Eagerly awaited: Sakari Oramo, the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new Finnish chief conductor (Heikki Tuuli)
Some weeks ago, in a conversation about the deep orchestral cuts and disbandments that are searing Western Europe, I let slip an outmoded cliché. Trying to distinguish one entity from another, I suggested that players in radio orchestras with secure rights and pensions were likely to sit less close to the edge of their seats at work than those in state and independent ensembles.
A riot of reactions rocked me back in my seat. "The size of your pension has nothing to do with how you play," snapped one respondent. Humble pie was promptly eaten by your shamefaced columnist and peace was duly restored, but the contretemps set me thinking about how much had quietly changed in the orchestral sector since the turn of the century and how some radio orchestras have seized the moment to achieve an unforeseen dominance.
Take Paris. In 2002 the worst of three very bad city ensembles, the Orchestre National de (Radio) France fell into the hands of Kurt Masur who, never one to court cheap popularity, replaced the entire front desk with fresh graduates and created the buzziest band in the land. One of Masur's concertmasters, Sarah Nemtanu, soundtracked Radu Mihaileanu's sweet comedy Le Concert. Strong characters filled the ranks.
Founded like most radio orchestras in the first half of the 1930s to fill the gaps on air between the chat, the ONF has blossomed under Masur and his successor Daniele Gatti into an outfit rich in verve and vivacity. It is the only French ensemble to boast a record contract (with Sony) and is the envy of its sector.
A parallel gap is opening elsewhere. In Munich, Mariss Jansons's Bavarian Radio are the city's global ambassadors, outshining the stodgy Munich Philharmonic. Paavo Järvi's decade in Frankfurt has won that radio orchestra top sales on Virgin Records and a stream of star soloists. Sakari Oramo's radio players in Helsinki were quicker and slicker to adapt to their new hall than the lumbering Philharmonic. Denmark Radio, not to be outdone, has booted up its orchestra with a state-of-the-art new hall.