Radio Days Are Here Again

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.

As if to stuff my rash cliché further down my oesophagus, I spent a Mahler weekend this spring working with Daniel Harding’s extraordinary Swedish Radio Orchestra. Its two concertmasters, Malin Broman and Ulrike Jansson, are young women whose delight in their work and each other is unignorable. In the inevitable wait for the maestro to get his white tie straight, they chat away 19 to the dozen, projecting their excitement to the highest reaches of the Berwald Hall.

The principal clarinet, Andreas Sunden, was poached from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, supposedly the world’s number one according to a Gramophone magazine poll. Sunden voted with his feet: he prefers the pay and lifestyle in Stockholm. The principal bass, Rick Stotijn, is one of those players who, in concert, becomes one with his bull-fiddle, forming a centaur-like man-bass at the heart of the orchestra, a dramatic focal point. Harding, who works with Europe’s finest, talks of Stockholm as symphonic heaven.

And then we have the BBC, cornerstone of world broadcasting. Since the convulsions of 1980 when half a dozen regional orchestras were axed and the Proms were blacked out by a strike, a nervous musical peace has prevailed. The BBC employs two orchestras in London (one called Symphony, the other Concert) and one each in Manchester (BBC Philharmonic), Cardiff and Glasgow. It also pays a fair whack towards the costs of the Ulster Orchestra. These five outfits form the hard-working core of the summer’s BBC Proms. Without them, the argument goes, there could be no way of putting on 76 concerts in eight weeks.

That argument is going to be tested in the coming recessional years and the BBC is gingerly negotiating alternative options with Arts Council England that may result in some reductions of orchestral funding. The optimum solution, both sides know, is to devolve one of the BBC orchestras to the bustling port city of Bristol to serve south-west England which has about as much access to symphony concerts as south-west Africa. That would be the logical outcome. Logic, however, tends to get lost when two big public organisations push chips around the table. My fear is that a compromise solution will result in a weakening of Britain’s orchestral infrastructure, already under threat from the strident cries for Scottish independence. There are dark clouds on the near horizon.

Meantime, the BBC orchestras maintain and enhance their excellence. The Spaniard Juanjo Mena has made a terrific start in Manchester, Donald Runnicles is having the time of his life in Glasgow, London can’t wait to get started with its new Finnish chief Sakari Oramo and the players are just getting better than ever. The principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martin Owen, is being wooed by the Berlin Philharmonic, the ultimate accolade.

So why, all of a sudden, is radio enjoying a renaissance? What’s the reason for the orchestral resurgence at a time when public broadcasting is making stringent savings and the concert economy as a whole is under intolerable pressure? 

What seems to be happening is that radio orchestras have stumbled upon their original advantage. When they first came into being, radio was king and its technology unrivalled. Eighty years on, a rewiring has taken place. Connections are being broached with giant telecoms to carry concerts nationwide, worldwide. 

The syntax of broadcasting is the lexicon of the internet. As a result, radio orchestras are better positioned to understand the new media environment than other musical establishments. The Berlin Philharmonic has blown a bank’s millions on a paywall website that few find friendly. No independent orchestra has figured out a coherent way of occupying the internet infinity.

For their part, radio orchestras are straining at the leash for permission to let loose their work online. The BBC has been rapped over the knuckles several times by the music industry for being too competitive. The Swedes want to project their work beyond boundaries but are being held back by national prudence. These barriers will fall. In the decade ahead we will see broadcast orchestras coming into their own, in varied alliances with telecom moguls and content aggregators. Watch out for radio deals with Google, Twitter or Facebook. Read my lips: radio days are here again.

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