Two London orchestras in search of an identity

Two London orchestras in search of an identity


norman lebrecht

January 30, 2018

The London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia have staged simultaneous season launches.

The Philharmonia defines itself as follows:

The Philharmonia Orchestra and Principal Conductor & Artistic Advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen announce their new season in London with a programme that cements the Philharmonia’s position as a symphony orchestra for the 21st century. Through its combination of visiting artists, breadth of repertoire, Virtual Reality experiences and new concert presentation formats, the Orchestra aims to create thrilling musical experiences for the widest possible audience.

Esa-Pekka Salonen said: “We at the Philharmonia have a lively response for anyone who thinks that an orchestra is no longer a vital cultural force. I am looking forward to our new surround-sound Virtual Reality presentations, our Music of Today series, and our programme of music from Weimar Berlin, which will carry into the next season.”


The London Philharmonic writes:

The London Philharmonic Orchestra today announced its season at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall for 2018/19, confirming its reputation for adventurous programming with rarities and world premieres alongside the great works of orchestral music that together celebrate LPO’s power in inspiring its audiences.

The celebrated partnership between Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor, and LPO continues with 12 Royal Festival Hall concerts in 2018/19 season, including Wagner’s Die Walküre; Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; Bruckner symphonies in his continuing cycle; Haydn’s The Seasons; a Mozart and Mahler concert with Mitsuko Uchida, Dame Sarah Connolly and Stuart Skelton; a major Armistice centenary event including a world premiere of a specially-commissioned work by former Composer in Residence Magnus Lindberg; a programme featuring music by Czech composers who died in the Holocaust for which he is joined by the Borodin Quartet, and a fiftieth anniversary performance of Berio’s Sinfonia with The Swingles, who sang in its historic first performance in 1968.

At a time when the nature of what it is to be British dominates the national debate, LPO is presenting a major celebration of the music of Britain in Isle of Noises across the whole of 2019: three centuries of British music from the first great English opera, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, to a world premiere by one of the leading British voices of today, Helen Grime. The season also takes in three major Elgar works as well as music by Bax, Walton and a rare outing for music by Alice Mary Smith (born London 1839), the first British woman to write a symphony.


  • herrera says:

    I would say all 3 London orchestras are in search of an identity in a post-Brexit England, and their differing approaches are actually providing a spectacular spectrum for London concert goers: no single orchestra could possible have such a breadth of offering and the concert goer need not choose one over the other, but all three.

    It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, it could be a win-win-win situation.

  • william osborne says:

    The question is what would make the orchestra relevant to the modern world. 3-D virtual reality (whatever that will be,) contemporary music concerts, and music from Weimar Berlin are all interesting, but do they really solve the problems? Or are they more cosmetic? The orchestra evolved during a time when labor was cheap. And during an era where its authoritarian and hierarchical social structures were the norm. It also evolved during an era when extreme class dichotomies defined by culture were were more acceptible. And during an era when the cultural nationalism that surrounds symphonic thought was seen in a more positive light. And the symphony orchestra has not added a significant body of new literature to its standard repertoire in about 80 years. Still, Esa-Pekka’s efforts are at least interesting.

    • Alexander Platt says:

      William if you’d do a little research there is a great deal of significant orchestral literature from the last 80 years. Orchestras are wonderful things, and they continue to thrive in cities large and small.

      • David R Osborne says:

        Alexander it’s a great exercise so let’s do it. We can broaden the field if you wish to the UK and all of Western Europe. What once was known as the EU. Name please for me a work for orchestra alone (i.e. purely instrumental), composed in the last 80 years, that has entered the standard repertoire. By that I mean beloved of audiences, thus leading to regular performances by all the major orchestras. A work, the programming of which puts ‘bums on seats’.

        I deliberately stipulated intrumental because that eliminates the Vier Letzte Lieder (I’m making the rules here). But I’m looking for something with that level of public engagement…

        • Saxon Broken says:

          This means something after 1938. So here are some things that seem popular.

          Britten — Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings (1943)
          Britten — Four Sea Interludes (1945)
          Shostakovich — Symphony No. 8 and No. 9
          Shostakovich — Violin Concerto No. 1 and No. 2
          Strauss — Metamorphosen

          • David R Osborne says:

            Must be British or European, ( the cradle of our art-form); must be instrumental (performed by members of a standard orchestral lineup); overall this should be a wide enough field and given the public resources thrown at it, wouldn’t we expect more than one work, the Sea Interludes, that meets the criteria?

