Orchestral manoeuvres

Inside the LSO

It’s Friday lunchtime at the Barbican. On stage in the main hall, the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki perches on a high-chair to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra through his Fifth Symphony. The UK premiere takes place on Sunday evening, but many of the players haven’t seen the score till today.

The work poses unusual problems. “The pieces we are playing are very technical…” says double bass Jonathan Vaughan. “A lot of notes, and difficult rhythms. It’s not tuneful music in the traditional sense.” That, I notice, is not the only peculiar aspect of the work. Penderecki’s symphony requires two pairs of wind instruments in the auditorium, a couple at either side of the dress circle. And a horn player is located offstage – he sits forlornly near the musician’s bar, watching the conductor on a TV monitor and nodding rhythmically as he counts towards the moment when stage hands will open the doors for him to blast notes into the stalls.

Back in the hall, the musicians are racing ahead. “Not too fast!” cautions the Pole with the baton. So the orchestra’s leader, a black-bearded violinist, refers to the score and politely asks: “Excuse me, but where is it slower in tempo?” Penderecki tells him, adding with good humour that, as a living composer, he can make changes wherever he likes. The leader makes a note in pencil, and the rows of violins behind him lean forward to copy that alteration.

During one sinister passage, reminiscent of the shark-attack theme in Jaws, a surprising thing happens: muted laughter runs round the violins. Only later is it explained to me that this is because the violas have been given a solo – the orchestral equivalent of asking a goalkeeper to take a penalty kick. Not necessarily a bad idea, but certainly eccentric.

Then, after a particularly difficult sequence of notes, Penderecki’s analysis runs like this: “Nee, nee, nee, pam-PAHM!” To which the wavy-haired leader of the cellos replies, “Excuse me, maestro – before [bar] 38, is there any crescendo?”

The best conductors, according to principal horn David Pyatt, let musicians know what they want with “gestures and facial expressions”, rather than by talking. But from my position in the stalls, surrounded by empty instrument cases, I can only see Penderecki’s back. So I tiptoe out of the auditorium to watch from a spyhole at the rear. Now I can see his face: it’s stiff with concentration. What’s more, the orchestra no longer appears to be composed entirely of strings – from this perspective you’d guess it was mostly wind, and percussion.

Among the horns, I observe, one player has the Evening Standard propped open on his stand. Another keeps an eye on the Daily Telegraph crossword. The timpanist, inexplicably, holds a pair of scissors. And a percussionist, below me, quietly blows raspberries at a colleague. It’s time for a break.

When that interval occurs, the percussionists are among the first to reach the easy chairs backstage. Christine Pendrill, who plays Cor Anglais, is not quite so relaxed. The break has come just before her big moment: “It’s about half a page,” she says. Enough to fill four minutes. If she’s nervous, that’s because she has no idea, yet, whether she’ll be playing solo: “Sometimes it does all go terribly quiet around you,” she says with little relish.

In the UK, more people attend concerts than football matches. For the sheer range of music available, London leads the world. In classical music alone there are four Arts Council-subsidised orchestras, a couple more at the BBC and Covent Garden, and a steady stream of orchestras visiting from overseas.

The most successful, without doubt, is the London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to cater for a wide range of tastes – from new works like Penderecki to staples such as Beethoven. Founded in 1904 by musicians fed up with conditions under Sir Henry Wood, the LSO enjoys substantial advantages over its subsidised rivals, the Philharmonia, the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic. Its Arts Council grant, amounting this year to £1.3m, is generously matched by the Corporation of London. Its residence in the City, at the Corporation’s Barbican Centre, has helped to attract sponsorship from banks, major corporates and law firms. Principals’ chairs are endowed by well-known figures from the world of business: the Hon Sir Rocco and Lady Forte look after the violins, and the Sir Jack Lyons Charitable Trust funds the timpanist. The LSO even derives income from a branded credit card: for every card issued it receives a donation, and 0.15 per cent of every purchase goes to the musicians.

