A leftwing solution to the orchestra crisis

A leftwing solution to the orchestra crisis


norman lebrecht

June 18, 2020

From today’s edition of the Morning Star:

If classical music in Britain maintains this current model, with performers often living precariously and having to juggle multiple jobs, and large bodies being localised to certain large cities, classical music will collapse — it may not be as a result of Covid-19, but it cannot maintain itself permanently.

What needs to be fought for is a model similar to the Soviet or current German model, where each region — be it on a municipality/federalised manner or county basis — has specific regularised funds to allow at least an orchestra and opera house, and infrastructure from learner to professional can be stable in such a manner that chorus singers can dedicate themselves fully to their job and not have to juggle extra auditions in the hope of making enough to pay rent.

If this is done on a county-to-county basis, Kent, Cornwall, Devon, Monmouthshire, Durham, Pembrokeshire, Lanarkshire, the Isle of Man and every other county in Britain would have their own orchestra and opera house.

Simply think of the thousands of musicians who would have stable employment because of this model.

Beyond that, if every county has their own opera house and orchestra, these institutions, formerly seen as bastions of bourgeois culture, could actually shift and connect to their community completely….

Read on here.




  • Bill says:

    Would this not imply a simultaneous increase in government support for such arts? Not saying that would necessarily be a bad thing, but wondering if this proposal is about a more widespread distribution of the pie, or about getting a bigger pie to share, or both. Not in the UK so I don’t know if this would be obvious to the intended audience.

  • Ron Swanson says:

    Seeing that many local authorities are on the verge of bankruptcy and facing large job losses and cuts to public services, this is total nonsense. My local council is looking at £40 million a black hole and asking full time staff to go part time. Clearly the first priority is not social care, schools but new oprea companies and oprea house.

    • SamUchida says:

      If the HMRC collected taxes from the rich as efficiently as it collects them from the poor, the increased revenue would amount to about £150 million for each and every local authority. Black hole, classical music and many other problems solved.

      If over the last 40 years the various UK governments had put the receipts from the sale of common property (North Sea oil, council houses, state industries, … the list goes on) in a sovereign fund for all of our benefit, and not into the pockets of the rich in the form of tax cuts, we would all be in clover! I don’t think Norway is having any problems (other than the medical one) with coronavirus.

  • Tony Britten says:

    PLEASE take a couple of minutes to read this. Its absolute common sense, the sort of thing that they hate in Peter Street. The truth is that its not going to be enough to just patch things up, this is a golden opportunity to actually fix the cultural sector in general and music in particular. The sums required would, I suspect still result in more money going back to Government than they invest, so either way its a no brainer.

    Ahh – wait a moment though, it will need politicians who are not philistines, who believe in the importance of the arts to everyone and who understand the simple correlation between proper funding and a financial return. Clearly not this bunch of self serving charlatans.

    But maybe there are enough wealthy people out there who could be persuaded, finally to embrace the notion of patronage in the best sense of the word? There’s plenty of precedent – and that doesn’t have to include slave traders becoming philanthropists to save their souls.

    It also seems to me that arts and music institutions rapidly need to stop thinking like institutions, desperately trying to return to ‘normal’ and start a wider dialogue about becoming less city centric and more willing to reassess all their perfectly laudable notions of outreach and education. We are surely at a crossroads in our most fundamental feelings about all aspects of culture – lets not wait for the politicians to screw it up.

    BTW I don’t think I have ever read the Morning Star and I don’t think I know Ben Lunn, who wrote this important article, but he is certainly on to something that the committee currently not representing music and not yet reporting to the Culture Minister should be seriously analysing.

    • Ron Swanson says:

      How are you going yompay for all this.

      • MDR says:

        Well, redistributing the 8+ orchestras from London would be a significant start.

        You seem to have a chip on your shoulder Ron. It you care so little for classical music, why are you here?

        • Ron Swanson says:

          So you are going to buold new venues and employs multiple managers on this money from London orchestras.

          • MDR says:

            All of the venues already exist. That is irrefutable. The overhead costs of the orchestras will be less outside of their current high-rent urban zones. ACE funding is centralised, so no burden on local councils.

            They all have sizeable management teams anyway, so that point doesn’t really stand to much scrutiny. The recording industry is decreasingly London-centric, so they needn’t earn less income from that. Though there may be one-off set-up costs for studios.

            It just shouldn’t be a difficult discussion. In cities with duplicate orchestras, one or more should be relocated to a region that is currently un-served. That’d be 6 regions newly served.

            International touring is dead anyway, and the ‘Philharmonia Orchestra of Bristol,’ for example, would be far better placed to tour the SW than the State Capitol Orchestra of X-stan (not that there’s any problem with that fictional orchestra) that SW venues are currently lumbered with twice a year if they’re lucky.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Whether practical or not, Mr Britten said that it would pay for itself in increased tax returns…

      • Gregor Tassie says:

        There are plenty of people making a killing on the international money markets, make them pay taxes and there will be no problem….of course, this regime in Downing Street is in the pockets of the rich so it won’t happen….

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I rather think its the censorious and fulminating Left – who demand penance on one knee from ‘sinners’ against the culture – who are the real philistines. Politicians are just amateurs.

      Just this morning I heard on our radio two government-employed announcers talking about what a bad director was Blake Edwards for his racism in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Party”.

      This is the stuff of the USSR and if Edwards was alive today he’d be headed for the Gulag. If this doesn’t terrify you then you don’t have a pulse.

  • Lord Bus Stop says:

    Yes, that would be wonderful. It is such a nightmare to live in a city or a county that is a classical music desert. Culture is essential, and musicians must have stable support – similar to scientists.

    • Ron Swanson says:

      So what are you going to cut to pay for it.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Yes but scientists might have the edge in public support as they can produce things like vaccines.

      • Tamino says:

        not if they are dumb and their brains without imagination, void of any artistic aspiration ever, which catalyses intelligence like nothing else.

        Science and Art are two sides of the same medal, human aspiration, the small but crucial difference between us and the apes.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    And what would the standard be like and where would the audiences come from? There wouldn’t be enough to sustain a whole season of performances no matter how dedicated the musicians and audiences were? I agree with Ron Swanson, my county in Wales is looking at a deficit of twelve million and just putting up Council Tax year on year without seemingly reducing the deficit.

    • Tony Britten says:

      Surely if you are interested in classical music you must be aware of the extraordinarily high standards of musicianship across the board we have in the UK? OK, its sometimes hard to persuade the audience, but give them something regularly first rate and actually part of their community and they will get involved. Be defeatist and they won’t!

      • Elizabeth Owen says:

        Yes I love classical music but I worked in theatre in the west end of London for thirty years and I know how difficult it can be to keep going, now transfer that to the “provinces” and I can assure you it’s an uphill struggle.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    There is much common sense in this. I’m sure that when the Government get round to saying how it proposes to rebuild the cultural landscape it will be unlikely that the same will be able to be said about theirs.

  • christopher storey says:

    Now let’s see….. the Bodmin Symphony Orchestra , the Argyll and Sutherland Gilbert and Sullivan Company , Fishguard Opera , the Ynys Mon Chamber Orchestra…. I can just see the musicians flooding to be part of these . But at least there’ll be no problem with social distancing since an audience of 3 per performance can spread themselves out nicely

    • Tony Britten says:

      I give up!

      Maybe most people who follow Slipped Disc actually hate music and culture – the level of snobbery and cynicism is breathtaking!

      • Mike Schachter says:

        No they don’t. But you can’t avoid the issue of money. Germany has pledged 50 billion euros for cultural salvage but it can afford it has a tradition of this sort of thing. The UK does not score well on either category. Unless Mr Sunak finds a giant rabbit in his hat things look very bleak.

      • christopher storey says:

        It’s very clear , Tony Britten, that you have not had the dispiriting experience of trying to provide music in semi-rural communities. I did have, over quite a number of years , and in that time we watched membership – and with it attendances – steadily decline in numbers . This was despite various expedients to try and increase interest – visits by musicians to schools, free tickets for young people . Part of the problem is that there are now enormous numbers of home -based interests for people to follow , and equally obvious, a rising reluctance of people to go out at night . I am afraid that classical music is – as frankly it always has been – something of a minority interest , and it is difficult to see that changing

        • Tony Britten says:

          Sorry to ruin your narrative Mr Storey, but I have a great deal of experience in organising and providing music and culture in general, at the highest level to an actual rural community in North Norfolk, where I actually live. And, ‘though I say it myself, I have been pretty successful. So please don’t make judgements about someone you don’t know who is merely trying to propose a possible solution to a potential catastrophe.

