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Athens Music

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Athens Music Old gramphone and brass instruments in market stall Music in Athens, Greece, comes in all sizes and modes - from ancient instruments through traditional music, jazz and classical concerts and back to simple melody and rhythm. This is a city comfortable with accomplishment of all kinds and in many genres, with events listed and unlisted. In the Summer, when formal venues are closed, the streets become a natural location for the more adventurous performer.

This informal piece looks at some Summer musical offerings in Athens. It includes (below) a list of links to and phone numbers for events which I discovered, though not necessarily attended or checked out. If you know more about these or other events which readers might find of interest, please tell us via the Comments box at the end of this article. Thank you!

Athens Music Street cafe accordion player

The range of 'street music' in the capital city of Greece, Athens, is an eye-opener to those of us from colder climes. Athens is a city where the traditions of ancient and non-Western people meet those of us accustomed to the folk music and formal classical music modes of Northern and Central Europe. Here is a place where the cembalon of Eastern Europe is heard alongside African percussion, the bouzoukis of the Mediterranean (and later Ireland) and the brass instruments of every part of the world.

So there's plenty of music, much of it very relaxed and informal, for visitors in Athens - and if you know of other events not mentioned below, please do tell us about them via the Comments box at the end of this page.

Athens Music Cembalon player & girl watching

Whatever your preference, there will be something to enjoy - and to engage your interest and imagination. One of the great things about 'street music' is that it's for everyone, young and old alike. Just as we have found when occasionally we can perform in public spaces in Liverpool, it's the children who stop and listen and watch, often keen that they should not be moved on by parents or carers until they have heard their fill.

Athens Music Bouzouki shop Athens Music Barrel organ man

Athens Music African musicians with drums, guitar and CDs

For some musicians however this is serious stuff. They have instruments and recordings of their work to sell, music to make to earn a crust. For others perhaps it's a bit of fun, a way of passing time during the Summer months. It's not difficult as a listener to tell who has which intention; but only rarely is there simply no evidence of skill when the performance, however fleeting perhaps as players stroll between cafe venues, begins.

Athens Music Accordion player walking to work Athens Music Not-very-serious banjo duo

But not all music is performed on the street. Athens has the attributes of all great capital cities - concert halls, an opera house (even if it does perhaps require relocation and an upgrade) and museums such as that for Maria Callas dedicated with whatever degree of enthusiasm to Greek classical music performers and composers of Greece - some of whom are listed (along with the main cultural venues around Athens) below, drawing for composers' names on the cataloguing work done during the Athens Cultural Olympiad of 2004.

Athens Music Megaron Musikis Concert Hall Athens Music Greek classical chamber music composers of the C19th & 20th Athens Music Maria Callas pic Athens Music Opera poster

Nonetheless, there are forms of music which occur throughout the year in any city. Jazz bands and stringed instrument performers can play wherever they can find a space, and in almost any combination of instruments and performers; just as traditional dancers can congregate and entertain wherever numbers can be mustered - though certainly this is not how things happen at the treasure which is the Dora Stratou Theatre, a national institution to encourage traditional dance forms, offering performances throughout the Summer.

Athens Music Strolling jazz trio

Athens Music Statue with lyre Athens Music Shop guitars etc Athens Music Dora Stratou poster

The choice is the listener's. Formal or informal entertainment? Go for something new, or stick with the tried and tested? In Athens it's best to have one's listening mode in gear, ready for the next experience. It could even be during an unsheduled coffee stop. And who knows, you could even end up buying an instrument all of your own...

Athens Music Young man buying a saxophone in the market

See more of Hilary's photographs: Camera & Calendar
and read more about Music, Musicians & Orchestras, Travel & Tourism and Cities in Transition.

If you have recommendations for, or if you promote, musical events and venues in and around the Athens area, please post details (with contact information, indicating whether the occasion is regular, or one-off) in the Comments box below.