Nevertheless, money remains tight, says Clive Gillinson, the cellist who gave up playing 15 years ago to become the LSO’s managing director. “We’re considered one of the best in the world, but in budgetary terms we’re about equal to a regional American orchestra – say, Minnesota. The New York Phil probably has more than two or three times our income, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s public subsidy alone is as big as our entire turnover. Everyone assumes that the LSO is well off financially.” To which Gillinson would say: “Yes, we receive more money than others, but we promote 85 concerts a year – not very different from all London’s other subsidised orchestras put together.”

When he was appointed, in 1984, the orchestra was in much poorer condition than it is now. Having tended to break even, it found itself in debt to the tune of £400,000. Gillinson, who with his wife had run an antique shop in Hampstead, was selected to shake things up. “It was incredibly exciting as well as horrifying. The budgeting wasn’t done in such a way to allow one to analyse the state of business.” The Arts Council wanted to know about future strategy. “Of course we didn’t have any so I had to virtually make it up on the hoof.”

In most businesses, when you find something the market likes, you keep on producing it. In the arts you must take it off and put on something else. “The greatest risk in this business is not taking risks,” says Gillinson. “The most common cry in the arts is, ‘We’re so strapped for cash we can’t afford to take risks’. My view is the opposite. We can’t afford not to. No one succeeds in business by being the same as everybody else.”

In 2000, the LSO is putting on a celebration of Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday – a mighty undertaking which will trace the development of orchestral music over the 20th century with performances all over the world. The Boulez project was announced in October at a plush morning reception at the French Ambassador’s residence off Hyde Park. Boulez himself, dressed for the occasion in a green-and-blue tartan jacket, waggled his eyebrows and turned down the corners of his mouth in a series of modest gallic shrugs as Gillinson and others praised him to the assembled press. (Another major project will be a Berlioz Cycle, overseen by the LSO’s principal conductor, Sir Colin Davis.)

The LSO was one of the first orchestras to undertake regional and overseas trips (in 1912 it was the first from Europe to visit the US, narrowly avoiding a crossing on the Titanic). Its 1964 world tour was the first by a British orchestra. Today, it enjoys an annual residency in New York. Even here, the LSO takes risks. The first year, instead of putting on the obvious crowd-pleasers, they did Sibelius. “We wanted to do something special, make a contribution to New York’s musical life, not be just another touring orchestra.” The three-day cycle sold out.

“Before I went into this,” says Gillinson, whose talk is consistently earnest, “I couldn’t understand how a career in business could be exciting. Now I believe that there is nothing more exciting, nothing more creative than running a business. Ironically, I feel more of an artist now as a manager than I ever felt when I was a musician.”

Aside from live performance, the LSO claims to be the world’s most productive recording orchestra. One early highlight was the first recording of Holst’s The Planets Suite, conducted by the composer, and that tradition has continued largely thanks to the strength of the orchestra’s work with conductors contractually tied to record labels. In addition there is lucrative film work: the LSO, having done all the earlier Star Wars movies, was responsible last year for The Phantom Menace, as well as Notting Hill.

But the core remains the live concert, which is always expensive. Putting on a major performance such as the Penderecki – which also featured a cello concerto written for and performed by the world’s foremost cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich – generally costs between £60,000 and £80,000. That includes payments to visiting conductors and soloists, marketing expenses, and the cost of the hall for each morning, afternoon or evening session. On top of that there’s the players’ fees. Though they own the orchestra, LSO musicians are paid only for the rehearsals and performances in which they actually take part. (Some work harder than others. Jonathan Vaughan, the double bass, is one of several expecting to take just one day off between mid-October and Christmas.)

