CLASSICAL MUSIC / How to give a fillip to the Phil: Manchester's 'other' orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, has emerged from the broadcasting studios and sharpened up its act. Andrew Green reports
Saturday 24 April 1993
More public concert activity around the UK and abroad, commercial recordings - a previously alien concept - photo-imaging and a racy logo, ventures into education and community work: it adds up to a revolution in outlook. Green's motives have been a delicate mixture of missionary instinct and a desire to guard against possible threats to the orchestra's future. Some have accused him of cheap populism. He demurs. 'Without ever going down the lowest common denominator route in repertoire terms, I passionately want us to be welcoming and approachable. What I can't bear is elitism.
'Equally, the experience of having been on the staff at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1980 when it was under threat has left a mark. You can never be complacent.' As if to prove him right, along last year came the joint BBC/Arts Council survey into the provision of broadcast orchestral music in Great Britain. The report on the survey is on a tight circle of desks - a public consultation period starts soon.
Change has inevitably carried a price. Green refers to the 'painful' business of persuading several unsympathetic members of staff to leave. Ongoing rounds of musical chairs have seen the introduction of a first orchestra manager, Malcolm Warne Holland, followed by the creation of a marketing post. Senior producer Brian Pidgeon, formerly general manager of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, was a prime catch. Advertising and public relations consultants - both London-based - are in tow, while the latest arrival is an Education and Community Co-ordinator, Martin Maris.
The cash to pay for Team Trevor has come in part from the increased concert activity, whereby local promoters buy in the Philharmonic at commercial rates. 'The licence payer in no way subsidises public concerts these days,' says Malcolm Warne Holland. 'Engagements have to pay their own way. We don't undercut commercial orchestras.' While such income is now an integral part of yearly budgeting, Warne Holland insists this could never point the way to total financial independence from licence-payers' money - not given the orchestra's traditional 'adventurous' repertoire objectives. Profile, then, goes hand-in-hand with performance these days. Facilitated by new contractual arrangements with the players, commercial recordings of Hindemith, Gliere, Respighi and the Philharmonic's composer/conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies are seen as a more effective way than concert reviews of having the orchestra compared with the best in the world. The devising of a spidery white-on-black logo has been followed by fish-eye lens publicity shots with principal conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.
'In the past,' says the concert promotions co-ordinator Amanda Tenneson, 'marketing and promotion just weren't accepted concepts. The image we're trying to convey now relies heavily on Tortelier - it's personality that gets across to the public. But the exercise is as much about stimulating awareness of the orchestra as attracting audiences.' Many Mancunians, it seems, have thought the Halle and Philharmonic to be one and the same animal. Philharmonic staff point to the steady development of audiences at the various, re-vamped, own-promoted Manchester series - traditionally poorly or barely supported - rather than any dramatic turn-round. On the road, audiences have forged ahead.
Local promoters, says Malcolm Warne Holland, are even learning to spice familiar repertoire with a dash of enterprise. 'Maybe the repertoire identity overall has changed a little, but the number of commissions and first performances - especially those featuring British composers - has held up, as has the performing of repertoire by underplayed composers of the past. The point is that the orchestra is doing more dates, more repertoire - and it's the additional repertoire which is generally the more popular element.' Despite the new commercialism, there remain 'guidelines' in the area of sponsorship. 'Essentially it can only be used in project funding, not as revenue,' says Brian Pidgeon. 'For example, education projects like our recent Cambridge residency or the raising of funds to engage Solti or Rozhdestvensky. Obviously too much involvement in sponsorship would raise questions about our receipt of cash from the licence fee.'
The Cambridge residency, the Philharmonic's contribution to the nationwide Turn of the Tide project, was the orchestra's first substantial move into education and community work. 'An eye-opener for the players,' says Martin Maris. 'One of them was so moved by special school work that he said it should now be written into players' contracts.' Music education classes have begun at Strangeways Prison and plans are afoot for a project in the Moss Side area of Manchester. Maris agrees such activities represent useful ammunition in arguing the orchestra's raison d'etre, but insists they remain '. . .intrinsically incredibly valuable - meeting the concern over music in schools, for example. Much of the work will have little public profile.'
Reaction in the band-room seems favourable. 'Yes, there were fears that artistic integrity would be diluted,' says principal second violin Bob Chasey. 'That's happened only to the smallest degree.' There's greater concern at the outcome of the BBC/Arts Council survey. 'We know the future isn't exactly assured,' says Chasey. 'Maybe it will be a question of having to move to another location . . . and in the back of anyone's mind has to be fear of disbandment.'
Yan Pascal Tortelier is foursquare behind his players, whose comradeship and English cuisine he is happy to share in the staff canteen. Many in Manchester have their money on the Philharmonic's moving to Nottingham, possibly Leeds or Sheffield. All concerned are careful to nod knowingly at the advantages such a move might bring - identity with a community, maybe a hall of their own - before pointing out the problems. Trevor Green, admitting to 'hyper- sensitivity on the issue', worries that any transfer would involve plural funding, with much of the BBC's financial contribution being replaced by cash from local authorities, the Arts Council or maybe the national lottery. 'What would be our relationship to broadcasting then? At the moment all we do is broadcast . . . that's the quality control. What would be the guarantees over appearing at the Proms? What effect would plural funding have on our distinctive repertoire?
'As things stand we're already able to service a wide area and we're certainly not in competition with the Halle in the city. Our future is in being on the road and doing outreach. This is a finely-balanced orchestra, built up over many years. I just don't want that disrupted.'
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