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Why I Left the London Symphony Orchestra

Paul Edmund-Davies established his international reputation as flautist and soloist in the 20 years that he was Principal Flute of the London Symphony Orchestra and then the five years in the same position at the Philharmonia Orchestra.  Paul Edmund-Davies has edited and published more than 25 books of flute music. His ‘The 28 Day Warm up Book for all Flautists…eventually!’ is a best seller and has been translated into Japanese, Spanish and Russian.  In 2015 Paul launched his online flute education resource, Simply Flute. The site provides both free and subscription materials to help flute players and teachers on their respective journeys.

May we ask why you left the highly coveted Principal Flute of the London Symphony after 20 years? and the Philharmonia for another 5 years?

What a complicated question, as it is now more than 16 years since I left the London Symphony Orchestra and around 10, since departing from the Philharmonia.

This article also heralds the first time that I have even attempted to provide any insight as to why I left the principal flute positions in either of these orchestras.

After 20 years, it was by no means an easy task to sever links with the comparative security and ‘ease’ of life on offer at the LSO. Making such a move into previously uncharted and unknown territories, does highlight just how challenging major decisions and changes in life really can be.

I think though that the major conclusion to be drawn from what I am about to write is that we are all ultimately and fundamentally different and as a result, don’t all seek the same stimulus to satisfy our needs and passions. No single person warrants special attention, it is just that there are people on this planet who have an insatiable desire to search for different motivations in their respective journeys through life, often irrespective of the risks involved. What many people might consider to be the obvious and best paths to adhere to, doesn’t necessarily always sit comfortably with those of us who are constantly searching for something, but aren’t necessarily quite sure exactly what that something might be!

Naturally, I had a wonderful time in the LSO. Who wouldn’t, in one of the most recorded and highly acclaimed symphony orchestras in the World?

It was more than an honour on several occasions to perform ‘Halil’ for solo flute and orchestra, by Leonard Bernstein, with the composer himself conducting (and just as great an honour to perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in East Berlin under his baton, on December 25th 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall came down)!

In my early days with the orchestra it was a dream to record the complete Daphnis and Chloe with Claudio Abbado conducting.

On the day that the famous flute solo was scheduled to be recorded, I left for the recording venue (a church in South London) super early, in order to warm up well in advance of the recording getting under way.

Unfortunately on my way driving there, a hefty cement mixer fell off the back of a lorry (truck) as it was turning from a side road into the road in front of me and ended up buried in the front wing of my car. Two very large builders got out of the lorry, scratching their heads and just stared at the damage that had been caused. My day had suddenly gone bad! Much as I wanted to, this was not the moment to scream at them that I was in a desperate hurry to get to my destination, to record the flute solo from Daphnis. I really don’t think that they would have been particularly impressed, or have had any idea as to what I was actually talking about. Insurance details were duly exchanged and both parties went on their respective ways, the two builders calmly and myself in a never ending cascade of nervous perspiration.

Whether or not this incident, so close to the moment of recording, helped or hindered my abilities as a flute player that day, only others who have listened to the recording, on Deutsche Grammophon, will be able to answer. All I can say, is that I didn’t lose my job as a result!

Many people reading this article will not be aware of the fact that most of the playing members of orchestras in London are not provided with salaries and are only paid per engagement. In other words, no play, no pay!

The reason for this is very simple. Due to the mostly miserable funding of arts institutions in the UK (at least by comparison with our neighbours in the rest of Europe, who seem to possess a healthier approach to the arts and appear to value culture more in general), our taxation system makes it impossible for most orchestras to be run as standard or mainstream companies. Given the absence of the high value endowment funds that many a top end orchestra in the USA has been blessed with in the past and to avoid complicated ‘pay as you earn’ tax implications in the UK, which would significantly ‘up’ the costs of running these mostly under-funded institutions, London symphony orchestras are to the best of my understanding, registered as charities.

The only orchestras in London which provide salaries for their players are the Royal Opera House, the BBC Symphony and Concert Orchestras and English National Opera.

For the other symphony orchestras in London, the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra, other avenues of work therefore have to be generated, in order to provide sufficient income for the musicians throughout the year.

Apart from the regular annual schedule of concerts, in my time in the LSO, studio work contributed greatly as a source of supplementary income (in my 20 years, I played on the film soundtracks of many movies including ‘Star Wars, Episodes 1 and 2’ and ‘Braveheart’. My very first movie with the LSO was ‘Space Vampires’ or ‘Life Force’ with a score by Henri Mancini. The music was wonderful, but it was a shocker of a movie, as a result of which, over time, it has achieved almost cult status).

On top of recordings, both classical and commercial, touring abroad has been a major and crucial source of income for UK based orchestras, as apart from a reliable source of fees for the players, associated management fees have also been a healthy boost towards the costs of running these orchestras.

Looking back, I realise just how significant and important travel has been in my life and I owe so much of that incredible experience to my time in orchestras. Even though on occasions these experiences were over in the blinking of an eye, from the airport, to the hotel, the concert hall and maybe a bar after the concert, they have given me ‘postcards’ of what other countries in the world have to offer and for this, I am and continue to be eternally grateful.

There used to be something quite glamorous about arriving at airports and flying (even in my early days in the London Symphony Orchestra, when the orchestra members were seated towards the back of the plane, but just in front of all of those in the smoking rows!). One felt like an international jet-setter, which in many ways one was, just at the ultra-cheap end of the spectrum.

