By announcing that he will move the BBC Concert Orchestra out of London in a few years, but not yet revealing the new location, the BBC has placed the cat among the pigeons. The move makes perfect sense in terms of the BBC. It is part of the company’s policy to increase its production in the region. He pulls an ensemble out of the crowded London market, where six full-time symphony orchestras (including the BBC Symphony, of course), along with numerous chamber and period instrument groups, compete for the audience.
And if the BBC Orchestra is rooted in a town or city with a nice venue but no current resident group, everyone 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 hall, the Bristol Beacon, emerging from the now almost shameful Colston Hall carcass, it might be a good time to give Bristol back its own orchestra.
On the other hand, there is a part of the east of England that does not have a full time orchestra. Northampton, Peterborough, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Hull, York: all are large urban areas with thousands of school children who need to get excited about orchestral music. And let’s face it, doing this kind of outreach and education work is, or should be, just as much a part of the agenda for a 21st century orchestra as it is giving concerts.
We recently named the 10 best orchestras in the world.
This observation, however, raises questions about how British orchestras will operate in a post-pandemic but forever changed cultural world. The most basic problem is this: Over the past year, UK music lovers have attended extraordinarily well filmed and performed orchestral concerts broadcast in their homes. I am thinking in particular of the concerts that I watched by the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonic and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – ensembles that imaginatively transformed the places where they perform, or searched for others, so that the visual experience of watching them is almost as powerful as the musical experience.
I can’t believe that after investing in this level of cinematic expertise, and consequently wooing thousands of music lovers around the world (the London Philharmonic Orchestra was surprised to find that half of its online audience lived in America), these enterprising orchestras will suddenly give up streaming and resume playing live concerts only for the audience in the hall. A hybrid mix of live and streaming is surely the future.
But it brings challenges as well as opportunities. If, for a few books, music lovers can have the London Philharmonic Orchestra or even the Berlin Philharmonic shown regularly in their living rooms, with better quality visuals and perhaps even better sound than what they could get in their local venue, will they have any incentive to take a trip, maybe several miles, to hear an orchestra play live?
The answer to that question is “yes, I hope” – but only if other factors persuade them to take this trip. These factors could always include an interesting repertoire and inspiring conductors and soloists, but audiences will also be able to achieve all of this through streaming concerts.
No, the only factor that will keep orchestral concerts live in the future will be something that is common in the United States but underestimated in Britain: civic pride. Cities that take pride in their musical life, that cherish their professional musicians, who support both their resident orchestra and the local football team, will become beacons of culture. Those who are indifferent will have the musical life they deserve, which is to say very little.
How do the orchestras themselves nurture this kind of civic pride? The answer must be by integrating – lock, stick and bassoons – in the community. I have been encouraged to cover stories over the past year about orchestras moving their offices and rehearsals to comprehensive schools, or even getting involved in founding music-centric academies in very disadvantaged areas; and individual professional musicians, forced into inactivity in the concert hall, diverting their time from playing outside nursing homes and hospitals.
All of these things could and should continue when the pandemic recedes. The more orchestras can make themselves useful to their community and bond with people through all kinds of contacts, the more loyal they will become. And the more chance they have of keeping orchestral music alive and vibrant for the next generation to enjoy.
you can read everything The Chronicles of Richard Morrison for BBC Music Magazine here.