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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Time to change tune

By Norman Lebrecht / May 19, 2005

There may be better ways of saying goodbye than calling your rivals vision-free and your funding body redundant, but Clive Gillinson could allow himself a touch of hubris when he addressed the Association of British Orchestras at its annual gab-fest in February. Gillinson has, for two decades, been the golden boy of orchestral management, the paragon by which other chiefs are measured, and found wanting.

He has taken the London Symphony Orchestra from daily threats of insolvency in 1984, creditors hammering at the door, to a security unequalled in its sector. Alone among London bands, the LSO has a hall to call its own, a custom-made education centre and £2 million funding from a trusted supporter, the Corporation of the City of London, to match what it receives from the common Arts Council trough.

These resources have enabled the LSO to attract a superior class of player, among them several fine soloists and the wife of a Cabinet minister. Relative prosperity has resulted in a degree of strut and swagger - offensive to the rest of an embattled art, though not unjustified. The LSO has, in Gillinson's hands, been conspicuously ahead of the game.

First among British orchestras, it set up a New York office and a residency at Lincoln Center. Its record label, LSO Live, sells tracks on iTunes. Gillinson slashed concert tickets to a fiver with a view to attracting younger listeners and urged players to get a life outside the orchestra, making chamber music and educational ventures in what he reinvisaged as a 'portfolio career'. Life in the LSO is more varied than before; around one-third of the players have been attracted from abroad.

All of these initiatives arose from the manager's previous tenure as a second-desk cellist in the LSO, a job whose satisfaction falls halfway between heavenly angel and fortieth sculler on a slave ship. Gillinson entered the office to save the orchestra and improve the working lives of players. His mission accomplished, he's off, at 59, to run Carnegie Hall on twice the pay and half the stress. He will never again have to nurture a dilatory sponsor or fill in another five-page form to show that he is ‘delivering' Government ‘targets' in return for public subsidy.

When he moves in next month to a 57th Street penthouse, Gillinson will have paid off the last bills for building St Luke's community and education centre &Mac246; a £17 million project pushed though by a company with a turnover of just £11 million. He will also will leave a modest endowment fund to protect future stability. His assertions that other orchestras failed to keep pace, and that the equal-opportunity Arts Council has failed in its duty to invest in excellence, are demonstrably proven.

Yet for all his progressive outlook, Gillinson leaves the orchestra in a quandary that his successor will struggle to resolve. Artistically, the LSO is marking time. For years now it has been searching for a music director to succeed the amiable but decidedly outworn Sir Colin Davis, who is about to repeat his limited concert repertoire for the fourth or fifth time. Davis, at 77, is not a leader who can respond to the fast-changing needs of a new millennium. Nor are the rest of the LSO's baton pack &Mac246; Bernard Haitink (76), Andre Previn (75), Slava Rostropovich (78), Pierre Boulez (80).

John Eliot Gardiner and Michael Tilson Thomas, both in their sixties, are looking backwards rather than ahead. Daniel Harding, 29, has been recruited as principal guest conductor but he cannot be entrusted with many dates until the public recognise his name and demand him at the box office. The programming of the LSO is thus more cautious than it was when Gillinson took over and Claudio Abbado held the baton with reformist purpose.

Next season is built around a welcome (and fast selling) cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies for the centenary of the composer's birth. But the rest of the schedule consists of Haitink's Beethoven, Tchaikovsky from Tilson Thomas, Davis doing Elgar and Sibelius, and the occasional hour of Mahler. Not much here to set the heart pounding. Gillinson has made a virtue of being led by the imagination of artists, but his artists have grown old and the programme is looking antedeluvian.

Like other orchestras, the LSO is huddling up to its comfort blankets. Commercial recording has gone kaput. Foreign touring, the other staple of the musical economy, has shrivelled since 9/11 and many of the dates are going to undercutting orchestras from eastern Europe or to state radio bands who play virtually for free. Spain, once the breadbasket for British orchestras, has tightened up on budgets. Every UK ensemble now has gaps in its diary and players are looking for other work not for portfolio diversion but out of genuine need.

The average salary in the LSO strings is £35,000 to £40,000 &Mac246; not enough to feed a growing family in Europe's priciest city. Players grumble that Ian Bousfield, the LSO trombonist who was lip-hunted some years back by the Vienna Philharmonic, earns more in a Salzburg summer month than his former mates do in a year. 

The tougher things get, the less risks the players feel like taking. The new managing director, Kathryn McDowell, will need to win their trust in terms of hard cash in the pay packet before they let her tinker with programming. Since Gillinson has planned the next two seasons to the last available date, it will take her a good deal longer than a seagoing skipper to change direction and avoid looming icebergs.

McDowell's is a shrewd appointment. An Ulsterwoman of formidable committee skills and a persuasive manner with corporate donors, she is off with Gillinson to Japan this week to introduce herself to an important touring and sponsorship market. When she takes office in September, her key task will be to redefine the orchestra's purpose in a society where musical heritage has been rendered peripheral by education ministers who demand quick fixes and valueless by broadcasters that play sweet snippets in between advertisements for car insurance and new kitchens.

Orchestras, if they are to survive, must learn to surprise. They need new kids on the conductor's block and new works on the players' stands where it is no longer enough to shuffle the pages of old favourites. New music is neither optional nor a luxury. It is the only commodity that will keep the symphony orchestra alive and in tune with the times.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001