Classical: And not a tantrum in sight

You'd have thought that the BBC's docusoap The House would have put off any creative institution from projecting itself on the small screen. Ever again. But no... Give a big hand to the Philharmonia.

The Grande Bretagne, on Constitution Square, Athens, is a hotel that used to be very grand and is now hanging on to its dignity like the impoverished widow of an aristocrat. Just before Christmas, it hosted fashionable weddings at the weekends, and late into the night the central courtyard throbbed to a disco. But during the day, a prowl along its marbled corridors revealed that an orchestra was in residence. Behind this bedroom door, a violinist did scales; behind that one, a clarinet tooted. A sense of a more elegant age somehow permeated the place. The Philharmonia, one of London's four self-governing orchestras, was in town, earning decent drachma with starry performances of Brahms, Bruch, and Strauss's Four Last Songs and Salome. The performances, under the baton of the Dane, Michael Schoenwandt, were great, as you'd expect. But it was the behind- the-scenes stuff that fascinated this observer as much.

Orchestras are very odd animals, as viewers will see from a three-part fly-on-the-wall docu-soap, The Phil (geddit?), to be screened on Channel 4, starting this week. For a start, many of the best bands (the musicians' own word) are co-operatives, and that includes the Phil. These orchestral players are a peculiar mixture of boss and worker. Surprisingly, the films seem barely to have noticed the tension.

The musicians are, naturally enough, portrayed as overworked, amusing and friendly. They are all of those. Out of their imposing, dated evening clothes, these dedicated professionals are also mostly dedicatedly informal. Some of the Philharmonia's members crowding into the hotel's lift after an afternoon's shopping, could be the scruffier sort of early-middle-aged football supporter. A few, mostly the younger ones, cut a more fashionable dash. Only some of the women looked properly bohemian: vaguely hippie, wispy hair straying from disorderly buns - that kind of thing.

It is natural to inquire: is there much of the rock'n'roll lifestyle on the road? There's some drinking, but not like the old days. There's usually a committed group having a gasper at the stage door. But it's a small gang and, besides, standards have changed all round. Mansel Bebb is, at 60, an old-timer and the personnel manager who is part sheepdog to his flock, part chief petty officer to his crew. He recalls that the conductor Riccardo Muti, when a very young man, stopped a player reading a newspaper while his instrument wasn't required. "He said: `I am not running a public library', and glared his famous glare."

Disappointingly, there are said to be few casual affairs among the players: too disruptive all round. Many of them hurry back from concerts to their rooms to keep family life alive on the phone. Several members are married to other players, and one or two more couples are headed that way. It is this respectability that emboldened the orchestra to let the cameras in. They knew all about the disaster of The House, but decided that, hang on, no one could think of much that needed hiding. Even the fact that Vincent Meyer, the orchestra's biggest single benefactor and president, was facing charges of sexual abuse did not deter them. He's innocent till proved guilty and, as a foreigner, not very high-profile anyway.

There's a fair quotient of whingeing in the films, as there was on the tour bus in Athens. But, as Michael Cole, the bassoonist, told me while making some spare reeds on a free morning: "A lot of people come to the Philharmonia and want to believe they're downtrodden. But the fact is, you do have a say."

Keith Bragg, the chairman of the orchestra's elected council of player- members, only half denies it. He is, by the way, an authoritative figure. An Essex boy, he speaks unashamed Estuary English. It is typical of the topsy-turvy orchestral world that he is the nearest thing to the orchestra's boss, but plays the piccolo. Maya Iwabuchi, co-leader of the orchestra, and the leader for the Athens trip, isn't even on the council. Even its seven members can hire and fire no one without a two-thirds majority of the entire band.

"Remember, these people are at the top of their profession. A principal here has one of the two top jobs in their field," says Bragg. We had been discussing whether an orchestral player should be paid like a schoolteacher, a barrister or a doctor. "It's a knotty problem, because the arts are a weird business. Any sort of musician is vain, anxious, and egocentric. That goes with being a talented artist, and with the odd business of musical ability."

Orchestral musicians, as they constantly remind you, have the additional tension that comes from having to play to virtuosic standards but subject to the whims or, to put it more grandly, the genius of conductors, whose nightly fee sometimes matches a third of a rank-and- file player's annual income of perhaps pounds 35,000 a year. Even within the orchestra there are huge differentials. A leading principal could probably easily double the rank- and-file norm.

Even the lower figure is a large sum of money to pay someone who is protected to a surprising degree from artistic and financial risk. This is especially true when you consider the huge risks soloists and conductors take. The stars are, in the jargon, hugely "exposed". Their every note and gesture is in the spotlight, where disaster lurks for reputations and thus for livings. "Our players are not financially insecure," says Bragg. At least, they are only as insecure as the whole orchestra, and it has to survive as a business in an industry that has been cut-throat, greedy and hugely inequitable for hundreds of years.

Oddly, when you get right down to it the core business of the orchestra's non-member managers is the production of happy musicians. That is made more difficult when the high fees paid to glamorous names rankle badly with them. In fact, though, the Phil pays only about a fifth of its income to conductors and soloists combined, which is arguably a small price for the only sure way of putting bums on seats, and thus of securing income.

Another strategy, doubly attractive granted that it is important to keep the musicians happy, is to push the orchestra upmarket. "Our work at the Festival Hall is the raison d'etre of our work," says Keith Bragg. "That's where we are creating something for its own sake." It's in London that much of the most expensive rehearsing gets done, say for a new modern piece that no one's heard or seen before. From that London work there flows the orchestra's UK touring work, which can be done rather more cheaply because the pieces have been pre-prepared.

David Whelton, a pianist manque and the orchestra's managing director, says that his constant preoccupation is to tread a line between artistry and commerce. The Philharmonia is a medium-sized business, with a turnover of pounds 8m. Less than pounds 1m of that is subsidy and less than half a million comes in through sponsorship and donations. Residencies, such as those at the Chatelet in Paris (featured in the TV series) and the Megaron in Athens, are important sources of fees.

This is especially so since the CD- recording market is now what is called "mature". There is even constant talk of its being harder to sell concert seats. According to Whelton: "Ten years ago there was a warm economic glow. Now, everything's much tougher. Sponsorship, for instance, is 200 per cent harder to get."

Keith Bragg is very clear that however hard the going gets, the orchestra needs to hang on to the co-operative nature of the venture: it's good creatively, quite apart from its human value. He says: "You need musicians who aren't going for safety, but will look for that extra bit of magic, who aren't looking over their shoulder." That's why the council aims to make player turnover as low as possible.

That in turn is crucial to the mysterious business of maintaining the orchestra's sound. It is an oddity of the system that very young players can come straight in to senior positions and top fees. They augment it, but do not constitute anything organic and enduring. The Phil is 54 this year, and its history already includes several players with 30 and 40 years' association with the orchestra. Perhaps that is why a great orchestra really is a single instrument in its own right.

`The Phil' is on Channel 4 at 8pm, on 24 and 31 January, and 7 February

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat