UK: Profile - Clive Gillinson, director of the London Symphony Orchestra. (2 of 3)

UK: Profile - Clive Gillinson, director of the London Symphony Orchestra. (2 of 3) - In what amounted to sheer desperation - a feeling that somebody must do something to rescue the by now out of control organisation, though nobody, including at that stag

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In what amounted to sheer desperation - a feeling that somebody must do something to rescue the by now out of control organisation, though nobody, including at that stage Gillinson, seemed quite sure what - he allowed himself to be drafted in first as finance director then, in July 1984, as acting managing director, but with no expectations at the time that the position might become permanent.

When, that November, the orchestra offered him a contract as managing director, Gillinson, unsure whether he wanted to give up the cello, asked for a year's trial during which either side could withdraw. He finally accepted the job in November 1985 and put aside the cello. His reasoning speaks volumes about the sort of man that he is. Having worked on the cello incredibly hard, he could not now bear to play it at less than his best. "I'd still love to play the cello if I could play it as well as I'm able, but I can't because you can't do anything like that without practising consistently."

During the interim year Gillinson learned an absolutely fundamental lesson: that you cannot compromise on your artistic convictions. The LSO board, frightened by the orchestra's debts, had sent him to tell Claudio Abbado, the orchestra's principal conductor, that his proposed series of concerts "Mahler, Vienna and the 20th Century" would have to be axed for financial reasons. Abbado refused to back down.

"It was the best lesson I ever had," says Gillinson, "and I'm very glad I learned it right at the beginning - that the one thing that you never do in an artistic organisation is compromise on the quality of your artistic vision or ideals."

He went back to the board and told its members that he would find a way to finance the Mahler. The series was an immense critical success and Gillinson believes that this was the turning point for the LSO. It gave the musicians back the beginnings of their self-respect. He stresses the word "beginnings". This is not a fairy tale and the Mahler series did not cure all of the LSO's ills at a stroke.

Gillinson might not have compromised on Mahler but there were, in truth, a whole lot of more minor compromises taking place every day. He was cutting costs, for example, by screwing conductors down to the absolute minimum rehearsal time that they would accept. "That pulled the business into shape as a business but it led to a continuation of a lot of the compromises."

Getting out of such a potentially dangerous vicious circle had a lot to do with Gillinson's growing taste for risk taking. Not long after the Mahler episode he snatched the cellist Rostropovich from under the nose of the much richer London Philharmonic Orchestra when it started prevaricating over the cost of the 60th birthday series which the Russian wanted to put on. "I went to his agents and said 'Tell Rostropovich we'll do it. I don't mind what the cost is.'"

The Rostropovich series, like the Mahler, was an enormous success. "Rostropovich turned out to be one of the absolutely key decisions I ever took," says Gillinson, "because he was bowled over by us making this commitment and that's established one of the most important relationships that we've now got."

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