Richard Morrison: Why we need to support local musicians after the pandemic

In order to survive in the long-term, UK orchestras need to embed themselves in the community, BBC Music Magazine's columnist Richard Morrison argues

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By announcing that it will move the BBC Concert Orchestra out of London in a couple of years’ time, but not yet revealing the new location, the BBC has set the cat among the pigeons. The move makes perfect sense in BBC terms. It’s in line with the corporation’s policy of boosting its output from the regions. It removes an ensemble from the crowded London market, where six full-time, symphonicsized orchestras (including the BBC Symphony, of course), plus many chamber and period-instrument bands, tussle for audiences.

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And if the BBC Concert Orchestra is rooted in a town or city with a fine hall but no current resident band, everybody is a winner. I’m old enough to remember when the BBC had a training orchestra based in Bristol (it was disbanded in 1977). With a new concert venue, the Bristol Beacon, rising out of the carcass of the now almost unmentionable Colston Hall, it might be a good time to give Bristol its own orchestra again.

On the other hand, there is a swathe of eastern England that has no full-time orchestra. Northampton, Peterborough, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Hull, York: all are big urban areas with thousands of schoolchildren who need enthusing about orchestral music. And let’s face it, doing this sort of outreach and educational work is, or should be, just as much a part of the brief for a 21st-century orchestra as giving concerts.

We recently named the 10 best orchestras in the world.

That observation, however, raises questions about how Britain’s orchestras will operate in a post-pandemic but forever altered cultural world. The most fundamental issue is this: during the past year, Britain’s music lovers have enjoyed some extraordinarily well filmed and performed orchestral concerts streamed into their homes. I’m thinking particularly of concerts I have watched by the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – ensembles that have imaginatively transformed the venues where they perform, or sought out different ones, so that the visual experience of watching them is almost as powerful as the musical one.

I cannot believe that, having invested in that level of cinematic expertise, and consequently wooed thousands of music lovers across the globe (the London Philharmonic Orchestra was surprised to discover that half its online audience lived in America), these enterprising orchestras will suddenly abandon streaming and go back to playing live concerts just for audiences in the hall. A hybrid mix of live and streaming is surely the future.

But this brings challenges as well as opportunities. If, for a few quid, music lovers can have the London Philharmonic Orchestra or even the Berlin Philharmonic regularly streamed into their living rooms, with better-quality visuals and possibly even better sound than they might get in their local venue, will they have any incentive to make a trip, perhaps of many miles, to hear an orchestra playing live?

The answer to that is ‘yes, I hope’ – but only if other factors persuade them to make that trip. Those factors could still include interesting repertoire and inspiring conductors and soloists, but audiences will be able to get all that from streamed concerts too.

No, the one factor that will keep live orchestral concerts going in future will be something that is commonplace in the US but underplayed in Britain: civic pride. Towns and cities that are proud of their musical life, that cherish their professional musicians, that are as supportive of their resident orchestra as they are of the local football team, will become beacons of culture. Those that are indifferent will get the musical life they deserve – that is, very little.

How do the orchestras themselves nurture this sort of civic pride? The answer has to be by embedding themselves – lock, stock and bassoons – in the community. I’ve been heartened to cover stories in this last year about orchestras relocating their offices and rehearsals to comprehensive schools, or even being involved in founding music-centred academies in areas of high deprivation; and of individual professional musicians, forced into inactivity in the concert hall, diverting their time instead into playing outside care homes and hospitals.

All these things could, and should, continue when the pandemic recedes. The more ways that orchestras can make themselves useful to their communities and strike emotional links with people through all sorts of contacts, the more they will build up loyalty. And the more chance they will have of keeping orchestral music alive and kicking for the next generation to enjoy.

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You can read all Richard Morrison’s columns for BBC Music Magazine here.