Music loses as Labour plays military tune

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY, bandsmen of the Household Division switched from martial airs to the relaxed lyrics of The Beatles' Michelle after the First Battalion Coldstream Guards marked the monarch's birthday by Trooping the Colour. The only worry on the musicians' minds was hitting the right note.

But paying for the non-military pipers sounds a gloomy tune for Mark Elder, new musical director of the Halle Orchestra. Last week, when his appointment was announced, he learned he could not concentrate on playing music. Instead, his duties will include helping to sort out the Halle's crippling debts, now running at pounds 600,000.

But money is no worry to Britain's 38 military bands - the most subsidised musicians in Britain - thanks to pounds 30m from the Ministry of Defence, which pays their wages and supplies their instruments. Britain's civilian orchestras get just a third - pounds 11m from the Ministry of Culture - with no sign of an increase.

The Halle is far from the only orchestra in trouble. With government funding at a standstill for five years, it is crunch time for many of the finest. Several face financial collapse, and the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) describes their situation as "precarious".

Nearly all orchestras have funding difficulties. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has a pounds 2m deficit. Its chief executive, Antony Lewis-Crosby, says the situation is "fairly desperate" for most orchestras. And after years of success under Sir Simon Rattle, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is heading for financial problems.

"If this was down to individual bad management we might see one or two orchestras in trouble," says Libby MacNamara, director of the ABO. "But we're talking about the whole sector."

Last year the Halle axed musicians and staff when it came close to bankruptcy, and an emergency public appeal helped to raise pounds 1.2m. "Without the Halle appeal, the orchestra would not be here," says Andy Ryans, the marketing director.

Lack of funding hampers British orchestras competing with continental counterparts which enjoy far more public backing. The Munich Philharmonic receives pounds 16m a year in grants; the acclaimed Berlin Philharmonic gets roughly the same. The London Symphony Orchestra, one of a handful of world- class orchestras, receives pounds 2.6m in public money in a turnover of pounds 8.3m.

The financial complexities of putting on a concert turn even the most high-profile events into loss-makers. Last Tuesday, 100 LSO musicians took part in a concert of Mozart and Strauss at London's Barbican Hall. Staging a major concert might cost pounds 60,000 to pounds 70,000. A sell-out concert at the Barbican - which has an 89 per cent attendance rate - raises only half that.

Wages are the biggest cost for the orchestra, but cutting the size is not always possible when the music requires more players.

The LSO's predicament is not among the worst. Because it is based in London, where other work is available, it gets away with paying members only for the rehearsals and performances it does. In the regions, orchestras would not exist without a fully salaried staff. And with an inflexible staff cost, the impact of standstill subsidies has been dramatic.

Other sources of revenue for orchestras have also declined, notably recording, which is in the doldrums. Ten years ago, a third of LSO concerts were recorded, this year there might be three.

Sponsorship is also vital. Pauline Gilbertson, a director of the English Chamber Orchestra, says they break even, despite no Arts Council funding, but need more money to survive. "Good luck as well as high musical standards have helped to keep us in the black so far," she says. "But we'll need substantial sponsorship to maintain musical standards."

The Arts Council says it reconsiders the situation. "We're taking it seriously," says a spokeswoman. "But we don't want to throw money at them."