Countryhouse opera drops its orchestra

Garsington Opera, which has been the best of the UK country set for the past few years, has decied its freelance orchestra is not good enough.

As of 2020, it is hiring two established ensembles, the Philharmonia, and the English Concert. Both have five-year deals.

Members of the Garsington orchestra today received this notification from its conductor, Douglas Boyd, minutes before the press release went out. Boyd explains:

We would like you to know that we very much want the Garsington Opera Orchestra to be with us for the 2019 Season to play for the three productions of Don Giovanni, Fantasio and The Turn of the Screw. The Philharmonia will play for The Bartered Bride. As you probably know, the outside dates for next season are 29 May to 21 July, with rehearsals starting on 10 May and, once appointed, Richard Nelson’s successor will no doubt be in touch with you in good time with the details.

From 2020, however, it has been decided to extend the relationship with the Philharmonia. In addition, we will be developing our future programming with the period instrument ensemble, The English Concert. Regrettably, this means that we will not be fixing players for a Garsington Opera Orchestra after the 2019 Season. This has been the most difficult decision of any kind that I, Nicky and the Board have had to make.

As in, thank you and good night.

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  • I’ve heard the Garsington Opera Orchestra in Britten, Offenbach, and Mozart. Despite the sometimes challenging conditions in the pit – variable temperature, humidity – the musicians do an admirable job; my friends and colleagues who have played and depped with this Orchestra have found it (generally speaking) a fulfilling and exciting experience. In many cases, it’s been a stepping stone to more work, and provides invaluable experience for younger musicians. It is really disappointing to learn that Garsington Opera has made this decision.

    There are other, up-and-coming early music ensembles who could have been approached, too, if Garsington Opera wants to do more early repertoire. A season at Garsington would be of real benefit to the development of these ensembles too.

  • Utterly flabbergasted.
    This orchestra is, after Covent Garden, ENO and Glyndebourne (LPO) the best and most experienced opera band in the UK. Their expressive range and stylishness is unparalleled. And no, I didn’t forget you, Opera North.
    How can this company dismiss so casually these fabulous core workers who contributed many hundreds of thousands of man hours of work over three decades?
    The new band will be booked from the Philharmonia office. It will not be the Philharmonia. The mediocre office drones who made this decision have obviously mis-attributed the sucess of this company to themselves. They are not the company. The golden thread of artistic quality within any company subsists solely in the musicians and other creatives who they are lucky to serve. Shame on them. I have no gripe with the Philharmonia, a world class band, but this year they fielded a principal clarinet in Garsington who had never played an opera before. It will take them a decade of effort to emulate the sacked band. Sheer brand snobbery on the part of the company.

    • A qualified apology for the above: like a lot of people on the internet, I sometimes post in anger! I didn’t mean to insult Opera North, WNO or office workers in general or at Garsington. Also, the Principal clarinet of the Philharmonia is a miraculously good musician… but everything else stands! This is a substantial and unnecessary erosion of the freelance ecology. Euthanising a healthy orchestra is an awesome and onerous thing. Garsington have done it for PR.We should all be sad and worried.

    • In response to uncle vanya, the assertion that the players will not be the Philharmonia is totally wrong. And of course the Principal clarinet has played an opera before (the orchestra played Pellleas in Aix in 2016 as an example.) Though whether that matters is a different thing altogether – if the quality and artistic integrity of performance is there then it shouldn’t matter whether one has played something once or a thousand times.
      It is never nice to see people lose work, particularly freelance players. It is not only freelance orchestras that are going through challenging times. But please do not insinuate that the Philharmonia are somehow less able or less willing to join this project…i for one see it as unfortunate for those that will no longer play, but a great thing for the festival.

  • I must say something in all seriousness.

    Too often, these “Festivals” use freelance musicians to build an organization. Too often these freelancers are paid very little and used in the name of “music” and “opportunity” and “networking”.

    If the “Festival” has any success and grows, these hardworking, underpaid freelancers are then discarded onto the rubbish heap.

    “Bring on the real professionals!” The board tells the manager. The manager agrees. Throw out the freelancers and get some names onto the roster.

    Well to be honest, I hope that this festival goes to sh#t. Because that is not how any virtuous organization should behave.

    And I bet that the “pros” will either not get paid 3 years from now (when the board actually realizes how expensive an orchestra is to maintain), or the “Festival” will go tits up (dead in the water).

  • How could the ad-hoc orchestra of Garsington Opera ever be as good as the Philharmonia or the English Concert? Who woukdn’t want a quality band in the pit? I am now much more likely to go to Garsington.

      • Oh, yawn. A contract orchestra made up of players from some of the best orchestras in Germany, rated against an ensemble based around the Guildhall String Ensemble? and while we’re on the subject, good though he may be, Boyd ranked against Thielemann, Bychkov et al? Give over!

