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The South Bank: Relegating symphonies to a sideshow?

Every year around this time someone publishes a survey purporting to show that Vienna is the best city in the world to live and London is going down the tubes, in 37th place according to the latest poll. We know pretty much what’s wrong with London: housing shortage, high cost of living, arse-crippling theatre seats and no day-fresh asparagus available in May and June. We take all that in our stride.

The upside is the music. For as long as I can remember, and that’s more than half a century, London’s pride has been an abundance of skilled musicians who can play any score sight unseen and generate an anything-can-happen tremor when they shamble out on stage. Orchestra members on an Abbey Road coffee break gave the Beatles their first gloss of class. Groupies at the Festival Hall waited in pouring rain for the oboist, not the conductor. Lawyers got called in to separate rival orchestral managers whose jobs traditionally hung by a thread. On three occasions that I recall, a symphony boss returned from lunch to find the locks changed on his office door.

Competition for artists and dates gave London orchestras a unique adrenalin buzz. Threadbare budgets bred brand loyalty. Principal players would turn down a new Mercedes, a weekend cottage and sex on demand in one of the state-fatted German orchestras for the questionable thrill of living hand to mouth in a London ensemble. Some players drove minicabs in quiet weeks. Concertgoers didn’t need to know that. It was all in the music.

Women players tucked their handbags beneath their seats on stage, embarrassed at how few coins they jingled. Legend has it that George Blake, the escaped Soviet spy, was hidden in a double-bass case at the Festival Hall before he was smuggled out to East Germany. Among maestros, no prisoners were taken. Leonard Bernstein took a verbal beating from the BBC Symphony brass section and Charles Mackerras was ever at odds with the Coliseum band. Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic co-existed in mutual loathing. The resultant music was explosive.

I wish I could pretend that this hyperactive fission still exists.

This is a piece I hoped never to write and each word is wrung from me with regret. But recent chats with regular concertgoers have confirmed the growling in my gut that some life force has vanished from London’s music in the past couple of years. The causes are diverse. A former orchestra manager sees the decline as a “symptom of a deeper disorder: arts are no longer currency and therefore without constituency in the media”. He’s right. Apart from The Times, newspapers scarcely review classical concerts any more in print, having attracted few clicks in response.

A surviving newspaper critic blames the subsidy-guzzling South Bank for relegating symphony concerts to a peripheral attraction, swamped on its website by pop events and on its forecourt by the stench of chain restaurants. This, too, is lamentably true.

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Arnie Ward
April 15th, 2016
9:04 AM
Despite coming from a family of classical music lovers and musicians I still don't get it six decades on. From the moment I heard Chubby Checker's Lets Twist at pre-school I was hooked on Rock and Roll - music you can dance to. Classical and opera have been elevated to an elite status neither merit. If music cannot pay its own way then it should be left to wither on the vine.

Jonathan Sutherland
April 13th, 2016
10:04 PM
Whilst Mr Lebrecht's opinions have always tended to the extreme, could one venture to say that despite its 'live-ability', Vienna has also seen a drastic downgrading of its musical worth, particularly at the Wiener Staatsoper. Yes, 99.5% ticket sales might please bean-counters, but where is the artistic excellence in an institution which now churns out operas every night with the individuality and integrity of bratwurst? The problem Mr Lebrecht refers to is not restricted to London - it as a global phenomenon when soulless, balance sheet obsessed accountants are the new Kings of the artistic Universe.

April 13th, 2016
4:04 AM
The sound of American orchestras, too, has become homogenized, lacking in individuality and character. Programming has become tamer in part due to the increasing conservatism of the audiences and the box office fear of alienating those that do come with anything other than the tried and true pablum of Classical standards which, paradoxically, are dissuading potential new (more youthful) listeners from attending regularly. Modern musical pedagogy has nurtured an inside the box sensibility (regarding musical expression), and a repression of individual sound character, which has made everyone sound the same. Compartmentalized teaching, tame programming, bottom-line economic considerations, cautious or non existent promotion, audience waning interest in classical all conspires to turn one of humankind's most astounding vehicles of beauty into a commodity that continues to lose its uniqueness, character and relevance. The color palette and range of expression of most American orchestras has narrowed hugely since I began listening to and playing in orchestras. Now I hear that it is spreading into the UK. Sad.

April 12th, 2016
11:04 PM
Surely there is more to classical music in London than orchestras; would you say the same about the state of opera and chamber music?

William Stivelman
April 4th, 2016
4:04 PM
Methinks the author suffers from depression more than a veritable change in musical London.

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