CLASSICAL MUSIC / Oh I do like to be . . . inland: A small seaside orchestra is about to hit the big time. Michael White approves

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The Independent Culture
APART FROM a shared set of initials, the Bournemouth and Boston Symphony Orchestras don't have a lot in common. Boston is glamorous, well-endowed and unequivocally international: the cultural jewel of a patrician city with one of the world's great concert halls as its home.

Bournemouth is, well, none of those things: a regional ensemble playing seaside towns in south-west England. But last week Bournemouth broke out of its bucket-and-spade orbit and into the seriously big league, with a 10-date tour of some of the most prestigious concert venues in America. One of them was Boston Symphony Hall. From the two standing ovations (before the interval as well as at the end) and glowing testimonials in the papers it was clear that Boston thought Bournemouth was something really quite remarkable. As, in the course of events, did Dallas, New York and Washington.

Having heard the Boston triumph, I can vouch for it: it was remarkable - and the more so because here in Britain, Bournemouth is the next worst thing to a forgotten orchestra. Doing (with its sister band the Bournemouth Sinfonietta) worthy rounds of one-night stands in Poole and Yeovil, it doesn't draw much national attention. Nor, until very recently, has it had much profile in the national debate on orchestral provision. With no big-city base or Simon Rattle to threaten to resign for it, it hasn't had the clout.

But Bournemouth is working on that. The US tour was part of a profile-raising plan, and the next instalment comes on Tuesday, when the orchestra opens and takes on official residency in the brand new Anvil Centre, Basingstoke. If Basingstoke doesn't exactly assault the senses with the promise of prestige and glamour, the fact is that the Anvil is a pounds 13m, state-of-the-art auditorium. The acoustic designers, Arup, clearly intend it to be their own, smaller-scale challenge to Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Arup, one should explain, used to be top dogs in British acoustic design, known above all for Snape Maltings. Then rival architect Russell Johnson got the Birmingham contract and flew in, noisily, from America to show us how it should be done - with a basic shoebox shape, narrow balconies down the sides, and plenty of wood. The Anvil (wedge-shaped, with an in-the- round feel and more fibre than wood) looks like a counter-attack; although the results remain to be heard.

Just as critical for the BSO, though,

is the proximity Basingstoke offers to London and the ears of national decision-makers. Geography has always been a problem for the BSO, not just in terms of isolation but of identity. Its name reflects its foundation a hundred years ago as a uniformed municipal band playing the Bournemouth Winter Gardens. But in 1974 it moved home to Poole, where it remains (with Basingstoke an additional rather than substitute focus of activity). During the Eighties there was talk of moving to Bristol, which might have been a good idea, but came to nothing. And in any event, the BSO evolved into a largely touring enterprise, with 70 per cent of its concert work away from home across nine counties in the south-west. A coverage of almost one-third of England.

That makes it, at the very least, a hard- working orchestra. And, notwithstanding the small-town dates, it has a far from small-town repertory. From its early days the BSO has been a champion of new British music: it recently gave the world premiere of Dominic Muldowney's Percussion Concerto, in Yeovil. And while it hasn't always attracted cutting-edge conductors, the past six years under Andrew Litton (the baby-faced young American, about to leave and take over the Dallas Symphony) have been vintage. He will be a hard act to follow - although the tipped successor, Jakov Kreizberg (newly in charge of the Berlin Komische Oper), could foster some interesting relationships abroad.

What irritates the BSO is that despite all this, the orchestra remains at the bottom of the regional funding pile: a poor relation to the Halle, Royal Liverpool and (of course) CBSO. Talk to the players and you detect resentment of the way Rattle muscles in to get favoured treatment for his orchestra - and it may be not entirely unconnected with the fact that Rattle served his apprenticeship at Bournemouth in the 1970s, with much well-publicised bad feeling on all sides.

But it's undeniable that Bournemouth is forced to pay its players less than any other British symphony orchestra, and has to retain the smallest headcount: 'smaller than we need to do our job,' according to the orchestra's manager, Anthony Woodcock. 'I wish,' he says, 'we could get the Arts Council to recognise what sort of animal we are and what it will take for us to survive with a current deficit of pounds 213,000. But how do you get anything through to the Arts Council these days? All they do is subject us to endless assessments, pat us on the back and then say there's no money. It's like dealing with blancmange.'

Bournemouth has been through three assessments in the past 18 months. It is now about to dive into the blancmange- like fray of the joint Arts Council / BBC report on regional orchestras, out this month. Waving his US tour reviews from his new platform in Basingstoke, Anthony Woodcock can only hope to keep Bournemouth's head above the froth.

BSO opens the Anvil, Basingstoke (0256 844244), on 3 May.

(Photograph omitted)

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