Some Greek music composers:
Yannis Andreou Papaioannou (1901-1989), Dimitris Dragatakis (1914-2001), Nikolaos Halikiopoulos-Mantzaros (1795-1872), Manolis Kalomiris (1883-1962), Alekos Kontis (1899-1965), Georgios Lambelet (1875-1945), Loris Margaritis (1895-1953), Dimitri Milropoulos (1896-1962), Andreas Nezeritis (1897-1980), Georgios Poniridis (1887-1982), Mikis Theodorakis (1925-), Marios Varvoglis (1885-1967), Alekos Xenos (1912-1995)

More information on events:
Athens Concert Hall (Megaro Mousikis), Vas. Sofias & Petrou Kikkali Street, tel: (from UK) (0030) 210 728 2333
Athinais Cultural Centre, Kastorias 34-36, Votanikos, tel: (00 30) 210 348 0000
August Moon Festival (free, on the night of the full moon, at a variety of ancient historic sites in Athens))
Dora Stratou Dance Theatre, 8 Stouliou Street, Plaka (offices) and Philopappou Hill (theatre), tel: (00 30) 210 324 4395 / (0030) 210 324 6188
Hellenic Festival, various venues, tel: (0030) 210 327 2000
"Melina" - Municipality of Athens Cultural Centre, Herakliedon 66, Thissio, tel: (00 30) 210 345 2150
Municipality of Athens Cultural Centre, Akadimias 50, tel: (00 30) 210 362 1601
National Opera, Akadimias 59, tel: (00 30) 210 364 3725
Technopolis (and the Maria Callas Museum), Pireos 100, Gazi, tel: (00 30) 210 346 1589
Vyronas Music Festival, tel: (00 30) 210 766 2066 or (0030) 210 765 5748
Aegina International (Summer) Music Festival [Tickets available at the "Eleni" shop next to the Aegina Port Authority building, tel: (0030) 22970 25593, & on the door.]
And more Festivals and events...

BBC Proms Royal Albert Hall The RLPO finished their season in style this evening, with a sell-out BBC Proms concert in London's Royal Albert Hall. There was a real excitement as the audience departed after the performance, matched by the sense of achievement RLPO players derive from working with Principal Conductor Vasily Petrenko. This is surely how professional orchestral musicians like to feel at the end of a year's hard work.

08.08.01 BBC Proms RAH after the RLPO concert 029a 500x430.jpg

A date at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms is a highlight of the season for any orchestra, and this was no exception for the RLPO, an orchestra with a distinguished history. Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO's programme for the evening was the World Premiere of Graven Image for Orchestra by the RLPO's Composer in the House, Kenneth Hesketh, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Opus 45 (soloist Paul Lewis) and the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances, Opus 45, with Mussorgsky's Gopak as an encore.

And happily even those who couldn't join the Proms audience in person were able at absolutely no cost to do so, as for every Prom, live via BBC Radio 3.

Reviews for the concert reflected the enthusiasm on the night.

But now the players are off for a well-earned break, applause still ringing in their ears....

See more of Hilary's photographs: Camera & Calendar
and read more about Music, Musicians & Orchestras

08.05.13 Synaesthetic 'Jewels' 124x120 031a.jpg The Balanchine ballet Jewels, premiered in 1967, was this genre's first three-act abstract work. Connecting the parts only through the artifice of contrasting gem colours - emeralds and the music of Faure, rubies with Stravinsky and finally diamonds, set in gold and white and silver to the rich tones of Tchaikovsky. This great performance art is synaesthesia in action, a gorgeous blending of colour, sound and movement which sometimes overwhelmed my own senses and occasionally did not.

Seeing Jewels performed this week by the Kirov Ballet at The Lowry, I was struck by how particular are the individual perceptions of synaesthetes.

Comparing performances
Having had the extraordinary good fortune also to have seen the Kirov Ballet, again with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, in the New York City Center just a month ago, I could compare my response to their performance then of shorter pieces and narrative ballet - Fokine's Le Spectre de la Rose, the exquisitely danced Dying Swan and Chopiniana - with that of the Lowry 'abstract' Jewels ballet programme.

