Good News for the Radio Orchestras?

By: Frank Cadenhead

June 15, 2017. An article in Tuesday’s Le Figaro newspaper gives some positive news about the future of the two radio orchestras in France, the Orchestre National de France and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. As we reported in 2015 in Musical America, there was panic when proposals were floated to combine the two orchestras into a single formation.

Mathieu Gallet, the new and young manager of the vast Radio France organization, suggested such a plan. It seemed to be one of those “Yes, Minister” moments from the 1980s U.K. comedy series about a clueless politician put in charge of a ministry. Gallet soon learned that the two orchestras each had a distinct musical personality and history, had their serious advocates and were highly competitive.

To be fair, Gallet was following a recommendation from the National Assembly and also aware that the income of the entire Radio France organization, something akin to the UK’s BBC Radio, was shrinking. It is largely financed by an annual tax on television sets and the numbers of sets in an average house have been sinking with the growth of the internet. Nevertheless, the two orchestras were maintained and are now stronger than ever. With Emmanuel Krivine music director of the National and Mikko Franck heading the Philharmonique, the two orchestras have popular leaders and strong artistic directors, Eric Denut for the National and Jean-Marc Bador for the “Phil.”

The continuation of the two orchestras is assured but there have been financial “adjustments” that the Figaro article has detailed. On March 31st, after long consultations, a convention was signed to aid the continuation of the two orchestras. This nouvel accord d’enterprise reduced the size of the National from 122 to 114 and the Philharmonique from 141 to 132 and was mostly achieved by not replacing retirees. The Radio France choir took the biggest hit, going from 114 to 90. Other minor economies, the number of Sunday performances and the length of breaks were adjusted as well as another not publicly discussed: the new accord allows musicians from one orchestra to fill in for an absent or sick colleague in the other orchestra instead of hiring supernumeraries from outside.

While these adjustments are not world-shaking, they do allow some savings. One obvious result of the economies allowed French film director Luc Besson to hire the Orchestre National to record the music for his new film, Valerian, when it usually would be one of the competitive London orchestras or an orchestra from Eastern Europe. While the changes can be seen as progress, unless the financing structure of the two orchestras evolve in the coming years, their long-term existence is still not secure.

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