            Metamorphosen is an interesting one. An underperformed masterpiece but I would draw a distinction between the level of public engagement with that work, as opposed to the 4 Last Songs. Worth noting as well that this composer was in his 80s when he wrote these pieces and was a bit of a 20th Century anomaly, given that he had at least one foot firmly placed back in the 19th.

            In conclusion, this is our elephant in the room. Clear proof that what we have here is a failing art-form. It is a failure of leadership, proof that urgent, fundamental change in the way we do things is required. This is what we should really be talking about.

      • william osborne says:

        Russell, I agree that a significant orchestral literature has been created over the last 80 years. In fact, it is my favorite literature. It’s just that it hasn’t entered the mainstream repertoire, and I don’t think that is going to change. Perhaps there is a systemic conflict between the size and cost of orchestras and the sort of public they must appeal to. Interesting comments by David Osborne. We are no relation.

      • william osborne says:

        Ten works in support of Alexander’s comment, in no particular order, and a very incomplete list:

        Ligeti, Atmospheres
        Berio, Sinfonia,
        Pendercki Threnody
        Stockhausen, Gruppen
        Górecki, 3rd Symphony
        Corgliano, clarinet concerto
        Crumb, A Haunted Landscape
        Britten, Four Sea Interludes
        Lutoslawski-Symphony No. 4
        Schwantner- Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra

        • David R Osborne says:

          No come on William you disappoint me , mostly stuff for the specialist and of very little interest to mainstream audiences. No way known do the majority of your list meet these criteria:

          ” By that I mean beloved of audiences, thus leading to regular performances by all the major orchestras. A work, the programming of which puts ‘bums on seats’.”

          As for the few works you have listed that are not by card carrying members of the avant-garde, Corigliano is American so he’s automatically disqualified, Gorecki nearly, but it’s vocal, so also disqualified. But I’ll give you the Sea Interludes even if they’re really part of an opera.

          • william osborne says:

            You misunderstand my point about these works. They represent “significant” literature, as Alexander says, but most of them will not enter the mainstream repertoire.

    • David R Osborne says:

      …”And the symphony orchestra has not added a significant body of new literature to its standard repertoire in about 80 years”…

      Rarely has it been put so eloquently or concisely. ( Must be the surname). The response to the crisis, one that no other field of human endeavour could have survived for this long?- Fighting words from Mr Salonen:

      “We at the Philharmonia have a lively response for anyone who thinks that an orchestra is no longer a vital cultural force.”

      A very lively response indeed. New packaging.

    • Winger says:

      There are lots of pieces that have entered the standard repertoire in the last 80 years, whether or not they are to your or my taste. From Americans alone you can point to a large handful of things by John Adams and Philip Glass, hugely popular works by Bernstein, etc etc. To say nothing of Stravinsky, Britten, and others. You may also consider that the industry itself is so hidebound that it takes far longer for something to enter the “standard repertoire” than it did in, say, 1890.

      • william osborne says:

        Partially true, though I wonder if actual stats would fully support the idea. It also seems that the works that have gained a foothold tend to look backward, for whatever reason. Perhaps an indication of a genre passed it’s time?

        • David R Osborne says:

          I get that and all are important in their field, but it is a field for specialists and will never provide the new work we so desperately need: work created in our time that will not only sustain but grow our audience. That’s my serious point, and the fact that we’re even having this discussion shows how ridiculous the situation has become.

      • David R Osborne says:

        You’re breaking the rules there Winger, I’m after musical works and you’re naming composers. Of those only Britten qualifies as British or European, and of his works from this period that retain such a place in the repertoire, two are operas ( Peter Grimes, possibly Turn of the Screw) and one, the War Requiem, is a large scale choral work.

        Stravinsky’s great instrumental works ( three ballets?), even if he were eligible, all fall outside the 80 year cut-off.

  • Dave says:

    Also interesting is that in a week where the ABO conference included a session called “The Collaborative Orchestra: Choruses”, the Philharmonia announce a season that seems almost to exclude any choral content.

    The LPO on the other hand has some interesting and rather demanding choral works scheduled.