Why London’s orchestras are playing flat

Why London’s orchestras are playing flat


norman lebrecht

April 13, 2017

In my new monthly column in the Spectator, I write about London’s fading fortunes as an orchestral capital.

Since the column is pay-walled, all I can offer here is a taster:

(There used to be) a buzz around our concert halls. Principal players turned down fat orchestra jobs in Germany, half the work for twice the pay, because London was too exciting to leave. Every hot conductor came to be tested in the London furnace. Competition sizzled between the bands.

And then it died.

You’ll have to buy a copy, out now, or subscribe.

Pictured: LPO at the exit gates



  • CGDA says:

    In the last 40 years, London has become a greedy, inhumane capital reserved for the very rich or the very poor living in miserable conditions. The latter supply labour to businesses whose massive profits rely heavily on slave labour.

    The younger generation of players are unable to afford property or rent there. Who is going to accept living in a minute studio just to say “I am part of the LPO or the LSO.”? Fantastic orchestras exist all over Europe; be it Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, France, the Czech Republic or other – London has no monopoly on that.

    When people in their twenties and single join a London orchestra, they can obviously commute. It is needless to say that this is rarely an option once one is older and has a family.

    The way the UK is going, collapse is on its way.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Unfortunately, true. Also, those circumstances create pressures which force orchestras to conformist programming and increasing financially-determined choices.

      “The way the UK is going, collapse is on its way.” That seems exaggerated….. the worst that can happen, is that the UK folds into a provincial country with some excentric weardo’s like in the satire ‘Little Britain’. As far as orchestras are concerned, more probable is that they will be forced to merge, as happens in the Netherlands and Denmark – for very different reasons but with comparable results.

      • Halldor says:

        London is not the entirety of the UK; never has been. (Just as the recording industry is not “classical music” – another common misconception on these pages). As Mr Lebrecht points out later in his article, the UK’s regional orchestras (some of them superior to anything in the capital – and certainly playing in better venues) are innovating, re-inventing themselves and thriving. There are exceptions in every case (the LPO has some fascinating and imaginative programmes) but overwhelmingly, orchestral concerts in London do look fairly pedestrian (perhaps as a result of existing in such an aggressively commercial environment) compared to, say Glasgow or Manchester. Even the super-wealthy LSO – barring a few headline risk-taking events, usually spearheaded by Rattle – tends by and large to turn out an anodyne luxury package: standard repertoire programmes with established and expensive “big names”. To be fair, they’re still recovering from a long period under a noncommittal (but glamorous) music director with a very limited repertoire; Rattle can only help.

        Still, it’s curious that the one blindingly obvious thing that could (and elsewhere, demonstrably has) give the whole scene a shot in the arm – that new hall – is the one thing that Mr Lebrecht consistently attacks. Incredibly, he’s beating that same old drum here too. Cake had: cake eaten.

        • Maria says:

          “the UK’s regional orchestras (some of them superior to anything in the capital”

          NL does not say that. He knows better.

    • Adrienne says:

      ‘reserved for the very rich or the very poor’

      A silly comment. Most of London’s housing is far removed from either Mayfair or Tower Hamlets. Does it look as if it is occupied by the very rich or the very poor?

      This is nothing more than yet another thinly disguised swipe at Brexit.

      • Furzwängler says:

        You are right. The remoaners and remtards are alive and well here, as some of the comments above show all too clearly (Halldor’s thoughtful comment excepted). They just don’t seem to be able to move on and accept that things have changed.

    • Anon says:

      @ CGDA – nonsense. I and many many others have lived in London as youngsters in recent years, quite happily. As with any other major city in the UK or in Europe, there are areas which are unaffordable for the average income, but that’s hardly a surprise anywhere. There is plenty available for those who want it, and London orchestras have plenty of young players, and players with young families.

      If there’s any problem with the London orchestral scene, I suspect it is probably that over recent decades the number of ‘orchestras’ has grown substantially, but the audience has not. Too much over-supply of the same stuff, in other words.

      • CGDA says:

        ANON, lodging is not a problem for players who have been helped by their families or have partners in high paying jobs.

        To dismiss a fact as nonsense is hardly going to help the situation. Are you not aware that most people in London orchestras commute from the home-counties?

        • Anon says:

          CGDA, my point is that lodging isn’t a problem for many in the music business regardless of having family to help or partners earning higher incomes. We may not all be able to afford mansions, but plenty of people seem happy with the balance they have achieved.

