Rich town kills orchestra, then slashes theatre

Guildford, a picture-postcard kind of town in southeast England, earlier this year got rid of its Philharmonic Orchestra, acclaimed for its performances of English music with the late Tod Handley. Now it’s proposing to phase out subsidy to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre which, having already lost its Arts Council grant, would probably have to shut down.

Guildford is what is known as a dormitory town, a place where people who work in London come home to sleep. Without orchestra or theatre it will become a mortuary town.

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  • Tragedy. I was so distressed about the Guildford Philharmonic. Tod taught me how to be a good choral singer and became a friend. It was a marvelous orchestra. And now the Yvonne Arnaud? When, oh when will we as a society start to get our priorities right?

  • Many of the players in the occasional Guildford Phil line-up were a similar crowd to those playing in many of the London orchestras (GP being an occasional band of freelancers meeting up for a few dates here and there). Why should Guildford fund administration services for an orchestra bearing it’s name, but often consisting largely of London-based players; isn’t that just self-aggrandisement? Wouldn’t Guildford be better off saving the money on office costs, and bringing in a named London orchestra, who already have the back-office staff and systems, whether for concerts or for education activities, and so on?

    Many people in or around Guildford never went to hear GP, and most wouldn’t have known it existed. If a local audience wants it, other London-named orchestras already go and play in Guildford (coming up soon, LSO and RPO), and if there’s a dearth of provision and ready listeners, then I’m sure that Bournemouth SO might decide to travel further than Basingstoke for concerts, and a similarly occasional band like Oxford Philomusica might travel down.

    And the council isn’t cutting the funding per se – it seems as though they are still offering £60k, but that it won’t automatically go to the Guildford Phil, instead allowing other groups to apply. Isn’t that a good thing, to encourage diversity in arts provision, and potentially something even better for the local residents who want to take advantage?

    • Well, unless you had a tenured position with a top-flight orchestra that plays a full season AND a stable teaching position in one or more top-flight conservatoires, of course you are going to have to play/dep for several orchestras, to make ends meet. That is why you see a similar crowd in various “local” orchestras, who, naturally, want to get the best players they can afford (otherwise who would go to hear them?). Reducing the number of orchestras will only exacerbate a catch-22 situation, resulting in virtually no local concert life (thus reducing the incentive for top-flight orchestras to visit). Believe me, I live in a dormitory town near London that has hardly any *professional* concert life (although it does have a fairly lively amateur scene, to an extent) of its own.

  • Something despicable has occurred here before. Claud Forbes Powell (1881-1959) managed a music school, an opera company and conducted choirs and the orchestra in Guildford for many years. He hope that the council would employ him. When they eventually decided to create such a post they appointed someone else. It broke his heart.

  • Having appeared at The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre twice in Pantomime it appears to be quite simply the BEST theatre in the way it’s run and the breadth and imagination of choice in what you can go and see during the year is phenomenal. It’s a huge heart to our community.The pre west end productions that start off there and then take flight to the West End are endless. It cannot be allowed to go under. I will do anything I can to prevent this happening and the cuts that are being made are unjust and probably made by people who don’t even go to theatres. If we lose this theatre…we top the flow of future business everywhere..because a Pantomime ..which they are famous for is often the very first introduction a child has to theatre and if they love the experience they will want to go again… therefore theatre going becomes a norm for them and they became our future audiences…worldwide!!

    This is the first thing I have read this morning and upset me to the core. Please people spread this as far and wide as you can..the Arnaud has to stay funded

    Hilary O’Neil

  • The Yvonne Arnaud is one of the UK’s best theatres. This can’t be allowed to happen. It shows the short-sighted-ness of councils that are prepared to rip the heart from their own communities.

  • Sad: yes. Surprised: no. The town spent a fortune on a new hall and probably spends a great deal of money subsidising the management of it in pursuit of private profit rather than public benefit. This is the inevitable result of an utterly flawed model which councils for some inexplicable reason continue to embrace despite the total absence of credible evidence to support its value.

    Same story as with the glorious town hall and concerts in Watford and – big surprise – the same management company. I remember predicting this outcome as soon as I heard that this company had the contract in Guildford. Put simply, this model generates more cost to local taxpayers for less output of any real artistic or community value. But vested interests mean that like some ghastly virus it continues to spread and probably once everything here is thoroughly infected then – because for some bizarre reason so many people elsewhere seem to think we get things right here – it will be copied in other countries.

    In the hope it might be of use to anyone trying to fight the cause in Guildford, such information as is available regarding the story at Watford can be found here: http://www.classicconcerts.org.uk/wc/archive/colosseum/colosseum.html.

    • Jonathan, your argument seems to be based on a “probably”, which is not a very solid foundation. What if the administrative costs to the council are not, as you presume, ‘a great deal’?

