MUSIC / Harmony in the house: As the London Philharmonic finally sets up home on the South Bank, Robert Maycock surveys the state of London's orchestral life

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Tonight's epic-length concert at the Royal Festival Hall - it starts at 6.30, has two intervals, and runs until 10pm - is both grand gesture and house-warming party. The London Philharmonic was marked out to be the resident orchestra when the hall opened at the Festival of Britain. But it fell foul of McCarthy-age paranoia when its then manager, a Communist sympathiser, accepted an invitation to Moscow in 1949, and the London County Council - not quite what the GLC was later to be - withdrew support. Since then the London orchestral scene has remained a political battleground, even as it has gone musically from strength to strength. The prize of residency has been remembered, fought over, but never until now awarded.

At least, it was meant to be a prize. But what is so special about it when, in the meantime, half the performers in the land possess the same sort of title? The London Symphony Orchestra is resident at the Barbican, the Philharmonia at the Chatelet in Paris. The latter, indeed, is very much in evidence too at the South Bank, where both the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the London Sinfonietta have had resident status in recent years, and the Alban Berg Quartet and Opera Factory still do. Radio 3 is cheekily claiming that its season begins with a 'mini-residency on the South Bank'. Individuals have become Conductor Emeritus or Composer in Association. Tomorrow, at the Purcell Room, there is even something called an Associate Concert. Baffled audiences, no doubt hoping to avoid a Principal Guest Programme, simply ignore the labels and go for the music and artists they like.

What the South Bank offered was the chance to become that other mythical entity, a World-Class Orchestra. Franz Welser-Most, the London Philharmonic's music director, has no doubts about that ambition, and happily accepts that it means his orchestra is not, right now, world-class. 'The potential is there. But the circumstances in London have never really allowed it. If you always stay with a freelance status you never can develop the confidence and mentality a world class orchestra needs.'

He wants five years (which is the entire length of the residency agreement) to prove they can do it. The means are to centre on improved working conditions, including extended rehearsal times in the hall, and on greater powers for the music director: hiring and firing, for instance. Inevitably it depends on money. Some key players have been moved from being freelances on to signed agreements which prevent them playing for other London orchestras. To extend this hold to the rest of the orchestra will need higher income from public and private sources.

More than money, though, there has to be a change of 'mentality'. This, too, needs time. 'Even though there's a very positive feeling in the orchestra, on the other hand there's an insecure feeling: what is going to happen to me personally? Is he going to fire me?' Welser- Most's manner, normally intense and earnest - you sense he inspires his orchestra chiefly by will-power - becomes more animated. If anybody's mentality had to change, it was the South Bank Centre management's. Two years ago, you would not have predicted that tonight's concert would focus on Beethoven and Schumann and, apart from a brief opening firecracker for percussion by Rainer Kuisma, contain nothing more modern than Britten and Stravinsky.

Nicholas Snowman, the centre's artistic chief, shortly to become its sole top manager, and well known for his modernist leanings, talks of having 'less classical concerts in the Festival Hall, and making them great occasions. It's an ageing audience. By injecting new things into the repertoire, bringing in a younger public with the image of a young music director, we can look to the future. I'm excited by the idea of taking these big houses into a repertoire they don't always come to.' But his second-in-command, Graham Sheffield, pointedly interrupts him with the phrase 'step by step', and an amused Snowman repeats it as though rehearsing his lesson. 'I used to sit round with all the orchestras trying to sell my wares.'

Planning is evidently no longer a matter of confrontation between conservative orchestra and dirigiste hall. Sheffield talks of 'constant discussion at all levels'. Welser-Most is now quite effusive. 'I refuse to talk any more about sides. It's now the residency and we are both part of it. This isn't a political question, it's an artistic question. People were always waiting for the big clash. It does help if you get on at a personal level, and on my part I can say we do, but first of all we must talk professionally. It's the common interest to deliver art on the highest level possible.'

The repertoire will gradually spread out from the Austro-German classics and romantics that Welser-Most and two of his favoured guest conductors, Bernard Haitink and Klaus Tennstedt, are most at home with. Mariss Jansons covers Russian and to some extent French music. Contemporary music is proving harder to fix. There is vague talk of Simon Rattle and Pierre Boulez, which does not seem to have got anywhere, and rather more optimism about discussions with Michael Gielen. Among younger conductors Sian Edwards and Mark Wigglesworth are booked up for concerts in 'theme' series. The South Bank has commissioned music from Jonathan Lloyd and Robert Saxton for the orchestra and there is general enthusiasm to support new work with second performances of other recent pieces.

But will it make any difference to what you hear? The LSO is London's most experienced resident orchestra, with 10 years at the Barbican behind it. Its managing director, Clive Gillinson, believes its own residency has made a lasting musical difference, and that the central factor is the consistency of the orchestra. What took them years to get right was 'knowing our market place and understanding our audience. Now the repertoire is getting more challenging and the audiences are still going up. But if the product is not consistent you'll never sell it. We only ever appear with conductors and soloists we believe in, and in properly rehearsed programmes.'

The Royal Philharmonic deliberately chose not to apply for the South Bank residency, and has not regretted it. It has a developing relationship with the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. For the future it expects its Barbican spring series to become increasingly important, and it also sets its sights more consistently than other orchestras beyond the central London halls; more detailed policies will emerge when its new managing director, Paul Findlay, is in place next year. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, too, is in early days under new management, having just recruited Louise Badger, the RPO's No 2, to a higher- powered post reporting to Nicholas Kenyon.

Chasing after top-dog position, though it has always been a favourite sport among London orchestras, is not the only option for the future. A new scheme launched this month brings together 16 of Britain's orchestras in a massive education project called 'The Turn of the Tide', which will latch on to the National Curriculum for music by involving 40,000 primary-school children in a new work by Maxwell Davies. The only one of London's five symphony orchestras involved is the LSO.

Ironically it is the Philharmonia that has got ahead of the South Bank game in promoting contemporary music, taking on as Visiting Composer the popular James MacMillan to run an early-evening 'Music of Today' series which is free for ticket-holders of main concerts (it begins on Saturday week). Doubtless the politics will not go away. But the South Bank itself is cheerfully bullish about the potential of the London Philharmonic's residency. 'I'm sure it will change London's musical life,' says Sheffield, without irony. 'In five years it will not be recognisable. I don't think you should underestimate the changes that will come from this.'

Tonight's concert is broadcast live on Radio 3 and repeated in the hall tomorrow at 6.30pm

(Photograph omitted)