Documentary: Orchestral manoeuvres in the broom cupboard

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The Phil


Last week's episode of , Channel 4's behind-the-scenes look at orchestral manoeuvres, opened with a wrap: German conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi was suffering the indignity of being wrapped in black velvet in front of the Philharmonia's publicists, a photographer, and the documentary team. "They usually pay me to hold the stick," he grumbled, impatiently twitching the baton in front of his aristocratic nose.

Was he joking? It was hard to tell. The scene was set in the plush surroundings of the Savoy, unlike most of the rest of the series - which is acted out in a variety of corridors and broom cupboards at the Royal Festival Hall. After some brief shots of Dohnanyi rehearsing Sibelius's Violin Concerto, I decided he must have been joking after all. "If it's not together that's just fine," he told the orchestra. This is not a phrase normally associated with conductors.

For a while it looked as though the first episode was going to be a Norman Lebrecht-style expose of the intense animosity of orchestral players towards their conductors. No matter how brilliant the guy on the podium may be - and this series is littered with musical giants such as Ashkenazy, Svetlanov, Salonen, Levine, Slatkin and Craft - it is impossible to ignore the fact that the only silent person on stage may well be taking home the equivalent of a rank-and-file violinist's annual wage for just one performance. The players had a variety of responses to this, though, as with most aspects of the series, it wasn't explored fully. Nick Whiting, an Eddie Izzard lookalike and principal second violinist, had his chance to play at being the great maestro at his daughter's primary school. Encircled by xylophones, tambourines, triangles and things that went beep, he whirled around giving directions to bemused five-year-olds. (I didn't much fancy his down-beat but I have seen worse.) When the cacophony stopped - only a couple of seconds after he did - he grinned broadly. "See how easy it is to be a conductor?" he said.

Christopher Warren Green, the bouffant, gentleman-farmer Concert Master, handled his frustrations in an altogether more alarming way. He got medieval with a block of firewood, splitting it with relish as he cried: "This is the conductor's head!" Warren Green's Country Life life-style is far removed from the south London terraces of his co-workers - but he does get twice the cash. It's all green wellies, glossy horses, open fires and chintz. He also has a whole farmyard of toys with which he can act out his revenge fantasies. I was starting to get quite excited at this point. But the film soon headed back into more bureaucratic waters with the orchestral council chairman and piccolo player, Keith Bragg.

The orchestra is a self-run body and Keith is at its helm. An Essex man, Keith is as tall as his instrument is short. He plays rugby and paints. He is also a stickler for procedure which, added to his immense height and rather stiff, formal speech, makes it more like watching The Bill than . It is oddly fascinating to see him dealing with political problems in the endless footage of council meetings. His parody-feminine, Victor Mature-style lips move when he is in thought as though searching for the comfort of the piccolo's embouchure. But that isn't really enough to justify the two minutes of Piccolo Player in Photocopier Disaster Shock! Also, while I'm on the camera's puppyish attachment to Keith, is it really necessary to follow him into the Philharmonia's office only to see him disappear into the gents? The accompanying gem from the voice over was "Moments one can call one's own are far and few between".

The series is of the "look, these people are just like us" school of television journalism, which is incorrect because these people are not like most of us at all. However routine their problems may be - money worries, lack of time with the kids, ageing relatives, alcoholism and relationship breakdowns - they do something extraordinary every day of their working lives; they make incredibly beautiful music with a world- standard orchestra. But how they square practical and emotional worries with creating or recreating high art for a living is barely touched upon. At the most basic level it would have been good to discover what drives these "ordinary" people to pour out their musical hearts night after night, despite anti-social hours and a level of pay that doesn't approach the salaries of professionals who have trained for a similar length of time. But this was not explored. Not surprisingly, none of the players interviewed wanted their children to become musicians. I would hazard a guess that, despite David Blunkett's enthusiasm, an awful lot of after- school recorder lessons have been cancelled on the basis of last week's episode alone.

If was intended to de-mystify, it failed. There was more information on the process of making music in the scant two minutes of James Levine rehearsing the orchestra in Brahm's Violin Concerto than in the rest of the series. Levine, with minimal movement and maximum concentration, eyeballed the orchestra, gently pointed out a few adjustments to dynamics, turned to the soloist, Maxim Vengerov, and asked "Did I schlep you too much there?" Magic. Of course, the film-makers are up against the two- minute Musicians' Union rule; more audio-visual recording than this and the cost would rocket. So we get lots of Keith in the broom cupboard and very little music.

Yet the music, when it comes, is sublime. Why not ask the orchestra members how they feel about working with artists such as Vengerov, Mitsuoko Uchida, Roberto Alagna and Levine? Why not ask these artists how they feel about the Philharmonia? Even - touchy subject, this - ask the rank and file what it is that separates them from the soloists? In theory you can see why it may have seemed "sexy" to apply the much-derided genre of docu- soap to something as rarified as a symphony orchestra, but there is a lack of focus or engagement with music and musicians throughout the series. We are not told anything about the difference between rehearsing, recording and performing. Contrary to the dull impression given by this documentary, making music really is the main activity of any orchestra.

Lowlights of the script included a moment when touring - a massive operation involving the choreography of 100 instruments and 80 instrumentalists - was described as "the rock 'n' roll lifestyle without the rock and without the roll". The worst example was at the Royal Gala performance: "Whether the fact that the Verdi Requiem had been played at Diana's funeral only three months before added to the poignancy of the gala is a secret that only the Prince will know."

None of the musicians in the series complain about their pay - perhaps mindful of how much worse it is in the freelance orchestral world. What they resent is the increasing demands on their time. But the Phil and other orchestras are having to work harder and harder to stay afloat and reach new audiences. Back at the farm, Christopher Warren Green suggests that the orchestra go and play on the streets to people queuing for rock concerts, presumably on one of his days off. "You know what would happen?" he asks, winsomely. "They'd dance!"

Music enthusiasts might be better off going to a concert. But tonight's episode does include at least one priceless moment, when Vladimir Ashkenazy is parted from a Steinway by the removal men.