Seen & Heard Editorial October 2001

  Orchestras: a future outside the concert hall?


Orchestras do not usually hold press conferences but the London Symphony Orchestra did just that last week. Clive Gillinson, the orchestra's managing director, outlined a visionary future for his orchestra - and one that takes its profile increasingly outside the concert hall.

The LSO does not suffer as some orchestras do (even illustrious London ones) from empty concerts - and much of the reason for this lies behind some critical research the orchestra did some years ago to find out exactly who its key market was. Before this research was undertaken the LSO estimated that 90% of their audience attended an LSO concert only once a year (leaving a very loyal 10% who seem to fill the Barbican week-on-week). Nowadays, 30% attend an LSO concert more often than once a year, a remarkable improvement in orchestra loyalty. The reason for this shift lies somewhere within the realms of market branding: that people are more loyal (to anything) if they are made to feel part of it. What the LSO did was to invent Living Music Magazine - a, now bi-monthly, magazine which streamlines the LSO's forthcoming season into an accessible and readable format. More than that it also helps the concert-goer choose programmes, gives information on the orchestra and performers and enables readers to just find out more about music. It is its very accessibility (it was once inserted with copies of London's Evening Standard) and the fact it is now widely available at the Barbican that makes this an entirely different prospect from that of other orchestras who have tended to restrict this format to subscribers or mailing list only readers. The point is the LSO is constantly broadening its appeal and is reaping the benefits. Its strategy, however, is to take music to a wide an audience as possible and below I describe how the LSO is doing this. Its recent rebranding, and a new logo suggesting the fluidity of expression and creation, are only the external virtues of the orchestra's innovative approach.

At the press conference Mr Gillinson pointed out that British orchestras are leading the world in inventive ways of cross-selling and promotion. There is much truth in this - particularly when the British model is compared with that of continental orchestras who do not always feel a need to go outside the concert hall when they are playing to sold-out houses. For both the LSO, and the Philharmonia, education is an important element of increasing musical awareness - although how far this is a condition of state funding remains unclear. Orchestras will survive only in the concert hall if there are audiences and there is no better way to achieve that future than the educational projects these two orchestras are so shrewdly developing.

Where the LSO has raced ahead of its rivals, however, is in developing a global project which takes it outside of the concert hall in a way it would have been hard to imagine a couple of years ago. The Philharmonia has always had its residencies (in Paris and Athens) and the LSO has its in New York. The LSO, however, has just signed an agreement with to take the LSO into people's living rooms via their computers and television sets. Concerts will now be recorded and archived on the Andante website - and concerts will be broadcast live as well. This is not new - some American orchestras (the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for example) have been doing this for years - yet what is different is the centralisation of the format. The LSO were the only British orchestra asked to participate in the Andante project - and join illustrious partners such as the Vienna Philharmonic, La Scala Milan, IRCAM and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Going further, Andante will release a series of historically significant remasterings and contemporary recordings of great LSO performances, thought to be between three and eight discs annually. Andante will provide access to as much as 200 hours of archival LSO recordings for audio streaming - as well as the latest concert performances. The Andante connection offers classical music a visionary future beyond the confines of the concert hall.

Allied to this is the refurbished Barbican which will, by the end of this year, be offering Smart TV - a system of remote controlled, lightweight TV cameras giving further opportunities for the LSO to stream performances through a multitude of media. LSO Classic Performance will be the first in-flight audio channel devoted to a symphony orchestra and allow the LSO to be heard by travellers on British Airways. LSO Live, the own-recording label of the orchestra, and which has attracted so much critical attention (and Music Web's Recording of the Year for Berlioz' Les Troyens) will continue with recordings of the three Elgar symphonies and Bruckner's Sixth and Ninth symphonies the next works to be recorded at concert performances throughout this year and into early 2002.

There is a danger that the LSO might be over-stretching itself but only time will tell whether this is the case. What is certain is that the LSO has set an agenda for broadening music outside the concert hall that other orchestras must now emulate. If they don't they will find themselves increasingly out paced by an orchestra clearly with a vision for the twenty first century whilst theirs remains a vision for the past and the twentieth century. It is a lesson to be learnt by other British orchestras, but one also that has implications far farther afield. The LSO remains the orchestra to watch - in more ways than one.

Marc Bridle, Editor, Seen & Heard

October 2001.

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