These previous pieces had a logic and formulation quite independent of my own. Only when I was presented in The Lowry with the overt conjunction of colour, sound and movement for its own sake did I become aware yet again of my life-long synaesthetic tendency.

One-off perceptions
Put simply, I can immerse myself in a ballet story according to someone else's prescription. The creator of the dance has the floor.

But when confronted with another's interpretation of what sounds 'look like' and how music 'moves', I'm at a bit of a loss to understand how the colours and jemstones were selected. Faure is not emerald, he's citrine and alexandrite; Stravinsky is indeed quite ruby, but with deep-toned garnet, and his undertone is a fierce andesine-labradorite, not creamy gold; and whilst I can cope with Tschaikovsky as diamond, gold and silver, I'd rather he were the bluest sapphire and Brazilian tourmaline.

All of which tells us nothing, except this: synaethesia is an individual thing, and it's quite involuntary.

For me, this aesthetic confusion is just quite an interesting aspect of my perception, when I have occasion to notice it (most of the time, it's just too much part of my daily experience to be aware of). But for some few very gifted people it's obviously a central and compelling force in their lives.

... and creativity
I dare say Balanchine was a synaesthete; how else could he have dreamt up Jewels?

The multi-sensory neural wiring of synaesthesia, though probably less unusual than was first thought, can be challenging on occasion. Nonetheless it's surely a blessing for us all, not least when it results in the creation of performances which exist solely to celebrate art forms for their own sake.

Sometimes it's good - in our various and individual ways - to see art just as art.

08.3.28 Spring from the Four Seasons 140x85 019aa.jpg Daffodils in the sunshine take on a new aspect when they've just been background to a performance of 'Spring' from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Members of Elegant Music are here (below) relaxing in a break from rehearsals for a client's special occasion.

08.3.28 Elegant Music Quartet 500x420 020aa.jpg

Martin Anthony (Tony) Burrage, Donald Turnbull, David Ruby and Alexander Holladay are members of Elegant Music (which also performs more formal concerts and recitals as Ensemble Liverpool).

For more photographs please see Camera & Calendar.

Read more articles at Music, Musicians & Orchestras.

Xmas Tree & Piano 113x87 011b.jpg Sunday 23 December 2007 was the date for an occasion to remember: Carols Round the Christmas Tree at Sudley House, the historic home of a Victorian Mayor of Liverpool. The free singalong afternoon concert saw almost three hundred people came to enjoy the company and the carolling with Live-A-Music and the Children's Choir.

This event was supported by the National Museums Liverpool and offered a warm welcome to everyone. The musicians (Martin Anthony (Tony) Burrage, John Peace, Richard Gordon-Smith and Hilary Burrage) were all members of Live-A-Music, a group also known as Elegant Music. The children's choir of Mossley Hill Parish Church also performed.

Sudley House has an excellent tearoom for refreshments throughout the afternoon, and provides full disabled access. It is set in peaceful parkland and offers spectacular views across the River Mersey to the Wirral and beyond, to Moel Famau in Wales.

Visitor information and location and travel advice for Sudley House is available here.

See also:
Sudley House: Victorian Home Of A Mayor Of Liverpool

Liverpool's Ancient Chapel Of Toxteth, Dingle Gaumont Cinema, The Turner Nursing Home & Dingle Overhead Railway Station

Autumn Glory In Sefton Park

Sefton Park, Liverpool: Winter Solstice 2006

For more articles please visit History of Liverpool and The Music.

Music & bills 065a 99x138.jpg Professional orchestra musicians' employment and pay is a mystery to most people. Do players have 'real' jobs, too? is a common question. And is it all very glamorous? The latest survey of orchestral pay in the UK gives some answers - not much glamour, not too much pay, and little time for anything else. But for many players the commitment remains.

The Musicians' Union has recently published their second annual report on Orchestral Pay in the U.K. Leaving aside the self-governing London orchestras, the BBC Symphony and other BBC orchestras, English National Opera (ENO) orchestra and the Royal Opera House (ROH) orchestra (all of which, with London weightings, do somewhat - though only comparatively - better), the M.U. report, as we shall see from the details below, makes pretty dismal reading.