          Yes, I know many players commute, but so too do many outside the musical world. It’s a decision to take, trade more space or lower costs against greater time spent getting where you need to be. And with that decision available to all to take, there seem to be plenty of people employed in London orchestras who are young, who have young families, and so on; the reality of who is there playing doesn’t match your suggested implication that it’s not possible.
          Of course, the issue you raise is not unique to music, and it’s not unique to London. How many of the Halle do you think live in Manchester city centre rather than the areas around it? How many of the people employed in London, whether on low, medium or even on very high salaries, do you think live in the centre? By no means all and I doubt even a majority, which is why commuter services are so full.

    • pooroperaman says:

      Do any of you people actually live here? I go to a lot of orchestral concerts in London (I was at the BBC SO concert last night, for instance) and I see a thriving scene with orchestras competing to put on the most interesting and original programmes, with no hint of conservatism or dumbing down. I also see lots of twenty-somethings holding regular positions in all those orchestras, as well as plenty of older players who have evidently kept those jobs well into their child-rearing years.

      (While I’m at it, last week I went to Vienna – that bastion of classical music – and saw listings for only a tiny fraction of the amount of music-making that took place in London in the same period.)

      Perhaps you could come to London one day and look at the evidence, rather than just pontificating from your comfy chairs in Cloudcuckooland.

  • Wurtfangler says:

    I suspect that CGDA has a point – I wonder if there is any hard or even anecdotal evidence to support it? There has been a lot of attention paid to the possible effects of Brexit on the artistic life of the country however …

    How can a rank & file orchestral player afford to live and work in London these days??

    Added to this of course is the fact that the parasites who do now inhabit the city (or have an apartment they visit once a year) have no interest in what the Philharmonia or LSO do.

    I should point out that I am well aware that there is culture outside of London (luckily), but London is the country’s ‘Shop Window’ whether we like it or not.

    • Anon says:

      It seems a bit much to dismiss London’s wealthier inhabitants as “parasites” for not turning up to the LSO. Isn’t is possible that they might prefer a different art-form, or different manifestations of ‘culture’ than you do? Might it be possible that they find the same-old repertoire played to 70% of an orchestra’s ability by a bunch of musicians who don’t look happy to be there not an interesting, stimulating or entertaining way to spend an evening? The more anyone dismisses their potential audience, the less likely they are to be able create concerts that interest the outsiders.

    • CGDA says:

      When one takes into account inflation and the cost of living (house prices being the biggest culprit), salaries are now worth about a third of those in the 70s.

  • Jeff says:

    I can assure you that London doesn’t have a monopoly on low orchestral salaries and high living costs. The grass isn’t necessarily always greener…

  • Jon H says:

    London orchestras have always had it tough. It seems every few years, someone was ready to merge or split. Somehow that added something to the musicality – that things weren’t too easily achieved. There were great conductors, but the ones who survived the London “furnace” were the ones who learned to respect the system in place. Constant bumping, etc.
    But the recording industry in London was a major part of the success – it was the golden age – but even the recording teams didn’t live “normal” lives. I think John Culshaw rented a room from a family in London well into his 40s. But his team could make a London orchestra sound as good as orchestras earning three times the money.

    • Jon H says:

      And actually, more than exciting – I want interesting. An interesting phrase, an interesting color, an interesting tempo. Not just loud, not just fast – interesting.

      • John Borstlap says:

        In local English, the term ‘interesting’ is a very ambiguous word capable of meaning entirely opposite things, according to context and body language. It should be handled with the utmost care.

  • Malcolm Kottler says:

    Here is Norman’s concluding paragraph to his column, with his suggestions for solutions.

    Norman writes:

    “So what’s to be done? A half-billion-pound new hall and a mop of Rattle hair will not bring back the buzz. What’s needed is new thinking. Orchestras must start thinking for themselves again, not as part of some National Portfolio. They need to get competitive — about what they play, where they play and what they charge. In Glasgow, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is letting in under-18s for free next year. In Manchester, the Hallé is experimenting with robots in partnership with Siemens. In Liverpool, the music director goes to home matches at Anfield and writes a column in the programme. In Birmingham, the players picked a music director who was under 30 (not to mention female and brilliant). And in London it’s same-old, same-old, same-old. Time to change the music, along with some of the executive directors. And no time to lose.”

    • Maria says:

      “In Manchester, the Hallé is experimenting with robots in partnership with Siemens. In Liverpool, the music director goes to home matches at Anfield and writes a column in the programme. ”

      You really are scraping the barrel, aren’t you?

