Why London’s music has gone flat

In my monthly essay in Standpoint magazine, I examine the loss of verve and vitality in the London classical concerts scene.

southbank

This is a piece I hoped never to write and each word is wrung from me with regret. But recent chats with regular concertgoers have confirmed the growling in my gut that some life force has vanished from London’s music in the past couple of years. The causes are diverse. A former orchestra manager sees the decline as a “symptom of a deeper disorder: arts are no longer currency and therefore without constituency in the media”. He’s right. Apart from The Times, newspapers scarcely review classical concerts any more in print.

A surviving newspaper critic blames the subsidy-guzzling South Bank for relegating symphony concerts to a peripheral attraction, swamped on its website by pop events and on its forecourt by the stench of chain restaurants. This, too, is lamentably true.

But the sources of decline run deeper and broader than mere presentation.

Read on here.

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  • Norman, you need to get out more. Last week I attended superb performances of Mahler’s second and third symphonies and the St Matthew Passion. There are equally wonderful concerts ahead of me, such as the Mass in B Minor with Bach Collegium, Japan, British and French music with Sir Mark Elder at the Barbican, Mendelssohn’s complete Midsummer Night’s Dream (with accompaniment by William Shakespeare) in the Middle Temple, Gergiev and the Mariinsky orchestra giving us Prokofiev’s complete ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Cadogan Hall and Herve Niquet conducting the Franck symphony in the same venue. Then there is the wealth of music at the Wigmore Hall, Milton Court and King’s Place, with the Proms rapidly heading our way. Only the Royal Festival Hall has lost the life-force it had until the 1990s and justifies your fears. But, hey, why does that really matter when there is so much great music-making elsewhere that is virtually constantly on tap? And I haven’t even mentioned the opera houses …

    London still leads the world musically. The quality and diversity of what we gratefully receive is truly amazing!

    • Sadly, it’s easier to sack a man than a woman these days. She has certainly presided over an immeasurable decline in the RFH’s erstwhile front-rank status as THE centre for classical music in London. She seems more concerned with hosting one spurious festival after another, providing floor space inside the building for all kinds of “yoof” groups who haven’t the faintest desire to make any acquaintance with the auditorium and, until recently, believed that the homeless, mothers with baby-buggies and computer geeks had as much right to promenade along the foyers as mere concert-goers. But she has not contributed to this decline on her own. As Norman has pointed out, it is nothing short of scandalous that two of the “resident” orchestras give just over 30 concerts each a year. That’s almost as bad as having a Music Director whose appearances with “his” orchestra can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Although there are a few notable exceptions, the programming policy of both LPO and the Philharmonia is unlikely to draw in the curious: one piece of staple after another, with little or no attempt to explore anything outside the mainstream. When were we last offered Paganini’s first violin concerto or those of Wieniawski or Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, for instance? Managements are likely to plead “death at the box-office”, as happened when I tried to get one of the orchestras interested in Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony, but if you never offer anyone a variegated diet is it any wonder that they stick to what they know?

      • I heard the LPO give a very fine performance of the Symphonie Espagnole in the RFH less thanks year ago, as it happens. Just saying…

        • And let’s pretend your appallingly sexist (and factually incorrect) first sentence never happened, either.

          • The trouble with political correctness – to which you obviously subscribe – is that it stops people telling the truth. Why should a woman who has no track record in classical music be allowed to continue in a role to which she is not suited? If you think that’s sexism, I can’t help you.

      • Just a couple of weeks ago the LPO performed a largescale work by Zemlinsky. Personally I thought it was utter garbage but I do commend the orchestra for taking chances. And the Philharmonia takes them as well. That part of your argument just does not stand up to scrutiny, Mr Hall.

      • Just off the top of my head, LPO since September has played Dukas La Peri, Honegger Pacific 231, Wagenaar Cyrano de Bergerac, Shostakovich 6, Penderecki Horn Concerto, Adagio for strings and Threnody; Knussen Ophelia Dances, Lindberg Second Violin Concerto, Brett Dean Wolf Songs, Khachaturian Violin Concerto, Rodrigo Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre…what on earth is Alexander Hall talking about?

        • I am talking about the never-ending plod through Tchaikovsky 5 and 6, Dvorak 9, Mussorgsky’s Pictures (when has an orchestra ever ventured into Glazunov’s The Seasons, for instance?), Brahms 1, Beethoven 7 and…and…and. Never mind the restriction in the fiddle repertory to Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Beethoven. The fillers that have been mentioned here are just that: shorter pieces usually paired up with more popular works so as not to frighten the horses. Take a look at the subscription seasons of continental orchestras and then you’ll perhaps understand what I’m going on about.

          • To the (limited) extent that any of this is true, it’s largely a function of the fact that the symphony orchestras on the continent generally get a much higher % of their total income from public funding (government, region or city) than those in the UK.

