French orchestra landscape has a long historical background from this history resulting structures and specific challenges today. Very much centralised and, originally, a matter of royal patronage, the provision of classical music is still largely regarded as a public service. While artists enjoy considerable (financial) privileges, it is arguable if the current state of affairs can be preserved. While the reforms of Marcel Landowski, the influential arts administrator from the 1960s to the 1990s, helped to “regionalise” classical musical life, it has remained highly dependent on political support.
As a result, ensembles’ facilities and reputation often vary greatly. Some, like Toulouse and Lyon, have become high-profile orchestras, but in general many do not receive the recognition they deserve. For self-employed musicians the situation in France appears comfortable, as the French welfare system guarantees a kind of basic income for artists (“intermittents du spectacle”). Yet the system also does have its drawbacks, as it makes touring abroad (too) expensive – a problem, especially as many French music festivals are struggling with financial difficulties.
The French musicians’ union SNAM highlights some of the central issues facing musical life in France. SNAM strongly advocates a commitment to public funding, regarding the provision of classical music as a public service. At the same time, the union is wary of new legislation giving local politicians even greater sway over regional orchestras. The way to a professional position is a tough one: the French system is highly selective and in general places a greater emphasis on the training of soloist rather than orchestra musicians. At the same time, teachers are often poorly paid, even at top schools like the Conservatoire de Paris. And as elsewhere, graduates face a difficult job market with far more applicants than open positions.
Coveted employers are the two federal broadcasting ensembles, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Orchestre National de France (ONF). Central pillars of the French classical music landscape and comfortably financed, the ONF cultivates symphonic music of the 19th century, often acting as national cultural ambassador, whereas the Orchestre Philharmonique puts greater emphasis on contemporary works.
Fortunately there are some new concert halls currently in progress, in Paris (Philharmonie de Paris) and Lyon. As the responsible executives point out, the new spaces face – and respond to – changing social, cultural and economic situations: they carry classical music to the suburbs, reaching out to new audiences, and try to create inviting leisure environments, beyond a narrow conception of concert-going.