Britain’s orchestras are world-renowned for their high standard of performance, and also their ability to perform well on little rehearsal time. Continental orchestras often have generous rehearsal time in which to perfect pieces, but, through financial necessity, the British must be able to produce a high standard of performance quickly (hence the emphasis on sight-reading in auditions). Britain has six symphony orchestras in London and eleven regional contract orchestras. The 1993 Hoffmann report investigated the question of dividing scarce Arts Council funds between London’s major orchestras, throwing them unwillingly into competition with each other. Arts Council funding in Britain is comparatively low compared to that on the Continent, and the situation affected orchestras such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose members took a clawback/pay cut as a result.
   Most of Britain’s orchestras are in a difficult financial position, reliant on the generosity of private individuals, corporate sponsors and bank support. They have a firm bedrock of support from numerous friends’ organizations which raise money for smaller outgoings, but the principal concern is core funding for day-to-day running expenses. The shortfall has not to date been made available from National Lottery sources, as these funds were limited in the early 1990s to capital expenditure. Sponsorship has become vital, and partnerships have developed such as that of the BT Scottish Ensemble with British Telecom. Orchestral concerts and tours can be mutually beneficial to orchestra and sponsor, with both parties gaining publicity and prestige. The format of orchestral performances has changed little this century. Mainstream concerts generally follow the overture/concerto/interval/ symphony pattern, with conductor and players in formal dress. Programme planners try to balance mainstream repertoire (Beethoven, Brahms) with more adventurous contemporary works, although audiences can be nervous of unfamiliar names of composers on programmes. There have been accusations of elitism levelled at the orchestral establishment, despite strenuous efforts by way of community events, ‘pops’ concerts, pre-concert talks and an increasing amount of education work by musicians.
   In spite of the desperate financial climate, several concert halls were built or refurbished in the early 1990s. These include Manchester’s £42m Bridgewater Hall (with European and city council funding), Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.
   Further reading
    Stern, I. (chair) (1990) The Evolution of the Symphony Orchestra, History, Problems and Agendas, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (report on the Wheatland Foundation conference).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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