Rebellion, Elgar, war, disaster, rebirth, Previn, women, the Barbican, an uncertain future: this book certainly changed my ideas about the world of the classical orchestra. Previously, i think i'd simply taken the serene, refined, rather quaint, image of men and women in evening dress at face value.
But this book about the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) by journalist Richard Morrison tells a very different story. The orchestra begins life in the first decade of the 20th Century as a players' rebellion against executive control and one of the themes for most of the book is the problem of imposing discipline on musicians who, poorly paid and insecurely employed as they may be, rarely lack self-belief or opinions. They are shown plotting against conductors, drinking themselves comatose and indulging in schoolboy humour (admittedly, not all at the same time).
Another theme of the book is the conflict between an orchestra's desire to break new ground and achieve higher standards and its need to pay its bills and get the punters - whose tastes rarely stretch much further than the end of the 19th Century - through the door. The LSO is shown championing and then abandoning the 20th Century British composer Elgar for example. And later there are forays into the works of contemporary composers such as Boulez and Adès with varying degrees of success - or rather, varying degrees of commercial success; artistically these explorations of new music have mostly been very successful. All the time conductors come and go, each with his own strengths, weaknesses and interests. Describing the impact of each is one of the book's big strengths.
The questions of why it is so hard to interest people in new classical music and why it is so hard to get 'new people', i.e. younger people, to attend classical musical concerts of any kind are touched on briefly but never really explored. Part of the answer, however, can be found in this book which ignores the development of jazz, the widening of people's horizons to include non-Western classical music and shows no consciousness of experimental electronic music beyond the work of composers explicitly identified with the classical world. I think Richard Morrison may have heard of the Beatles. Possibly.
An issue that isn't explored at all is why orchestras, including the LSO, remain so utterly white - well, OK, with a smattering of East Asians. Does this reflect a lack of interest in the music or unfortunate associations with 'Empire'? On the other hand, Morrison does address the resistance of orchestras to female musicians. It seems incredible now that even in the late 70s there was resistance to women joining the LSO. Again, it's a pointer to a culture which was always far less 'polite' than the sight of men in tails might suggest, a culture that was actually extremely macho - 'gung-ho' is the word used by Maurice Murphy, the lead trumpeter you will have heard on the theme to Star Wars if nowhere else.
What does the future hold for an orchestra like the LSO? When it started life Britain was full of music halls. It survived the death of these and embraced public subsidy but this was never on the scale of countries like Germany and there wasn't the same tradition of private sector sponsorship either. Theatre work (not necessarily under the LSO name), film soundtracks, the classical recording industry and blatantly popularist programmes of classical arrangements of rock songs have all kept the LSO afloat through points of crisis but since the early 90s the recording industry has been in disarray and the future of public subsidy is now looking increasingly uncertain. Artistically too, it's by no means clear what role the symphony orchestra, the product of the 19th Century, will have in the music of the future.
One thing's for sure: the LSO is certainly up to the fight.