20120923 So what if we lose our orchestra?

In 1946 the far sighted Councillors of Guildford’s Municipal Council set up a Municipal orchestra. Those who were experiencing post-war rationing and hardship were able to enjoy some community cohesion and were able to enjoy the classical music played by professional musicians.

By the time I was attending concerts with my parents in the mid to late 1960’s the orchestra was fêted across the country as a top division professional orchestra and at the time Guildford Council directly employed the musicians and the phenomenal conductor and musician Vernon (or ‘Tod’) Handley was making a name for himself and for Guildford at the cutting edge of English music. The modern programmes were not always the crowd-pullers that would have underlined the success of the orchestra, but hundreds if not thousands of young people were inspired through his Proteus Choir to perform at a remarkably high level – in the process learning about teamwork, camaraderie, musicianship and a great love for English song.

The model of employed musicians was under strain for a long time before the retained conductor position was removed (Sir Charles Groves being one of the last holders of the post) and with it the in house musicians.

Nicola Goold has held the position for many years, picking up the pieces after the old model (including the historic links with the Philharmonic Choir – now Vivace – and the friends organisation, the Guildford Philharmonic Society) had fractured. For the first few years, amidst falling budgets, Ms Goold’s assembled players and popular programmes played to full houses at the old Civic Hall around fifteen to twenty times each season and the South East Music Trust, formed in 1972, enabled her to have the orchestra perform and take Guildford’s cultural gem to other towns and cities around the South East.

The loss of the Civic Hall need not have been a disaster as the Philharmonic managed to put on several seasons of popular and well-attended concerts in local churches, the Cathedral and other secular spaces. The problem was twofold: firstly the exile lasted so long (around eight years and that is a lot of uncertainty to live with) ; secondly the venues were less able to accommodate audience numbers to maintain a healthy financial balance – overheads were having to be spread over small capacities and the subsidy per seat was spiralling upwards.

Furthermore the shrinking budget led to fewer concerts over which to spread fixed costs and, inevitably, the Council’s management accountants baulked at the costs per seat sold.

During 2009 – at the same time as giving the green light to building a new concert hall (G-Live) the Executive Committee – without exposing their decision to a public or even Full Council vote – decided the Philharmonic should close by the summer of 2012.

The demise of the orchestra being played out (finally) in a public arena is all the more dissatisfying because it is a manifestation of a management accountant’s death spiral. It is inevitable that other services, having had the Philharmonic’s overheads reallocated to them will find themselves struggling for survival until we are left with a Council providing no services and merely paying for itself.

This unsophisticated style of management will have served to lose for us a sense of part of our cultural identity and heritage – and so much more. The best councils are recognised and remembered for creating things; the worst for destroying them. It is very clear which category Guildford Borough Council falls into.

The question I asked at the beginning was does it matter?

As a Corporate Property manager, and former Chair of the CBI, I know how important cultural diversity is. The Council’s response might be that we have G-Live now to provide this; and my response is that GBC signed away almost all control from the moment it entered into the unfavourable contract with HQTheatres and the loss of the Philharmonic will remove any other pressure that could be brought to bear.

Equally, the fact that Guildford had its own orchestra was a factor in executives’ relocation decisions that might make up for the loss of large scale employers who are shunning the town due to its congestion and lack of affordable housing.

The loss of the Philharmonic may not be felt immediately but it is a huge loss and one that, in my view, was completely avoidable.

JDSL 23rd September 2012

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