      • The Bayreuth festival isn’t consisted of freelance players. They are all employees of top class orchestras hence its work in the summer when most orchestras don’t work. Don’t think that comparison is possible, really!

    • What does ad-hoc mean? Many of the players at Garsington have been playing there for 25 years. They have played more Strauss operas and Rossini operas than any other orchestra in Britain. Are the Academy of St Martin’s an ad-hoc band? Or the English Concert?

        • A definition as wide as that makes everything ad hoc.

          It’s usually used to mean something created for a single occasion. And in that sense it doesn’t apply to an orchestra which has had continuous membership for 25 years. (I played regularly in both the Philharmonia and Garsington twenty years ago and there are many more players still at Garsington than at the Philharmonia. The burn-out rate is very high among the orchestras that have to tour.)

          • Tedious arguments again….36 performances over a period of 60 days is an ad hoc orchestra…what are these musicians doing the rest of the year? Desperately auditioning for proper jobs with better orchestras, that’s what!

          • Some play in chamber groups, some are members of chamber orchestras, some have professorial appointments, some have shows, some do sessions, some have left “proper jobs” because they prefer freelancing, some take time off their jobs to do it, some still apply for jobs because they’d like to have one.

            Just the same as any other orchestra in London’s flourishing musical life.

          • So, you’re saying Garsington Opera Orchestra is an ad hoc band. Otherwise, I look forward to hearing Garsington Opera Orchestra play their concert season during the Autumn to Spring.

          • Oh I understand now. So the 19 performances the English Concert list on their web site for the next twelve months make them a proper orchestra because they are spread throughout the year, but the Garsington Orchestra are ad hoc because their 26 all take place in the summer. Thanks for explaining.

          • Your replies are starting to define you as a troll. This is my last comment on ‘ad hoc’ ensembles. The ‘Garsington Opera Orchestra’ exists because it plays only at Garsington for their opera productions. It has no other purpose. Therefore it is ‘ad hoc’. The English Concert’ however, exists in its own right, as ‘The English Concert’. Please don’t exercise your brain any further at my expense: You are like a dog with a bone, and it’s about time you let go.

          • Hi Chris, you’re not the troll, you’re one of the finest bass fiddlers around, anywhere… and a fiecely intelligent and comitted musician. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Mr Whelan lurking under a bridge, though.

          • Thanks very much, Uncle Vanya. Mr Whelan has now changed his definition of ad hoc to one that includes the orchestras of the ROH and ENO. I suspect his real meaning is “an orchestra I haven’t heard so I assume it’s not very good.”

  • This is pretty low. I hope that after this shitty attitude, all the Garsington Opera Orchestra withdraw their labour from next year’s season.

  • Irresponsible of Lebrecht to perpetuate the myth that freelancers are not good enough by opening his “article” with that. It’s about politics not standard. Interesting that major orchestras are now offering their services to these festivals because previous sources of revenue are disappearing. Opera audiences don’t really care about the orchestra, so if in some way garsington think that it will raise the profile of the organisation, they’re wrong. Also, what does that say about how much work and security they can really offer their members and arts funding in general? Perhaps write about the bigger picture.

  • How can an opera festival be criticised for showing artistic ambition? The Philharmonia and The English Concert are world-class in their respective fields. Who wouldn’t want either of these two bands in the pit? It makes perfect sense to want an authentic period sound for the earlier works and The English Concert certainly produce that. Last time I heard them (Handel’s Rinaldo) their gorgeous strings and woodwind simply melted my heart. If Garsington is able to sign them up, who can blame them for grabbing the opportunity with both hands?

      • Yes! It matters to the 35 or so musicians who’ve been playing magnificently at Garsington for the past 30 years!

    • The tiny number of people who can afford those tickets are now listening to a taxpayer-funded, subsidy-junky band. Previously, the audience were paying for what they were getting. Now we’re all paying.
      The individual players will be paid less, and the Philharmonia will pocket an admin fee. The overall cost to the company will be about the same.

      • Not exactly. By playing at Garsington, the subsidy to the orchestra can be reduced. And I suspect that Garsington are paying slightly more to the Philharmonia than they did to their freelance musicians.

    • Shoulder chip on display – again.

      Many forms of entertainment and leisure activity cost £200 or more. The last Glastonbury was £238 plus a £5 booking fee, then there’s football….

  • I very much doubt that the good players of these orchestras will be relishing the thought of doing this kind of work i.e. commuting to Garsington on a daily basis for weeks on end and will probably not take it on! And when they have regular gigs to fulfill during this time will members or deputies do them? These ‘diary fillers’ look good on paper to the managements but the reality is players really don’t like them! Much better to have a committed opera orchestra that is 100% fit for purpose!