Who are the musicians?
Almost every established player in the major regional orchestras is a permanent staff member (London is different). These 'chairs' are coveted positions amongst performers, who are usually graduates from the most prestigious music colleges and / or the top music conservatoires.

Musicians supply their own instruments and equipment for work, the initial costs of which can amount to more than an annual salary.

The 'regional' orchestras
Orchestras outside London surveyed by the M.U. in August 2007 were: the regional BBC orchestras, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), the City of Birmingham Orchestra (CBSO), Manchester's Halle Orchestra, the Opera North Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO), the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), Scottish Opera, the Ulster Orchestra and Welsh National Opera (WNO).

The fortunes of these orchestras fluctuate quite widely over the years, especially since the standardised regional orchestras contract for the BSO, CBSO, Halle, RLPO and RSNO was abandoned. All are dependent on civic support as well as national. [See The Association of British Orchestras for general information about these orchestras.]

Orchestral salary scales
Orchestras generally divide their players up into 'Section Principals' and 'Principals' (who sit at the front of their instrumental section) and 'Tutti' (formerly called 'Rank & File'!). The M.U. estimates there are approximately 600 fully professional string players employed by British orchestras - which means about one in every 100,000 of the UK population has this occupation.

With a few exceptions, string players (violins, violas, cellos, basses) are the only Tutti musicians, and they make up the larger part of most orchestras.

Who gets paid what?
Concentrating on the regional orchestras, we see a variation of minimum salary in August 2007 as follows:

Section Principals: BBC Regional ~ hourly playing rate of £24.22 (£32,118 p.a.) through to CBSO ~ £33.09 (£45,205 p.a.).

Principals: RLPO ~ £21.44 (£28,298 p.a.) through to CBSO ~ £28.49 (£33,159 p.a.).

Tutti: RLPO ~ £18.20 (£24,024 p.a.) through to CBSO ~ £22.43 (£27,348 p.a.).

In some cases there are increments and / or long service awards which take experienced players above these levels, but these additional sums, usually only a very few thousand per annum, rarely raise salaries significantly above the starting point. Likewise, some, but not all, orchestras pay musicians an additional fee for recordings, media relays etc. [Some details of comparable orchestral salaries in the USA are available here.]

Comparison with other UK salaries
To set these figures in context:
* The average wage in 2007 for all full-time workers across the UK is £29,999 p.a.; or £27,630 specifically for Liverpool.

* The average salary of professionals in IT, an occupation which perhaps begins to approach comparable levels of skill to orchestral musicians (though there are many fewer performers) is £37,000 p.a.

* For graduates overall, an average additional £10,000 p.a. has accrued to their income after ten years' service; this annual income will then continue to increase for another ten or twenty years.

Back of an envelope calculations using these comparative data perhaps suggest that over a lifetime orchestral musicians will receive approximately half the income of other professionals at comparative levels of skill.

Annual orchestral performing and other work arrangements
The regional orchestras vary in the number of annual playing 'on stage' hours they demand from their musicians. Of the orchestras above (not including the BBC orchestras, at 1,326 hours each, and ENO (874 hours) or ROH (860 hours)) the fewest performing hours are required of musicians in the opera orchestras (1,128 each) and the most by the RLPO (1,320).

How these hours are distributed is laid down in detailed contracts. For health reasons, such as risk of hearing loss and repetitive strain injury, players rarely play on the platform for over 6 hours per day. (They may well practise for more than that.) Scheduled 'unsocial 'hours - Sundays, Bank Holidays, and very early or late - and other erratic scheduling, with the attendant risks to wellbeing and mental health - are normally paid at the same rate as other hours.

Stress at work is seen as part of the job. There are also travelling hours etc which may add some 30-40% in time commitment - even though much time away from home is still 'free' in every sense of the word; neither paid nor, obviously, available for, say, teaching or other alternative opportunities for income.

