Classical: How the London Philharmonic found a social life

Schools, weddings, birthdays? No problem. The LPO has come out of the concert hall and into the community.
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WHAT ARE orchestras for? Performing concerts, maybe making records if they're lucky. And for many people, that is sufficient. Not, though, for the all-important funding bodies, whose grants come with strings attached: as if playing music were not enough, orchestras must now get out of the rehearsal room, out of the concert hall, into what might loosely be called the real world of education and outreach.

Most orchestras realise that the culture that supports them has changed, probably forever. With less recording work and fewer concerts, new raisons d'etre must be found. That is why, in recent months, members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra have been heard playing jigs at the 100th birthday party of Queenie of Streatham, or providing music for weddings and fetes.

This is all part of the orchestra's efforts to connect with the community around its London base, the Royal Festival Hall.

The latest of the orchestra's outreach projects is on a larger scale, involving dozens of local residents in performing as dancers, actors, - players and singers, alongside members of the orchestra, its youth orchestra and its chorus.

The work they will premier in Southwark Cathedral tomorrow is a piece of music theatre, And on the Eighth Day..., devised and largely composed by Andrew Peggie, whose book Musicians go to School is a vade-mecum for musical educationalists. Peggie has provided a structure to the piece, so that amateurs participate on equal terms with LPO professionals.

Interviewed after conducting a rehearsal for a miscellaneous but vociferous choir of 40 locals (ranging in age from approximately seven to 70), he emphasises that the "professionals' role is not simply to sit there and play the music they're expected to play. They're there to interact with the other performers, to be part of a team they help to build."

In Peggie's view, both sides of the pro/am divide stand to benefit. "This is an opportunity to expand the remit of the orchestra, to include people who are not traditionally its audience," he says. "But also to change the nature of the orchestra, which has to accept the need to put itself in front of people in ways that don't assume the conventions of concert- going. I don't see it in terms of any crude pay-off: this kind of work is time-consuming and expensive; it's not going to make a profit; it's not going to replace the recording work that, for all orchestras, is now harder to find."

The project's open-access policy, which welcomed absolutely everyone who wanted to participate, created its own special challenges. "You're not sure what you're working with until late in the process. Even then, inevitably, people come and go, and so a lot of the work has to wait until the very last moment. I had to come up with a musical strategy that would enable that to happen. But historically, any composer - particularly one working in the theatre - has had to embrace that intensely practical way of working. You need some kind of foundation that will allow it to happen, no matter what bizarre combination of people and instruments you end up with. The London Philharmonic provides that foundation.

"You know in advance the kind of instruments that people tend to learn. We've ended up with a sort of wind-band plus guitars, keyboards, a few strings and a percussionist. I've tried to make sure that the professionals fill key gaps. It's a process of gradual refinement, negotiation, anticipation."

Because the LPO spends much of the summer in the pit at Glyndebourne, its availability cannot be taken for granted. Yet its members are by no means reluctant participants. "There's a new generation of players who had this kind of work done for them when they were young, and now they want to reproduce that experience," says Peggie.

"That raises questions about professional integrity, autonomy, development. For instance, subjecting yourself to the demands of a conductor has its satisfactions, but also its frustrations, and there have to be ways of allowing players to develop outside that framework, while remaining within an orchestral context. It will be interesting to see how, in the long term, that might affect the sound of an orchestra and its approach to music-making."

The LPO recently announced that its 1998/99 Royal Festival Hall season attracted audiences averaging 81 per cent capacity, a 16 per cent increase over the previous season. Outreach projects such as And on the Eighth Day... have their own validity, but if they also play a part in keeping alive more traditional concerts, then even those who joyfully prophesy the death of classical music may have to pay attention.

`And on the Eighth Day...' is at Southwark Cathedral, London SE1, 6.30pm and 8.30pm Saturday 10 July, admission pounds 3 (0171-261 0755 to book)