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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Brought to their knees

By Norman Lebrecht / December 7, 2006

The contrast in the front rows could hardly be starker. On one aisle, City types are spending record bonuses on outings to the opera with Dom Perignon interval rounds; on the other, arts chiefs in company seats are grimly facing the end of the good times.

This, they know, is going to be the last merry Christmas for many years to come.

The Treasury has warned of a tough spending round and the Culture Department has let it be known that there will be no extra money for the arts so long as the country is paying for the Olympics, a bill we will be paying well beyond 2012.

This means, at the very best, seven lean years of standstill subsidy for the arts and, at the worst, selective cuts that will drive some ensembles out of existence.

The figures will not be announced until next July and the effects will not be felt for nine months beyond that since New Labour operates a sensible triennial funding system that allows the arts to plan for the medium term. Gone are the breezy Tory days when Arts Council chairmen would pop up in December like Father Christmas, doling annual stipends to a bevy of applicants who had been kept on tenterhooks all year. Gone, too, is the disdain that Government used to cast on Britain’s biggest prestige earner now that its triumphs are on parade from Broadway to Bollywood. Tony Blair is quick to recognise the national value of an Oscar.

The arts in England have done well, on the whole, under a regime in which Gordon Brown, after an initial freeze, eased spending controls and doubled the arts subsidy to £411 million, nearly £600 million when Lottery contributions are taken into account. Some Lottery money and vital arts energies have been diverted to education and social integration, and the last three-year spending round in 2004 yielded no increase; but the general arts picture is one of calm prosperity, so calm that few in command can remember the years of hardship, or are equipped to cope with their return.

Over recent weeks, some arts boardrooms have veered from paralysis to near-panic. Anticipating austerity, large organisations like the Royal Opera House put in frugally for nothing more than inflation-proofing of their present grant, only for the Treasury to spring a calculated leak that the arts are scheduled for something between zero increase and a five percent cut. Highly alarmed, heads of the national companies went to see Gordon Brown privately some weeks ago and found him in receptive mood. They told him that the arts represent a minute fraction of public spending and had delivered, over three years, a level of quality and stability never previously achieved. ‘Don’t mess with success,’ was the message and Brown sent them away generally reassured. ‘What is clear,’ said one participant, ‘is that anything less than zero will mean that one national company will go to the wall.’

No prizes for guessing which. The divvying up is done by Arts Council England but that body is too depleted in authority to do much more than tick boxes. If the grant falls below £411 million, savings would be required of an order that cannot be met by small trims across the board. One of the big beasts will go to the wall.

Four of the five are virtually ring-fenced. The South Bank Board, which receives £19 million, has shown little by way of efficiency or excellence but as the place of New Labour’s victory celebrations, reopening next June after a £110 million refit, it cannot be deprived of funding or, more rationally, be privatised.

Covent Garden and the National Theatre are untouchable by dint of consistent high performance. The Royal Shakespeare Company has bounced back under Michael Boyd as the crucible of classical drama. That leaves one victim hanging in the wind.

English National Opera has suffered 15 years of weak boards, bad managements, regular deficits and an antediluvian commitment to singing in English despite having the text blazoned in surtitles above the stage. It is London’s second opera house in every sense, a distant second to Covent Garden in artistic calibre and imagination. Apart from the debatable merit of singing English, its only selling point is cheap opera tickets – though no cheaper than some West End musical shows.

ENO receives £16.5 million a year, equivalent to four percent of the national arts budget. There are signs on several walls that it is going to be the key casualty of the next spending round and several ENO directors have been walking around with a look of defeat on their faces. They should buck up and start fighting, for all is not lost.

In recent weeks ENO has turned a corner. It has a brave new music director in Ed Gardner, a fresh spirit in the orchestra, a critical hit in Jenufa and, crucial to its fortunes, a new casting director in John McMurray, a former agent with good taste and an encyclopaedic knowledge of vocal talent. All ENO needs now is a sense of national purpose that derives from being something other than being second. The board has months, if not weeks, to prepare a defence and rally public support. The battle of the arts is about to be fought over the body of English National Opera.

Shostakovich: violin concertos Sergey Khachatryan (Naïve) ***

It seems appropriate that the only classical record label still developing serious talent is called Naïve, but there is nothing artless or innocent about this Armenian violinist, 21, winner of two international contests. Khachatryan plays Shostakovich with grave elegance and casual flair, tossing off the high jinks without breaking sweat while maintaining a consistent line of beguiling beauty. His objective approach is a world apart from the older-generation air of pained introspection but no less convincing in the way he turns the stone-melting Passacaglia of the first concerto from torment to hope. In the less affecting second concerto he draws a veil of melody over a chasm of despair. Kurt Masur conducts the tenderly empathetic Orchestre National de France.

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



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