What now for the Royal Philharmonic?

What now for the Royal Philharmonic?


norman lebrecht

January 12, 2018

The struggling London orchestra was the last in the world this week to cut its ties with Charles Dutoit after the Swiss conductor was accused of multiple acts of sexual misconduct, which he denies.

The reason the RPO was behind the beat is because it desperately needs a flagship conductor with international name recognition, and they are getting harder and harder to find.

Without Dutoit, the RPO will find it harder to book the world tours it needs to stay alive.

So what will it do next?

Probably offer the post to Pinchas Zukerman, its principal guest conductor who’s coming free in Ottawa.

Failing that, the rest of its season features the Israeli Ilan Volkov and the Venezuelan Rafael Payaré (pictured with wife Alisa Weilerstein). Both have experience with UK orchestras. And that’s about it for headline acts.

The one sound the RPO cannot afford to make at this stage is that of a barrel being scraped.



  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    The one sound the RPO cannot afford to make at this stage is that of a barrel being scraped.

    And yet that is what it will be if it goes for the last-mentioned option.

    • RW2013 says:

      Indeed. Sideshow Bob is a meticulous micromanager, but not a lot more.

      • Iain Scott says:

        Ilan Volkov is an incredible musician and conductor which is why the BBCSSO and it’s audience cherish him. Payare’s recent appearance with The RSNO was not good.

        • Anton Bruckner says:

          I fully agree. With over hyped Dutoit they became a mainstream boring ensemble. They need an innovative conductor like Volkov. The world of music knows to appreciate high quality music making and it will translate in sales and revenues. Zuckerman is truly a great musician but guest conducting is much more suited for him.

        • KM says:

          Volkov is very good but he has no profile outside of the UK. That would not work for the RPO. I have witnessed Payare a few times in London and I think he has a lot of potential and is a strong musician with ideas. And he has a strong international profile. Just look at the orchestras who invite and re-invite him. London, Chicago, Munich, Vienna, Hamburg. That would work for the RPO.

          • Anton Bruckner says:

            Volkov is highly appreciated in Europe and conducted some of Eirope’s best orchestras. There is no doubt that he is the ideal candidate for the RPO. He will be like Jurowski to the LPO.

          • Ben says:

            Time will tell with both these young candidates. I have also seen and heard Rafael Payare and he is certainly a very gifted and vibrant conductor. Let’s see who the players choose. I’m sure there are others, too.

          • ben LEGEBEKE says:

            Volkov is a very musical conductor. I suppose he conducted the last time in Holland maybe 10 years ago! I remember good concerts in the Hague with the Residentie Orchestra. For me a big question why he was not invited back?! The RPO was famous with Beecham, Kempe, Previn& Ashkenazy after that period the orchestra disappeared from the scene. In combination with Dutoit it had no impact internationally. Payare is just a beginning conductor, we will see….

      • Jen McDonald says:

        While I’m sure this was not I ntended that way, ridiculing someone’s natural hair (albeit through a comparison to a cartoon) is racially insensitive. You’d do better to keep your comments to Payare’s musical abilities.

    • Oberon under a pale moon says:

      In the the modern world, orchestras that have the broadest appeal are in the strongest position.

      I believe the RPO receives minimal goverment handouts and yet plays to the largest audiences. That is a massive achievement!

  • FS60103 says:

    There’s no shortage of younger, if less celebrated, talent for them to choose from. And perhaps at this stage a dynamic, imaginative artistic leader who’s prepared to commit to (and build) the orchestra might be a better choice than a desultory relationship with a “big in the 80s” figurehead.
    The RPO’s recent big-name relationships (Ashkenazy and Dutoit) haven’t exactly set the world on fire. And as we’re seeing, the old guard can come with troublesome baggage.

  • KM says:

    I agree. The RPO name is bigger than Dutoit. If they’re clever with the appointment, this could be a great opprortunity time for a GREAT orchestra.

  • V.Lind says:

    Pinchas Zukerman “came free” in Ottawa years ago — Alexander Shelley is in his third season as MD. He might step in to help, but it did not look as if he were looking for another orchestra when he left the NAC in Ottawa after 16 years.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Alan Gilbert would be a goodchoice.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    They need a woman.

    Marin Alsop, meet RPO, RPO, meet Marin Alsop.

