Eric Thompson of the Arts Council once suggested that I apply to become head of music of the state’s funding agency.‘It’s a cushy number,’ he said, ‘you get six weeks’ leave and spend two weeks spending your budget. The rest of the time you simply say no!’. Few worse methods of funding orchestras could be imagined.
Until the BBC Symphony was formed in 1930, orchestras came and went as regularly as West End plays. At that point, however, musicians were offered contracts, with holidays and pensions. With the threat of bombs in 1939, Beecham abandoned his buccaneering London Philharmonic (LPO) for a cushier life across the Atlantic. The LPO immediately imitated the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) by becoming a ‘workers’ co-operative’, forming a company, with every player a shareholder, and attracting funding from the London County Council. During the Second World War, classical music achieved a popularity rivalled only by the upsurge of religion, prompting two more orchestras to be raised in London.
Once television arrived, the country’s established orchestras lost their markets and looked to the Arts Council for support. Twenty years later, the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic followed suit. Once that happened, this new model became fixed in socialist concrete and another tranche of ‘culture’ came to rely on state subsidies. Orchestras soon lost touch with their supporting audiences as they did with the reality of the box-office.
I well remember the fury of Eric Bravington of the LPO when he heard that the Philharmonia’s latest profligacy had met with another Arts Council hand-out: ‘Why run a tight ship, when incompetence is always rewarded!’ That question remains relevant today, when London’s orchestras are run for their own benefit, rather than that of their audience. Why are concert programmes much the same as those of 1945? Why have the subsidised orchestras failed to commission new music that entertains as well as challenges? Why have they done nothing to nurture a single living composer for whom the public might learn to care? Given less generous funding, the Arts Council’s dependents would have been forced to find at least one composer every decade with audience appeal. Publishers find new authors and the stage finds new playwrights, but such institutions are driven by trade and have their feet planted in the reality of supply and demand.
I would argue that the theatre is Britain’s artistic gift to the world, not classical music and opera, which central funding has deprived of new ideas and sustained with old ones. How many contemporary composers would survive without the Arts Council or the BBC? How would modern music sound had they not been encouraged to write as they have done since the war? The knock-on effect has been the nurturing of orchestral music-making of almost complete predictability. When I became the LSO’s first Managing Director in 1975, I recognised the unwholesome relationship that existed between quasi-independent orchestras of self-employed musicians and their manipulation of centralised funding.
Nearly forty years on, the time is ripe to examine this self-serving artifice, in which ‘precision’ stands for ‘excellence’ and ‘louder’ has become synonymous with ‘better’. Orchestras do no more than survive in a market distorted by an un-commercial and anti-intellectual cultural oligarchy, the consequence of which has been to hasten the downfall of a culture that once mattered to society at large.
As a private citizen, I re-formed the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1997, not because I might grow rich, but because I believed in something different and, yes, better. I wished to restore an aesthetic, and a sound-world, that had vanished, with the strings adopting gut and long-ignored approaches to their craft, and by using the less noisy brass and percussion of a century earlier.
I consider this ambition is now being fulfilled, through regular performances of unique originality and beauty. I am happy for anyone who wishes to find out for themselves to go to the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, on 23 November, when John Farrar will conduct the NQHO in a performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Such is my confidence in the orchestra and its players, that I am happy to predict that this performance will astonish anyone who thinks he knows the work, and overwhelm anyone lucky enough never to have heard it.
John Boyden © 2011