Not a professional wage?
Most people who attend classical concerts see well-dressed and self-evidently skilled musicians and assume from this that orchestral incomes will be to some extent commensurate with appearances.

The truth is different. Many musicians, even at this level and with years of experience, barely scrape a living, often working almost every day for weeks to make ends meet. Relatively few within the profession achieve comfortable incomes and the view that orchestral playing is not a 'real' profession, with eventual progression and hope of greater reward, is widespread amongst foot soldiers at least - large numbers of whom, a previous M.U. survey has revealed, also incur occupationally induced ill-health or injury.

Artistic development
Sadly, players' negative perceptions are reinforced by an absence of continuing professional development in their core skill, i.e. instrumental performance.

Players can often work for decades without receiving support as artists, or to maintain and develop their instrumental technique, let alone the money to pay very costly professional coaching fees. Artistic human resource investment is not high on (or simply missing altogether from) the priority list for most orchestra budgets.

Skills and experience lost
U.K. orchestras are becoming younger in age profile. The salary figures above offer an insight into why experience is frequently lost, as players leave mid-career for other ways to support their families or preferred lifestyle.

Youth and vigour are wonderful to behold; but knowledge, insight and long-term commitment would in a more ideal world also be valued.

Music not money
Fortunately, for many musicians and their audiences the imperative towards the extraordinary inner world of classical music continues to bring them together even against the rationale of external economics.

But it would be risky to permit the future for UK orchestras to depend on this inner imperative.

Read more articles in Music, Musicians & Orchestras

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HOPES Children's Music Workshop  07.8.14 (Two boys) 125x87.jpg Summer 2007 has been a special opportunity for HOPES and Live-A-Music to provide Children's Music Workshops, thanks to generous funding from Awards for All. The workshops, held alternately in the city centre and a close-by suburb, have focused on themes developed by the children themselves - in one case, a 'symphony' featuring global warming, drifting snow, salsa / jazz and a roller-coaster! Following sessions in July and mid-August, the next workshops in the series are on Saturday 8 September in Mossley Hill Parish Church Hall.

These workshops have proved a great hit with budding musicians of all sorts - players of everything from the trumpet to the triangle It's not very often that parents and children of considerable musical experience and none can come together from all around Liverpool to sing, dance and make their very own music.

Details of the 8th September sessions follow below. Here are some photographs of the workshops at Mossley Hill Church Hall , Liverpool 18, on 30/31 July, and at St. Bride's Church, Liverpool 8, on 13/14 August.

Children's Music Workshop 07.7.30 7077aa (480x326).jpg

Children's Music Workshop 07.7.30 7012b (480x445).JPG

HOPES and the Live-A-Music workshop leaders are very grateful to Awards for All, who have substantially funded these Children's / Family Music sessions.

The next workshops: when, where and how
The next two children's music workshops are scheduled for Saturday 8 September at 10.30 - 12.15 and 1 - 2.45 pm. The venue is Mossley Hill Parish Church Hall, Rose Lane, L18 8DB. These sessions are part of the current series of Live-A-Music workshops organised by Richard Gordon-Smith with Martin Anthony (Tony) Burrage, and supported by HOPES: the Hope Street Association with generous funding from Awards for All.

Cost and conditions
The cost per child per session is just £3. Parents and other carers are welcome to accompany children and join in at no extra cost if they so wish. We ask that any children under seven are always accompanied by a parent and / or older sibling because this helps them to feel confident and happy.

Children attending both the morning and the afternoon sessions may bring a packed lunch, subject to their parents' written consent. (Specific details of conditions are here; but NB session timings have been revised at the request of parents.)

Booking and further information
Booking beforehand is appreciated because it helps with planning for the workshops, but children may simply turn up on Saturday 8th if they wish. Please email us to book places, or for further details. You are also welcome to use this email address to tell us you would like to go on the emailing list for notice of future workshop sessions.