Some British orchestras are reputed to economise on rehearsals, but not the LSO. “Everything we do is arts driven,” insists Gillinson, sitting at a brown-plastic-covered table in his gloomy sixth-floor office which testifies to his thrifty management ethos. “I would never say to a conductor, ‘This is how many rehearsals you can have’.” (Most concerts require four sessions.)

So how can he pay for it? At current ticket prices, from £6 to £35, box-office revenue can’t hope to cover the expense. “If you sell out the hall – and let’s face it,” he concedes, “not every concert is sold out, even though we do fill it up a lot – you’ll make between £30,000 and £33,000. That’s the entire revenue. So there’s a huge gap.” Hence the private donations, and the public subsidy.

Gillinson hasn’t the slightest hesitation about asking for more from the government. “If you look at the whole picture, the amount of VAT on tickets, the tax on the musicians and other people employed by the LSO, and the income we bring into the country – in terms of travelling and recording music for films – I’m sure that what we bring in far exceeds the public subsidy. This is probably the best investment the government makes. But that isn’t how I’d like it to be viewed,” he cautions, “because the corollary is that things which don’t make money aren’t worth doing. I don’t believe that. The question is, what sort of society do you want to live in, what quality of life?”

In October, the Arts Council instructed orchestras to look towards a more contemporary repertoire. “Yet another Beethoven’s Ninth” it announced, would not satisfy concert-goers. They obviously didn’t see the crowds at the Albert Hall, a month earlier, on the penultimate night of the Proms.

That evening, Gillinson sat beside me in the stalls. It was a warm night, and he wore his shirt open at the collar. Every so often, presumably when the music really got to him, the former cellist made slight rhythmic motions with his thumbs.

After the opening piece, an overture from Mozart, the Beethoven began well – spoiled hardly at all, in the opening moments, by a burst of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik from somebody’s mobile phone. At the end of the first movement, I wrote in my notebook the not-entirely-earthshattering observation that Beethoven’s Ninth is an unsettling piece of music. Early in the second, when the string sections started to pluck their instruments, I deemed the gesture naughty, cheeky – a welcome moment of comic relief – but that impression was dispelled as they reverted to frantic sawing.

Midway through the last movement I became aware of a widespread sense of anticipation. The entire audience was eager for the singing – the choral uproar familiar to us all thanks to car commercials and World Cup 98. Thousands of eyes watched closely the four singers sitting in front of the orchestra with hands folded, and the giant choir – an unbroken pattern of white shirt-fronts – sitting motionless at the back.

As the music built towards a climax, the conductor, Sir Colin Davis, started shaking himself about vigorously. At this point the percussion really got going. With the bom-bom-bom of the drums, Sir Colin’s whipping motions, and the string sections jerking their bows up and down in perfect synchrony, you’d have thought you were watching slaves on a Roman galley. And that’s not such an inappropriate analogy. “Most people take up music because they have something to express,” Gillinson later explained. “But the symphony orchestra is probably the most disciplined structure that exists for an artist. You have to play together exactly, as a section. What you are doing is not individually creative, so there’s a tension in what the job is about.”

In many orchestras, that tension leads to frustration. But musicians at the LSO are able to take time off to develop creatively – through teaching, perhaps, or chamber music recitals. That’s because the LSO comprises 115 musicians – far more than the 85 to 100 that most concerts require. “Our principals share the job,” Gillinson explains. “You can’t get the best players, internationally, if you’re asking them to be on all the time.” (About a sixth of the LSO’s musicians are from overseas.)

Another potential source of frustration is encapsulated by an embittered musician’s adage, to the effect that good concerts will always be credited to a good conductor, while so-so concerts will be seen as the fault of a bad orchestra. That partly explains why there’s often tension between players and conductor. Andre Previn, a former principal conductor at the LSO and now conductor laureate, has explained the matter like this: “There is nothing more pleasing to an orchestra than to see a conductor in dead trouble. And nothing they admire more than seeing him rescue himself.” Others are less measured. In a book about the London Philharmonic, The Orchestra, one French horn player told the author, Danny Danziger: “Of course the majority of conductors are rubbish.” Another musician said: “We’re working with mediocre conductors a lot of the time, and that drags you down.”

