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.
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The Independent Culture
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