Portrait of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – Britain's oldest and ballsiest orchestra

Richard Bratby on Britain’s oldest and ballsiest orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which has taken on everyone from gang leaders to Derek Hatton

11 July 2020

9:00 AM

11 July 2020

9:00 AM

Liverpool’s last ocean liner lies half a mile inland, on the crest of a hill. The Philharmonic Hall, home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, sits between two cathedrals on Hope Street, its towers jutting over the city like twin prows. It’s an unavoidable metaphor: when you enter the Hall on a concert night, the first thing you see is a bronze memorial to the musicians of the Titanic. Everything about the Hall — the grand staircase; the long curving corridors; the art deco auditorium that looks like something from Alexander Korda’s Things to Come— suggests that you’re about to steam off on some fantastic voyage. I’ve heard concerts all over the world, but when I dream about music, it’s always at the Liverpool Phil.

So the news that the RLPO has appointed a new chief conductor feels personal. How could it not? The RLPO was the first orchestra I ever heard — at that point, in the 1980s, reinventing itself under the dapper Czech Libor Pesek. Even then, the conductor of the RLPO was a public figure on Merseyside, whether he liked it or not (a regional TV presenter asked Pesek what he did on his days off. ‘I think.’ ‘What about?’ ‘Death’). Since 2006 Vasily Petrenko has been repeating the trick, cheerfully brandishing football anecdotes while hoovering up international awards for his recordings of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Now Petrenko’s successor has been announced: Domingo Hindoyan, an energetic Venezuelan who — like many newcomers — seems astonished by the reality of the city and its orchestra.

‘Before I ever went to Liverpool, of course I knew the Beatles, Liverpool Football Club and the Titanic,’ says Hindoyan. ‘Even in Caracas, you get that information. But I’ve already conducted the orchestra in Beethoven, Strauss and Stravinsky, as well as new music, and they are brilliant, with a fantastic sound: flexible and disciplined. They’re passionate but they are still hungry to be better. It’s been a superb 15 years with Vasily, but I couldn’t believe that Max Bruch was also here, and that Simon Rattle and Zubin Mehta were assistants. This is the A-team.’

He’s not making this up. As the UK’s oldest professional orchestra, the RLPO has history to spare. Bruch, the composer of that violin concerto, conducted in Liverpool in the 1880s; if there was any justice he’d be listed beside the Fab Four on the Mathew Street Wall of Fame. The original Victorian concert society has grown and grown. Hindoyan trained in Venezuela’s Sistema music education programme, but on arriving in Liverpool he found that the Philharmonic had long since evolved something similar.

‘This is something that I really like about Liverpool: you’ve got the RLPO and then the youth orchestra, and choirs, and the smaller ensembles, and then In Harmony [the RLPO’s Everton-based social programme, which performed in the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony]. It’s a beautiful set-up, and it reminds me a lot of how I grew up in Caracas. Everyone sees the main orchestra as an example and as a goal.’

I can corroborate that. I grew up musically in the RLPO’s youth orchestra, and it’s hard to describe the effect on a teenager of being allowed — still in school uniform — to walk through the artists’ entrance and out on to a stage where, the previous night, Sir Charles Groves or Maxim Shostakovich might have performed. Rattle started out as a timpanist in the same Merseyside Youth Orchestra: all very inspiring. It was later, as a junior staffer, that I learned the grungier side of the business — brutal schedules, breadline budgets and the landlord of the musicians’ favourite boozer, Ye Cracke, on permanent speed-dial. Until you’ve run panicking through Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre in search of an awol trombone section, you’ve not experienced orchestral management.

The Phil seems a happier ship now, even if no one can say for certain when the band will play again. Still, as musical Twitter fills with heartfelt but unfocused cries of pain, the RLPO’s chief executive Michael Eakin is bracingly realistic about the post-Covid landscape. ‘By August we reckon we’ll have lost about £2.5 million of income,’ he says. ‘Over the last decade we’ve worked really hard to rebuild our reserves. Of course they’re all going to go now, but thank God we’ve got them. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty, but we’re determined that come September we will be offering some kind of programme.’

It’s not as though they haven’t been here before. Sandra Parr, the artistic planning director, joined as a teenage youth orchestra member and has never left. One of her early tasks was to persuade audiences to return to the city centre in the wake of the Toxteth riots. ‘There was a hiccup, though, which was Derek Hatton and Militant,’ she recalls. The proto-Corbynista regime that controlled Liverpool City Council in the 1980s openly hated the ‘elitist’ Philharmonic. ‘They threatened to shut the Philharmonic Hall and make it into a bingo hall. So we hired an open-top bus and the orchestra drove around the city centre, playing. We asked our supporters to block the council’s telephone lines. They did, and the council gave in.’

And repeat. It’s tempting but simplistic to view institutions such as the RLPO as monoliths, fossilised by time and tradition. The reality is a constant churn of crisis and innovation. When Liverpool’s merchant princes faded into history, the RLPO pioneered ‘industrial concerts’ — offering discounted tickets to local businesses. It staged summer crossover concerts in a circus tent, discreetly clearing the plans with neighbourhood gang leaders to forestall any issues with light-fingered locals. The RLPO gave the UK’s first Mahler cycle and was the first British orchestra to launch its own record label. Announcing a star signing in the middle of an existential struggle is simply business as usual. Liverpool loves grand gestures: it’s no coincidence that the definitive lexicon of Scouse dialect was compiled by Fritz Spiegl, an RLPO flautist who found in the city the same sarcasm, cosmopolitanism and outsize self-esteem that he’d known in his native Vienna.

‘I genuinely think that Liverpudlians feel ownership and pride in the Phil,’ says Eakin. ‘I don’t think this is just mythologising or being sentimental. Our audience is probably more economically diverse than the clichéd perception of a classical audience. There’s political support now, too: there’s never been a scintilla of doubt that an organisation like us is important for the city.’ Parr puts it more bluntly. ‘We could easily have closed our laptops until the government said we can go out again. But we’ve kept planning, and we’re ready to go at any point. There’s an arrogant, optimistic Scouse streak in a lot of people here: we’re just going to do it anyway. Because nobody has a good answer for why not.’

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