What's the score then, Vladimir?

Ashkenazy has walked out of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and anothe r top arts job is vacant. But why, if arts supremos feel themselves treated so badly, does anyone take these jobs in the first place? David Lister reports
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Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the world's greatest conductors, sat alone in his Berlin flat yesterday, his heart broken.

Ashkenazy, as revealed in yesterday's Independent, had learnt that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was planning to replace him with a much lesser known Italian conductor, Daniele Gatti. In a fit of traditional artistic pique, Ashkenazy said through his agent, Jasper Parrott, that he would not oblige with a gradual handover. He would never perform with the orchestra again.

Not a single friend from the orchestra had phoned him, he said. "I gave them my heart, and this is what happens."

His departure signals the end of a glorious era that began more than 20 years ago when a foreign invasion of classical music talent came to London's South Bank in the shape of Ashkenazy, Pinchas Zuckerman, Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman.

Ashkenazy was the last of that group who maintained a clear link with British orchestral life, serving as music director of the RPO since 1986, and becoming as renowned a conductor as he once was a pianist.

The decision of the RPO's chief executive, Paul Findlay, to sever an association with one of the best-known names in classical music at a time when symphony orchestras are struggling for audiences looks at first like a mad impulse, following which he will repent at leisure.

But Findlay's record in his short time at the RPO suggests he is rather more level-headed than that. He took an orchestra that was financially on its knees, negotiated residencies for it at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and at the City Hall, Nottingh a m. He persuaded Classic FM to make the RPO its house orchestra, and he joined with the independent record label Tring to produce a series of cut-price popular classic CDs, all at under £5, earning the orchestra £2.5m.

The axeing of Ashkenazy can be seen as part of the same long-term strategy at a time when our best-known orchestras are fighting for survival. As in so many walks of life, the RPO seems to have decided it must present a young, upwardly-mobile face to theworld. Gatti is a rising star, a guest conductor with the Royal Opera (where he was a protege of Findlay's) and will be groomed to lead the RPO into the next century.

Whether audiences will agree with Findlay is a moot point. The evidence is that they still flock to see the acknowledged , rather than the rising, stars. But as the RPO's rivals, the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia, are also hunting for new music directors, Findlay clearly decided he had to act quickly to get his man.

What surprises observers is the insensitive way the affair has been handled. The arts, one might think, is one area of British industry where people are treated with decency, where consultation is the norm and where, above all, talent is deferred to.

To which one might reply, "Oh yeah?" Mr Parrott said yesterday: "I am completely astonished by this. Vladimir feels he has been treated without any consideration or care."

Consideration and care may indeed be outmoded notions: setting the artistic policy for our flagship cultural organisations seems to be a thankless task. Only last month Baroness O'Cathain was effectively removed from her high profile job as head of the Barbican Centre when the City of London Corporation gave her fully paid leave of absence. She had served there for five years but the City's public statement about her departure contained not a word of thanks or tribute.

Elizabeth Esteve Coll, on stepping down early from the directorship of the Victoria and Albert Museum, has revealed that she was worked so hard she could not even attend a family funeral.

Richard Eyre, a few days after announcing he was to step down from the directorship of the National Theatre, was rounded upon by the theatre's architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, who complained that he had been "betrayed" by "architectural vandals" after Eyre supported a plan to demolish one of Sir Denys's terraces.

When it's not insults, or enforced subservience to a financial agenda, being a mover and shaker in the arts can involve unimagined trivia. "What I really hate," says Richard Eyre, "is the blocked lavatory syndrome, the things that you're nominally responsible for but can do nothing about."

And yet the queue of gluttons for this punishment shows no sign of shortening. The most prestigious names are being touted for the top arts jobs that are currently vacant.

Why? Why should they want to bother with unblocking toilets by day, laughing at the jokes of a Japanese business sponsor by night, drawing up budget plans at the weekend, and all the while running the risk of being dispensed with to the accompaniment of public humiliation?

Why should the infant prodigy Sam Mendes, about to be made a millionaire by the revival of Oliver! which he has directed, want to spend his thirties running a monolith like the National Theatre, on a fixed salary and without the freedom to direct profitable West End musicals, but with the duty of negotiating tiny sums out of Arts Council apparatchiks?

The answer is that for all the tensions between money management and cultural agendas - of which Ashkenazy seems to be a casualty - and the smokescreens of blocked toilets and weekend working, these are hugely influential jobs which can determine the character of British culture for a generation.

Interestingly though, the leaders of our arts institutions rarely talk about their role in setting cultural agendas, the real reason they take the jobs in the first place.

Take the National Theatre. It is easy to assume from its title that it presents the acknowledged masters of our dramatic heritage. But a closer look at the repertoire shows that there is no objective criterion at all. Prolific and once-lauded playwrightssuch as Terence Rattigan, Somerset Maugham, John Galsworthy and Harley Granville-Barker have barely featured. J.B. Priestley only made it in because the version of An Inspector Calls had radical design and direction.

And it is not just the deceased great and good who are ignored. The likes of Arnold Wesker and Peter Nicholls have had numerous plays rejected. "It is fair to ask," says Wesker, "who is deciding what the public wants, and on what grounds?"

It would indeed be fascinating to hear Richard Eyre talk publicly about why David Hare, with his studiedly topical political debates, has more to say to audiences in the Nineties than other contemporary playwrights.

It is in the making of these choices, not just in drama but in the visual arts and in classical music, that artistic directors wield their power. This is why Daniele Gatti will jump at the chance to replace Ashkenazy and Sam Mendes will be unlikely to turn down the chance to run the National Theatre if it is offered.

But they and the other candidates jockeying for position for the top jobs suddenly on offer, should remember how easily it can all end in tears. Not only can the going be brutal, but even when one's career and achievements are legendary, running an arts flagship offers none of the post-retirement privileges that occur elsewhere in industry.

Some years after he ceased to be director of the National Theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier was accosted in the box office queue of the National's Olivier Theatre by Michael Caine.

"Do you have to pay to get in here?" asked an aghast Caine. "Yes, I bloody well do," grunted Olivier, and searched his wallet for the cash to gain admittance to the theatre named in his honour.

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