The large-scale ticket give-away operation is practised by the orchestras and other institutions, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, English National Opera and blockbuster West End musicals.
For a Royal Festival Hall gala concert involving the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic orchestras, conducted by Sir George Solti, around 1,000 of the 2,700 seats were given away by the orchestras - fearful that Sir George would be appalled if he saw so many empty seats.
Bizarrely, the operation involves the head chef at a London hospital, Frank Raulston, who is given scores, and sometimes hundreds, of seats virtually every week to pass to nurses and other hospital employees.
Over the past 12 years Mr Raulston has become a music lover himself, and London's hospital staff have become classical music connoisseurs. He said yesterday: "Doing this has turned me into a music fan. But I have to sit through a lot of crap as well."
The implications are profound. The orchestras are given millions of pounds of taxpayers' money by the Arts Council. It is now open to question whether the Arts Council has been giving public money away on the basis of incorrect perceptions.
Last night Kieran Cooper, head of marketing for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra admitted: "It's accepted practice that in the majority of cases the bums on seats figure is the one we use. We give out that figure even if it includes tickets that have been given away."
David Whelton, managing director of the Philharmonia Orchestra - which refuses to give away tickets for its concerts - said: "What's happening is an unethical application of Arts Council subsidy. Other orchestras are getting their grant on the basis of false figures. It's very disappointing.
"All the grants should now be reviewed. It also means that the Arts Council believes that the public is interested in certain minority works, when in fact they haven't been interested in buying tickets for them at all."
The Independent has also learned that when Serge Dornay, the new managing director of the London Philharmonic, arrived at the orchestra he was flabbergasted to discover what had been going on. A spokeswoman confirmed that Mr Dornay has told senior management that henceforth all tickets must be sold in the proper manner.
Officials representing the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall said last night that only fully paid attendances were declared.
Cultural epicentre, page 3
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