    • Steve P says:

      Because…of body parts? Or is there a gender stereotype you believe would make a woman more suitable to conduct RPO?
      Gender bias is bad, right?

      • Evan Tucker says:

        It may be cynical, but public relations dictates it’s what they have to do. Even if they didn’t know about the rumors (doubtful), they will be thought by everyone to have known. It’s a public relations disaster that can make a huge segment of the concert buying public abandon them. The best way to show that they’re not blind to women’s issues is to hire a woman. Alsop is the most obvious candidate, having given up her Brazil post and having been in Baltimore for a long time now.

        I live in Baltimore, Alsop is very good in 20th century rep, guests can take care of the rest.

        • Rgiarola says:

          You’re totally right! This is completely cynical. American bullshit puritanism above meritocracy.

          Besides it, Alsop does not need this kind of “quotas”. She is world-class and could be a good choice independently of things outside her musical talent. I may say she would refuse the MD under such top-notch cynical circumstance.

    • Stereo says:

      They shouldn’t go for Alsop, very boring. Volvo is the man.

      • Stereo says:

        Meant Volkov of course

        • Hilary says:

          Volkov, albeit primarily for 20th century music onwards. Would be a breath of fresh air. Dutoit had questionable taste in new(ish) music. Memories of an abysmal Concerto for three cellos and Orchestra by Penderecki.

          • FS60103 says:

            I understood that Volkov had made it clear that he’s not interested in music directorships in general, and I imagine that’s especially the case in a commercially-driven orchestra. The work that interests him most involves exploring and risk-taking (and ergo, heavy subsidy). Not a great match for an orchestra in the RPO’s position.

    • Mr. Schwa says:

      How about a great male dressed as a woman? Or an LGBTQ Eskimo?

      • Iain Scott says:

        Reflect on what you have posted. It’s neither amusing nor insightful, rather the kind of comment that makes you wonder about who reads a Slipped Disc.

  • John Nemaric says:

    Please…please…very please…offer the job to Manfred Honeck!!!

  • NewYorkNewYork says:

    Eric Jacobsen is the man for the job!
    If you dont know him…get to know him. He is the next one.
    A triple threat- musicianship, leadership and the all important ability to be politically savy.

    • RW2013 says:

      “A triple threat”
      Which orchestra wants to be threatened triply?

    • MusicDork says:

      Eric Jacobsen is one of the most awful conductors in the music world. He barely studied conducting. Most of the original members in the chamber orchestra, “The Knights” have quit because of his poor leadership. Eric Jacobsen should step down as a music director from any orchestras. Norman should dig into Eric’s awful leadership and musicianship.

  • Laura T says:

    This article is not at all accurate. From what I can see they were very much ahead of events.The RPO is the most well known Orchestra in Britain (If not the World) and does wonderful work. It’s reach is far far beyond the classical world and excludes nobody,no matter your education or economic background.It is far bigger than any single conductor and will go from strength to strength with new fresh talent.

    • Alex Davies says:

      “The RPO is the most well known Orchestra in Britain (If not the World)”

      Is this some kind of joke that I’m not quite getting? I live in London and I can assure you that the RPO is not even the best known orchestra in its home town. The LPO, LSO, and Philharmonia all enjoy much higher profiles.

      • Laura T says:

        You miss my point. Outside London it is the only one that the general public could name.Stop any person in any town in the uk and ask them to name an orchestra.The RPO would be named 9/10 times. That’s the truth. It is by far the most famous orchestra in Britain.

        • Alex Davies says:

          Well, that is certainly an interesting way of looking at it. If you’d asked me to name the British orchestras with the highest profile I would probably have said the Philharmonia, LPO, LSO, Royal Opera House, BBCSO, Hallé, CBSO, and RLPO (especially in Czech repertoire under Libor Pešek) (and possibly the ENO Orchestra and BBCNOW). Those would probably be the orchestras that have had the greatest impact on me in the concert hall/opera house and in recordings. Of course, it is possible that by touring outside of London and by undertaking a certain amount of work in crossover genres and film and video game music it may have achieved greater visibility while becoming less prominent in its home town and in the core repertoire. Should that be the case it certainly would be no bad thing. If the future of classical music in this country depended upon people who actually remember Libor Pešek’s tenure as principal conductor of the RLPO (and treasure the recordings) it would give us little cause for hope.

