Bow ties to go in concert shake-up

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The Independent Online
TWO OF Britain's leading orchestras plan to change the way they present concerts.

New programmes being developed by the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic acknowledge that the 100-year tradition of relying on Sunday-night symphonies, with musicians in evening dress, is coming to an end.

Instead the London Philharmonic's world-renowned conductors - Klaus Tennstedt, Zubin Mehta, Bernard Haitink, Franz Welser-Most or Maris Jansons - could soon be conducting an orchestra of musicians in shirtsleeves and trainers at a 10am concert hosted by a television celebrity.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, music director of the Royal Philharmonic, can expect to have his magnified image reproduced on a screen as he conducts.

The LPO is drawing up plans which include Sunday-morning concerts to catch a family audience, using the orchestra to back an American jazz musician for the first time, and starting some Sunday-night concerts at 6pm to attract people out for the day.

The RPO's thoughts, still at an early stage, are if anything more radical. It wants concerts in the round rather than on a stage, with big-screen close-ups of musicians.

The RPO spokesman, Ewan Balfour, said yesterday: 'Younger audiences are used to electronics, lasers, big screens, a lot of drama. We would like to have big-screen close-ups, maybe a camera right down the clarinet.

'The standard presentation of a classical music concert hasn't changed since the turn of the century. A lot of people like the black-tie special evening out, especially outside London, but there is an audience of tomorrow as well.'

The LPO's Sunday-morning family concerts, featuring shorter, lighter pieces of classical music, spring from an idea by the orchestra's composer-in-residence, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who has fond memories of concerts by the Halle Orchestra in Manchester in his youth. The concerts, hosted by a TV celebrity, are likely to be followed by lunch in the Royal Festival Hall.

While the orchestra will still play its evening international concert series featuring the music for which it is famed (Beethoven and Brahms), it will also have a Gilbert and Sullivan night, a jazz night and a programme of music devised with rock star Elvis Costello.

In an effort to suit this non-traditional audience, the orchestra will not wear dinner jackets for concerts other than the international series. Christopher Lawrence, the LPO's managing director, said: 'The days when you can rely on the traditional format and content of concert alone for survival are gone. The audience simply isn't there any more. There are four million people who listen to Classic FM, largely a new audience for classical music delivered in a new way, and if we could pick up just a fraction of that audience it would have a remarkable effect.

'It doesn't mean we are going to stop doing our traditional work, but we need to persuade non-concertgoers to come in and attend works which introduce them to the experience of a symphony orchestra.'

The LPO's dramatic change of approach will start with experiments this autumn.

Judy Grahame, spokeswoman for the Philharmonia Orchestra, was ambivalent about the other two orchestras' plans, however. 'The ambience in the hall is much more important than what people wear,' she said. 'Look at the Proms.'

The need for a new approach is also exercising the South Bank Centre, which runs the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth halls. Its music director, Graham Sheffield, wants to change concert programme notes, which he says are out of date. He also plans to supply the audience with headphones so they can have talking programme notes before the concert and during the interval.

Behind the new approach is a deeper malaise affecting London's orchestras. Audiences at the Festival Hall have declined by 25 per cent since the Sixties. This decline accelerated last year during the long deliberations of the Hoffmann committee to resolve funding levels for the LPO, RPO and Philharmonia, largely due to the adverse publicity.

Though orchestras keep their audience figures private, leaked documents show that the LPO was sometimes playing to 50 per cent houses and the RPO to audiences as small as 20 per cent of capacity.

At one stage, Nicholas Snowman, head of the South Bank Centre, gave all three orchestras marks out of 10, and these markings were leaked.

Audiences began to wonder why they should go to hear orchestras whose performance was publicly criticised by the head of the centre where they played.

The RPO has cut the pay of its musicians by 25 per cent and is rapidly diversifying its activities, becoming Classic FM's resident orchestra and linking up with the record label Tring to produce 125 CDs of favourite classics with top conductors, to sell at only pounds 3.99 each.