London may not have the best orchestra in the world, but with its four permanent subsidised symphony orchestras it has the best orchestral lifeby Martin Kettle / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
A golden age of stick-waving?
Those meddlesome people who like to straighten things out have always been offended by the untidy arrangement under which London has four permanent subsidised symphony orchestras. London does not need so many orchestras, they say. Can’t it make do with just two or three, like other places? And surely fewer would mean better?
There is no logical answer to these questions. If you were designing London from scratch, you probably wouldn’t give it four symphony orchestras, any more than you would allocate it 11 railway terminuses or five airports. But the plain fact is that, unlike with the airports, having four orchestras works. So I say: stop trying to fix something that isn’t broken. Actually, I say something much more than that. Judged by the quality of the conductors now being attracted to all of the London orchestras—to say nothing of those working with the other British orchestras too—we are fortunate to be living in a golden age of orchestral playing and stick-waving. As someone once said in another context: just rejoice at that news.
Consider the constellation of talent. At the Barbican centre, the London Symphony Orchestra is buzzing under the protean Valery Gergiev, now in his first full season as chief conductor. Across the river at the Festival Hall, the London Philharmonic is on a high under Vladimir Jurowski. Sharing that hall with the LPO, the Philharmonia excitedly awaits the arrival of Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2008. In 2009, a veteran maestro, Charles Dutoit, takes over from Daniele Gatti at the Royal Philharmonic. No other city has anything to compare. London may not have the best orchestra in the world, but it has the best orchestral life.
And that is just the start of it. Jirí Belohlávek is establishing a better era with the BBC Symphony Orchestra than it has enjoyed in a while. Mark Elder and Ivan Volkov are presiding over an orchestral renaissance in Manchester. Marin Alsop has put the Bournemouth Symphony back on the map. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta are about to move to a new venue in King’s Cross. Meanwhile, there are the not negligible matters of Antonio Pappano’s outstanding tenure at the Royal Opera and Edward Gardner’s exciting start at the helm of English National Opera.
When I first started listening to orchestras, I had the impression that all the…