          As for the most famous orchestra in the world, however, surely most people would say the Berlin Philharmonic. I certainly don’t think that the Berlin Philharmonic is actually the *best* orchestra in the world, but it is surely the most famous.

          • Morello says:

            You’ve missed Laura T’s point again. The point is, who would THE GENERAL PUBLIC , that is, those other than the sneering contributors to this thread, identify as the most famous orchestra in the UK……it would be the RPO, often because of the Royal thing, or whatever. Not which is the best orchestra, but the one they’ve heard of. The general public don’t know who the Philharmonia are.

          • Alex Davies says:

            @Morello: “… it is possible that by touring outside of London and by undertaking a certain amount of work in crossover genres and film and video game music it may have achieved greater visibility while becoming less prominent in its home town and in the core repertoire.”

            It would appear that I got the point entirely.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      The RPO is the most well known Orchestra in Britain (If not the World)

      THat’ll be news to the LSO and the Philharmonia.

  • Will Duffay says:

    Is the RPO needed any more? (Sorry to raise it.)

    • Genevieve O says:

      A Thousand times Yes!!!! In these ever more egalitarian times it is the most relevant orchestra!

    • Anton Bruckner says:

      Only if they change from a boring commercial mainstream ensemble to a music making ensemble, see BBCSSO under volkov and Runnicles.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Peter Oundjian should also be available after this season.

    • Iain Scott says:

      Unlikely as he is focusing on teaching. Interesting suggestion though as he is a fine musician who turns in good thoughtful performances- unlike Dutoit who is mediocre and flashy.

      • Morello says:

        One can use many words to describe Mr Dutoit, but mediocre really isn’t one of them.

      • harold braun says:

        Having worked with him,i can only say,he is one of the best,at least in the franco russian rep.Superb ears,sense of balance,fantastic rehearser(yes,he can be tough,but idon´t care as long as the results are great.Masur,who was the best in German rep i worked for,also could be very tough).I learned so much from his rehearsals and performances,and he considerably influences me each day.Dutoit is the last one of the tradition of Ansermet.Munch,Monteux,Paray,Pretre,Inghelbrecht or Desormiere.

        • Rgiarola says:

          Good comment Harold. Even on record it is clear. Most catalogues\reviewers put Dutoit records of franco-russian repertoire with Montreal among the best of all times

  • Lawrence Kershaw says:

    He is still Music Director Emeritus of the NHK Symphony. Perhaps a rewrite of the opening sentence would be appropriate?

  • Peter Phillips says:


  • Robert Holmén says:

    ‘splain this bit to me…

    “Without Dutoit, the RPO will find it harder to book the world tours it needs to stay alive.”

    How is a world tour essential?

    It can’t possibly be profitable, can it? It doesn’t generate any ticket selling PR back home, does it?

  • Albert Einstein says:

    Volkov to the RPO would be like Mirga to the CBSO.

    • harold braun says:

      Volkov can conduct.That´s the main difference between the two.

      • Sir Kitt says:

        Ok, ok, mate, we get it. You’re not a fan. I have actually checked with her, and it turns out she thinks you too are s*** at…ummm…whatever it is that you.

        Re the actual topic, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really make much of a difference who the RPO’s main conductor is. They will see him/her extremely rarely and the vast majority of their work will remain the Enigma Variations in Dartford, 55 Classical Spectaculars in one week in the Albert Hall, and The Big John Rutter Christmas Explosion (or whatever their Xmas series is called nowadays). Not glamorous, but the gigs get done and people enjoy them.

      • Thomas Beecham says:

        Volkov and the RPO are the most sensible marriage, artistically and from box office/new audience perspective. Which probably means that this will not occur and that the RPO is doomed to continued decline and an Enigma Variations fate.

  • Richard Day-Lewis says:

    Why not Nigel Short who created Tenebrae, Harry Christophers similarly The Sixteen, both orchestral conductors. Homegrown talent and no showbizz.

  • Andrew, London says:

    What a strangely inappropriate little article. It is blindingly obvious that the RPO’s response was going to unlike any of the other international orchestra’s who only had Dutoit lined up as a guest and could easily sack and replace him.

    Far from being ‘behind the beat’ the RPO will doubtless have had to deal with far more legal and contractual issues because of his positions there – and the fact that none of the allegations actually related to them – plus what must have been a truly horrendous and shocking situation for the musicians because they have all known and worked with him for so long. And they are still allegations so they had to at least be seen to be giving their employee the chance to respond.

