Two London Orchestras on the Move

Written by: Colin Anderson

With the Royal Festival Hall currently closed, two of London’s orchestras need to find a new home for their concerts…

It may only be a temporary move, and one literally next door, but requiring two of London’s prestigious orchestras – the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia – to give their concerts in the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall rather than the time-honoured and currently being refurbished Royal Festival Hall is a complex issue. It’s business as usual though; both orchestras have full seasons planned and the mood is upbeat. Timothy Walker, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic, advises “the same number of concerts but the audience capacity is reduced by two-thirds and a lot of concerts are repeated. The LPO’s QEH repertoire has been designed for the space and we’ve taken more dates outside of London; in the 04-05 season we did 37 days away but this season we’ll do 65.”

The plan originally was to install a full-size acoustic shell in the South Bank’s car park. Tim maintains that “it would have been sensible to have had the temporary hall especially as there’s now a delay in reopening the RFH, from January to June in 2007. There were cost and planning permission issues, and while I’m disappointed I am also satisfied that Michael Lynch (the South Bank Centre’s Chief Executive) and his team did all they could.” The Philharmonia would have taken this option, too. Alice Walton, Media and Marketing Director, comments: “What is our biggest problem? Turning people away for sold-out concerts. They probably won’t be going to classical music; that’s terrible.”

Keeping the audience and looking after the musicians: both are important to the present and future. Tim: “Apart from increased touring there are chamber music programmes at Wigmore Hall and in London churches to engage players who may not be included in the QEH plans. With events at the Albert Hall and Sadler’s Wells we’ve built programmes so that all musicians will have a similar amount of work and income to last season.” Alice: “It was immediately identified that the priority was to retain the players’ incomes. Without that we risk losing people: if our artistic standard declines so does our ability to maintain quality, retain audiences and develop international ties. This season we’re doing 42 QEH concerts against 35 in the Festival Hall. Our policy involves forming long-term relationships with artists, so we’ve been able to talk directly to them about our ambitions for the QEH. We did a massive amount of acoustic testing with the full orchestra, which convinced us that the platform is big enough and the acoustic can accommodate the sound.”

While the Philharmonia is playing music synonymous with it, Tim Walker and the LPO are “introducing repertoire that we wouldn’t ordinarily play and is not often heard, music that’s too expensive for chamber orchestras to engage extra players for and that is overlooked by symphony orchestras under pressure to engage all their artists. I hope the audience will respond positively, and a lot of interest is being shown. I also hope it will be a legacy of the Festival Hall closing that we can be similarly adventurous in the future.”

That the Royal Festival Hall is at last being refurbished is for Alice “a huge relief!” And she is delighted at the way the SBC is “redesigning the QEH foyer to make it much more user-friendly for full houses; and the seating is better in the QEH than the Festival Hall.” Tim is equally buoyant; “the excitement is that it’s finally started. I hope the sound will travel further and have bloom, a mellow glow.” Your correspondent, though, wouldn’t want to lose the RFH’s immediacy and tonal fidelity; fortunately Tim agrees that “clarity of sound is one of the Festival Hall’s attributes.”

Tim describes an imminent new batch of LPO CDs. Mark-Anthony Turnage is represented (“Mark is our Composer-in-Residence for the next three years”) and Paavo Berglund conducts Sibelius’s Symphonies 2 and 7 (“he claims these are the best recordings he’s done of these works”). The third CD is “with Beecham, primarily taken from the 1934 Leeds Festival, only two years after the LPO was founded, and with half-an-hour of music never issued before.” Meanwhile the Philharmonia is enlarging its already-numerous out-of-town appearances: “conductors and soloists have come with us and, this is very important, we’re also working with younger conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel and Mikko Franck.”

As their principal conductors the LPO and Philharmonia have appointed senior figures, respectively Kurt Masur and Christoph von Dohnányi. The latter has several Philharmonia dates while Masur has but one QEH appearance, which Tim says “is deliberate. His fee is quite high and it’s best to use him touring; we have 25 concerts in the States next year and he’s conducting every one.” Such tours are also “a real concern; players prefer shorter tours and reaction is mixed, but everyone is being very reasonable.” Masur conducts the LPO with Wynton Marsalis at the Albert Hall on October 2.

The South Bank’s overall fare is very comprehensive: baroque, chamber and contemporary music, and the great orchestral repertoire is undiminished. Alice remarks that “the LPO has taken a different set of decisions to us. Tim’s programming, which is fantastic, means that the two orchestras are becoming so distinctive. The audience is at the forefront of our plans; we have confidence in the repertoire and artists. What the Philharmonia will do, and this is a direct result of closure, is bring work to London that has originated in our residencies. It’s no longer colonial because our regional partners have wonderful ideas of their own. Our collective aim, with the LPO and with everything that the South Bank does, is to put together a programme which makes it possible to get everything you could possibly need from classical music at the South Bank Centre. It’s very rich.” The LPO begins its QEH season on September 21 with Ingo Metzmacher – an enticing mix of Mozart, Stravinsky and Strauss – and the Philharmonia and Dohnányi kick-off with core-value Berlioz and Beethoven on the 27th.

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