LSO musicians are much more polite. At the South Kensington pub where several players come for refreshment after the Prom, even the gloomier ones are willing to pay tribute to the LSO’s principal conductor. “Davis is good, he has a good attitude,” avers one strings player. It’s been argued elsewhere that rehearsals are useful only to prepare nervous conductors. “That’s a very cynical view,” says double bass Jonathan Vaughan. “Another way of putting that is, ‘Can an orchestra play without a conductor?’ To an extent, yes. With, say, Tchaikovsky, there is a traditional performance that all players carry with them. But you wouldn’t get a great performance. The difference with great conductors is that they can extract something special out of pieces we’ve all heard a million times.”

So good conductors can save musicians from depression. Danziger’s book reveals how jaded they might otherwise become: “I’ve lost sight of the music,” one trumpeter told him, “I don’t enjoy it any more. It would be a relief if somebody said, you can’t play ever again.” (Other comments included: “I hate Bruckner, it bores me… great big Gothic turds.”)

The musicians in the pub have yet to reach those gloomy depths. They’re still enthusiastic about live performance, insist it wouldn’t be half as good to listen at home on Radio 3. (“We’re all human beings sharing an experience. You want to feel like you’re part of it.”) But they could do without some of the traditions that have accumulated around the Proms. “I look at the pompous people who come along to shout, and sing Land of Hope and Glory,” says one, sinking his beer, “and I just think, ‘Fuck off you twats.’ I should be grateful that they’re supporting my trade, but I just want normal, ordinary people to come – like in Italy.”

If you ask me, his complaint is misconceived. I’ve sat in the audience, and I can tell you, the LSO does attract “ordinary” people. At the Barbican, during a Sunday-evening performance of Stravinsky, Weill, and Richard Strauss, I spotted among the expensive overcoats and hairstyles a man wearing the sort of grubby vest favoured by weight-lifters, and a woman in biker gear. Nor, to be fair, did the crowd at the Albert Hall seem uniformly objectionable. Few people were posing: most really seemed to enjoy the music.

Which, that night, came off very well. A few years ago, Beethoven’s Ninth was marred when the soloist stood up and sang a few pages too early: sitting down again, the poor man could only hope the thousands of people watching – and hundreds of thousands listening at home – did not notice. Thankfully that didn’t happen this year. After furious outbursts from the wind section, one of the soloists felt inside his jacket pocket for something. Sir Colin continued to hold off invisible enemies with giant circular flourishes of the baton – when suddenly the singer rose to his feet. “Freude!” he exclaimed, and a shiver ran round the room, immediately followed by flashes from tens of cameras. Wow. This was it. The men and women of the choir rose in a single movement, and within seconds it seemed as if every person in the Albert Hall was pumping out Schiller’s Ode To Joy at full voice. But just as suddenly the singing stopped, and the woman in front of me drew attention to herself by choosing that moment to sneeze.

At the end, of course, it was the four singers who received bouquets, and the choir which won the biggest roar of approval. Hard to swallow, you might think, for instrumental musicians who’d slogged throughout the entire evening. How did that feel, I ask David Pyatt, the principal horn. He pauses, as if to give this some thought, then deadpans: “Er, normal.”


This summer, the LSO launched a scheme to restore a derelict Hawksmoor church in Old Street, and transform it into a centre for rehearsals, recordings and performances. St Luke’s will also be used as a central part of the LSO’s educational outreach programme, Discovery, which has already attracted more than 25,000 participants of all ages.

The project has been generously guaranteed by UBS to the tune of £3.5m in order to attract support from the Lottery, the Arts Council, the Jerwood Foundation and others. The Home Office has granted a license to exhume bodies in the church grounds, and restoration will begin early next year.