Music: The Decade the Music Died

By Lebrecht, Norman | The Spectator, April 15, 2017 | Go to article overview

Music: The Decade the Music Died


Lebrecht, Norman, The Spectator


For much of the past half-century, London has been the world's orchestral capital. Not always in quality, but numerically without rival. Five full symphony orchestras and twice as many pint-sized ones kept up a constant clamour for attention. Each month brought new recordings with premier artists. Every orchestra had its own ethos, history and thumbprint. The Philharmonia was moulded by Karajan and Klemperer, the London Philharmonic by Boult and Tennstedt, the Royal Philharmonic by Beecham, the BBC by Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra by its high spirits. Tales abound of maestros departing with a punch on the nose and beer bottles rolling in rehearsal.

All of which added greatly to the sum of human happiness. London musicians, always cheap, learned to be quick. They became the best sight-readers on earth, able to soundtrack a Hollywood film in six hours flat. Abbey Road, round the corner from where I live, had an orchestral pantechnicon out front seven days a week. Record royalties enabled orchestras to be daring. I once shocked a future head of the Salzburg Festival, telling him that London was putting on simultaneous cycles of Schoenberg and Shostakovich. 'That could never happen here,' he sighed, enviously.

There was a buzz around our concert halls. Principal players turned down fat orchestra jobs in Germany, half the work for twice the pay, because London was too exciting to leave. Every hot conductor came to be tested in the London furnace. Competition sizzled between the bands.

And then it died. The record industry faded out first, at the start of this decade, crushed by self-repetition and YouTube. Film work migrated to Prague. Newspapers shrank concert reviews. The BBC dumbed down. Orchestras began playing safe. The capital is in danger of turning provincial.

Big batons stopped coming, except on whistlestop tours with their own ensembles. When the Proms last year were offered Kirill Petrenko, Simon Rattle's dazzling successor at the Berlin Philharmonic, the BBC declined because they hadn't heard of him. Strapped for cash, London is losing the plot. Two of its music directors live in Berlin, a third in Los Angeles. Easy to see why: that's where the action is.

The Barbican and South Bank are playing at 20 per cent and more below capacity for classical concerts. The energy one feels at Vienna's Musikvereinssaal or the Paris Philharmonie before the start of a concert is made impossible in London by empty seats and nodding, grey heads. …

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