ORCHESTRAS / Bands play on: Robert Maycock examines why the BBC is joining in yet another survey

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The Independent Culture
Sorting out the 'problems' of Britain's orchestras has been a national sport for a quarter of a century. First, there were supposed to be too many in London, and the solution was to get rid of one or two. But nobody volunteered. The BBC tried to close some of its own, and was hit by a strike that stopped the Proms. Then came the worry about a shortage - in the east of England.

Eight years ago, a report called The Glory of the Garden suggested persuading an orchestra to leave London and set up home 'possibly in Nottingham'. Lately, several of the capital's orchestras have fought for the honour of being developed to 'world-class' status, which none of them seem to believe they possess already. Yet the symphony orchestras are still there and thriving, and while a couple of smaller groups have gone, others have sprung up.

Why, then, do the BBC and the Arts Council choose now to launch yet another survey into 'the provision of live and broadcast orchestral music in Great Britain' - the wording of this week's announcement? Over the years the orchestras have changed in the way they work. New concert halls have widened the gap with parts of the country that lack adequate performing spaces. A procession of orchestras from half the world passes through, and home orchestras are often away on tour. Many more of them are busy in recording studios.

They never did get enough from the Arts Council to become totally dependent on subsidy - if they had done, the Council might have been able to dictate which ones survived. But now they have all gone in for diversifying their sources of income, even the BBC orchestras. If the BBC and the independent orchestras are converging on this count, they are too in what they play. Now that BBC programming is less cushioned from market demands, it has had to sacrifice some of its freedom from worries about more popular repertoire. The independents, which used to programme much more conservatively, have broadened their repertoire and are starting to take on 'composers in association' through an Arts Council-backed scheme.

There are still big differences: while some of them worry that they cannot compete on equal terms with the massive resources of the BBC, the Corporation's orchestras are lagging on some of the most creative areas of development such as education and working closely with composers. The joint study, due to report by the end of the year, is limited to the location and programming of the orchestras, and the management structures of the BBC orchestras. There has been plenty of speculation about hidden agendas: favourite is that the real aim is to shift the BBC Philharmonic away from Manchester, where the Halle is building a new hall.

The limits themselves, however, ought to cause more concern. Many of the most exciting growth areas at the moment concern chamber orchestras and specialist contemporary or period instrument groups. Beyond that, the upsurge of overseas performers visiting Britain, often promoting records like the pop industry, is a sign of powerful changes in the international touring and media business. Without assessing the global perspective, any effect the funding bodies have on listeners' experience could be marginal.

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