Rhinegold Photo credit: Dániel Vass
Endangered: the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana

Andrew Mellor

Can the radio orchestra survive – and should it?

8:00, 16th May 2017

Three out of the last three reputable, full-time orchestras to have been axed in Europe have been radio orchestras: the Danish Radio Sinfonietta (closed by DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, in 2014); the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (merged with SWR’s Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2016); and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (members of which have been told their jobs will disappear at the end of 2017 unless new funding is found).

There’s every reason to believe the next three European orchestras to close will be radio orchestras too. Neoliberal regimes across the continent are questioning the value of public service broadcasting or simply acknowledging that they never liked the idea in the first place. When the BBC has its next financial kicking, it is likely questions will be raised about the corporation’s ensembles once again.

As well as a motive for murder, there are pretty straightforward means. Radio orchestras are usually funded from one source that juggles multiple priorities in addition to music. Once a decision is made, it’s easy to execute, difficult to oppose and impossible to appease financially with well-meaning private cash.

Nobody would deny that such a process of reappraisal is healthy. Perhaps it’s actually overdue. Most radio orchestras were established in the mid 1900s at time when the media landscape was somewhat different. What, you might ask, is the purpose of a radio orchestra when the BBC and many equivalents transmit concerts from independent symphony orchestras every week?

Sure, in-house orchestras make studio recordings for broadcast during the day. But there is some justification to be done there, too. The North American radio orchestra went from being an endangered species in the 1990s to an extinct one when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation closed its orchestra in 2008. Does that mean the CBC no longer broadcasts live orchestral concerts and a wealth of other orchestral music? Of course not.

Extinct: the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra with Sir Roger Norrington
Extinct: the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra with Sir Roger Norrington

Radio orchestras have long had a particular identity both sonically and creatively. They are often known for a certain sense of attack and for ferocious technical abilities honed by the constantly looming microphones. They have long upheld and documented their nations’ musical output by supporting and recording living composers. But that latter principle has shifted recently. In many a European metropolis, the civic symphony orchestra plays as much new music as the radio orchestra does.

That, surely, is more connected to previously regressive and ossified programming on behalf of the independent orchestras in question. It was the radio orchestras, you might counter, that blazed the trail and always thought of the wider audience. It was they who pioneered collaboration and developed the most astonishing stylistic diversity before such diversity became the norm.

Is that enough to justify existence? I happen to believe there can never be too many orchestras in this world. But in order to survive, radio orchestras will have to fight their corner, and hard. When politicians in Denmark recently floated an idea to remove the country’s one remaining radio orchestra from the jurisdiction of DR, the corporation’s chairman claimed that it would be impossible for the ensemble to reach such a wide audience without the broadcasting infrastructure that his organisation provides.

A highly developed version of that argument may be what saves many a broadcasting ensemble in the future. But bosses of such ensembles have to put their money where their mouths are. In short, the current climate could and should represent a new challenge to radio orchestras to exploit their wares with all possible imagination.

What does that mean? It means using the existing broadcasting infrastructure fully, but also using it differently: experimenting with cross-channel transmissions (as at BBC Radio), with streaming on the web (where civic orchestras are stealing a march) and utilising the non-musical production expertise of parent broadcasting corporations to create new media that engages the public on social as well as traditional media. It also means working on the brand; maybe even doing something about that lousy, inaccessible website. If you work at a radio orchestra, the chances are you’ll have even better ideas and arguments up your sleeve. Prepare to dust them down.

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