          • Tchaikovsky 5 and 6, Dvorak 9, Mussorgsky’s Pictures Brahms 1, Beethoven 7: all are great music. As Neville Cardus once said, ‘There is no such thing as hackneyed music – only hackneyed listeners’.

      • Thursday 10th December 2015

        Philharmonia at the RFH.

        Hector Berlioz: Suite from L’enfance du Christ
        Edouard Lalo: Symphonie espagnole for solo violin & orchestra, Op.21
        Interval
        Edouard Lalo: Namouna, Suite No.2
        Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Suite, Op.20a

  • I think the classical scene in London is as vital as it has ever been, but I do completely agree with classical music being sidelined at Southbank Centre, in favour of one festival after another.

  • 1. London orchestra are great but, to be fair, so are those in many other European and American cities.

    2. One of the major problems orchestra in the UK face is poor state funding for which they compensate by taking on every odd job. This leads to limited repertoire and under-rehearsed concerts; in the latter case, there is no guarantee that a concert-goer with a trained-ear is going to be supportive – after all, tickets are not cheap. One can keep repeating how good London orchestras are at sight-reading (in reality, all orchestras are great sight-readers) : a sight-read work is not the same as a work that has been learned and digested.

    3. Another major problem is that musical education in the UK is amongst the worst and the least democratised in Europe. Yes, there are some brilliant music academies and schools, but the country’s education relies mainly on ‘music-services’. Many of these offer abysmal education (London is less affected by this because of the choice available). How could one possibly create a music culture in such conditions?

    4. The third major problem is that greed has taken over London. How could one expect a vibrant, artistic community when only few orchestral musicians are able to live in London? Musicians have to often travel 2 hours just to get to rehearsals and concerts: how can they feel part of the London community?

    5. London, in general, needs to be bolder in its programming: how much Philip Glass, Nico Muhley and commercial music can one really take?

    6. More to the point: is it really possible to repair the damage that London has suffered due to the socio-political route the country has taken over the last decades?

    • I think concert prices are fairly reasonable in London. You can sit in the choir at the RFH for around £8. The choir at Symphony hall in Birmingham for the CBSO can be £20 and they wonder why the hall is empty.

      In terms of interesting concerts and the attendance of the chief conductor the LPO is miles ahead of the Philharmonia.

      • …except they aren’t empty: CBSO ticket sales are at a historic high. Price structures are a complex subject, with a lot of local factors in play: but you arguably get a better experience at one venue than the other (and better seats than in the choir at Symphony Hall are available at lower prices).

        A separate issue, though perhaps not wholly unrelated, is that the SBC receives £20.7 million in ACE subsidy, whereas Symphony Hall receives £83,000. (That’s not a typo: eighty three thousand pounds per year, as of 2015. For an organisation running two major performance venues in a city bigger than Vienna or Amsterdam). Obviously the SBC is a larger complex of venues, but the fact that one organisation receives 250 times more public subsidy than the other possibly has some bearing on the costs they pass on to the orchestras that promote concerts there…

  • It’s probably time to raise ticket prices in London. People will come to the Rattle, Haitink, etc. concerts – because people need good music, but it has to cost them what it’s actually worth. If you take the actual cost of putting on a concert and divide it by the number of seats (accounting for number of concerts), that’s what the orchestras really need. And if you want better performances, the cost of putting on the concert must go up.
    But if you think all of this can survive/thrive on 8 pounds a seat (and the faith that someone/something else is covering the difference) – things will probably be lackluster.

    • So, I figured out what the concerts really cost, and I buy the ticket plus make a contribution for the rest. And when I say I liked a conductor or composer, they listen.

  • Let us not forget the effect of the inexcusable dereliction of duty by house managers and stewards (although I attribute the blame to the former) insofar as they fail to enforce good etiquette in audiences, ostensibly in the name of accessibility, but with the effect of rendering many venues inaccessible to the most loyal music-lovers and connoisseurs (whether young or old — I am 23), a.k.a. the core customer base (I have completely given up on the Southbank, and am considerably reducing my attendance at the Barbican, where tannoy announcements from the foyer leak into the auditorium and the stewards in their scruffy t-shirts — it is just embarrassing, and I wish they would revert to the suits they used to wear, only a few years ago — do nothing to stop mobile telephones and photography, as my concert-going becomes more insular and focussed upon the Wigmore, one of the only venues to take these things seriously).

    As for ticket prices, much as I love to exploit the cheap tickets for my own benefit, I agree that a higher price would be necessary (although I do still believe that there should be an element of subsidy in ticket prices), and have the useful side-effect of diminishing the riff-raff (sadly, it is a fact of life that most people tend to take things seriously only they have paid good money for them), and the unfortunate side-effect of diminishing open-minded non-regular concertgoers who have the manners to respect the etiquette and rules.

  • Erratum: “if” is missing from the parenthesised expression “sadly, it is a fact of life […]”; it should read “sadly, it is a fact of life that most people tend to take things seriously only if they have paid good money for them”

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