Air on a shoestring

Yes, sacrifices must be made if our orchestras are to survive. But the RPO got it wrong. By Anthony Everitt
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The Independent Culture
Paul Findlay is a good guy with bad luck. The players of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have just sacked him as their managing director. He does not deserve the blow that has struck him down.

He came to the RPO in 1993 after many years at the Royal Opera House. When in charge of the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), he invented the idea of taking ballet in a Big Top circus tent to those parts of the country it had never reached before. He then moved across to run opera at the ROH. He stayed for a while after Jeremy Isaacs arrived as general director, but then took the biggest gamble of his life by joining the RPO. The slight change in his employer's initials marked a move from Britain's best-funded arts organisation to one that was apparently on the brink of extinction.

The RPO had gained the reputation of spreading its resources too thinly and music gossips joked, unkindly and apocryphally, about the band playing in two continents on the same night. The Arts Council worried about standards of programming and gradually reduced its grant.

Findlay is an enthusiast, always optimistic and always full of energy. He talks with extraordinary rapidity, words and ideas tumbling from his lips. He soon persuaded the RPO that the future lay in developing its work outside London, while maintaining a metropolitan presence. He quickly negotiated a residency in Nottingham, established a special relationship with the resurgent Royal Albert Hall and, in partnership with Raymond Gubbay, adopted some of the techniques of rock and pop concerts (laser lighting and the like): RPO performances became not just musical but theatrical events.

Whatever the precise circumstances of his departure, Findlay was essentially defeated by circumstances beyond his control. The RPO is not the first self-governing orchestra to resent the strong leadership that is today essential for success.

His downfall is yet another example of the powerful undercurrents that have been disturbing the classical musical world and could well lead to the shipwreck of one or other of our symphony orchestras. It is not many months since another London orchestra, the London Philharmonic, resident at the South Bank Centre after a bruising competition with the Philharmonia, disposed of its managing director, the businessman Christopher Lawrence, having already parted on bad terms with his predecessor. Running an orchestra is becoming as insecure a profession as being a football club manager.

The orchestral world faces two structural problems and an urgent financial crisis. Audiences in London for live concerts have been in a long, slow decline, although here and there signs of recovery can be detected. According to the last major study, the BBC/Arts Council Review of National Orchestra Provision, percentage capacity figures at the Royal Festival Hall for classical concerts had fallen from 81 per cent to 61 per cent between 1970 and 1994.

The second big issue is that the BBC and the Arts Council have supported two completely different groups of orchestras, until recently with little or no joint planning and co-ordination. This has led to an uneven spread of orchestras across the country and, in today's cut-throat environment, there may not be room for everybody in the musical market place.

These long-term issues are overshadowed by the increasingly insecure trading position both of the London orchestras and of those in the regions. Many are building up large, unsustainable deficits (an estimated total of pounds 1.9 million in 1994/5).

What will happen next? There are only three possibilities: one is the bright prospect that, despite the pounds 5 million cut to next year's arts budget, Lord Gowrie, the chairman of the Arts Council of England, will persuade the government to relax the rules that allow National Lottery money to be spent only on capital projects as opposed to running costs. As things stand, splendid new or refurbished concert halls will rise proudly in city centres across the land with fewer and fewer British orchestras to play in them - a palpably absurd state of affairs.

The alternatives are miserable. The Arts Council could decide to concentrate its funding and let one or more orchestras go to the wall; this would at least mean what defeated armies call a "strategic withdrawal". The Council attempted this course of action during my time as Secretary General and failed in a storm of controversy. Otherwise, we can just sit back and wait for bankruptcies to detonate at random.

The RPO has ditched its pilot but is sticking to his policies, which are showing some signs of success. But whether it will be able to survive in the long term, or its competitors for that matter, is a moot point. Don't put any money on it. As we say these days, it's a lottery.