Less could be much more: Geoffrey Wheatcroft thinks London would be better served by two orchestras

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The Independent Online
'SILENCE, exile, and cunning': James Joyce's phrase is all very well, but his advice to his fellow artists is more often quoted than followed. Writers, painters and musicians are not much good at staying silent when asked for their opinions.

Nor does exile come naturally to most artists. For every Auden in New York or William Walton on Ischia, a hundred stay put, for good reasons to do with their work and its inspiration. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies does not yet live in exile, although a telephone-free cottage on Hoy in the Orkneys is about as far as one can get from London without leaving the country.

But now he threatens to depart entirely, in protest at the possible withdrawal of public funds from London orchestras. He loves this land, he explains in the Daily Mail; but 'I could not remain in a country that so scorns its people that it would deny them music'. He was proud to receive a knighthood in 1987, he says, but adds: 'I now have no option but seriously to consider returning (it)'.

There is a long tradition of angry young or not-so-young men who have denounced British philistinism and threatened to leave it behind, from John Osborne's 'Damn you, England]' more than 30 years ago to Jonathan Miller's more recent promise to leave our shores by way of contemptuous comment. In the event, neither did leave, at least not for good. And returning an honour is even rarer.

But the oddest thing about this latest story is the cause at issue. London has four full-time symphony orchestras. Almost everyone concerned with musical life - apart from the managements of those orchestras and Sir Peter - agrees that this is two too many. Sir Peter says correctly that London has 'an unparalleled pool of excellent musicians already at bargain-basement cost'.

But that glosses over the very unsatisfactory conditions in which those underfunded bands have to play. The orchestral musicians of London traditionally made their livings by exhausting session work, recording a symphony here, playing an advertising jingle or film music there. A conductor was by no means certain to find the same players under his baton for a performance as had attended the rehearsals. Foreign conductors from Mendelssohn and Brahms onwards spoke with admiration of London players' facility for sight- reading, but this was a back-handed compliment, paid to musicians who had often not had time to study their parts.

Conditions have greatly improved, but London still lacks one orchestra recognisably of the highest international excellence, like Chicago's, say. And, as much to the point, there is no orchestra whose players are guaranteed Chicago's seriously good salaries.

The existence today of four different orchestras is a historical accident, largely connected with the career of Sir Thomas Beecham. No other great city from New York to St Petersburg has as many.

Ever since Beecham's death in 1961, plans have been aired for reducing their number. Obviously, limited resources - pitifully limited by European standards - go less far divided by four than by two. The Arts Council is easily portrayed as a bullying bureaucracy, and the way it goes about its business hasn't always won it friends. On the other hand, the London orchestras have been incapable of rational action themselves.

A step was taken when the London Symphony Orchestra took up its residency in the Barbican, where its grant of more than pounds 1m from the Arts Council is matched by another from the City of London. Then, four years ago, the London Philharmonic (founded by Beecham in 1932) won a hotly contested residency at the Festival Hall, where it has given some unforgettable concerts under Klaus Tennstedt, as well some forgettable ones under its chief conductor, Franz Welser-Most.

Each of these orchestras believes it is indispensable. They would, wouldn't they? All have fought against amalgamation as fiercely as any threatened regiment. They have adroitly acquired illustrious guest conductors and composers-in-residence to adorn their mastheads.

The Royal Philharmonic (founded by Beecham in 1946) has shrewdly enlisted Sir Peter himself, but, despite his enthusiasm, the RPO has not always been top of the critics' pops and has sometimes spread itself rather thin (on one occasion it appeared to be giving concerts in two places at once).

The RPO is now playing very well, but that isn't the point. Nor is it the point to say, as Sir Peter does, that the Vienna Philharmonic plays the old, safe repertory over and over again. That is a quite separate question from the Vienna Phil's - and the Berlin's - outstanding technical excellence. Since each receives a subsidy some 10 times as large as that of any of the London orchestras, and considerably more than the four put together, the excellence is not hard to explain. What they do with it is entirely up to their managements and their conductors.

Why not have it both ways: two London orchestras of the highest technical skill, each with its own permanent concert hall, both playing an adventurous repertory under great conductors? Or under outstanding composer-conductors like Sir Peter Maxwell Davies?

Silence is golden but exile is sad. A man like Sir Peter who has written a masterpiece about the psychic complications of lighthouse keepers ought to be cautious about where solitary brooding can lead. I hope, and believe, that he will wake up to see that no one is 'denying the people music'. The idea is to arrange musical life in London more sensibly - and with the Orkneys' greatest living musical knight playing his part.

(Photograph omitted)