MUSIC / Sound and fury: What happened to the London Philharmonic? A favourite to become London's 'superorchestra', now it looks ripe for cuts. David Lister reports

David Lister
Tuesday 07 December 1993 00:02 GMT

If you fancy going to a classical music concert in London, which orchestra should you go and see?

The Philharmonia? It was revealed yesterday to be the Arts Council music panel's choice of London's new 'super-orchestra'. Perhaps not. After all, Nicholas Snowman, the director of the South Bank Centre where they play, only gave them five marks out of 10 in his evidence to the Hoffmann Committee inquiry into London orchestral provision.

Well then, the Royal Philharmonic? It has a distinguished music director in Vladimir Ashkenazy and a growing reputation under new managing director Paul Findlay, former head of the Royal Opera. Apparently not. It failed to be recommended by either the Hoffmann Committee or the music panel as the best in town.

Ah, of course, the London Philharmonic. It beat the Philharmonia for the South Bank residency three years ago, it has all the benefits that the residencey brings including extra money and rehearsal time, it has a celebrity roster of conductors that the most casual CD buyer would recognise (Tennstedt and Haitink among them) and it received Snowman's unequivocal endorsement.

Wrong again. Not a single member of the Hoffman Committee recommended the LPO; its young music director Franz Welser-Most, rechristened by Private Eye Frankly Worse Than Most, has received less than critical acclaim; its audiences are declining, and the future of its residency must be in doubt if, as is likely, the Arts Council acts upon its music panel's recommendation and cuts the LPO's pounds 1.2m grant and increases the Philharmonia's.

All three orchestras can be a delight to watch and listen to when they perform with their preferred conductors. Indeed, most music critics will confess that if they were placed blindfold in the middle of the Royal Festival Hall, they might be able to name the conductor but would be hard pressed to say which of the three orchestras was playing. Yet it was, and is, legitimate for the Arts Council to question whether there are too many orchestras in London, and to have as its goal a single, world-class orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall to rival the London Symphony Orchestra (which was excused the Arts Council's beauty contest) at the Barbican. Attendances at the Royal Festival Hall have declined by a quarter in the last 25 years, while important regional cities like Newcastle, Nottingham and Bristol do not have their own symphony orchestra.

It is unfortunate that the exercise was never to be part of a proper national strategy for orchestral provision which would include both the regions and the BBC orchestras (which are currently the subject of the corporation's own internal review). It is unfortunate, too, that the term 'super-orchestra' has no discernible meaning. While world-renowned outfits like the Berlin Philharmonic have been held up as shining examples, the London orchestras appearing before Hoffmann had to satisfy criteria that included their educational, equal opportunities and multi-ethnic policies. Try asking the Berlin Philharmonic what its education policy is.

In her resignation letter from the Arts Council music panel yesterday, the composer Priti Paintal said that the panel was told that the money taken from the two losers would fund the financial cinderellas of the music world - music education, jazz, Asian and Caribbean music. She resigned after learning that the Council now intended simply to swap the grants of the LPO and Philharmonia and cut the RPO's, rather than award the winner the two losers' grants as originally planned.

I am not convinced that it would have been a perfect solution to condemn two world famous orchestras to fund Asian and Caribbean music and education better. The crisis in music education is largely due to the decrease in peripatetic teachers, the responsibility of local councils and the Department of Education. Asian and Caribbean music are certainly underfunded, but why should their fortune only improve at the expense of proven ensembles with international reputations made over decades?

What is clear amid all the confusion is that last weekend's decision as good as publicly proclaims the fall from grace of the London Philharmonic.

The South Bank's private report on audience figures at the Royal Festival Hall, which I have obtained, would appear to tell its own story. An orchestra which two years ago was regularly achieving 90 per cent attendances never got into the eighties in September and October, and on one occasion was as low as 40 per cent. The low attendances often coincided with concerts featuring lesser known conductors and soloists, showing once more that it is the conductor or soloist rather than the orchestra that determines the audience.

What has happened? Four years ago when the LPO won the South Bank residency it had in Klaus Tennstedt one of the most respected and inspiring conductors in the world. It had a managing director, John Willan, known as an aggressive but effective wheeler dealer; it had a marketing director, Judy Grahame (now Willan's wife), who set the pace on subscription tie-ups with colour magazines; it had an influential board member in one David Mellor, who was instrumental in winning the orchestra a large increase in its grant, and, most important of all, it had some of the most acclaimed players on the circuit.

Four years on, Mellor is no longer on the board and is unlikely to be asked back. Willan has departed acrimoniously and Grahame is now public relations adviser to the rival Philharmonia. The LPO's then orchestra leader, David Nolan, is now with the Philharmonia and other key players have also changed camps - including two wind players, principal oboist Gordon Hunt and principal flautist Jonathan Snowden, described by Tennstedt as 'the greatest wind players in the world'. Tennstedt himself is not a well man: a hip operation caused him to cancel his last concerts, and it is anyone's guess when he will next conduct.

What happened owed as much to personality as policy clashes. Willan and Snowman loathed each other. Snowman became known as a champion of contemporary music while working with Pierre Boulez in Paris; in London he wanted his resident orchestra to share his artistic objectives. Willan knew that his orchestra's strengths did not lie in contemporary repertoire. In addition, he was not happy about the costs of hiring the hall (although resident, the LPO still had to pay for the privilege). A whispering campaign began.

The LPO board were privately never really happy with the way Willan had brought in Welser- Most, a talented and adventurous young conductor but relatively inexperienced to be music director of such an orchestra. According to this paper's music editor, Robert Maycock, 'There have been some fairly uncomfortable experiences in Welser-Most concerts, a Mahler symphony which had a decibel level and a hyped-up sound that I hope never to encounter again - and from the LPO, which used to be London's Mahler orchestra.'

Keith Clarke, editor of Classical Music magazine, added: 'John Willan tried to take over The Philharmonia, failed, and may have lost a number of friends because of it. Whyever they stuck the knife in Willan, it was a daft time to do it. He was the one person who held the orchestra together.'

What seems generally agreed is that the LPO players were shaken by having to change from a veteran and charismatic conductor like Tennstedt to a much younger man still finding his way. Welser- Most was a gifted conductor but he was only 30. Conducting is not the same as being a music director, which involves planning entire programmes and hiring and firing. Add to this a residency in a hall with a dirigiste director and an attachment to contemporary composers who don't fare tremendously well at the box-office and you have an increasingly nervous orchestra.

Last month the LPO appointed modernist composer Harrison Birtwistle as composer in residence; the orchestra has never played a note of his music (unlike the Philharmonia, which premiered Birtwistle's new piano concerto in the Festival Hall only six months ago, and appointed its own resident composer, James MacMillan, six months before that). Henceforth the Philharmonic will be playing premieres of works by new British composers commissioned not by the orchestra itself, but by the South Bank on its behalf.

The new managing director is Chris Lawrence, a former city whizz kid. Like every other interested party, he was unwilling to make any comment at all until the Arts Council makes its decision official and public a week on Wednesday. When it does, the silence will become a cacophony.

(Photograph omitted)

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