Thursday, February 02, 2006

Time for orchestra players to change their tune?

What is the difference between Varèse's Amériques and a British orchestra? In the Varèse the whining stops when the applause begins. A cruel joke, but one that is relevant to yet another 'bad news' article about orchestral players in today's Guardian:

* Morris Stemp used to play second violin with the Halle, Britain's longest established symphony orchestra. "When you hear an orchestra, imagine being inside that sound," he says. "How hot is the surface of the sun? Very hot. But the middle of the sun is hotter." He likens the buzz of live performance to a drug. "It feeds the soul," he says.

Stemp left the orchestra last year. He may have loved the heat of performing live, but he didn't like the lack of prospects for promotion and the anti-social hours. Or the pay, of course. After 15 years at the top of his profession, four years at music college and a lifetime of playing the violin, his salary was £25,000. And there was little chance of it improving much (although he is at pains to stress that orchestras such as the Halle do strive hard on their members' behalf; it's just that their hands are tied by the level of income they receive).

One could argue that in this country we do not get the orchestras we deserve: we get far, far better than that. And it is the players who are subsidising us. This is an assessment Bill Kerr of the Musicians' Union would agree with. String players are the rank and file of the orchestra, the infantry. Of the 600 or so orchestral string players in full-time work across the country, few earn more than £25,000 a year. Many are on much less. Kerr thinks we are a philistine nation; he points to orchestral rates of pay in western Europe, where a premier-league player can earn up to £50,000. In America, where there is no state funding for the arts and orchestras rely mainly on private sponsorship, the average starting salary is $58,000 (£32,805), more than one and a half times that of British recruits. *

Now as regular readers know On An Overgrown Path is a huge supporter of orchestra musicians. But I do wonder what is being achieved by the succession of 'doomsday' stories like this that the musicians are feeding to the press? It would be interesting, for a change, to hear if the income of London Symphony Orchestra musicians has been improved by their high profile LSO Live recordings. Or if the players in the BBC Philharmonic got more work as a result of the BBC's giveaway of their Beethoven symphony cycle recordings over the internet. Or if the Bournemouth Symphony players are happy that Naxos has used their successful recordings with Marin Alsop to build a performance, and recording, bridgehead for her in Baltimore.

Easy to say maybe. But in 1904 the London Symphony Orchestra was set up by players as the UK's first independent self-governing orchestra - a limited company with the players as shareholders and a board elected from the players - to improve their conditions and prospects. Time perhaps to return to these founding principles? And as was retold recently On An Overgrown Path, in 1980 the BBC orchestras took successful industrial action to prevent the closure of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. A lesson to be learnt there?

Time for action rather than words and music?

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