The band that nearly played on the Titanic

Orchestra: The LSO

May 14, 2004

Some anniversary chronicles are rather bland affairs: this is not one of them. For the London Symphony Orchestra's centenary, Richard Morrison, chief arts critic of The Times , has produced one of the best accounts of an individual orchestra, setting this against the background of broader social changes during the period. The net result is a wonderfully readable book and one whose quality and value is much enhanced by the author's ability to contextualise, interpret and exercise robust critical judgement in relation to the material he is handling. Demonstrating all the abilities of the good storyteller, Morrison creates a vivid portrait of the orchestra itself, interweaving individual reminiscence with public history in ways that help to create a volume rich in insights and strong on impact.

Starting with the "birth of the band" in 1904 - a breakaway group of 46 "rebel" players unwilling to forgo their right to send deputies to engagements that they had already accepted - Morrison recounts the changes in the LSO's culture, standards, reputation and style. He writes informatively on the differences in approach of individual conductors and, in the chapter entitled "Dealing with the maestro", documents for posterity some wonderful rehearsal ripostes.

From the outset a self-governing body, the LSO has experienced many turbulent periods, whether from changes in working practices, work available, public funding or rival orchestras - both other London orchestras and visiting foreign ensembles. More than once, its survival seemed more the result of luck than good management (for its first US tour in 1912, the LSO was initially booked to sail on the Titanic ), although Morrison rightly pays tribute to the contribution of a number of the LSO's managers and chairmen, who have played key roles in keeping it afloat, often against the odds.

In the final chapter, Morrison broadens his analysis to examine the challenges for British professional orchestras in general. Here he presents perhaps the best summary available of the interplay between the various external pressures that have impacted on orchestras in the past two decades - the demise of the classical music recording industry in the 1990s, the challenges from period-instrument orchestras, declining audiences, the emergence of outreach, education work and audience development as core activities. Placing the LSO and its strategic developments against the background of changes within music and the arts more generally, Morrison gives substance to his claim that the combined effect has been to create "nothing short of a philosophical revolution".

For anyone involved with orchestras or orchestral life, this book should make compelling reading. But its interest, relevance and value extend far wider than this: for those interested in organisational culture or in the management challenges in an organisation with worker directors, this account of the highs and lows in the LSO's first century of existence offers a rich seam of case study material. The vignettes of major musical figures who have worked with the LSO - from Elgar to Stravinsky, from Vaughan Williams to Boulez - should make this book a valuable source for those seeking biographical detail for other studies. Also of value will be the repertoire lists: concert programmes with LSO first performances identified; and film scores recorded by the LSO, the latter a lengthy list including The Three Musketeers , Star Wars and one of the Harry Potter films.

This is a book that merits a place on many musicians' bookshelves - or perhaps on bedside tables, in view of the enlightenment and entertainment it so generously provides.

Janet Ritterman is director, Royal College of Music.

Orchestra: The LSO: A Century of Triumph and Turbulence

Author - Richard Morrison
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 306
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 571 21583 1

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