    As it was, he was suspended within a couple of days (mutual or otherwise) and dismissed within hours of the RPO being told by the AP journalist of the latest batch of allegations including rape.

    It wasn’t helped by his long wait to initially issue a denial – and to now be three weeks into career and reputation destroying allegations and yet not have launched even the most basic of legal defences is strange.

    I am extremely wary of trial by social media, but reading the allegations, their detail, sources and similarity – and also looking at the way similar cases have unfolded in recent months – it seems that at the very least, he has a massive case to answer. It is hard to see how the RPO, or indeed anyone else, could have handled it differently or faster, especially with Christmas and New Year in the middle.

    As for his replacement – I’m more of a general music lover than a classical expert so don’t feel qualified enough to comment on specific conductors but would raise the question of whether a principal is actually needed in 2018?

    Maybe it is best to appoint an artistic director and then have a flexible rota of conductors without ever becoming beholden to the reputation or ego of one person.

    And as for it affecting overseas bookings – well if a venue drops the RPO because of this situation then the orchestra is probably better off having nothing to do with them anyway.

    As shocking and distressing as this is for the women involved and the orchestra and all their admin and management, it will blow over. The cliche is true and the orchestra is way bigger than one man, regardless of his previous reputation.

    The news agenda will move on and, unless he takes action to clear his name, Dutoit will become an embarrassing whisper and in time people will talk about their memories of his wonderful performances, whilst always tempering those thoughts with a “but …”

    Rant over.

  • Brian says:

    I’ve seen Rafael Payare twice in concerts and he was an exciting and musically sensitive interpreter. He’s also young, charismatic and Venezuelan – the kind of figurehead an orchestra in the 21st century desperately needs.

    Sure, an old white man (an “eminence gris”) might satisfy a certain segment of subscribers but it’s a safety move rather than playing the long game.

  • Arturo says:

    OK this post wins the prize for best comments, wittiest exchanges, hilarious descriptions. Apparently, the RPO brings out the best in British humor!

    • Grace says:

      Or maybe it’s just a reflection of the massive contribution that the RPO has made to the whole of British Society!?

      • Arturo says:

        Now THAT’s the way an American would address the subject, Grace – humorless & in your face righteous!

        You can tell most of the comments here are from Brits because so many are really witty and funny and irreverent. Has nothing to do with the importance of the orch., it’s just a cultural observation.

    • Iain Scott says:

      Thank you for that it has been an interesting thread. sadly though it has all been about a conductor and instead we should be talking about the people who really make it happen. The players.

      • FS60103 says:

        LOL. Just like all commentary on St Paul’s Cathedral focuses on Sir Christopher Wren, and not the people who really made it happen: the bricklayers.

  • Andrew Burrows says:

    Charles Dutoit and the RPO have done some excellent performances over the last few years and I am sorry that won’t continue. They had no choice but to let him go though in the circumstances. Other conductors like Volkov and Payare are very talented but aren’t big names yet. Still as someone commented earlier no one had really heard of Vladimir Jurowski and look what he and the LPO have achieved. Daniele Gatti wasn’t too well known when he took over the RPO in 1996 but stayed with them until 2009.

  • Alex Davies says:

    Well I had a look at the RPO’s forthcoming concerts and I have to agree that it’s not particularly interesting. Very heavy on Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Sibelius. A handful of the best known violin and piano concertos. Some well known pieces from operas and ballets. Contrast this with the Rattle/Kožená/LSO concert at the Barbican last Thursday: Schubert’s Unfinished, then Rückert Lieder, three arias by Handel, and finally the suite from Rameau’s Les Boréades. What a range of period, nationality, and genre.

    I like to go to a concert that expands my musical horizons by inviting me to listen to something that I wouldn’t normally listen to. Recently I was astonished by the UK premiere of Sylvestrov’s 3rd symphony and it prompted me to find recordings of a number of his other works.

