20121207 RIP Guildford Philharmonic

I wish to record my disappointment and regret at the (by now rather inevitable) passing of the Guildford Philharmonic after March of next year – as confirmed on 29th November by Guildford Borough Council’s Corporate Improvement Scrutiny Committee.

I recognise that I may not agree with decisions taken by the Council. I was angry, however, to learn of further misleading statements – this time by Councillor Jen Powell – who, I must say, had given me to believe she was better than that – and by the Interim Strategic Director.  Their remarks, summarised and countered below, were unnecessary and gratuitous, given that The Surrey Advertiser had already heralded the sad demise of this institution, founded by much more forward thinking Councillors than those responsible for dismantling it.

Councillor Powell – in an apparently light-hearted exchange with Councillor David Wright (by way of a response to another Councillor’s direct question) – denied that any decision had been made to close the orchestra some years ago.  I was told, at a meeting held under Guildford Borough Council’s somewhat overused Chatham House rules (others who were present have since confirmed my recollection), that Councillor Wright as Lead Member for Finance had written to Jim Miles (the then Strategic Director) instructing him to close the Philharmonic by Summer 2012.  Councillor Wright became Lead Member for Finance when Councillor Rooth became Leader, and remained in that position until the Local Elections in May 2011.  Councillor Powell was fully aware of this direction and its source.  Councillor Powell has, therefore, shown poor judgement and an inappropriate disregard for the integrity and purpose of the scrutiny committee by either forgetting or misrepresenting past events. She should immediately resign her position on the Council’s Executive and apologise to Councillor Phillips (Chair of the Scrutiny Committee) for her error.

Peter Lipman, Interim Strategic Director (perhaps we should excuse his lack of local knowledge since he comes in a couple of days a week from Harpenden, the other side of London), commented that the South East Music Trust has not supported any Council-sponsored concert for many years.  This is patently not true and, if nothing else, is a slur on the memory of the late great Sir Charles Groves, former Conductor of Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra, through whose legacy a number of young soloists were commissioned by the South East Music Trust to perform in Council-sponsored concerts.  It is equally the case that the general aim of the Trust has been to enable the Philharmonic to perform additional concerts over and above the Council-sponsored programme and to help other musical groups have the benefit of performing alongside a professional orchestra.  These concerts were apparently deliberately omitted from any senior officer reporting of the orchestra’s finances and audiences.

Councillor Gordon Jackson commented that the Philharmonic was not really an orchestra at all; the players are commissioned on a concert-by-concert basis.  This is deeply unedifying and misleading.  Against a scything of her budget in cash terms over many years, Nicola Goold and her staff have worked tirelessly to achieve high quality performances and this has been possible because of the loyalty of several of the top orchestral players in the country who have been prepared to regularly come together as a core group with only a few occasional players (each of whom frequently plays in one or more of the leading London orchestras).  This is truly a high quality professional ensemble, and Councillor Jackson should not seek to criticise the management or the players by implication simply because the Council decided long ago not to keep any of them on a retainer.

The meeting did nothing to correct the myth about the level of subsidy (one of the reasons for calling the decision in) – the Chief Executive clearly intends to stick to Council-only numbers and disregard the rest.

Consequently, it is interesting that, at the same meeting, Councillor French saw fit – in responding to concerns about the costs to local community choirs/orchestras of using G-Live – to say these groups should pay the going rate and too bad if they cannot afford it.  This is, after all, nominally beyond the Council’s control applying the same argument as was used by Executive Officers and Councillor Powell with regard to the Philharmonic subsidy.

Let’s take look once more then at the commercial deal the Council (under David Hill) signed with HQ Theatres on the basis that there was never any intention that local groups should be able to afford to use the hall as of right:

  • A site worth £20m
  • A building that cost Guildford £25m to build
  • A contract that costs Guildford £330,000 each year

For this, ladies and gentlemen of Guildford, your Chief Executive and the relevant councillors (including Councillors Powell, Wright and Rooth who were responsible for setting this up in the first place), consider you should have absolutely no involvement or economic return – indeed, even if you want to attend an event, you have to take the advertised ticket price and add a £2 supplement per ticket just for the privilege of buying it. 

Small wonder, therefore, that I do not trust Mr Hill when it comes to delivering development in Guildford that actually provides what Guildfordians want.

Councillor Mansbridge, the new Leader, has promised better and I sincerely hope he can deliver it.  I do feel, in the case of these specific issues that originate from before his Leadership, that there are Councillors and Senior Officers with a case to answer and I do not intend to stand by and watch them wriggle off the hook whilst Guildford suffers.  Each of them must be held to account both jointly and severally.

This is a sad time for professional music in Guildford but in the meantime, I hope Philharmonic followers will support this last hurrah (in a short season ending in march 2013) with full houses and rapturous applause as a gesture of thanks for Nicola Goold and Clare Lister and all they have done over so many years, and in recognition that this high standard of music making is unlikely to be replicated by a Guildford orchestra in years to come (despite the decision of the Council to potentially allow another group to take over the ‘franchise’ just as they have somehow allowed G-Live to take possession of the Philharmonic’s Steinway piano for nothing).

Julian D S Lyon (7th December 2012)

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