And have fun
These children's workshops are an opportunity to explore and develop imaginations and musical skills, whatever the previous experience of music. They're for children (with their parent/s if that's wished) to enjoy and create new musical ideas, to tell stories in sound, and to have fun.

Singer 85x85.jpg The BBC Proms offer many different routes to enlightenment, but this is a new one to me. A listing of events for August tells us that some singers are 'singers' or 'vocalists', and others are sopranos, mezzos, tenors, basses or, indeed, 'voices'. A look at the particular concert programmes suggests why this may be...

The clue lies in expressions like 'An evening with..', followed simply by the names of 'singers', or, alternatively, a long and detailed list of exactly what is to be performed, by whom and in what capacity.

Different languages
These are the discourses respectively of popular performance / 'entertainment' and on the other hand of 'high-classical'. The one is awash with generality, the other with detail and implicit demands that we already understand what it's all about.

Traversing the barriers
Occasionally of course the most-acclaimed performers of 'high-classical' cross the boundary to 'entertainment'; but crossing substantially in the other direction rarely occurs. 'Entertainers' may offer a selection of classically-inspired songs; they don't do full operas.

Is this huge distinction between genres necessary? Perhaps in the performers' terms it's inevitable, but in audience terms I'd like to see a bit more effort in general to 'take' classical music to people - not pre-concert talks necessarily (to some, an acquired taste) but much, much earlier in the average person's artistic experience.

Starting early and comfortably
Schools, for instance, need well-versed teachers feeling as comfortable with classical music as most feel with the more popular modes. (A few inspired teachers play music of all kinds to their pupils; would that more did so.) But acquaintance with 'classical' music is what's missing as a result of the austere curriculum experienced by people who were schoolchildren themselves in the 1980s, when the arts were dismissed as almost frivolous.

Singers have it all
The BBC Proms offer an excellent start, but classical music has so much to offer at any time. It's a real shame that many people find themselves mystified or out of their depth with it.

There are growing numbers of top professional singers, labelled however you like, who enjoy good music of all kinds. These artists would surely agree that, alongside the genuine excitement and glamour of a good popular-music-based 'show', classical music also is far too good to miss.

HOPES Festival logo (small) 110x116.jpg HOPES: The Hope Street Association marks the thirtieth anniversary of the inaugural Hope Street Festival with a HOTFOOT 2007 concert offering many elements of previous such events. Tayo Aluko, Tony Burrage, Richard Gordon-Smith, Sarah Helsby-Hughes, Hughie Jones, Roger Phillips and Surinder Sandhu join children from Merseyside schools and the stalwart HOPES Festival Orchestra and Choir for an event not be missed.

HOTFOOT 2007! A Street of Hope for 30 Years

Celebrating 30 years of the Hope Street Festival

Buy your tickets here.

The first Hope Street Festival took place in 1977, when Her Majesty the Queen visited Liverpool as part of her Silver Jubilee tour. There was another Festival in 1980 and then no more until HOPES: The Hope Street Association was able to resurrect the event in 1996. HOPES, with support from the Liverpool Culture Company and the Community Foundation for Merseyside, has chosen to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the inaugural Hope Street Festival with a HOTFOOT 2007 concert which incorporates many of the elements of previous such events.

Sunday 22 July 2007 @ 7 pm (please note time),
Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Hope Street, L1 9BP


* Roger Phillips (Presenter)

* Richard Gordon-Smith (Conductor)

* The HOPES Festival Orchestra and Choir

(Leader / Director: Martin Anthony (Tony) Burrage)

and guests


Surinder Sandhu and the Saurang soloists
returning to HOPES to perform music by Surinder Sandhu (orchestrated by Richard Gordon-Smith) with the HOPES Festival Orchestra

Songs of the Sea with Hughie Jones' Jack Coutts, Kevin Bargen & Friends, featuring some of the performers who made the Mersey Shanty Festival an international success, singing shanties and sea songs from the days of the great sailing ships - the other music that Liverpool gave to the world a century before the Mersey Sound !

