Form is crucial in the London orchestra derby

YOU WOULD expect the Arts Council to know something about theatre, and its announcement last week that it is to cease funding two of London's four self-governing orchestras was certainly a coup de theatre. It was a death threat with identifiable but unspecified targets. This weekend the orchestras - or at least three of them - have been left like guests in a gothic mansion, waiting to discover who drops first.

One had already been removed to a place of safety: the Arts Council has said that the London Symphony Orchestra will survive come what may, in recognition of its current status as top of the London orchestral league. The remaining three, for the moment, are unaccustomedly tight- lipped about their predicament.

The London Philharmonic yesterday had 'no comment'; likewise the Philharmonia. And apart from general statements about the loss to London's concert life, all the Royal Philharmonic was saying was that there was 'a huge spirit' in the orchestra, which was not prepared to roll over and die for England, still less for Lord Palumbo, the council's chairman.

The reticence is partly shell- shock. Although everyone knew that the council wanted to reduce the number of London orchestras (there are five if you include the BBC Symphony), few believed it would ever have the nerve.

But the orchestras are clearly holding fire until their tactics are agreed. In the coming weeks they will have to argue their cases for survival before a committee chaired by an Appeal Court judge, Lord Justice Hoffmann. And by turning the issue over to the committee, the council has astutely made itself umpire rather than enemy in a battle where the orchestras attack each other: a neat example of divide and rule.

One thing the orchestras will find hard to argue is that London needs so many of them. They are the legacy of the ambitions of one man: Sir Thomas Beecham, who founded the LPO in 1932 as a platform for himself when the BBC Symphony Orchestra cold- shouldered him, and founded the Royal Philharmonic in 1946 when his relations with the LPO had turned sour.

At best, the accumulation is an embarras de richesse, at worst a messily expensive drain on funds and audiences. But after half a century, each of the threatened orchestras can claim a tradition worth defending, albeit with mixed pros and cons.

The London Philharmonic is in the most secure position as resident orchestra of the South Bank - a job it won in competition against the Philharmonia and RPO. It assumed the residency only last year with the blessing of the Arts Council, which now gives it the maximum orchestral grant of pounds 1,128,500 (equal to the LSO's grant). Its strength is its relationship with Klaus Tennstedt, one of the most lauded (if unreliable) figures on the international conductors' circuit. Its weakness is the failure of its new, young music director, Franz Welser-Most, to convince London audiences of his abilities.

The Philharmonia has been licking its wounds since it failed to get the South Bank residency. It responded by extending its profile abroad - especially to Paris, where, in an extraordinary agreement that continues until at least 1996, it gives concert and opera seasons twice a year. Founded in 1945 to make records for EMI, it has historically had the most glamorous conductors - Karajan, Klemperer, Muti - but is currently saddled with Giuseppe Sinopoli, whose doctoral presence is not widely loved in Britain. At pounds 711,500, its Arts Council funding is significantly less than that of the LPO.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra trades off its name and the belief that it must be an old and venerable institution (it is in fact the youngest London orchestra), and is frankly the rank outsider in the competition. It declined while Andre Previn was its music director, and has barely recovered with Vladimir Ashkenazy in the driving seat. At pounds 400,000, its current funding reflects what the Arts Council thinks of its programmes (mainstream) and performance (variable).

Neither the members nor the terms of reference of the Hoffmann committee have as yet been fixed; but given the qualities the Arts Council has chosen to highlight and applaud in the LSO - quality of playing, interest of programmes, commitment to audience education - one can guess what Hoffmann will be looking for, and he is most likely to find it in the London Philharmonic. One possible outcome would be that the LPO then takes over the Philharmonia - a proposal which has been made before, to the Philharmonia's understandable annoyance.

But the near-certainty is that the RPO will be shown the door. Its survival then will depend on whether it can live on nothing but commercial earnings; and whether its players can endure the solid diet of pop arrangements, TV jingles and Tchaikovsky that that would mean.

(Photograph omitted)