      Don’t the local council have an obligation to provide facilities for all their populace, and as such audience figures are a sensible metric to measure success? (only one measurement, of course). Just because they might not stage the works, plays, concerts, events which you personally might be involved in or wish to attend doesn’t mean they aren’t doing a good job; and in any case, as far as classical orchestral concerts go, I see that the new Guildford Civic is hosting concerts from no less than the LSO, as well as the RPO, Czech National, Moscow Phil. That’s good, isn’t it?

      • Fair points all. Some quick answers:

        1. I used the word probably because my opinion is based on fairly extensive experience of this financial model in other places and it seems improbable that the situation is different in Guildford but I have no detailed information about it.

        2. The rest of your questioning Is more complex. Yes, I understand it to be true that there are now concerts by visiting organisations. My guess is that resources have been diverted from the local organisations (a) to fund the for profit management and (b) to fund this programme which I suspect is arranged via another for profit management. If you audited the whole operation thoroughly I would lay strong odds you would find it generates questionable value for money. Overall this would be hard to measure but just to start, for example, with non-profit management the council could waive the business rates (which generate no local value), thus keeping a substantial sum within the town economy. Likewise the profits going into the various management operations.

        Secondly, using local professional organisations generates useful economic activity within UK artistic professions and supports an overall process. If the seven-figure-subsidised UK organisations you mention are bringing significant elemens of that subsidy to Guildford then it might be argued that they are using their privileged trading position to undermine the local artistic economy and if not that by taking the huge costs of their appearances from the local artistic economy they are actually attacking the roots of the very activity which in the long term supports their existence.

        Looking at the other orchestras, paying foreign touring companies which are more than likely to take more out of the local economy than a local organisation would charge at the same time as (most likely, based on personal knowledge of similar situations but not the specific cases you mention) paying players far less than UK orchestral musicians would earn for the same work (and the latter would also be paying tax on their earnings and likely spending more locally as well) is also of questionable value to regional artistic development here.

        Next, as I understand it – and this may be inaccurate but I have no time to try to check – there is an exclusive agreement for supply between the hall management and a particular agency. If this is true then to me this stinks of vested interest and would lead me to suspect that it is unlikely to be of real benefit to artistic development in any way.

        Lastly, if the evidence is there to show that I am wrong concerning any or all of these points, that the country as a whole and Guildford itself are getting more artistic output and evident long term potential development value for no more cost than previously, then if someone would be good enough to produce it I will be happy to revise my thinking.

  • Ultimately, theatre is a luxury and should be able to support itself. The programming at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre is lamentable, geared purely around a 50plus market, and the pantomime offering this year is even worse than last year. Increase the quality and maybe they can pay their own bills. There are far more important things to spend government money on.

    • “Ultimately, theatre is a luxury and should be able to support itself.”

      And there, in a nutshell, is the Philistine bean-counters approach to all art. It’s the ‘those who bother with such nonsense can pay for it; the rest of us shouldn’t have to subsidise’ argument, which results in either a) no arts, or b) arts only for the very wealthy. So the unwealthy can just shove it, can they? Don’t normal people deserve theatre? It’s the mark of a civilised society that it funds the arts so they’re available to all.

      • So in this age of cuts we fund a badly run theatre rather than invest every penny we have in our NHS? The next time you complain about health care then rest assured that Bonne Langford made better use of your money!

      • No. The anon’s comment did not in anyway express that sentiment.

        Arts should be profitable, and not entirely or mostly propped up by government funds. How can you argue against that? Would you want the government to fund Paul Mccartney’s next album if he didn’t have enough cash to launch it?

        Also the whole ‘Don’t normal people deserve theatre? It’s the mark of a civilised society that it funds the arts so they’re available to all.’ Is non sensical. Has it occurred to you that if the theatre in question was not making profit with funding, that essentially the public dont want or aren’t interested in the said theatre, and as such the funding is better spent elsewhere.

        If you’re familiar with the Yvonne Arnaud you’ll know they offer very little to anyone outside of the 50+ years of age. Find me something I can take a teenager to, or someone in their mid 20s or early 30s to that is showing there in the next 3 months. The issue here is not over ‘the arts’ as a whole, and that they should ‘never be funded’. Indeed the arts as a whole are more accessible than ever thanks to the net. The issue is more that a theatre house has nothing to offer the generation who have infinite access to the world wide web, HD TV and film, and incredibly accessible video games.

        As a 22 year old who I do not want to go watch the Yvonne Arnaud’s umpteenth version of Peter Pan (which is what they are showing this year). Especially when Woking put on a fantastic Peter Pan show with a well known actor within the last 5 years.

        If the theatre house is not investing in new tech, nor new ideas nor new business models and they are sliding more and more into debt it makes sense to pull funding.

        Tradition is not owed a pension.

