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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Notes of caution will kill orchestras

By Norman Lebrecht / October 14, 2004

The sun was high, the coffee steaming, and clustered round a Salzburg garden table were six of Europe's most influential culturati. 'So what's coming up in London this season?' wondered a festival director. 'All 15 Shostakovich symphonies at the Barbican and the complete works of Schoenberg at the South Bank,' I beamed provocatively.

You could have heard a swallow drop its worm. Stunned they were, and smitten with curatorial envy. 'I don't think there is another city on earth that would dare to stage one of those cycles,' conceded a German intendant. 'Let alone the two of them together.'

I recall the conversation word for word because it marked London's high point in the orchestral sky. It was the summer of 1988 and most of Europe still lay beneath Herbert von Karajan's leaden hand, in thrall to old music and oblivious to the here and now. Patches of contemporaneity sprouted here and there but the general concert menu had not changed in generations and, despite lavish subsidy, there was no public demand for reformation.

London alone, hand to mouth and nose to the wind, was breaching the convention of complacency, obliging musicians to renew the menu and audiences to prick up their ears. For a while, the refresher course seemed to work. The LSO was positively galvanised by its Shostakovich cycle, the Philharmonia by playing the complete works of Gyorgy Ligeti. The players found new notes more interesting, nobody went bust and young faces lit up the fat-cat centre-stalls. But the tugging tides of conservatism outlast most swells of enthusiasm and a series of setbacks conspired to drive London's orchestras furtively back into their shells, like Galapagos tortoises in a hurricane.

The concert season now commencing is the ultimate in musical regression - the dreariest rehash of old faithfuls since the days when Beethoven's Pastoral vied with Dvorak's New World as the highlight of every other SouthBank week. Timidity is the order of the day. The London Philharmonic signalled the retreat, kicking off its season with Tchaikovsky's Fifth - the third time this outworn score had been heard in town in six weeks.

The Philharmonia is repeating - believe it, repeating - last year's box-office run of Rachmaninov concertos. The London Philharmonic is doing all the Beethoven symphonies and the Mozart violin concertos. The LSO and Philharmonia are each programming the complete Beethoven and Brahms piano concertos. Nothing in the Royal Philharmonic line-up would have frightened Queen Victoria's horses. The next concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, supposedly the trailblazer of new repertoire, contains the Sibelius violin concerto and Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony.

A week of Birtwistle at the Philharmonia and Boulez at the LSO serves only to illuminate the devastating retreat from modernity. Once, the Arts Council used to penalise lack of courage with loss of subsidy. Now it cravenly applies the New Labour dogma of Everyone Must Have Prizes, no matter how many Pathetiques they mindlessly regurgitate.

The causes of over-caution are all too obvious. The death of classical recording, followed by the collapse of touring after September 2001, left the world's orchestras in distress. The big American bands, with endowments of $200 million-plus, weathered $3-4 million deficits. London ensembles, living on current account, were rattled by routine setbacks.

The Philharmonia was rocked this summer by the last-minute cancellation of a Carmen in Seville. The LSO lost a three-week US tour of grotty film music that it had undertaken chiefly to stem a loss from the previous season. These hiccups erode confidence in the players and send managements scurying for safety, disastrously for the future of orchestral music.

For while a programme of family favourites may stabilise finances and reassure creditors, it casts into acute doubt the survival of the symphony orchestra in the modern world. Who, after all, needs so many orchestras if they all play the same music and none of it is new? It is a question that is starting to trouble hardcore supporters of live music - consumers like me who have experienced some of life's most sublime moments within a concert hall.

Suddenly, we are not so sure what orchestras are there for. The BBC, anticipating the uncertainty, is mounting a national campaign called Listen Up! to attract new listeners to orchestral glories, a campaign which unites for the first time the nation's 14 symphony orchestras and 40 chamber and baroque bands with unregistered numbers of amateur ensembles which meet once or twice weekly in communal halls to share the thrill of togetherness that only making music in a sixty-strong human scrummage can bring.

Listen Up! - essentially a promotional device for six weeks of concert giving - is a step in the right direction, albeit one that reflects prevalent confusions. In recent years, defence of the orchestra has rested not so much on musical excellence as on all the other good works which orchestras do - prison and hospital visits, educational concerts, diplomatic missions. To justify sustaining full-time orchestras - and the BBC expensively employs five of them - Listen Up! highlights '60 education projects, 80 community projects and 15 health initiatives', thereby begging the question whether such important social benefits might not be more responsibly dispensed by social and medical professionals.

The promotion also promises to send musicians on house calls to those who cannot reach a concert hall: 'just ring free-phone 0800 033 033 to discuss your nomination ... an orchestral coordinator will ring you back as soon as possible.' Worth a try, perhaps, but it's a far cry from demonstrating the core purpose of an orchestra in full cry.

Orchestras seem to have lost the thread of their own defence case. Ensembles in other genres - the National Theatre or the Royal Ballet - do not need to peddle health initiatives because their purpose is demonstrated by a judicious mix of classic and contemporary work, allying conservation to continued creation. That is the ground where orchestras used to stand, and from which they have mortally retreated.

All is not yet lost, not by a long means. There are many routes to regeneration and I shall be discussing them on Radio 3's (where I welcome your comments - ). But it is now high noon for orchestras. Safety is no solution. They will need to act recklessly to escape extinction.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001