    On the one hand one could say that the RPO is providing audiences with what they want, but on the other hand one could say that these audiences are being patronised and having their intelligence insulted. Of course, everybody enjoys a performance of The Lark Ascending or a selection from Peer Gynt, but these audiences are not even being offered Mahler, Strauss, the Second Viennese School, or Shostakovich, let alone Penderecki, Górecki, Panufnik, Messiaen, or Gubaidulina, nor the baroque repertoire that a number of symphony orchestras are now recovering from the domain of the early music specialists. The RPO will be performing at my local theatre, but do I want to go to yet another Bruch violin concerto (the famous one I assume) and New World Symphony? Now, if they would pair the Dvořák violin concerto with the Asrael Symphony, *that* would tempt me!

    • Morello says:

      It all comes down to funding. Ambitious rep has to be paid for, because it isn’t profitable. The LSO/ Philharmonia/LPO can (to a degree) afford such rep and play it to half empty houses because they have the cushion of a subsidy 3 times that received by the RPO. The fact that the RPO is still thriving suggests that there is a place for the mainstream rep of which you are so dismissive. I’d argue that the other 4 symphony orchestras in London are the ones struggling for an audience.

      • Alex Davies says:

        Oh, I don’t dismiss the mainstream repertoire by any means. The reason the mainstream repertoire is popular is because it’s great music. What I advocate is diversity and exposing audiences to unfamiliar works. How about this programme (and this is just off the top of my head)? Panufnik’s Kołysanka (unfamiliar, not particularly difficult to listen to, only about 8 minutes, could open the audience’s ears to the wonders of post-war Polish classical music), then the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (very popular), interval, Arvo Pärt symphony no. 2 (about 15 minutes of difficult, but rewarding, listening), Sibelius symphony no. 7 (back to the mainstream). I suppose I am essentially an optimist with regard to the capacity of the general public to enjoy something different. I don’t believe that people who live in Woking or Scunthorpe are capable of enjoying nothing more challenging than the umpteenth performance of the Elgar cello concerto. I credit the general public with the capacity to appreciate something new if orchestras are prepared to offer it to them.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Except, in Scunthorpe, it may be the only time they have heard an orchestra play Elgar.

        • Morello says:

          Yes, I agree with you about scattering lesser known rep among the warhorses in an ideal world……but it still comes down to funding. The RPO (any orchestra, actually) can produce a good concert on a 3 hour rehearsal, provided the rep is familiar. New rep needs extra rehearsal, which is very expensive. If the ACE insist on the deeply unfair disparity in funding between the symphony orchestras in London, the RPO can hardly be blamed for doing whatever it takes to balance the books – spending precious resources trying to introduce the audiences of Scunthorpe and Lowestoft to post war Polish rep won’t achieve that.

      • Anon says:

        The average house is 89% full with the LSO over a season. And frequently 100% with Rattle and Haitink.

    • FS60103 says:

      The RPO is the closest thing the UK has to a permanent symphony orchestra operating in the marketplace. It can’t afford to make losses on concerts. If it’s playing a certain repertoire, it is because that repertoire sells: because it genuinely is what the audience wants. It IS what their audience finds interesting; if they found it hackneyed, dull or unpredictable, they wouldn’t come and the RPO would be playing something else. Or be bankrupt.

      Never forget that the vast majority of classical concertgoers are not regulars; and they’re not jaded about the standard repertoire. My mother-in-law goes to a concert once a year: she has heard Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto live once in her entire life, and still talks enthusiastically about that experience. (As an aside: the idea of a pop audience going to a concert to hear music they’ve never heard before is self-evidently absurd. So why is it so problematic that classical audiences enjoy familiar music?).

      There’s certainly an argument to be made that subsidised orchestras should be promoting rarer rep (I’m trying to avoid that awful, patronising notion of “educating” an audience) but it seems unreasonable to apply that to an orchestra as poorly subsidised and operating in such a competitive marketplace as the RPO. If you want the RPO to champion rare repertoire, you must be prepared to pay substantially higher ticket prices or lobby for higher funding. Or, of course, to take your custom elsewhere.

      Meanwhile, the RPO’s current mainstream programmes are self-evidently neither boring, uninspired nor predictable to their current audience. These audiences do not feel as if they are being patronised: the orchestra simply would not be afloat if they did (and you might argue that trying to force audiences to pay for music they don’t wish to hear, out of a notion that their taste somehow needs to be improved, is infinitely more patronising than giving them what they actually want to hear). Simple market forces: supply/demand. They’re selling a product for which enough people are prepared to pay. QED. We’re not obliged to listen, but that doesn’t give us the right to judge.