Too much art in the capital? Move an orchestra to Bristol

Andrew MellorFri 15th November 2013

As a recent report highlighted London’s disproportionate arts spending, here’s one straightforward way of addressing the divide

Shock horror: there’s 15 times as much arts funding per capita inside London as there is outside it, according to an independent report published last month. Cue the necessary furore and the handy narrative of an unjust battle between the ‘David’ of the UK regions and the ‘Goliath’ of the capital. London may receive more than its fair share of Arts Council cash, but in the general picture of arts provision there are less obvious but similarly stark inequalities – especially when the bourgeois do the unthinkable and factor-out London altogether.

What a difference you see, for example, when you pit the north west of England’s funded arts scene against the south west’s. You don’t have to look at the figures so much as the listings pages: three professional symphony orchestras in the greater Liverpool and Manchester areas versus none in the whole of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Where I’m from in Plymouth – the biggest city in the fourth biggest county in England – you’re lucky if there’s one concert performance from a professional symphony orchestra in a year. I had to move to Manchester to get the pick of two a week.

When it comes to our subsidised orchestras the argument of London weighting isn’t so much a recurring theme as an elephant in the room. There are seven full-time symphony orchestras in the capital if you include those resident at the two opera houses and there’s always been debate about whether that’s too many. Even if it isn’t, perhaps the funding report should show that it’s about time the capital gave one of them up – and gifted it to a regional city that has none at all.

Where would you put it? Why Bristol, of course – a city with two universities that would, were it in Germany, France or Scandinavia, have its own symphony orchestra to serve a triple function as musical resource, cultural ambassador and purveyor of decent entertainment. Bristol currently has to make do with occasional visits from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia, both of them stretched to get there. There’s not much feeling of pride or ownership among the local audiences when the orchestra is rushing back to London as soon as the victorious final notes of a Mahler symphony have died away. But research from YouGov commissioned by the Philharmonia itself in 2012 revealed that the south west of England has the highest proportion of classical music listeners in the UK – 86% of adults. Imagine what that support-base for a local orchestra of international standing would muster up in terms of regional pride and cultural rejuvenation. You only have to look to Liverpool for an example of that. Thousands on Merseyside are proud of ‘the Phil’ – itself placed by its citizen-funders at the very front of the Culture Capital cavalcade in 2008 – whether they have the inclination to go and hear it play or not.

The Southbank Centre’s heart-warming invite to all the regional orchestras to perform at this year’s The Rest is Noise festival at the Royal Festival Hall (where, unlike the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, you can actually hear what those orchestras sound like) has shown that there’s no longer a quality gap separating London orchestras from their regional counterparts. Audiences for standard orchestral concerts in the capital are harder to come by – not because there’s no appetite for classical music, but because more and more plucky young groups in the capital are offering viable alternatives to the old overture-concerto-symphony format in different surroundings. As the five concert-giving London symphony orchestras increasingly manoeuvre themselves into brand-aware niches catering for the ‘pic n mix’ London concertgoer, there must be one that would relish the chance to provide the bread-and-butter, all-and-sundry role of a civic ensemble that has a duty to offer the whole gamut of repertoire to a regular, loyal audience across each season. One of the opera orchestras could hoover-up the lost London concert dates by playing on stage now and then – something they’d surely relish, too.

Away from the competitive London market where you’re generally playing to flatlining audiences and given less and less rehearsal time, a choked London orchestra might just find a whole new lease of life in a vibrant regional city like Bristol. In the current funding climate, they’d have a pool of new potential sponsors to try and tap-up as well. But the real winners, of course, would be those south western taxpayers who enjoy live classical music (apparently more than anyone else) and crave a notable local institution to be proud of. Who knows, the BBC Bristol Symphony Orchestra or the West of England Philharmonia might just make it down to Plymouth once in a blue moon, too.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

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