  • Sad news. Hear hear Chris West……..a voice from inside the business who understands.
    I would suggest Mr Whelan (above comments) no longer goes to any concerts of any sort. What he hasn’t grasped is that ‘branded orchestras’ rely on the huge amount of freelance talent that this country is fortunate enough to have. Almost any concert with any orchestra will have a large number of freelance players supplementing their full timers. In fact many players choose to work this way in preference.
    I dare say the orchestras for Garsington in the future, whilst called the Philharmonia and the English Concert, will consist of many freelance players. Quite probably many of those who used to play regularly for the Garsington Opera Orchestra. Sadly however they will be on lower rates of pay as the admin for the orchestras will take such a large cut (some of which will help to pay for the office work involved which will include fixing freelance players to supplement the orchestra regulars or cover for those that are unavailable while they do better paid work elsewhere or are away on holiday etc..) This is the way the music business works and I would suggest Mr Whelan shows a little more respect for players before commenting from a stand point which demonstrates a lack of understanding of the business.

    • Well said, sir! A vain PR exercise that will achieve nothing new – and will the top singers at ROH and ENO be going to Garsington next year? I don’t think so!

    • That’s just not true I’m afraid. The Philharmonia Orchestra at Garsington is made up of its core members – as it is reduced numbers because of the pit size it is guaranteed to be members playing – certainly no more freelancers needed than a normal concert, in fact the opposite. Everyone wants to work over the summer months, there is no work normally! So please don’t insinuate that the orchestra won’t be made up of its core membership when you have no knowledge of the policy.

      • Ah my comment didn’t come across correctly. My point was that all orchestras use freelancers when needed to supplement their regular core members. The Philharminia is & always has been a fantastic orchestra as has the English Concert. It was more a comment in support of the many wonderful freelance musicians who rather appeared to be shown very little respect from one particular person in the comments above.

    • Well said Ollie. Who is this Mr Whelan??? Having played for both orchestras, I would say that the Garsington orchestra is made up of some of the finest players I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and of course the Philharmonia is a world class orchestra.
      All the festival are interested in is attracting the Punters with the Philharmonia name. Like Grange Park have done with BBC concert orch and English Chamber Orch.
      Sad day for Garsington orchestra.

  • Experience tells me that named orchestras start off with best intentions to do this kind of extra work but after a matter of time the members drift away – Glyndebourne Touring Opera/London Sinfonietta, Opera Holland Park/Royal Philharmonic. Don’t correct me – I was there to see it happen! Changing the orchestra won’t make any real difference, I’m afraid. Sad to lose such fine dedicated opera players. It’s your loss.

    • Please don’t drag Opera Holland Park into this argument.
      We had the RPO for three years. When we realised we were getting a third or fourth version of it whilst they played elsewhere, we changed our orchestra to the City of London Sinfonia. Many, many players in the CLS have been in our pit for the entire 15 years they have played for us.
      Thanks

  • Thank you Michael Volpe for confirming my point!
    CLS, like Garsington Opera Orchestra, is a freelance band with a nucleus of regular players. Both use extra players to cover all the required seats – not all so-called members do ALL the operas. The players are on a par with other named London orchestras, many playing for them, often as guest principal!
    The playing is superb. I know – I’ve played for both orchestras on many occasions!
    You changed orchestras with good reason. I feel Garsington Opera is changing orchestra for no good reason (snobbery). I hope the incoming orchestra doesn’t do an ‘RPO’!

  • Many of the London orchestras ‘do an RPO’ on a fairly regular basis, including the Philharmonia! I’m sure they won’t need to do it at Garsington though, as it’s becoming a serious body of work for them.

  • Whatever the possible merits of the new orchestras are, we have lost an orchestra universally acclaimed for theee decades and that’s a huge shame for the U.K.

    It’s really sad that we’ll soon hear the last of the marvellous Garsington Opera Orchestra. Sad too for the musicians, and those of Dorset, Longborough and Nevill Holt opera companies too. Surely no one can relish the removal of so many orchestras from our cultural landscape? They represented good work for musicians, and a career path for young musicians. Those graduating now arrive into a bleaker landscape.

    How has the Arts Council allowed this, and why the deafening silence from the Musician’s Union?

  • Garsington Opera Orchestra are not only an excellent orchestra that has received wide critical acclaim throughout the many years in which they have played together, they have also been the one vital component of the company which has remained consistent throughout its history which has seen the company move from Garsington Manor to Wormsley Estate. Its absence will wash away the identity of the company further, with the risk that Garsington Opera becomes an empty opera brand with no deeper link to its own history. Ticket prices will probably go up because of now joining up with the brand of the Philharmonia. It’s a brand new world.

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