      • Nail squarely hit on head.

        I don’t believe George Osborne is an aficionado of theatre either, it’s economically inefficient. Much more effective to force-feed the masses with celebrity TV.

  • THIS cannot be.

    My fathers mother who was born in Guildford but has lived in Canada for just under 30 years or so kept asking me (she has dementia) whether the Yvonne Arnaud is still around when I saw her this year. She was so happy to hear it was still around and her face lit up when I told her so. She could name stuff she went to see eons and eons ago. Its gonna be awful if I have to tell her its gone next time I see her.

    I agree with the anon comment above :

    “The programming at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre is lamentable, geared purely around a 50plus market […] There are far more important things to spend government money on”

    But all the same, Im not going to be able to go anywhere near the building when its a Tesco or the like….

  • One of the best things I have taken my 2 children too is the animal magic concert put on by GP. before they had their funding cut. As a jobbing musician myself, I have no problem with players being from London if they offer a quality product. The Yvonne Arnaud also is the best place for childrens theatre. Is it a luxury to expose young children to the arts? Without arts funding by councils, we are left with TV show ‘Theatre’ at overly inflated prices and offering poor quality productions bent purely on selling as much branded merchandise as possible. Long live local theatre and funding for education in the arts.

  • Mr Lebrecht, you are a doom merchant! Yes, it was sad to see the end of Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra but where one door closes, another door opens. We now have Southern Pro Musica for Guildford providing our town with an exciting program of music, at G Live, at the Cathedral and in Holy Trinity Church. SPM, under the highly creative direction of Jonathan Willcocks, is pro-active in encouraging participation in classical music by children and families as well as with the concert-going public. Guildford Choral Society (of which I am a member) has just performed a concert with Southern Pro Musica Brass and Percussion – my goodness, they make a splendid sound! We look forward with enormous enthusiasm to performing more concerts with them in the future. On Sunday, January 26th, at 3.00 p.m. there will be an SPM Family Orchestral Concert at G Live. G Live will also host two Schools Concerts featuring SPM, Jonathan Willcocks and Brian Kay – these are normally sold out! How about coming down to hear some of the 30-minute FREE lunchtime recitals at Holy Trinity Church that I am reading about in my Southern Pro Musica Program? They involve local students from Guildford Schools. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that Southern Pro Musica for Guildford is set to carry a torch for music in this town in a very big way, so don’t lets mourn for what has gone because there is so much to look forward to!

    I don’t believe the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre will close down because it has lost its Borough Council Subsidy – it will simply move into a new phase of existence because the town wants it to keep going. When Guildford Borough Council cut its funding to the Guildford Philharmonic Choir, did that turn up its toes and die? No, it kept going and still keeps going from strength to strength but it’s now called Vivace Chorus! Guildford Choral Society is 175 years old next year and Council funding or no Council funding will continue to perform to appreciative Guildford audiences and to audiences at the Royal Albert Hall. Watch BBC1 on Sunday 22nd December at 4.35 p.m. – the Big Sing : the UK’s Top Ten Carols – we are one of the choirs participating 🙂 Guildford is a hot-bed of musical activity: with two, big, classical choirs, (Guildford Choral and Vivace), Guildford Vox, Rock Choir that was born here, the wonderful Academy of Contemporary Music and its Gospel Choir that did so well in “Last Choir Standing” and Guildford County School that is a music specialist school with more choirs than you can shake a stick at, including the boys’ choir that Gareth Malone featured in one of his early T.V programs, plus all their instrumentalists – and that isn’t where the list ends by any means. Oh, and about Guildford being a dormitory town . . . there are quite a large number of us who live here who don’t commute to The Big Smoke and as for Guildford becoming a mortuary town – well, where on earth did you get that idea from? It’s the place Londoners want to move to!!!

  • Its so sad-this is not the first time that Yvonne Arnaud has been in crisis,way back in early 1996 it faced silmilar problems,with arts council grants cuts and local authority cuts,and it solidered on then and i’m sure it fight on again! I have been a patron since my first panto visit there in 1986 and only visited it there a couple of months ago to see the fabulous Ben Miller in The Duck House.I would rather go there than the west end to see shows due to ease of parking in nearby council office car parks open to the public at weekends and the friendiness and pleasant surroundings of the theatre compared to noisy and busy west end theatres.

    One reason why is has difficulties raising revenues is because with only about 780 seats it is limited in the returns it can make at the box office and secondly with massive competition from the newly built GLive HQ theatre also in town and nearby ATG theatre in Woking,it faces competiton from bigger companies who can put on big west end musicals and touring shows on a larger stage with the lastest techinical facilities.

    Still that said Yvonne Arnaud will still have such great affection in my heart for all the wonderful plays,massive stars and happy memories of visits over the last 27 years of visits!

