Why doesn't the largest city in the South West have a professional symphony orchestra, asks Rebecca Franks
Ever since I moved to Bristol two years ago, I’ve been puzzled by why this city doesn’t have a professional symphony orchestra. Shouldn’t the largest city in the South West – according to Bristol City Council, the seventh largest in the UK – have a resident ensemble? Yes, we do have a busy professional chamber orchestra – the Bristol Ensemble (formerly the Emerald Ensemble) – but what I’m thinking of is a full-blown symphony orchestra with a national, if not international reputation, for Bristolians and South-Westerners to be proud of, a hub for classical music in the area.
I don’t have a satisfactory answer for my question. When I’ve asked others, audience apathy and lack of political will have often been suggested; to my mind lack of funding seems as crucial. If the latter two obstacles are surmountable, the former is questionable. The numerous world-class musicians who visit play to pretty packed audiences – over the past couple of years, to pick just three, I’ve heard pianist Mitsuko Uchida, the Takács Quartet, and the Philharmonia. Next month, John Adams is conducting the LSO. Seats have mostly been filled. For less prestigious performers audiences might be sparser, but is this not always the case? Poorly-attended concerts, I’ve often found, are also those less vigorously marketed and publicised. Amateur orchestras and choirs are flourishing, and audiences flock to the nearby Bath and Cheltenham festivals. There’s clearly an appetite for classical music here.
Venues aren’t the problem either, even if the large-scale Bristol arena project continues to flounder; we’ve got the 142-year-old, albeit several times rebuilt, 2,000-seater Colston Hall, to which a glittering foyer (see right) with extra performance spaces, bars and eateries was recently added; the beautiful St George’s Bristol, a converted church with an acoustic musicians rave about; and the 1912 Bristol Hippodrome which welcomes visiting opera companies, including Welsh National Opera, every year.
Why, may you ask, does Bristol need a symphony orchestra? Aren’t the visiting orchestras enough? OK, so I’m clearly biased, being a classical music fan, but orchestras bring countless benefits to communities. They foster local pride, generate revenue, improve music education not to mention open up a wealth of wonderful symphonic music. Take a look round the UK at the moment. In Liverpool, Vasily Petrenko has electrified audiences, drawing in new fans, since taking up the baton there in 2006; Manchester’s musical scene is thriving with the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic; in London, to pick just one of several examples, the LSO has embedded itself within the local community with LSO St Luke’s working with local schools and teachers to bring world-class music education to all.
With the current redevelopment of the Bristol Old Vic – the UK’s oldest-producing theatre outside London – under Tom Morris, it looks like Bristol’s theatre scene is on the up; last summer’s Banksy exhibition, that brought in hordes of people, and millions of pounds, put Bristol on the art map. Perhaps the reason there’s no orchestra here is as simple as no one has attempted to establish one. In Birmingham, after all, it was a group of city residents, led by the then Lord Mayor, Neville Chamberlain, who established the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1920. Head back to Manchester in the 19th century, and Charles Hallé was busy nurturing his eponymous orchestra, still flourishing today. My question is, who’s going to step up and fight for a symphony orchestra of which Bristol, and the South West, can be proud?
Rebecca Franks is Online Editor and Staff Writer for BBC Music Magazine