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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Will music be safe in their hands?

By Norman Lebrecht / December 21, 2005

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In this bleak midwinter, no art looks ahead to the New Year with less confidence than orchestral concerts. Long-term symptoms of aging audiences, archaic repertory and flyblown, overpaid figureheads who have been performing the same routines unchanged for half a century have developed into full-blown existential crisis.

Eight British orchestras are facing a £33 million tax bill which, even if they are allowed to pay without interest over a decade, will finish them off. It arises from back payments to freelance players over seven years since the National Insurance rules were changed, and from a certain attitude in orchestras that the rules did not apply to them. However, £8 million is more than a London orchestra with a ten-million turnover can sensibly contemplate and nemesis looms unless the taxman waives the bill.

America's Big Five US orchestras, with $200 million in the bank, are financially in better health. But they cannot, on the whole, attract the kind of music directors they need to gain a voice in the national conversation and a twinkling of audience renewal. German orchestras, paid on civil service salaries, are sometimes not unreasonably accused of playing for their pensions.

In the past month I have been asked to address orchestral associations in the Netherlands and the Nordic countries. Tell us the worst, they said - and when I did, the silence was sepulchral.

Put starkly: since the millennium, the orchestral economy has been under siege on five fronts. Public funding has been frozen or yoked to energy-sapping political impositions ö social inclusion, multiculturalism, primary school education.

Faith in corporate and private support turned fragile in the aftermath of the Enron and Alberto Vilar scandals when donors failed to deliver cast-iron pledges.

Boxoffice has been volatile since 9/11. Any terror or bird flu threat and music lovers stay at home. The over-60s, mainstays of the subscription list, avoid going into poorly lit parts of town on dark winter nights. The young are deterred by formality and predictability.

Touring and summers festivals, a chance for orchestral musicians to live high in four-star hotels and get up to all sorts of things their spouses never hear of, have been undercut by an onrush of East European orchestras who count themselves lucky to get paid five bucks a day.

Finally, the death of classical recording has yielded untold consequences. Getting its name on the front of a record was the way symphony orchestras acquired reputation over the past century. Three of London's four bands were founded specifically as record machines, their diaries run from Abbey Road, their revenues reliant on royalties. Without a regular stream of studio work, they are losing recognition abroad and distinction at home. In another couple of years, connoisseurs will be unable to tell the Philharmonia from the Royal Philharmonic, assuming both are still around.

Overwhelmed by the noise of chickens coming home to roost, what are orchestras doing? Nothing they haven't tried before. They are issuing concerts on CDs that make no profit, scrapping with each other for crumbs of work and generally acting as if the crisis is but a change in the wind rather than a collapse of their civilisation. At the annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras in Newcastle/Gateshead next month, not one of the burning issues is on the agenda.

Even if the UK tax debt is wished away ö and there is every indication that a deal is being done behind Whitehall scenes ö the pay-off will only accentuate the resentment of symphony orchestras that is felt by other arts groups which have successfully self-rejuvenated and made themselves relevant to the new century. Orchestras are facing cultural isolation. No art form has fewer friends among the general arts community. There is good reason this season for serious gloom.

Yet, alarming as it may look, I believe that the future is there for the taking by any orchestra that abandons the ostrich position and jumps aboard the post-industrial bandwaggon. The first thing orchestras must do is recognise that what they do is no longer confined to a fixed space and time, a concerthall in mid-evening. Once it has a buy-out agreement with the musicians that allows multimedia exploitation of all performances, an orchestra can now do what it likes with its music. It can offer free downloads, send gift-wrapped CDs to subscribers on their birthdays, bounce concerts off a big screen in living rooms, or on the other side of the world.

The BBC's Beethoven experiment this summer revealed unsuspected markets for classical music. In Vietnam, where symphony concerts are hard to come by, 17,000 people downloaded Beethoven. In Holland, where nobody lives more than 50 kilometres from a good orchestra, 80,000 rode the Beethoven cycle. The meaning of these numbers is still being interpreted but, with the elimination of commercial recordings, it seems clear that people will turn to orchestras as their living source of classical music. An astute nurturing of the BBC's database, freely shared on request, could result in a fan base for orchestras analogous to Manchester United's ö followers in distant lands who never attend a match but pay good money for an online season ticket that allows them access to live fixtures. The first band to find the right formula and a user-friendly website will clean up on the international front.

Orchestras must break the concert hall mentality and become their own media players. If they cannot face it alone, they should gang up. Imagine every symphony concert in Britain or Sweden being available for a modest annual fee from a single site. That's what the orchestral associations need to start discussing.

There is no time to lose. Fresh shoots are blossoming on the podium but the world will never know its names unless orchestras start thinking out of the concerthall box. The London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia are looking at new conductors for the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall in autumn 2007. Glyndebourne's Vladimir Jurowski is in the LPO frame. Other contenders include the Gergiev protege Tugan Sokhiev and the explosive Venezuelan, Gustavo Dudamel. The LSO has Daniel Harding, triumphant at La Scala, as its principal guest conductor.

Glasgow and Liverpool have new chiefs in Stephane Deneve and Vasily Petrenko. The BBC Scottish has Ilan Volkov. What these seven conductors have in common is that all are under 35 and none is burdened by the expectations of an unlamented past in which a maestro was judged by the size of his record contract. The new bloods come with a clean slate. They speak the language of the next generation and have the potential to resuscitate symphony concerts ö as dead museums were regenerated in the 1980s ö if only they are given the right tools. The end of 2005 finds orchestras huddled behind artificial barriers. But that could change in 2006. It must, if the music is to play on.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001