LSO Centenary

Written by: Colin Anderson

The London Symphony Orchestra is 100 years young. Clive Gillinson, the LSO’s Managing Director comments, without ceremony, that “the LSO of today, because of its pride, commitment and the quality of the players, consistently plays at the highest level.” Laurels are not rested upon, though. “Ten years ago we had no music education centre, no record label, no New York residency. In the next ten years I hope we’ll have done just as much that’s new.”

The LSO gave its first concert on 9 June 1904. Exactly 100 years later it hosts a star-studded Gala with “fantastic artists, all part of the LSO family, to reflect the LSO’s history.” I ask Clive, formerly a LSO cellist, about his role. “It’s literally to run the business. All the department heads report to me. I plan the artistic programme with the major conductors we work with, which gets put together by the Concerts Department, to develop concepts that matter to the great artists that we can meet at the box office. A real balancing act! I’m also involved in fund-raising.” There’s a job to be done. “Late into any evening there are people still working. Nobody gets paid overtime. I’m here at seven and the earliest I leave is seven.” Often for a LSO concert!

Generally speaking there seems a growing reliance on core music. “You’re right. I’m concerned it has become unbelievably conservative. I’ve been doing this job about 20 years. When I started, audiences were very conservative. Bit by bit they became more interested in challenging and unusual repertoire. Now it’s become more orientated around what they know.” I mention “By George!” the LSO’s 2002-3 George Benjamin series, an artistic success, if not quite this at the box office. “We planned that three years before the project happened. At that time the concerts would have sold very well. Very clearly, to my mind, it’s since September 11. People stopped going to events, then they wanted to be absolutely sure they were going to enjoy it, which tends to mean standard repertoire. But it’s really important for us to continue to challenge people and to have an element of exploration.” Good!

Clive’s directorship coincided with the LSO’s initially problematical move to the Barbican. The previous manager was “asked to leave. They wanted someone temporary. That was me. I’d been on the Board, on the finance side, and I ran an antique business.” Is the Barbican vindicated now? “Not a shadow of doubt. It’s the best concert hall in London and it’s important to have a home for the orchestra where you have a unique identity, especially when London has so much going on.” The ‘LSO Live’ CDs have been a big success. A good idea to sell at budget price. “It was our view that we wanted to be something anybody could buy.”

But harbingers of doom continually question the relevance of the Arts; and there’s so much home entertainment. “The reality of the age we’re moving into is that infinitely more things are going to be available at the press of a button at home. So the live experience is going to have to be even more special. If they’re extraordinary there won’t be a problem about people going to live events.”

One worries about losing tradition – that concerts really are about sitting and listening; no need for amplification and horrid whirling lights. Clive reassures that “extraordinary music is an aural experience, not a visual spectacle. The way you are moved is through your listening. Great music doesn’t need visual stimuli to be meaningful. In the same way, if you look at paintings you don’t have to have music.”

Clive Gillinson, ever enthused, extols the LSO’s maxim: “You should never be satisfied. What’s great about the LSO now is, it is never satisfied. The largest overriding thing we want to do is to play a significant part in changing the position of music within society – so that music is available to everybody.”

  • LSO Centenary Gala Concert, 9 June, Barbican
  • Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. BBC4 from 8.30
  • LSO
  • Barbican
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 2 June and is reproduced here with permission

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