Death of a countryhouse orchestra is a cause for concern

Death of a countryhouse orchestra is a cause for concern


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2018

We’ve received dozens of messages, many of them private, expressing serious disquiet at Garsington Opera’s summary decision to replace its freelance orchestra with two brand-name bands, the Philharmonia and the English Concert.

Garsington’s orchestra, comprised of outstanding London players, has been praised to the skies for its fabulously engaged performances in the heart of an English meadow under the direction of Douglas Boyd.

But Boyd has been gifted a deal by the Philharmonia, which has little work in summer. His letter to the Garsington players falls some way short of sympathetic:

Your loyalty and the excellence of your playing have contributed hugely to the artistic development of Garsington Opera and have been deeply appreciated by everybody. I realise that this will be enormously disappointing to many of you, but my role is to plan what I feel is best for the future of Garsington Opera as a whole. I hope this letter at least offers an explanation. I also hope that by informing you at this stage, it gives you time to plan your summer schedules from 2020 onwards….

I would have preferred to have explained this to you in person rather than send a letter, but the practicality of getting everyone together outside of the season presents many difficulties. Nevertheless, we hope some of you are able to join us on 13 September as we would like to offer you the opportunity to talk this through with us.

The bulk of Garsington’s orchestra have played together, dined together, laughed together, lived together for 30 years, only to be chucked out like chaff. Garsington has been one of England’s greatest musical successes of the past generation. This is a bloodstain on its manicured lawns. A case for Hercule Poirot at the Arts Council, which funds the Philharmonia to take other musicians’ jobs.


  • Anonymous says:

    In 2012 the incoming artistic director, Douglas Boyd stood before the Garsington Opera Orchestra and pledged to stand by the orchestra wholeheartedly. Either personal ambition has changed his mind , or the Garsington board has persuaded him to – in which case,he should resign in support of his colleagues! This has a huge impact on players’ livelihoods. The named orchestras will of course play to critical acclaim as does the Garsington Opera Orchestra.

  • anonymous says:

    It is actually The English Concert

  • will says:

    Name me even one conductor who isn’t ambitious…

  • Victoria Line says:

    You can hardly blame Garsington for wanting to be competitive in the ever-increasing market of country house opera. The Philharmonia is one of the best orchestras in the UK, it’s a big feather in the place’s cap and it’s already pulled its weight there the past couple of seasons.

    • Anonymous says:

      They could also find many better conductors! There are always attractive options elsewhere! No one could argue that attracting the Philharmonia was not a feather in it’s cap… (actually rather a sign of the times that the Philharmonia want the date as 10 years ago they would have regarded it way beneath them, thinking of it as nothing more than a muddy field date!), however they had their own brand in the Garsington Ooera Orchestra who have been right at the heart of building the organisation to the successful point where it now is.

  • Anon says:

    Conflict of interest I think ?
    All at the expense of first class deadicated musicians that have made the Garsington brand a real success well before he arrived !
    Douglas Boyd has only his interest as a priority..

  • Hernando Marquez says:

    The summer opera market is crowded and in order to keep up, Garsington had to sack the band. Neville Holt Opera now have the Britten Sinfonia and Loughborough Opera have the Northern Sinfonia.

    The biggest concern to me however is the freelancers being able to financially survive. Many of the strings at Garsington will have just lost upwards of 10k a year income, that is an appalling thing to do via a circular email.

    • C Porumbescu says:

      Please, tell us more of this ‘Loughborough Opera’.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Much of the conversation here is about the cut in income for freelancers. But the fundamental problem is that up until 10-20 years ago, the big London orchestras could make a lot of money from recordings (with London being the centre of the world recording industry). This meant we had world class orchestras with fairly small levels of public subsidy.

      The decline in the recording industry (in terms of the revenue the orchestras are earning) means the full-time orchestras are scrambling around for gigs to stay afloat. These orchestras are in serious danger of declining into provincial obscurity. Unfortunately, the Philharmonia don’t really have the option of refusing the work.

  • Peter Jones says:

    Douglas Boyd debuted at Garsington Opera 10 years ago with Fidelio. His wonderful musicianship was never in question however at the performance I saw it was the Garsington Opera Orchestra that covered up his technical inadequacies with their vast experience. Over the last decade I have seen the relationship between him and the orchestra blossom as his conducting improved and their knowledge of his style deepened. To cast them off now as he feels ‘good enough’ to handle the Philharmonia is a disgrace! The sounds the Garsington Orchestra made in Cappricio this year was a glorious result of that understanding. Boyd obviously feels he is now technically good enough to take the stabilisers off at the expense of musicians livelihoods. I doubt the Philharmonia will be as accommodating to his faults…

  • Anon says:

    Why is it such a devastating shock to some musicians that they, like everyone else are subject to market forces?

    There are usually good reasons to strike a new deal.

    A bloodstain on the manucured lawns?…oh really!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      These are not market forces. The Phillharmonia receives state subsidy. Garsington does not. The market is rigged in favour of the state cash-cow.

      • Talking the talk says:

        + 1. This is the state of the musical nation and the real ? is, is The Philharmonia and every other state subsidised orchestra worthy of their funding at the expense of plurality?

      • Anon says:

        The Philharmonia receive state subsidy because they are a damn good orchestra. That’s right, being good is so desperately unfair isn’t it?

        When work becomes scarce guess what happens…

        I suspect they simply represent better value for money here.

        • Talking the talk says:

          Anon – my comments were not pejorative either way, just asking the question as I think it needs to be asked. Yes The Philharmonia are damn good but are they great? Can any of the subsidised London orchestras be described as ‘great’? Of course this is subjective but are they really providing value for money?

          The odds are stacked against them due to the necessary collusion with agents who frankly are running the show at this level. And this subsidy of the agents has the unfortunate consequence of stifling innovation and creativity as new endeavours are priced out of the market.

        • Anon says:

          Well obviously if you get funding and someone else doesn’t you can offer better value!

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Umm…yes they are subsidised, but the level of subsidy for the London orchestras simply isn’t high enough to maintain them at “world standard”. In the past these orchestras made enough money from recordings to enable them to hire and keep the top musicians, but this source of revenue has seriously declined. Hence they need to find well-paying gigs like Garsington (who will be paying pretty generous fees).

        By playing at Garsington, the Philharmonia can continue with fairly moderate public subsidies, while the opera company gets a full-time top-notch orchestra. The situation isn’t really the fault of either party. It is just rather unfortunate for the freelance musicians.

  • Jason Thornton says:

    I’m Cross about this! For what it’s worth this is a fiscally orientated decision based on the simple concept that a publicly subsidised orchestra is much cheaper to hire than a non subsidised one. The argument will be that the Philharmonia are charging the same as the house orchestra but of course there will be a sweetener ie much enhanced rehearsal time residual costs covered etc and of course a big injection of brand association for the company. I wonder if This decision was made in consultation with Arts Council England and The Philharmonia’s relationship manager was or would be aware of the consequences. I have come across this before several times where public subsidy has been used to price non-subsidised groups out of the market because subsidised groups need to fill their diary to ensure continuing subsidy in the future. I’m all for artistic and commercial competition but when it is a fiscal level playing field. That’s shit for those musicians and really feel for them.

    • Tom G says:

      Totally agree. It also explains in a nutshell why non-subsidised orchestras face such a massive uphill struggle to survive long enough to attempt to secure subsidy themselves.

  • Nicholas Logie says:

    There is, perhaps, one other aspect worth mentioning: the Philharmonia is a marvellous orchestra. However, the summer opera at Garsington will not be one of the artistic highlights of their season. The performing conditions, the quality of conductors, playing in a pit, etc. will not be on a par with the standards they enjoy throughout the year. In contrast, the Garsington orchestra have relished their summer work. Every year they bring a commitment based on a sense of joy and fresh energy. This kind of commitment cannot be manufactured – I fear the difference in quality will be tangible.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Not really true. Garsington are starting to give Glyndebourne a run for its money, with similar standards. And Glyndebourne is an important gig for the LPO, with some top conductors often involved.

  • Anon2 says:

    This is an awful situation. Without a doubt. A few points though:

    – Yes, these musicians have suddenly lost £10K of income, but as freelancers, it is not guaranteed that they will get booked by the orchestra anyway. The current Garsington orchestra is under no obligation to show them any loyalty and book them each year. Frequently people get dropped anyway. That’s all ‘normal’ musician’s life.

    – Philharmonia are an excellent orchestra. Used to playing symphonies, on stage. Playing opera is a whole other ball game that takes a lot of different skill, experience and regular practice doing it together. Why the orchestra of the Royal Opera House is so excellent at what they do.

    – As someone above mentioned, these are not conditions the Philharmonia are used to. As the opera will need to be tied, I wonder how many will simply not take the work so it will be an orchestra of deps and not really Philharmonia. This happens with other outdoor opera companies using named orchestra. The orchestra used is just the name only, full of deps that aren’t even their regular deps.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Well, you seem to be suggesting that deputies will be hired: wouldn’t it be ironic if the musicians hired were the former freelancers who made up the Garsington opera orchestra. (I suspect, however, that the Philharmonia will mostly use their own full-time musicians, as in their other gigs).

  • Matt says:

    Frankly, it’s pretty likely that Garsington will at best get Philharmonia “Light” anyway, as many of the regular members of the orchestra will probably opt out of doing it, instead being replaced by extras.
    And whilst a handful of those extras may be the very same players from the original Garsington band most will probably not be.
    So if Garsington thinks they’re going to get a “great orchestra” I doubt it. It’s likely to get a scratch band of miserable musicians who don’t know the repertoire very well, all under the banner of the Philharmonia, whilst the “A” team are off on tour doing what they’re best at.

