Orchestra contest 'will sacrifice quality': The head of the London Philharmonic tells David Lister there will be no merger, just fewer concerts with a diminished repertoire

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THE CONSEQUENCES of the Arts Council's decision to end public funding of two London symphony orchestras were spelt out yesterday. Chris Lawrence, the managing director of the London Philharmonic, has ruled out the possibility of any mergers or takeovers, saying that, instead, the orchestras will end all adventurous programming and play only commercially popular music.

In addition, Mr Lawrence, says his orchestra will play fewer concerts and end all non-essential activities, such as pre-concert talks.

And he emphasised that, even if the LPO lost its pounds 1.3m Arts Council grant, it would continue as resident orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, depriving another orchestra, which might shortly be judged superior, of the opportunity to replace it.

Mr Lawrence's comments follow the unexpected decision by the Arts Council to order the LPO, the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic orchestras to appear before a special committee headed by an appeal court judge, Lord Justice Hoffman, later this month to submit evidence of their artistic, programming, marketing and managerial skills.

The winner of this beauty contest will have its funding increased. The two losers will lose all public money from next April. The Arts Council's aim is to create a second 'super orchestra' for London. The London Symphony Orchestra, resident at the Barbican Centre, has been excused the contest as the Arts Council already judges it to be of sufficiently high quality.

While there is some agreement that four symphony orchestras in receipt of public money in London may be too many, there has been bafflement that the Arts Council has called in a judge to make an artistic decision; that the loss of public money will be immediate, even though orchestras programme and book soloists and conductors long-term; and not least because the LPO and Philharmonia have already been through one contest for the South Bank residency, which the LPO won.

Killing recent speculation of a merger between the LPO and the Philharmonia, desired by the latter, Mr Lawrence said: 'To merge the LPO and Philharmonia would be like merging Arsenal and Spurs. The orchestras have their own strengths and characters . . . A merger would mean 60 musicians being sacked. And can you imagine having a pecking order for conductors? I rule it out totally.'

What would happen after December, he said, was that the two losing orchestras would make immediate changes in their programmes. 'The cutting edge of musical life will be impoverished. If the LPO loses the 20 per cent of its money we get from government through the Arts Council . . . we will simply stop everything that loses us money. We will have to look very carefully at our education programme, we will stop development work, we will stop pre-concert talks. We will do fewer concerts and there will be changes in the repertoire. We will have to concentrate on commercial programming.'

But, he said, the LPO, just one year into its five-year residency, would stay at the South Bank whatever the result. The irony was that cutbacks on educational work and adventurous programming would be in direct contravention of the criteria that won the LPO the residency in the first place.

Mr Lawrence said: 'What the Government has allowed is the orchestras to be pitched at each other's throats . . . It is utterly irresponsible.'

(Photograph omitted)