January 25, 2005
Changing times for the Philharmonia

Prospect Magazine has revamped its website. If I understand the rules correctly, you can read quite a few of their pieces when they first come out, for free, for a few weeks, and then you have to pay for them, either at about a quid a go, or with a £25 annual sub. Please tell me if I've got that wrong.

Prospect is, I think, very good, which is why I bother with a web operation which charges. Normally I wouldn't.

So anyway, that means that you can read this most informative piece about the Philharmonia Orchestra by their regular classical music writer, Stephen Everson.

Everson makes many telling points, of which I have picked these, for the somewhat ignoble reason that they have also mostly been made here:

It is ironic that as the quality and enthusiasm of orchestral musicians has increased, so the interest in orchestral music within the general culture has declined so markedly. "We're in a period now where the broad population of this country is totally unfamiliar with orchestral music and reluctant to enjoy anything that requires some investment of time and thought. Our world is shrinking by the day because of the overwhelming impact of popular culture. When I was a kid, although I didn't grow up in a musical family, you were always aware of orchestral music on the radio because there was the light programme, and the home service. The musical language you grew up with was the basic harmonic tonality that underpins music from the Renaissance until the present day. Now that language is almost entirely foreign because rap music and garage and house have no harmonic references at all. It's purely linear. People's experience of great music is now negligible. If you put on Dvorak's New World Symphony, over half of the audience are hearing it for the first time."

This next bit was particularly interesting to me, because I saw this coming, as I am sure did many others. Not only are public subsidies harder to come by, but corporate money is getting harder to extract, because the generation that now runs these things, both public and private, grew up with the Beatles, rather than with the Proms on the Third Programme.

This has consequences for the orchestra's ability to find commercial sponsors. When Whelton first went to the Philharmonia, he found he could raise about £800,000 a year, and spend only half a day a week doing so. "You'd go to one company and put a proposal, and there'd be a yes or a no; if it was a no there'd be another ten companies you knew were interested. Chairmen of boards and managing directors were from a generation that was passionate about music and opera. But those people have retired. In the main, the people in those positions now have no interest in high culture. First of all they're with each company a very short time, secondly they're driven entirely by adding shareholder value, and thirdly what we do is something alien to most of them … they'd prefer to take clients to a football match."

And then Everson homes in on how film music is surviving as one of the few routes from popular culture to classical music. It's not that much of it is classical music, in the sense of being great and part of the classical canon. It is that it is at least, unlike most music these days, written in the same language as classical music.

More fundamentally, it requires orchestras to rethink how they can build and maintain their audience. "Most people's only relationship with orchestral music these days is in the cinema and occasionally the television. We gave a concert of film music in the Festival Hall recently that was sold out, and in the middle of it we did the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th Symphony and the overture to Figaro. The people listened to those pieces with just the same level of concentration as they did Star Wars. They loved the emotional impact of that music – that's their starting point now. I wrote to a critic the other day who complained that we were putting the Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto in a concert and I said look at the symphony it's with, which was Prokofiev's 5th. Now, I think that's central repertoire but 3,000 people probably heard it for the first time that night. Familiarisation is the only way to build the audience. If you can get the public from film music to, say, Pictures from an Exhibition and then to the Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto and then on to Prokofiev's 5th, they've got one more piece in their repertoire. If we don't succeed in doing that, our audience will become narrower and narrower. When I came to the Philharmonia, it was the last season that you could do even very mainstream concerts at the Festival Hall that would be packed to the gunnels."

Prokofiev's 5th has long been a favourite of mine, ever since I was first persuaded by a record reviewer to buy the Karajan DGG version, which is still regarded as one of the best.

Everson also ruminates upon the soon-to-be undertaken revamp of the accoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, which is the performing home of the Philharmonia.

Here's a picture of the RFH, seen from the downstream of the two new Hungerford footbridges.


The Festival Hall is a place I might well go to more often if the accoustics were up to scratch.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:09 PM
Category: Classical music