It seems that managements have at last found the key to pulling in the punters. Not because it's the New World Symphony or the 1812; not because of a starry pas de deux or a multi-million-pound tenor aria. They've discovered the Farewell Concert. It has taken 20 years to learn the trick from Frank Sinatra, but better late than never.
The Royal Opera decided to hold its beano to remind the faithful - extremely expensively - that they will not be able to set foot in the dear old place again for the next two years, while the decorators are in for pounds 214m-worth of repairs. The Farewell Gala Concert played to a 2,000-plus audience glittering with royalty and VIPs inside the house, and to thousands more watching the live relay on the giant screen outside, while another few millions watched it all on TV at home.
Our Bournemouth do may not quite have emulated Covent Garden's glitzy affair. It was more modest in its aspirations, but no less worthy for all that. It was Brendan O'Brien's last concert after 29 years as the orchestra's leader. "Brendan's Last Stand" shouted the local rag. "The programme will include the New World Symphony, starring Celia Craig playing the famous Hovis segment." It wasn't the prospect of our cor anglais player trying to coax a tune out of a chunk of medium-sliced brown bread that had them flocking in, but the sight of Brendan leading the orchestra for the very last time.
Even though we couldn't rustle up Domingo, Haitink or Solti, or relay the concert on a giant screen above the crazy-golf course outside, or receive sealed bids for Brendan's socks, braces etc, the event was such a success that there is talk of running a whole series of "Brendan's Last Concerts" next summer. We're on to a winner. And just in case Brendan doesn't want to go through his Frank Sinatra bit, we're already scouring the land for people to say farewell to. (They're closing down Kwik-Save up the road, but sadly we can't get our kettle drums past the check-outs.)
I was thinking about all this last week when we were playing a load of modern garbage at one of our music festivals. There weren't many in the audience. I don't know if we did the piece justice. Just after we'd started rehearsing it, a man with a road drill obligingly drilled through electric cables across the road, and paralysed the whole town. Then, on the way to the concert the next day, the orchestra coaches got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams, curtailing our final rehearsal. But I don't suppose that the real reason for the lack of audience was news from Mystic Meg that our rendition might be anything less than perfectly rehearsed. We might have been playing it brilliantly, for all they (and we) knew. Indeed, my desk partner and I were going great guns, sawing away with the utmost confidence - until, half-way down a page, I realised that I'd turned over two pages at once, and we were some 50 bars ahead of everyone else. Such an achievement alone deserved a full house. But it was not to be.
What had put people off were those two dreaded words "First Performance". Not only do they generally imply an assault on the ear-drums, but the word "First" necessarily suggests that yet more performances may be lurking round the corner. The concert's promoters had been guilty of perpetrating a basic marketing error. What they should have promised was "Last Performance" - which is what it almost certainly was - or even "Farewell Gala Performance". That would have been guaranteed to fill the audience's mind with insatiable curiosity, and the box-office coffers with dosh. What's more, the audience would have quite happily sat through the thing, cosily and smugly confident that they would never have to endure the racket again.
Brendan has served the music profession with distinction and integrity throughout a long career - which is more than can be said of most of those in charge of Covent Garden - and he fully deserved all the speeches, tributes and presentations, the standing ovation, the flowers, the special reception and party. So, now that he has gone, who is leading the orchestra this week?
Well, Brendan, actually. I don't think anyone's yet thought of advertising the concert as "Brendan O'Brien's inaugural concert as guest leader" - "inaugural" does not have quite the same magnetic attraction as "Farewell", so it wouldn't make any difference at the box-office. But the next occasion he is with us, in a few weeks' time, could perhps be billed as his "Positively Farewell Concert", for I believe it will be. He has asked for a pair of slippers for his birthdayn IP