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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

And the bands play on

By Norman Lebrecht / February 2, 2005


The BBC took a pigeon-step this week towards redesigning the hurdy-gurdy. In a low-key announcement, it chose a new man to lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the next few years – most urgently, to restore high sheen and morale to a band that has been slipping in the profession’s estimation, and its own.

Jiri Belohlavek, a serious, understated Czech, is the right man for the job. There are few conductors at the present moment who have such clear ears, precise technique and high moral tone. Belohlavek, it is believed, will make the strings sing once more, the brass shine and the timpani play a true pianissimo when required.

These subtleties have been missing for a while. The last conductor, Leonard Slatkin, was imposed on the players without consultation. They never settled under his baton and the atmosphere curdled. The body language in concert betrayed discomfort and the concertmaster, Michael Davis, looked at times dangerously disinterested.

Davis has now retired and Slatkin is back in America. Belohlavek, who has worked regularly with the orchestra for a decade, is both liked and respected. He aims to focus on classical masterpieces and his native Czechs – ‘the fact that Janacek is so close to the British heart is very exciting for me,’ he told me. David Robertson, an accomplished American, will look after contemporary music as principal guest conductor.

All of this makes sound good sense. Belohlavek, 58, is at the top of his game. After an impressive Glyndebourne Tristan in May 2003, he made an acclaimed Metropolitan Opera debut last month (the Met is always last to the talent) and is in high demand internationally. The BBC did well to get in first. Unlike most maestros, Belohlavek is a devout monogamist. ‘I am very sceptical about three-orchestra conductors,’ he says.

Living in Prague, Belohlavek is the son of a Catholic judge who was twice sacked by the Communists and earned his keep in the legal office of a mineral-water bottling plant. ‘We struggled economically, but he was a passionate pianist so something like that could not make him unhappy. In my youth he played all the time.’

After an apprenticeship in Janacek’s hometown of Brno, Jiri became chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, freely elected by the musicians. But in 1992 he was voted out in favour of a plodding German who promised the players western affluence. Belohlavek founded a rival ensemble, the Prague Philharmonia, and began training the next generation of Czech conductors. He is now leaving that post to concentrate his energies on London, which he considers ‘the best music scene in Europe.’

Within the microculture of classical music, this is an encouraging appointment, an augury of better Proms ahead. But, as ever in microcultures, the bigger picture has been so blindly ignored that any forward move is simultaneously an act of regression.

At no time in the selection process did anyone see fit to ask what the BBC Symphony Orchestra is there for – both in respect of the BBC and in relation to the concert world as a whole. Broadcast orchestras belong, it could be argued, in the Natural History Museum alongside the dinosaur and the whittled stick. They came into being in the early 1920s as the cheapest means of filling airtime in an era when the best orchestras operated a broadcast ban and symphonic records were full of scratches and had to be changed every three minutes.

In the 1950s, when records went longplay and top orchestras welcomed radio mikes, America abolished its radio bands and the breed faced global extinction. The BBC recast its London orchestra as a cutting-edge ensemble, playing complex modern works that others could not afford to rehearse or promote. But as musical skills improved and modern music turned minimalist, this distinction too was eroded.

A decision in 1980 to cut the number of BBC orchestras from 11 to five provoked a Musicians Union strike against the Proms, a trauma so severe that the BBC has never since attempted to reduce orchestral provision. Of its remaining bands, two have clear-cut roles. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is the only concert ensemble in the principality and the BBC Scottish Orchestra has, since devolution, provided a core of coherent programming under Osmo Vanskaa and Ilan Volkov to offset the nation’s dispiriting cultural dereliction.

But what, you many wonder, is the point of maintaining two orchestras in London and one in Manchester at a time when the BBC is making 15 percent cuts in all other areas as it battles for charter renewal? The BBC Symphony Orchestra justifies itself, just about, as the workhorse of the Proms – though it is underemployed for the rest of the year. Its premises, occupying the length of a street in prime Maida Vale where bed sits cost £200,000, could be worth as much as £100 million to a property developer.

The BBC Philharmonic competes with the Halle Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for declining classical orchestras in northwest England. And the BBC Concert Orchestra exists solely to supply the kind of light music that TV shuns and Radio 2 scarcely needs any more, the more so when it is obtainable cheaper from other orchestras in London, or Eastern Europe.

A decree has descended from on BBC high to defend the orchestras at all costs, and I would be the last to advocate abolition. But if these historic anachronisms are to survive beyond the very short term they must quickly find a social role and shed the haughty isolationism which has shielded them from commercial realities. Attempts have been made over two decades to broker mergers between BBC bands and inferior or ailing public ensembles, only to be dashed by vested interests or BBC pride.

One obvious match is BBC Scottish and Scottish Opera, a deal long blocked by the opera’s departing music director, Richard Armstrong. Another is the BBC Symphony Orchestra and English National Opera. It seems absurd that Covent Garden should spend £4m a year on an orchestra and ENO £3m when the BBC has a band which works mostly in summer and could be hired for the rest of the year. Belohlavek will, all being well, turn the BBCSO into a crack outfit which lacks only the singing tone that comes with operatic work. An arrangement with one of the opera houses (or springtime Glyndebourne, for that matter) would benefit both. It’s time to talk, and time is short.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001