State wipes out debts of Britain's orchestras

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The Independent Culture

IN AN unprecedented move, every symphony orchestra in the country is to have its debts paid off by the government-funded Arts Council.

IN AN unprecedented move, every symphony orchestra in the country is to have its debts paid off by the government-funded Arts Council.

After years of reports and inquiries into the parlous financial state of the orchestras, Gerry Robinson, the council chairman, said he would offer them "a fresh start".

But the Council has once again side-stepped the question of whether there are too many orchestras - notably in London - which has been the subject of many previous Arts Council studies. Instead, all orchestras will get a financial uplift.

Mr Robinson is sharing a one-off payment of £10m between the nine orchestras funded by the council to pay off their debts and to enable them to offer "a more imaginative repertoire" to audiences.

"We propose to remove the outstanding debts of most of the orchestras and - for each of the regional orchestras - to award a minimum £1.5m core grant in 1999-2000," he said yesterday.

"The revenue grants to the four London orchestras for 2000-2001 will be decided by London Arts Board in consultation with the Arts Council.

"In return, the orchestras will need to embrace change to enable audiences across the country to have access to the highest quality and widest range of orchestral music."

Eight of the Arts Council-funded bodies are in debt, with the deficits taken together totalling £8m earlier this year. By the end of the next financial year this will have risen by a further £1.6m.

Mr Robinson said there had been a deep-seated problem of finance and other specific difficulties over the years. Many of the bodies have high fixed costs like salaries which often outstrip the dependable income.

Two of the orchestras - the Bournemouth Orchestras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society - are struggling to keep afloat. Those two, as well as the other three regional orchestras - the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Halle Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia - will each be given a £1.5m subsidy in the coming financial year.

For Liverpool and Bournemouth, this will be a drop and further discussions are ongoing to ensure their stability.

Arts Council executives were keen to point out that no blanket change of structure is being imposed on all nine orchestras and individual plans will be worked out with each.

This could involve more teaching work for players or freelance contracts for the regional orchestras in the same way the London orchestras operate. The council is also keen to see more flexible and wider repertoires.

Mr Robinson said this was a chance to "genuinely resolve the problems of the past and give a reasonable chance to moving forward in a useful way.

"If we don't take this approach, a number of orchestras would simply have gone to the wall," he said.

"We want to be realistic with them. What can be done? What funding can they be given? And how will they use that to ensure that they survive artistically in a way that is vibrant and fresh? This is not the Arts Council saying this is how you do it."

Peter Hewitt, the Arts Council's chief executive, said sorting out orchestral funding would be good news for music as a whole.

National treasures with shoestring sections

Halle Orchestra Subsidy in 1999/2000: £1,350,000 Subsidy in 2000/2001: £1.5m Founded in 1858; principal conductor Kent Nagano; based in Manchester; the oldest professional symphony orchestrain the country

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Subsidy in 1999/2000: £1,556,940 Subsidy in 2000/2001: £1.5m, plus additional funds for running concert hall Founded in 1840; principal conductor Peter Altrichter; the only concert society in the UK to own and run its concert hall

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Subsidy in 1999/2000: £1,350,000 Subsidy 2000/2001: £1.5m Founded in 1919; conductor Sakari Oramo; came to world prominence under Sir Simon Rattle during the Eighties

London Symphony Orchestra Subsidy in current year: £1,304,800 Subsidy in coming year: to be set Founded in 1904; principal conductor Sir Colin Davis (above); the only British orchestra with a New York residency

Northern Sinfonia Subsidy in 1999/2000: £1,025,956 Subsidy in 2000/2001: Towards £1.5m to be phased in over run-up to opening of Music Centre, Gateshead Only professional orchestra in North

The Philharmonia Subsidy in current financial year: £735,000 Subsidy in coming financial year: to be set by London Arts Board with reference to Arts Council Founded in 1945; principal conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi (above); UK's most recorded orchestra

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Subsidy in 1999/2000: £350,000 Subsidy in 2000/2001: To be set by Arts Council Founded in 1946; Music director Daniele Gatti; Britain's most internationally recognised orchestra, touring all over the world, from Poland to Hong Kong; when not abroad, resident in the Royal Albert Hall, London, and Nottingham

London Philharmonic Orchestra Subsidy in current year: £735,000 Subsidy in coming year: to be set by London Arts Board Founded in 1932; principal conductor-designate Kurt Masur; was the first British orchestra to tour Russia and the first Western one to visit China

Bournemouth Orchestras Subsidy in 1999/2000: £1,852,340 Subsidy in 2000/2001: £1.5m (plus, subject to discussion, up to £325,000 to reflect extent of region) Founded 1893; principal conductors Yakov Kreizberg and Alexander Polianichko; largest touring area of any UK orchestra; gives about 250 concerts a year

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