The wandering minstrels

Classical music - As the Royal Festival Hall prepares to close for a year and a half, Annette Morrea

The twin problems of too many symphony orchestras in London and a lousy acoustic in the Royal Festival Hall are about to be addressed. The first problem has been around for more than half a century: jostling for pre-eminence in the capital are the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras. The second problem is almost as old, remaining unsolved since the Royal Festival Hall first opened in 1951.

There have been dozens of reports addressing the number of orchestras in London, and yet no particularly useful solution has been found. The problem has always been seen as one of too many orchestras. But perhaps the real issue is too few concert halls.

The economics of concert-giving for symphony orchestras - fielding up to a hundred players on the platform with expensive, box-office-friendly conductors and soloists - make 3,000-seat venues a must. At the same time, classical music needs a certain acoustic if players and audiences are to be well served.

But there is a dearth of such concert halls in the capital. Outside the BBC Proms season, the 6,000-seat Royal Albert Hall is too big - and anyway, it remains acoustically challenged in many seats. Only the Barbican Concert Hall, which recently underwent an acoustic make-over, boasts both an adequate acoustic and an appropriate size.

The London Symphony and the BBC Symphony orchestras reside at the Barbican. They have "first pick" of dates and an audience that knows where to find them. Meanwhile, the South Bank Centre is home to the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic.

In June 2005, the longed-for "adjustments" to the acoustic of the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall (described by the conductor Simon Rattle as the worst major concert venue in Europe) will begin. The hall will be closed until January 2007.

So what does a symphony orchestra do if its home shuts? Naturally, it hopes that its forthcoming homelessness will have been noticed and that a plan to ensure its survival may have been con-sidered. Unfortunately, it appears that the raising of £71m to refurbish the hall has greatly clouded minds on the matter of preserving the artistic life of its main occupants - the major symphony orchestras - and the patterns of the audience's affection.

The suggestion of building a temporary concert hall nearby, a solution greatly favoured by the orchestras (and followed in Tokyo when one of its major halls was out of action), was a non-starter because of a lack of resources.

In 1999, in something of a volte-face, the Arts Council recommended that the subsidised London orchestras apply for "stabilisation" funding from the National Lottery. This was designed not only to haul them out of debt, but to set them on the road to a new era of relevance to a wider public - accessibility and all that. But then along comes the closure of the Royal Festival Hall, which has been on the cards for roughly 16 years, and financial disaster looms.

As the orchestras see it, no special case was made to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport over the prospect that one of only two 3,000-seat concert halls in the capital would no longer be available to half of its subsidised orchestras.

An Arts Council spokesperson admits that there has been no special pleading, but insists that additional funds are being made available to help out the Philhar-monia and London Philharmonic. Each will receive around £100,000 over a period of three years - not much in relation to a turnover of £7m. More surprisingly, both orchestras maintain that the Arts Council has recommended they lean upon their fast-dwindling stabilisation funds - which were earmarked for entirely different purposes.

"Who needs symphony orchestras?" trumpeted the critic Norman Lebrecht in Lebrecht Live on BBC Radio 3. His is the tired refrain that orchestras are expensive, irrelevant and old hat. Yet talk to the managers of the Philharmonia and London Philharmonic and the picture that emerges is far from Lebrecht's doom-mongering. Ticket sales are impressive: 80 per cent for the Philhar-monia and a staggering 92 per cent for the London Philharmonic. All of which could collapse in the forthcoming 18 months of "improvements".

What will the orphans do? The dilem- ma is far worse than that posed by a theatre closing, when perhaps 30 others in the West End might offer comfort. Suitable alternative venues such as the Barbican, Royal Opera House and Coliseum are fully occupied. Thus reliance on the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a mere 900-seater (less than a third of the capac-ity of the Royal Festival Hall), is the unhappy solution - unhappy financially and acoustically.

You may want to hear Mahler's huge 7th Symphony in these surroundings - the Philharmonia insists that it is possible to present full-scale symphonic works at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - but I would advise you take earplugs with you. Otherwise, look out for a diet of Mozart, Schumann and (small) Shostakovich, composers all handily having anniversaries, and many repeats of programmes suited to the size of the Queen Elizabeth Hall - programmes that audiences will recognise as the staple of chamber rather than symphony orchestras.

The orchestras expect that the financial gap due to the closure will approach £750,000. Let's hope the period does not prove to be an (acoustically perfect) end to both the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic.