Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Why Don't Orchestras Die?

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Why Don't Orchestras Die?

Article excerpt

Watching the Berlin Philharmonic going into conclave to choose a successor to Simon Rattle -- after countless hours of secret discussion they have chosen Kirill Petrenko -- reminds one of little less than the election of a pope. In both cases the expectation is the same: the organisations are so iconic that they must continue into the future without a hitch and without question. Whatever sort of job they are doing, or have done, they have become too much a part of normal life to be abolished.

Why is it that symphony orchestras of any standing are expected to survive indefinitely, where smaller musical organisations, though they may be just as established, are not? What are the long-term prospects for the Monteverdi Choir after John Eliot Gardiner retires? Or for Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music -- Hogwood has recently died, and a succession has taken place, but AAM is hardly being financed out of the public purse. The same could be asked of Trevor Pinnock's English Concert. The prognosis for professional choral ensembles is probably worse. What happened to the John Alldis Choir? What will happen to the Tallis Scholars? Are we all thought to be project ensembles, with a problem to solve and no shelf-life after we've solved it? One forgets that the great symphony orchestras were project ensembles once, until they became part of the establishment.

The irony is that becoming part of the establishment means that an ensemble is likely to have lost its original thrust. There is no other way: if it wants public financing it must appeal to the non-specialist, which means it must join the mainstream. From there it can only change direction with extreme caution, or be thought dangerously revolutionary. In this year's Proms what, in reality, will distinguish the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's interpretation of Sibelius's Second Symphony (15 August) from the BBC Symphony Orchestra's version of Sibelius's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies (17 August)? I wager almost nothing in the sound, and very little in anything else. To get a challengingly different view of the standard repertoire one needs to turn to a relatively recently formed ensemble, which at least began life by flashing two fingers at normality: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performing Brahms's First Symphony (1 September).

There's a lesson here, which the OAE might heed. The Berlin Philharmonic started in an almost identical way to them, almost exactly 100 years earlier -- as a splinter group escaping from an existing organisation whose conductor they had grown tired of. …

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