For twenty years, I had been enjoying a wonderful life in the LSO, both in the UK and around the World, working with top musicians, in many of the great concert halls. Life was amazing, but I also was getting older.

As with anything that repeats itself, I found myself starting to question what I was doing.

Away from my life in the orchestra and as a result of teaching in many of the music institutions in London, I was gradually becoming more interested in what I could put together in a constructive manner with regards to contributing to the literature concerning flute education.

Thankfully, I was also increasingly in demand abroad at music festivals, as a recitalist and teacher. This was an area that I had never really had the chance to explore, but equally was highly appealing. It was also almost opposite to my activities in the orchestra, where one was very much part of a team and as such was constantly required (for better or worse) to embrace compromise.

However, my commitments to the LSO and the obvious workload, were increasingly proving to be restrictive and it was becoming more and more transparent that conflicts of interest would be steadily looming ahead of me.

Of course, it is one thing to recognise this situation, but it is another to act on it!

Whilst I would hope not to be considered a coward, to make the leap from 20 years of security into new territories, with little in the way of financial guarantees, was not without its worries. Even though I wanted change, it was a leap that came with not insignificant questions and concerns.

Then one day, the orchestra provided me with the solution!

In July 2004, the LSO was engaged to play half a pops concert in the grounds at Blenheim Palace. It should have been a whole concert, but ticket sales had been miserable, so they put a well-known (and commercially successful) singing group into the first half to sell more seats. The second half would be music from the movies, performed by the LSO. Such concerts here are referred to as ‘muddy field dates’, where the audience sit outside and along with listening to the concert, quite often consume large amounts of champagne, wine, beer or any alcohol that they can get their hands on!

I was on the orchestral list to play in this concert, as the other ‘junior’ principal flute player was away at a wedding and had asked to be absent several months earlier. I had agreed to cover the chair.

This half a concert was my only commitment to the orchestra in the week in question and due to the nature of the work (whilst Blenheim Palace is beautiful, in terms of music locations it is hardly the Musikverein in Vienna), it was one of the lesser concerts in the calendar and as such, it was not pivotal for the future success of the orchestra for myself to be there.

However, as and when it suited them, the board of the orchestra could insist on one of the two principal players in each section being present. Fortunately for me on this occasion, they decided that it would be necessary for me to play the half concert and insisted on my attendance.

I say ‘fortunately for myself’, because in April that year, I was asked by the Spanish Youth Orchestra if I would coach their flute section for their upcoming summer concerts. The week that they wanted me to be in Spain of course, coincided with the Blenheim Palace half concert. The work in Santiago del Compostela was of far greater significance to myself and my future so in many ways, by taking part, I would be acting as an ambassador for the London Symphony Orchestra. This was work that I enjoyed immensely and that I wanted to undertake. To me, the solution was obvious. Another professional flute player should be engaged for the half concert in the UK and I should be allowed to go to Spain, in order to coach the flutes of the youth orchestra.

The board of the LSO (in essence my fellow colleagues) thought otherwise and finally, their immovability provided me with that extra amount of momentum necessary to make the decision to leave. Contrary to their insistence, I went to Spain and didn’t appear at Blenheim Palace for the concert, my chair being covered by a very fine and more than adequate freelance player.

As a consequence of all of this, they decided to fine me £750 ($1000) for my ‘disobedience’. In return, I told them that they would not be receiving any money from me and that I would be resigning with immediate effect.

Sadly, little in the way of gratitude was extended for the 20 years of service given, but then again, under the circumstances, this was hardly surprising!

In the final analysis, all I can say is that in the right hands, symphony orchestras can create an amazing platform, where some of the greatest musical experiences for instrumentalists can be created and enjoyed. However, in the wrong hands, they can also turn into irrational, mindless and self-satisfied juggernauts.

Once free, my life took on a totally new perspective. I was travelling a huge amount, but now, very much on my own and apart from the camaraderie of a few companions from the orchestra, was not missing my previous life at all.

Interestingly though, no longer in a symphony orchestra, I became a more complicated commodity to sell in the Far East, where ‘badges’ tend to matter. This didn’t bother me, I just had to work harder at selling myself!

It was more than a year later, when I was in Beijing giving concerts and recording a two flutes and piano CD with Guoliang Han, that somewhat unexpectedly my phone rang. On the other end of the line, was the Chairwoman of the Philharmonia Orchestra, who out of the blue offered me the shared position of Principal Flute within the orchestra. As a 50/50 split and with a much greater degree of flexibility, this was a more practical proposition than my previous orchestra and obviously I was flattered to be considered for it.

I had many friends in this orchestra and a choice needed to be made. Do I say ‘no’ and never find out if it really could have worked well, or do I say ‘yes’ and hope for the best?

The second option ended up being the one taken and I had five very happy years in this orchestra and many amazing meals with a small group of similarly minded foodies (mostly in the flute section!) when on tour.

As indicated, travel has its benefits and rewards, but because of the time it consumes and the ‘in transit’ nature of everything between leaving home and the return, it is almost impossible to focus on anything other than the trip being undertaken. In some respects, one is temporarily living in a bubble of chaos or disorder, albeit a highly pleasurable one!

Increasingly, I realised that touring with an orchestra and travelling on my own throughout the year were becoming counterproductive to my growing desires to write exercise and study books.

Once again, after five musically and socially very satisfying years it was time for me to move on.

Curiosity was now my new, exciting and constant companion!

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