    Long live the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

  • What is happening here is not unique to Guildford. Other towns’ Arts Centres and Theatres have had their Arts Council funding and Local Authority funding cut/removed. Some of them have gibbered on about Philistines destroying the Arts. Others have taken the move as a “Wake-up Kick Up The Arse”. They have turned their Arts Centres into self-sustaining Centres, staging types of productions that the paying audiences (across the WHOLE demographic of the local populace) WANT to see. And they are successful. Bear in mind also that Arts Council Funding has not been “removed” exactly … the way in which it is awarded has been changed. Instead of a passive sit-back-and-relax-here’s-a-few-million-quid approach, an Arts Centre now has to actively apply to the Arts Council for grants on a project-by-project basis, presenting a case for WHY each project should receive a grant. This focuses the attention of the Arts Centre Management on the BUSINESS of running an Arts Centre.

    Bottom line: If YOU want YOUR theatre to survive, make sure it stages shows, performances, gigs, bands, comedians, acts that the public are prepared to pay (and to get up out of their comfy armchairs!) to see. Make sure there is adequate parking. Make sure bars are well-stocked and manned – and kept open AFTER a performance. In short – your theatre is a BUSINESS… run it accordingly.

  • Its all about demand and supply, there is a lack of demand for this in Guildford. Give the money to something more beneficial to a wider scope.

  • I disagree, you have a number of secondary schools in the region who would support the theatre should the programme reflect the playwrights that would enhance the students understanding of different genres, from Shakespeare to Pinter, or Ibsen for example.

    The next generation of theatregoers have to be inspired to attend and a concerted effort to attract them is required be it comedy such as the 39 steps or musicals an appreciation of the various markets is required.

  • There should always be a theatre or places of arts and music in our towns whatever it costs. We should defend that right. Its a mark of our civillisation. If we re build and learn to use it wisely and resourcefully it will not only save us but nurture and enrichen everyones lives. If it was only about go ernment cuts..next they will say we have to live without our hearts and minds or our ability to laugh and express and live..didnt we fight wars to protect l that. If we cannot then, perhaps things have come a long way that we forget seeing plays and listening to music…What we mean is having a theatre like that is no longe practical or an orchestra as large cost effective..then work in partneship to allow the town to build effective transitions and workable structures. Re employ musicians to teach part time in schools and colleges and universities through su sidy and grants. So next generation brings new musicians..Allow the plays to travel arround and make money in other ways. Theres always solutikns if we all want them but the answer seems to be ‘we have to cut’ but think on the culture, the tradition, the way of life, history..yes it may begin in another form somewhere else. It seems we only protect things when it is valuble to some..or close to extinction or get rid of it due to budgets..orders from big brother or just run out of ideas and not willing to find solutions..shall we do that with governments and irresponsible councils..or next they ll say lets get rid of inefficient people…because humans are nolonger cost effective..till all we will have left is an empty world.devowed of variety and expression…

  • If the cultural life of a town dies, then the town dies, if that town dies then the countryside around it dies, and before you know it the cultural life of the country dies and barbarism lives. So long live the bankers with the £billions we taxpayers bailed them out with,and may Tridant be funded by us forever.

    • Dear Myra – Although I agree with you in principle that “if the cultural life of a town dies, then the town dies”, there is not even a faint possibility that Guildford’s cultural life will “die” because the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre might lose some, or even all, of its Guildford Borough Council subsidy. Guildford’s cultural life is thriving – perhaps as never before. I don’t believe that the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre will close. It fills a niche that is different to the niche occupied by G Live as it is the place where many West End shows have trial runs before they move up to London. Like many organisations that lose one form of funding, I feel sure that the Arnaud will find other sources of income; they may have to tweak their programming to attract different audiences but I am sure that they will carry on. The demise of the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra has not meant that classical music in Guildford has ceased! Quite to the contrary: Southern Pro Musica for Guildford are providing a very wide range of musical events that are aimed at different audiences, adults and children, from classical concerts held in the lovely intimacy of Holy Trinity Church where the audience is really close to the performing musicians and are wrapped in glorious sound, to joyous family events like the hugely successful Family Christmas Concert held at G Live with Guildford Philharmonic Choir and the children of St Catherine’s Preparatory School. All this talk of “killing”, “slashing” and “dying” is completely unnecessary doom-mongering and I reject it – in totality!

  • A correction to my own reply. It should read “Family Christmas Concert held at G Live with Guildford Choral Society”, not “Guildford Philharmonic Choir” as the latter was deprived of its Council funding years ago and now exists under a different name. My apologies for the slip-up which was really an “In Memoriam” for Guildford Philharmonic Choir!! All this talk of slashing, killing, mortuary towns and the like has shaken up old memories – but all that is in the past, so let’s not dwell on it!!

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