World-class in Little England: There's more to life than London orchestras. Robert Maycock looks for the real action as the British musical scene faces change

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ON THE one hand, cuts; on the other, 'world-class orchestras with secure residential bases', to quote Lord Palumbo. Could there possibly be a more depressing way to run the nation's music?

It's a measure of the insularity of British public life that we hold on to a touching faith in 'world-class' institutions as the answer to our problems - like believing that all we need is a nice officer-class cricket captain and we'll start winning Test matches. Never mind that the rest of the world knows there is no substitute for proper training and a sense of joy in your strengths.

The way to make orchestras world- class, we learn, is to pump money into them and hack down everything that gets in their way. Yet, for a quarter of a century, efforts to act on that belief have got nowhere. Orchestras rise and fall constantly for not-so-strange reasons like morale or confidence in the management or discontent with the parade of conductors. There's nothing much outside intervention can do to stop the process.

All the London ones have had their turn to be bottom of the pile. The London Symphony Orchestra, currently at the top, got there by playing its own game and taking off to a separate home at the Barbican. Two years ago, the others seemed to be quietly sorting out their own niches. But the South Bank residency had to be 'world-class', so it was hedged about with conditions and restrictions. The chosen orchestra promptly started playing worse, and others are now being asked to bid for funds in competition with it, instead of getting on with their own lives.

The most ridiculous thing is that away from this sterile debate, everybody can see the London musical world changing in exciting ways, which leave obvious gaps where intervention could achieve something.

There's an international opera house sitting in the middle of Covent Garden which threatens to run off with half the proceeds of the National Lottery unless people get their brains to work on efficient ways of giving it the updated facilities it needs.

Smaller opera companies are springing up all over the place, without anywhere adequate to perform. Quite separately, plans for small opera theatres are springing up. Why aren't they all talking to each other?

An explosion of what used to be called 'world music' has transformed the experience of concert-goers, yet it goes unnoticed by critics, gets shoved into funding categories called 'non- Western', and barely impinges on public debate about musical life.

Huge critical attention and massive subsidy goes into a small, closed world of contemporary music which holds an all-consuming interest for those on the inside and almost none for anybody else. A few composers are finding unprecedented popular success, but they face the barely concealed contempt of the insiders.

Even the orchestral scene has its changes: a huge increase in visits by the great and not-so-great orchestras of the world, usually familiar from records, bringing with them the star names as conductors and soloists, and often organised into prestige series. But there is near-anarchy about who plays what. Everybody wants to tour the repertoire that shows them at their best, and well-meant attempts to keep the concert halls' repertoire diverse have been overtaken by the speed of events.

One point of agreement is the role of education. The national pattern of music teaching through local education authorities is in decline; performing groups are eager to go to work in schools. You could take the view that arts organisations are being coerced into providing a sort of privatised substitute for a state service. But you would need a hard heart not to respond to the results, whether in creative development for the National Curriculum or in huge-scale community operas or in intensive work with long-sentence prisoners. And the funding system has been won over in a big way.

You couldn't say the Royal Opera House is being ignored, even if nobody has the answer yet. But what else could we do instead of trying to push the orchestral world out of gear?

Bang a few heads together among Spitalfields Market Opera, which is rushing ahead with a small theatre that will only suit companies that like proscenium stagings; the other factions around Spitalfields that have ideas for the old buildings; the South Bank, before it commits itself to turning the Purcell Room into another studio theatre; and the performing companies that might actually have a view if only they were asked - they have just organised themselves into an Opera and Music Theatre Forum.

Set up an across-the-board centre for contemporary music, with performing space, meeting areas and a lively cafe, offices for promoters, retail outlets for specialist music suppliers of all sorts. The essential words are across the board: improvisers alongside composers, folk alongside classical, black alongside white, esoteric alongside popular, however you like to put it as long as it means inclusion instead of exclusion.

Stop trying to force unsuitably esoteric contemporary music on performers and audiences who don't want it. Specifically this means the more traditional and conservative groups. There are specialists like the BBC Symphony Orchestra that know how to handle it, and imaginative composer-in-association schemes that can tackle the long task of building bridges between composer, performer and audience. But you will more easily excite a public already used to contemporary arts - theatre, cinema, jazz - than your typical 'classical' concert-goer.

Encourage other ways of broadening musical experience. The 'early music' movement has gone from strength to strength. Now it's the turn of the popular end of modern work, post-rock and post-minimal music, the classical and contemporary and theatrical music of Africa and Asia and Latin America.

Sort out the place of visiting orchestras in the London market, and invest spectacularly in marketing London's best orchestral acoustic: the Fairfield Hall in Croydon.

These are all live topics, but who's listening? The Arts Council's music department, pilloried for its orchestral scheming, has had some of the necessary ideas. Its director, Kenneth Baird, thinks London issues can't be separated from national ones; it has backed the growth of the regional symphony orchestras and likes touring by smaller groups. It has noticed that audiences are drifting away from 'standard' popular orchestral programmes and prefer to turn out for events perceived as special, like a Colin Davis Sibelius cycle. It is supposed to deal with 'cultural diversity in its broadest sense', adding a concern for age groups to that for minority groups, and British folk traditions to other national cultures (experience suggests this may mean dilution). Amateurs are in favour. The music panel is strong on new work and schemes to support it; Baird is keen on anything that will improve the presentation of contemporary work, from more imaginative commissioning, to better lighting and less stuffy concert behaviour.

And there will be a national policy on orchestras. The joint Arts Council- BBC study, set up long before the sudden plunge into sorting out London, is, says Baird, 'on ice'. A public consultation exercise is due to happen early next year. But by then the council means to have the door closed on any further consideration for the London symphony orchestras, except the BBC's.

The London decision, triggered by the need for cost-cutting, is being pursued for 'artistic reasons'. Whether it's for the right artistic reasons remains to be seen. It's certainly the right time: cultural change is all around. But what is alarmingly clear is that the decision is being approached in a vacuum. Unless the debate opens up to include the whole spectrum of the nation's musical needs, we will come out of it with two unproven world-class orchestras for London, and not a lot else.

(Photograph omitted)