If you, like me, don’t believe that the orchestra has had its day by a long chalk, shouldn’t we aim to foster an environment where many more groups can thrive? Loads of them, all over the place?
By thrive, I mean performing regularly: 20, 30, 40 times a year. And by group, I mean an orchestra with a reasonably consistent line-up of players and whose audience will thus take to their hearts. One happy to craft away, making the things it makes best and trying to make more of them.
(Footnote: yes, I know this is the aspiration for most start-up orchestras, and yes I know why it invariably ends up unfulfilled. In part, it’s due to the way the freelance musical economy, which is not an entirely balanced and healthy one, works. But let’s stick with our aims for now and then make a start on that.)
It seems to me that rather than perennially fretting about concert dress and yacking on about social media, we could more usefully spend our time figuring out how to make this scenario happen. Because I think this could be planned. We could get together a little project committee that would sit down, figure out where the need is, do some modelling in each case to develop the outline of an orchestra to fit that need, do some sums, use all that to convince the right musicians to buy in. That kind of thing.
We could, of course, rely on individual examples of enterprise but that’s a bit haphazard. I mean, how many orchestras have, over the past few years, really established themselves out of nothing to the extent I’m setting out here: Orchestra of the Swan, Aurora, Oxford Philomusica, who else? Other than the slightly older Britten Sinfonia, exemplary in this regard.
But I’m not talking three or four orchestras, I’m talking a dozen, two dozen. Others may have dipped a toe into the water and found it too financially scary, and that’s obviously the biggest hurdle. But there is money in classical music, there bloody well is, if only it were not washed up in a relatively small number of prominent organisations with the wherewithal to devote to future fundraising. And certainly enough to act as seed funding or as some kind of collateral protecting small organisations from ruin because of a failure or two.
(Footnote: yes, I know it’s hardly surprising that big cultural organisations act this way, nor am I saying they do no good. One only has to look at the scale of LSO Discovery’s activities, to take one example I know a little about, to see that. But the fact remains that an orchestra with relatively modest aspirations to prominence but with high expectations artistically is going to find it terrifically hard to take root.)
Ultimately, what I have in mind would leave the UK covered in a patchwork of orchestras, of different sizes and artistic aims – I’m certainly not I saying, I don’t think, that it should all be micromanaged centrally by some wise eminence – I have other things to do thank you. But enough to keep the ecology nice and diverse. Nor am I suggesting we devise a kind of off-the-shelf module to be wedged into an inevitably unsatisfactory slot.
Quite the contrary, one of the keys to success is that orchestras would be allowed to evolve in context, in response to local ripples and currents, propelled by the breeze and the skill of the navigator and not some dirty old motor. Of course, some of them may already be out there, doing their handful of concerts and playing for choral societies, just waiting for the right catalyst to take it to another level.
In the meantime, here’s one idea, to get you thinking: the Orchestra of the English Channel, performing in France and Belgium as well as England. And it wouldn’t take much to come up with some thoughtful things to do. I’m serious! Anyone fancy a dip?