Should London have fewer orchestras?

Oliver Condy argues the case for less choice and a more concentrated loyalty to our capital’s musical landscape

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When I visited Dallas a couple of years ago, the city’s streetlamps were hung with posters anticipating the arrival of their new maestro, Jaap Van Zweden. The Dutch conductor was to be ‘unleashed’ on the city, as the slogan went – a shining beacon (or growling beast) of Dallas’s already impressive artistic offering. And it was clear, from talking to Van Zweden, that he was to be something of a celebrity there: the head of Dallas’s only major ensemble and a symbol of Texan excellence.

And it’s the same all over the US – this autumn, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will welcome its new music director Riccardo Muti, while the New York Philharmonic is making something of a fuss of Alan Gilbert, its prodigious young new conductor. And look at the attention that Gustavo Dudamel is currently getting in Los Angeles. All three cities have just one major orchestra, so are able to own them, nurture them – almost deify them – and send them out into the world as ambassadors for their cities. Back in the UK, some of our cities are doing similar things.

Currently on the London Underground there are posters advertising Liverpool. Various landmarks/attractions figure alongside a picture of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s conductor Vasily Petrenko, who’s clearly someone the city’s council wants to promote. Visit Liverpool, so the advert goes, and visit our great sites – which include our wonderful orchestra. Birmingham’s approach to Andris Nelsons is similar, as is Manchester’s (although they have two orchestras: the Hallé under Mark Elder and the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda).

London, however, is different. Its orchestras don’t appear to be on the official tourist trail as far as I can see. The faces of Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Jurowski, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Charles Dutoit and Jiří Bělohlávek (principal conductors of the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Philharmonia, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively) certainly aren’t plastered on billboards up and down the city. Rather, each ensemble competes for audiences and money and each struggles to be recognized as London’s premier orchestra (the RPO gets round that by labelling itself as ‘Britain’s favourite orchestra’).

So, with five major orchestras and several smaller ensembles dividing loyalties, are we preventing Londoners from being proud of ‘their’ orchestra, as, say, the citizens of San Francisco are of theirs? And, in turn, can London’s orchestral players feel a part of their capital in any other way than simply by virtue of living and working there?

Perhaps if London were to reduce its count to two orchestras, audiences would still benefit from fine music-making, and the city would be able to promote its musical activities to the world much more efficiently and effectively.