HOPES Festival Orchestra
performs Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Petite Suite de Concert

Sarah Helsby-Hughes (soprano) & Tayo Aluko (baritone) join the HOPES Festival Orchestra
for Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and other songs from Porgy & Bess

Children from Merseyside schools, with the HOPES Orchestra, perform
Liverpool First and Last
which they have themselves devised for HOPES with Richard Gordon-Smith & Tony Burrage, now arranged, orchestrated and conducted by Richard Gordon-Smith

Grand finale
where the entire company performs
HOPES’ Song for Liverpool, ‘Light Up The City' (from Cool Street) by Richard Gordon-Smith.

* We are delighted that the National Trust / Chambre Hardman have also agreed to put on an exhibition in the foyer of the Phil Hall on the day. (HOPES was a major advocate of 'saving' the Chambre Hardman House, at 59 Rodnet Street, Liverpool.)

Tickets for the show
(Sun 22 July, 7 pm [please note start time]
are now available from the Phil Box office: 0151-709 3789
or via the Liverpool Philharmonic website
at £7, £9 & £11 (£5 children).

And, finally……If you would like to be involved in this concert, as a performer, singer or sponsor / raffle donor please contact us a.s.a.p. on Thank you!

HOPES is grateful to The Liverpool Culture Company and The Community Foundation for Merseyside, both of which generously provided grant-aid for this concert.

Orchestra (small)  80x103.jpg Will the next few decades see reduced opportunities to follow a performing career in the UK's major (inter-)national orchestras? On current evidence, that the answer may be Yes. Whilst ‘classical’ music at the highest levels will continue to stake its claim in the cultural universe, extended career progression for most orchestral musicians is probably diminishing.

It took centuries to establish professional symphonic orchestras as bodies which employ large numbers of accomplished performers, contracted full-time and as permanent employees within formal artistic companies.

The first instances of engaged orchestral players are to be found in the Mannheim of around Haydn’s time (Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809), when conspicuous by extraordinarily wealthy patrons consumption - a whole orchestra just for me! - was the order of the day; but it was another century or so before civic patronage supported the regional and national orchestras which we see today. And even then, full-time professional orchestral posts have become the norm often only in the second half of the twentieth century.

British orchestras in transition
Britain has an honourable orchestral tradition, as home to some of the longest-established orchestral societies in the world. Proportionately, the UK may have fewer civic professional orchestras than some other parts of Europe – a situation which is justifiable cause for regret – but what Britain lacks in quantity it compensates in quality, with a long and distinguished history in the orchestral tradition from the origin of the great institutions, right up to the present.

So what is the problem? Perhaps contemporary British experience is different from that of continental Europe, but there is a sense on the part of some in the UK (such as Norman Lebrecht) that ‘the classical orchestra is dead’.

Endangered careers
This view I would emphatically deny. It does seem however that the ‘career of orchestral performer’ is indeed becoming endangered.

Whilst the UK conservatoires produce more and better technically prepared instrumental performers (whether they are thereby necessarily greater individual artists than their predecessors may be another debate), the standing of and prospects for career orchestral players now is probably even worse than it has been for many years.

But despite claims to the contrary, this is not because the current government is hostile to classical music. It is because, over the years and however unintentionally, players have acquiesced whilst managers have allowed it to happen.

Shifting contexts
The situation of the major London orchestras (which we will not consider further here) is different from that of most other UK establishments, of which there are now considerably more than even a few decades ago. New flexibly sized ensembles have arisen across the country in response to changing cultural and popular demands, whilst the traditional ‘regional’ orchestras – all of them institutions of international standing – have remained the benchmark against which serious professional artists in the British orchestral tradition measured their careers.

Until now, that is. For the past fifteen years or so have seen major shifts in the professional experience of those instrumentalists who hold full-time posts in the leading non-London orchestras.

Demographics redistributed
No longer are orchestras bastions of white male middle-aged hegemony. That stereotypical profile actually evaporated quite a while ago, but changes have been increasingly rapid in the past few years.

