London orchestras are homeless

It may come as a surprise to many, but many of the orchestras in the UK, and particularly London, are functionally homeless. Sure, the administrative staff are based in a permanent office, but the orchestra itself lives an itinerant lifestyle that belies the slick and polished performances.

Visitors from other countries, such as the US, Australia or continental Europe might expect that the orchestra ‘lives’ in the concert hall it is resident in. In other countries it often work this way: the offices, store rooms and lockers are in the flagship hall, only leaving for concert tours and outside engagements. But in London, orchestras work to a very different model.

One only has to look at the performance schedules of venues like the Barbican Concert Hall (home of the LSO and BBCSO) or the Royal Festival Hall (Home of the LPO, Philharmonia) to realise that they can’t possibly be living in the venue. London venues are so tightly programmed that you’ll often have 2 or three different ensembles using the stage on the same day so clearly there has to be an alternate way of working.

It sounds strange, but the most prestigious UK orchestras are living out of the back of a truck. They might have storage warehouses in outer London, or even storerooms inside their main venue, but they load everything they need for a batch of concerts (until they are next at their home base to reload) into their truck and treat every location as a tour.

There are a network of loarge concert halls accross the south east that these orchestras use to rehearse in, bringing everying including the music library, earplugs, noticeboards, wardrobes and instruments in road cases for the 2-3 days that they will be rehearsing. Then, after the last rehearsal they will load the truck back up again and drive away. The morning of the concert (which could be days or even weeks later if they have a tour to get through) the truck will arrive and a small crew of grumpy people will load everything into the venue, set up the chairs and stands, and unpack all the percussion instruments and check everything is as it should be.

This, no matter how big the ensemble or how many steps between the truck and stage, always seems to take an hour and 15 minutes. It’s one of the mysteries of orchestral management.

In the afternoon the musicians will turn up, find their instruments and have a run through rehearsal. A quick break and then the audience arrive for the concert. As soon as the conductor leaves the stage the same crew will remove all the instruments, pack up the music, and load up the truck.

What were the crew doing between the load in and load up? Either down the pub definitely not having a number of beers, or just as likely popping off to do the same work for one of the other orchestras at a different venue in london.

This is an invisible industry which holds UK cultural life together, and it all fits into the back of a truck at midnight, and the orchestras are always touring, whether the audience thinks they are ‘at home’ or not.