    • Anon2 says:

      I agree.

      Plus as great as Philharmonia are, they are not an opera orchestra that is used to playing together in that way.

      Playing a symphony and playing opera very different skills

      • Moor Park says:

        Gosh, what a lot of ‘experts’ there are here. The Philharmonia’s contract with GO is likely to be very strict about this, indeed the orchestra has already done 2 seasons there. And as for experience in pit/repertoire, the LPO don’t seem to have much trouble adapting each Summer. Really good orchestras can turn their skills to pretty much anything.

        One could use this logic to suggest the existing fine orchestra at Garsington wouldn’t be able to perform a Brahms symphony on stage, which would be rubbish.

        • Anon2 says:

          Actually, having played the same operas with Royal Opera House orchestra and another top London orchestra, I can confirm there is a huge difference in the way ROH respond, how they accompany, and their general stylistic approach. Perhaps not discernible to the untrained ear.

          Also, experienced the flip side: ROH on stage doing symphonic repertoire is a different animal – they do it well, of course, but that’s not what they do all the time and where their honed talents lie.

          I wasn’t talking about LPO, but sure they do a fine job.

          • Matt says:

            I don’t claim to be an “expert”, but I do speak from professional experience.
            I’m sure the Philharmonia will be fine. But I doubt that their commitment would match the original Garsington orchestra, nor will the players be very consistent either between operas or between seasons for the reasons I stated above.
            It’s HIGHLY unlikely that the Philharmonia would allow GO to tell them HOW to run the orchestra, so the likelihood of lots of deps and extras making up the ranks is a very real possibility, as with any non-contracted orchestra.

          • Anon says:

            ‘Not discernible to the untrained ear’…
            What a load of tosh.

            In my experience the London Orchestra take some moments to adapt in rehearsals then turn out something of impeccable quality that only your exquisite ears may find lacking.

  • Hilary Davan Wetton says:

    The real problem here is bigger than Garsington – or even the fine players of their Orchestra. The Philharmonia shouid not need to take on this work to fill its schedules;
    it should be playing summer Festival weeks in its favourite residences in, e.g., Bedford, Leicester, Norwich and Basingstoke. But the audiences are no longer guaranteed, and that is much more to do with decimated Music Education and zero Political support from successive governments who are presiding over a frightening decline in the role of classical music in our Society. We should be going to the Barricades for that, rather than a single manifestation of this widespread decline.

  • ANNON says:

    Well said Hillary Davan Wetton.

    Going back to someone’s point about the LPO coping with Glyndebourne: Glyndebourne is a properly built theatre. Garsington is more like an outdoor date. As someone who has played regularly in the Garsington Opera Orchestra I know from personal experience that the temperature in the pit varies from freezing cold to boiling hot within the space of one Act. We don’t complain but just get on with playing the music with huge commitment and enthusiasm. I’m wondering how the original instruments of The English Concert will cope with that.

    A large percentage of the Garsington Orchestra also play for the Glyndebourne Touring Opera, so the person who wrote us off as a scratch band that only play together for a few weeks each year doesn’t understand the whole picture of freelance life.

  • Anon Musician says:

    Well said Hillary Davan Wetton.

    Regarding the LPO coping with pit work at Glyndebourne: Glyndebourne has a properly built theatre; Garsington, while being lovely, is more like an outdoor date. Speaking from personal experience, the temperature in the pit varies enormously even within the time frame of one Act of an opera. I’m wondering how the original instruments will cope with that. The Garsington Opera Orchestra just got on with playing with huge commitment and enthusiasm while donning extra layers, then throwing them off again.

    In reply to the person who wrote us off as a scratch band that only plays together for a few of months; many of us play together for another couple of months for Glyndebourne Touring Opera.

  • Anon says:

    I feel that one overlooked heavy point is that a branded orchestra with it’s own outreach/education and digital machinery , all very well respected and very much in place , is of great value to GO moving forward. These ‘extras’ that a world class ensemble provide just don’t come from using entirely freelance players.
    It’s also wrong to suggest that the players in the Philharmonia don’t have any experience of playing opera- the orchestra has always done plenty of opera, throughout its history and, for conductors whose standard of expectation of them is, by their own ability, off the scale.
    Finally, the Philharmonia has been fielding 100% members, except for those instruments where there is no member in post.

    • Anon says:

      That’s simply not correct. There have been several extras playing in place of members.

      Lives have, sadly, been messed with and will never be the same again. Thank heavens for this digital department that so enthuses you, but whatever happened to decency and loyalty? Please don’t dismiss such things so lightly. From what I’ve read, players were consistently lied to and then dumped so cruelly just minutes before a press release.

    • Matt says:

      “These ‘extras’ that a world class ensemble provide just don’t come from using entirely freelance players.”

      Where do you suppose they come from then?! Of course they’re freelance players, that’s the very nature of being a dep/extra!