  • Alexander Hall says:

    To some extent you have to blame the players and the management bosses who are paid by them. I am old enough to remember the stability of personnel in London orchestras in the sixties and seventies. If you went to a concert given by Orchestra X and saw certain faces sitting in principal positions, you could guarantee that the next time you went to hear the self-same orchestra, you would see the very same faces looking out at you. It beggars belief that if one particular orchestra gives only 35 annual concerts in the Royal Festival Hall and has two equal principals amongst the wind and brass, there will be several occasions when neither of those principals is playing. Norman has already drawn attention in the past to the ever-changing make-up of many of the London bands. Why has this been happening for the best part of two decades? Because players govern themselves and are increasingly conscious of the power they wield; they can choose to take on solo engagements or lucrative guest roles elsewhere in preference to appearing with the orchestra they are nominally members of. We no longer have artistic directors and managers of the calibre of Walter Legge who would have put a stop to this pick-up approach to music-making. Orchestral managers these days are required to bring in sponsorship money and put on a PR act but are seldom in a position to insist on the highest playing standards. They may point to a large pool of freelance players in London on whom they regularly draw, but that is not enough to sustain the high quality you get amongst the best string sections in the world where players on the same desks live and breathe the notes together and know instinctively what their desk partners are about to do. Since London musicians regularly engage in their games of musical chairs, the danger is that any individual profile or sound is soon lost. I challenge anybody to do a round of blind listening and accurately identify the four London orchestras, and the BBC SO for that matter too.That said, I’m not sure if Norman is right in asserting that “every hot conductor” now thinks twice of coming to London. All five orchestras in the capital have high-profile chief conductors, and there are remarkably few big names as well as whizzkids to watch who are not drawn to appearing in what was once seen – in the heyday of recording – as the musical capital of the world.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    I don’t understand the “new thinking” advocated by Mr. Lebrecht. Gimmicks may bring short term returns, but do they create long term audiences? You can’t make long term audiences out of people who don’t connect with the music in the first place. The connection is established before adulthood. While many orchestras now do some good work with schools, I believe that it’s families and schools that make the difference.

    Question: do orchestras in Germany, Austria or the Netherlands resort to “new thinking” to keep bums on seats?

    • John Borstlap says:

      I would not trust the Dutch bums.

      In Germany, classical music is part of national cultural identity, so those are differently-informed bums.

      The best and only way to keep an orchestra running, is musically-engaging performances of great music, and ‘selling’ it according to its true nature: as an alternative to the modern world with its distractions, superficial materialism and eroding extraversion.


  • Talking the Talk says:

    Where is the evidence that Mirga is brilliant? Please don’t mention the hopelessly naive, shallow and unmusical Tchaikovsky at the Proms or more recently the anodyne account of Mahler 1 that had the orchestra struggling for ensemble and trying to get through it most of the time. I would say these interpretations were poorly conceived but there seemed little evidence that there were many concepts behind them, musical or otherwise. At best she comes across as and enthusiastic and energetic student who appeals to people who likes to keep things simple and uncomplicated and not in a good way.

    None of this is related to her being female, there are even more hopelessly shallow and untalented young men with careers that give all the appearance of brilliance also with nothing to say of any musical or artistic interest.

    For those who disagree, please feel free and continue enjoying what passes for artistic insight and talent currently and please also let me know what it is about these people that makes them brilliant to your ears? Apart from the golden glow of youth and energy I really am at a loss to understand.

    • harold braun says:

      Spot on!Don’t understand the hype about her.Also saw her doing Tchaikovsky 4,with Frankfurt Radio Orchestra.They played really well,accompanying her carefully staged choreography on the podium.Without it,the performance was run of the mill.Certainly in comparison with Andris or the fantastic new recording from Liverpool under Vasily Petrenko.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Isn’t the main problem with the London orchestras the fact that while they have always paid fairly poorly, in the past the musicians income was supplemented by revenue from recordings. Something London orchestras could exploit since it was the centre of the recording industry. With the decline of recordings by the majors, and recording income, the musicians can no longer supplement their income as they once could, and public subsidy has not made up this deficit.

    To be honest, the repertoire they play is still probably more imaginative than elsewhere. Personally, I think they should place more emphasis on being very good in the ‘standard repertoire’.

  • Furzwängler says:

    Mr Lebrecht, as an avid Spectator subscriber I look forward to reading your new monthly column.