Leading Article: Orchestral manoeuvres, poorly conducted

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THOSE who wield the axe should do so swiftly and ruthlessly. Yet when the Arts Council decided last July to stop giving money to two of the four London orchestras it now subsidises, it took upon itself the easy job of telling the London Symphony Orchestra that its subsidy was safe.

The painful choice between the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic was subcontracted to a committee - whose six men wrung their hands for a while and then, with three abstentions, chose the Philharmonia. Now the council has lost its nerve, and seems set to reverse its earlier policy by restoring partial funding to the LPO and RPO.

This absurd turn of events has demoralised all three orchestras, and given the concert-going public the wrong impression that London's orchestras are second-rate. But the Council's original ambition to create a super-orchestra in the first place was mistaken.

The argument in favour was that outbidding the purse of the Berlin Philharmonic requires subsidies of tens rather than odd millions of pounds. Unfortunately, there is no precedent for forming a great orchestra with a single cheque. It is also doubtful whether any orchestra under a single conductor, however great, could outshine the breadth of talent that London now enjoys from the likes of Dohnanyi, Slatkin, Salonen, Welser-Most, Tennstedt and Ashkenazy.

London's concert attendances are falling. But that is inevitable, for listeners can now hear great performances in their own living rooms for the price of a CD. The trend has hardly harmed Sir Neville Marriner or John Eliot Gardiner, who have thrived on the income from recordings. If it is looking for economies, the Arts Council should start its search at the South Bank, which spends more money on publicising its grimy concrete landscape than the subsidies of all four orchestras combined.

The Council's instinct was right in only one sense. The disparity between the subsidies to London orchestras is due more to history and to politics than to an aesthetic decision, and an intelligent review under a senior judge might have put that right. But a wiser solution would have been to offer equal subsidies per London concert to all four orchestras, and let them compete for audiences.

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