          • John Rook says:

            I’d love to see a German-style system in the UK. Pretty much every town of any size has a venue capable of accommodating operas and symphony concerts and getting the locals involved would be immensely satisfying. There’s a lot of interest in the arts in rural areas once you actually start digging. It’s time the enormous creative talent in the UK was given other outlets beyond the big few houses and inevitable exodus to foreign shores.

          • MDR says:

            I also, after 12 years in London orchestras, now work in a cultural venue in the, very rural, far-reaches of the SW. We have huge demand for orchestral concerts – our venue often outsells the SBC orchestral series I used to work for – but we can’t get the UM orchestras down, unless it’s on some virtue-signalling education trip, because their internal travel expenses are higher than those of touring orchestras from Europe.

            I’m sorry that you’ve found it dispiriting Christopher, but I can assure you there is great desire for music in the provinces. It’s about time ACE thought laterally for a change and did something proactive.

          • Tony Britten says:

            hear hear – and now may just be the time. Lateral thinking is a good thing!

          • MDR says:

            Typo: UK Orchestras (not UM).

          • christopher storey says:

            What a very smug reply, Tony Britten

  • caranome says:

    Will never happen. Despite what some readers here feel, classical music is a luxury good enjoyed by the few upper middle to upper class senior citizens. if put to a vote to appropriate $ Billions to establish this pipe dream, it would go down to a 5-95% defeat. No politician would be crazy or stupid enough to even consider this.

    • Geoff says:

      My dad was a fitter in a lorry factory, my mother worked as a cook for the central kitchen serving school lunches. We rented a house, never owned one. I like Beethoven, Bach, Sibelius and many of the classical composers of past centuries. I am a fan of Gregory Sokolov, and I was in the Royal Festival Hall in my 20s to hear Guido Cantelli conduct. Am I upper middle or upper class? I am an OWM. What class does Caranome belong to?

      • Ron Swanson says:

        Demographics trump anecdotes. The age and wealth profile of the average classical concert goer isn’t a plumber in their 20s.

      • Henry williams says:

        Classical music is for everybody whatever your job is the same as jazz music

  • Gee, if we start picking up such “communist”s habits the infant mortality rate in the USA might lower to Cuban standards. And we might even end up not having to rely on Russians to get people up to the space station. Oh wait, as every good, red blooded american knows, the market should be the ultimate arbiter of every human endeavor. That’s why even our Congress is always for sale.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      If you would ever travel to Cuba – I have – you would retract your inanity. It ain’t pretty. Health care is good if you’re one of the ruling class. The hoi poloi – it’s crap. Stores shelves are barren, roads awful. Then the space station…to date, only the US has sent manned missions to the moon. There were reasons – mostly political – for the US deciding to use Russian rockets to get into space. Are you aware that we did in fact send men up a couple of weeks ago? And whether you want to admit it or not, the market is the best arbiter by far. Who do you want to dictate what music we should or should not have? Someone like Tikhon Khrennikov? Stalin and Hitler had pretty good musical taste – you want them as a role model? I love classical music very much, but it is NOT the government’s role to finance it anymore than they should be funding rock bands, country singers or gospel choirs. We’re $26 TRILLION in debt for crying out loud.

    • Bill says:

      Most recent two astronauts to the ISS launched from Florida on a US-designed and built rocket. Do try to keep up!

  • Giora says:

    You are simply saying what you need is a good old French model. 🙂

  • Geoff says:

    Or maybe I should ask “What class am I?”

  • Sally says:

    I remember the days of the council funded “Kent Opera” and “Peterborough String Ensemble”……they folded chiefly because nobody went to the concerts…… 🙁

  • Britcellist says:

    Hear, hear! Makes perfect sense for each county having performance venues, musicians, students, restaurants in the town. Adding up government grants for the musicians and venue(s), student fees and money spent in the town would beef up the area greatly.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The system in Germany or France is not leftwing. It is part of the cultural self-understanding of those nations, and to have the arts supported by government is a heritage from the monarchies, which wanted to justify their position. It is a central part of a civilisation and thus, important for the whole of society, entirely independent from attendance.

    In the Anglosaxon sphere however, government developed along different trajectories, and the arts became rather a thing of a free market.

    In communist Russia, a firm grip on the arts was one of the means to disguise the lack of legitimacy of the government.

    Best seems the idea to have the cultural institutions (operas, museums, orchestras etc.) given garanteed existence by the state, with normal salaries for the people running them, and additional donations and sponsoring for special projects, thus connecting the institutions to the community.

    The arts are not a ‘business’ or an ‘industry’ with a profit motive, but an investment, via taxation, by the community into a good for the community, a good which has a value in itself. This means that ‘money lost’ on the arts is merely investment into the common good. (Nobody complains about ‘loosing money’ through repairing motorways or bridges.)

    • psq says:

      I totally agree.

      You have pre-empted me in saying that the system in Germany is not leftwing. Just because the article appeared in Morning Star, it does not warrant such a knee jerk headline.
      In the first sentence of the second paragraph Norman quoted is the explicit mention of the “current German model”.

      In SD Norman has written glowingly about Monika Grütters (CDU, i.e., a Conservative) , the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2013. Why does Norman want to brand her as a leftwinger now?

      I have no idea how the Anglo-Saxon attitude re supporting cultural institutions can be remolded to have a remote resemblance to the German model. One episode in the recent past highlighted very much the attitudes of German from all walks of life towards their cultural heritage.

      A few years after the reunification, Berlin was in a dire financial state- red ink flooded the street, leading to the then Mayor’s famous bon mot “Berlin is broke , but Berlin is sexy.”
      There were/are 3 opera houses in the city of roughly 3 million. Someone raised a trial balloon that the bankrupt city finance shouldn’t support 3 public money subsidized opera houses. That idea received a vanishingly small public support. Memorably old Berliners said there were 3 opera houses even during the time of the WWII, so why should one panick.

  • The author might at least have spelt “Maconchy” correctly (or maybe it was just a typo)…

  • Tamino says:

    Get rid of the constructed wrong divisions in your mind.
    There is nothing left wing about this.
    Unless you twist your mind and call the German aristocracy, who created the model of regional orchestras being on fixed payrolls, as left wing by definition.
    The author of the article is confused, but it’s the typical Anglo-American brain washed corporate fascism bullsh*** oooga boooga bad government, ooga booga, be scared of strong government who supports the cohesive aspirational parts of society, like the arts.

  • Dd says:

    Millions spend $100,000 on an automobile, 10’s of thousands on sporting events and an equal amount on vacations. 100’s of rock stars earn many millions per year and support 10,000 co-workers.

    Most of the above know little of why and keep spending their money hoping for some little bit of something.

    Must do better competing. Orchestras are not sexy anymore. Double the audience and the money problems go away.

  • Witches delight says:

    I’d like to see that dying vile art dead.
    Before buring me as a witch, let me explain:

    The dying vile art, is that MANNER, in which works are interpreted and served today, by many many “musicians”:

    Boring, run-of-the-mill, professionalized, commoditized.
    Simply untruthful, insincere and learn’ed notes, that reach my ears via the fingermotions that the socalled “musicians” have practiced.
    The interpretation is so very fitting to the times we live in: conveyor-belt music, where all charm and personal inflection is removed.

    I say: it’s dead already. Stop trying to resuscitate that dead cadaver.

    (Obviously there are a few exceptions, but there are not really that much).

    And that truth is to be seen from the original text, which states:

    “classical music will collapse — it may not be as a result of Covid-19, but it cannot maintain itself permanently.”

    Yes. It’s irrelevant garbage, that they can bloody stop doing.
    I do not like classical music; more: I bloody hate classical music, the way and manner its done today.

    Please: let it die.

    The original text above ends with
    “[… if you apply leftwing marxist elevation, then ]these institutions, formerly seen as bastions of bourgeois culture, could actually shift and connect to their community completely….”

    Ridiculous. By artificially pushing it some more [leftwing marxist elevation], they think it will suddenly, MIRACULOUSLY start to connect to their community.

    Ha ha… maby they are right… it will be made to connect, because those people to which it does not connect, will be made uncomfortable. Oh good lord. Leftism. What a scourge.