Whilst rows of older men were previously the norm across least the front desks of major ensembles, their replacements are often now young women, and often this gender turnabout extends to large parts of the string sections if not always elsewhere. Many orchestras have become feminised. And they have also taken on many keen if less experienced young players, not always to the delight of their seniors, for whom a thorough knowledge of the repertoire, gained by years of experience, remains the hard-won key to professional self-respect.

Interpretational consequences for the music
Few professional musicians would deny that a combination of experience and fresh enthusiasm is critical in the orchestral mix; but numbers of more seasoned players claim that a substantial core of professionally mature performers is still required – people who literally know the score and can be relied upon to sustain their own orchestra’s corporate memory in the interpretation of great works.

Indeed, it has been argued this loss of specific corporate memory is why orchestras now allegedly sound more similar than they did previously – a ‘sameness’ of interpretation which many listening classical music enthusiasts regret, and which perhaps adds to the future challenges facing the genre.

Career musicians, or instrumental operatives?
But it is not just the orchestral art form which has changed because of the new demographics. The actual experience of being an orchestral player has likewise changed. And principally this is because many of the newer performers do not, it seems, perceive orchestral music as a career in the longer-term formal sense.

In the words of some backstage wags, the role of the orchestral performer has become that of ‘instrumental operative’. Rather than perceiving themselves as individual performers of standing who are increasingly valued over time, the newer generation of players perhaps sees the role as one to be experienced for a few years before moves away from the symphonic platform offer diverse ways forward.

Multiple roles and core roles
In part the greater opportunities orchestras now provide to engage in small ensemble work, to develop skills in ‘community education, and in some cases to take on leadership roles (with parallel in-service training) at an early stage in a career, are to be welcomed.

British orchestras can lay legitimate claim to being at the developmental forefront in terms of the orchestra as a body of fine players with a range of skills and approaches. But in so doing they are also in danger of neglecting their core role – the propagation of classical music by performers of the highest standard, of course illuminating their work with fresh insights both musicological and technical, but also bringing to bear the understandings and traditions of previous generations of inspired composers, conductors and performers.

Strange scenarios
It is a strange situation where some orchestras offer substantial on-the-job training in community education, but no continuing professional development at all in the central role of any orchestral musician – that of playing his or her chosen instrument. Human resource formal issues apart, this is extraordinary in terms of the institutional failure to invest in core business – no-one can continue comfortably for years with zero personal support in their central role, especially when it is as open to scrutiny as that of performing musicians.

It is also a strange situation where the contractual position of many orchestral players, especially tutti players, leaves them with no expectation ever of a reasonable salary. (In early 2007, the average minimum salary for tutti / 'rank and file' players in the fourteen BBC and major 'regional' orchestras was marginally more than £26,000 - with hardly higher pay at the top end of that scale.) one are the days when longer service was recognised and financially rewarded. Now maximum income can be achieved in just a few years, leaving the prospect of decades on the same sub-optimal income.

Not a sensible long-term option
Add to that the loss through contractual change (secured by managements since the demographic changes outlined above) of most small additional income through recordings and television appearances, as well as often the 24/7 on-call requirement at no extra cost within the hourly averaged week (not ever good for family life).

It is little wonder that orchestral musicians increasingly see their long-term futures elsewhere. It perhaps was fun whilst it lasted, but it’s no way, they may decide, to earn a sensible adult living.

Western classical music on the cusp?
In other musical genres artists trace their artistic ancestry back through the generations. Western classical musicians too are able if they wish to do this; but in general they do not.

Whilst the orchestral role remains so unpromising for many in terms of professional progression and opportunities, the prospects for the art form too must be in doubt.

Valuing skills and talent
Colleges, players and managements all have some part to play in reversing this situation. When managers, and more players themselves, demonstrate in real ways that they lay store by performers' skills and enduring careers, the paying public is more likely to do the same.

The way forward for orchestras is clear. Encourage a positive and purposive view of orchestral life, and other things will fall into place.

Read more about Music, Musicians & Orchestras.

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