £8,000 from its revenues. The LSO, Britain's flagship band, opens its centenary year by telling its players at their forthcoming AGM that the company has dipped into deficit. When the Association of British Orchestras assembles for its annual conference in Bournemouth this weekend, survival will be high on the agenda. My advice to them is: don't panic. There are better times ahead.

The orchestra, like God, has been pronounced dead so often that obituaries can be confidently disregarded, along with all extraneous 'solutions'. Forty years ago, the prime minister's legal advisor Lord Goodman attempted to amalgamate four London orchestras into one. A decade back, the Arts Council called in a High Court judge, Lord Justice Hoffmann to select two bands for execution. London's orchestras survive despite state funding, not because of it.

The future of the symphony orchestra has been envisioned most clearly by two managers of the LSO, past and present. Ernest Fleischmann, who was brutally ousted in 1967 after securing the orchestra its Barbican residency, thoughtfully announced: 'The orchestra is dead - long live the community of musicians'. Fleischmann proposed to convert the stultified symphony orchestra into a flexible pool of independent players who would, on demand, form into anything from string quartets to a Wagnerian opera company. Clive Gillinson, the present managing director, applied a version of this idea by challenging LSO players to tell him how much of their working week they wanted to devote to orchestral playing and what they would like to do with the rest of their time - make music in hospices and prisons, for instance, or give classroom demonstrations, engage with other cultures, play chamber music. The kaleidiscopic range of activities enticed a different calibre of player to the LSO, a cut above the orchestral drudge. The LSO is now, by common consent, the best band in the land and the most far-sighted. Last year, it cut ticket prices to £5 and opened an £18m community and education centre in the long-derelict Hawksmoor church of St Luke's, reaching 30,000 new users.

Both schemes tipped the band into the red. 'Every time we try to move forward,' sighs Gillinson, 'we put the whole organisation at risk.' The orchestra needs to raise £1.5m to pay off unexpected structural repairs at LSO St Luke's. It has learned the hard way that paragons of political correctness at the Heritage Lottery Fund have scant sympathy for archaic symphony orchestras. It has also just cause to complain that the Arts Council, which doles out equal grants to orchestras great and feeble, is engaged in the equalisation of misery and the stultification of opportunity.

Nevertheless, this is not the moment to go jumping off a Bournemouth cliff. Each of the recent setbacks presents a chance to reflect and regenerate. The collapse of the record industry has obliged orchestras to take possession of their own product, dispensing music from their new websites and releasing their own discs; the LSO alone has sold quarter of a million copies of 19 concert CDs.

The constraints on touring are forcing orchestras to look closer to home. Several London bands have deepened their hinterland. The Philharmonia now has residencies in Leicester and Basingstoke, introducing major international artists to untapped provincial audiences.

The potential is prodigious. According to three Classic FM surveys, 15m people in Britain have a liking for orchestral music. About half of them listen to classical radio but, judging by concerthall statistics, no more than 100,000 can be described as committed concertgoers. The challenge is to convert 100,000 passive listeners into active attenders. This is no pipe dream. Over the past generation, millions of couch potatoes have been weaned off TV and lured into the multiplex cinema. Art galleries, which used to exude the welcome of a municipal morgue, have become hotbeds of round-the-clock activity. The 21st century urbanite likes to get out more. The concert hall is one of the few places, apart from church and prison, where a frantically harrassed citizen can escape the tyranny of mobile phones. The future for symphony orchestras is to emphasize their otherness, their existence as a refuge from mundane reality and their togetherness as a model of human conduct.

Last Week: Lebrecht predicts the demise of the classical recording industry


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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001