With film music, Brussels orchestra veers from usual business model

By Eric Holmberg

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The Brussels Philharmonic used to wait by the phone and occasionally a filmmaker would call. The symphony orchestra did, after all, perform the music on Martin Scorsese’s 2004 movie “The Aviator”, winning the Golden Globe that year for Best Original Score.

But after one million euros ($1.3 million) in public funding cuts over the past two years, patience has become a luxury.

General manager Gunther Broucke solicited movie producers at a film festival in Ghent last year: The orchestra wanted work.

Among the first to call were producers for “The Artist”, the silent French film which won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Original Score at the Academy Awards in February.

A mix of film music, a new record label and an expansive tour schedule have since solidified the philharmonic’s finances with 800,000 euros in additional income, nearly offsetting the public funding cuts.

Broucke took over the orchestra in September 2003 during what he describes as the “dark days”, when its relationships with politicians and promoters were “in tatters.”

The orchestra, founded in 1935, was on the brink of folding.

But on Saturday the orchestra played to a sell-out crowd of about 950 people at Brussels’ Flagey arts centre, performing Mozart’s 20th piano concerto and Berlioz’s Symphone Fantastique.

For Broucke, it wasn’t just the privilege of an engaged audience, but of the orchestra continuing to exist at all.

“One has to be lucky in life sometimes,” he said.

Broucke recently signed a five-year deal to guarantee a minimum yearly subsidy of 8.1 million euros from the Flanders regional government, securing funds through 2016. The public money accounts for 80 to 85 percent of the orchestra’s budget.

The Brussels Philharmonic fits in the public funding tradition of European orchestras as opposed to the United States model of private funding from foundations and individuals.

Both models, however, have been hurt by the recession.

European governments, turning to austerity, have cut arts funding, such as in Belgium. In the United States, private giving to the 400 largest charities was down 11 percent in 2009 with gains of 3.5 percent in 2010 and an estimated 4.7 percent in 2011.

With minimum funding established for the next five years, Broucke is trying to find new sources of revenue.

A year ago, the Brussels Philharmonic started its own record label and released two albums.

“Belgian orchestras are very good,” said Michel Tabachnik, the conductor of the philharmonic, who is Swiss. “But they are not so well known, such as German orchestras or British orchestras.”

The first album sold about 2,500 copies. No sales figures are yet available for the second album, released last month.

The orchestra has 60 concerts planned over the next 18 months and will spend April in Britain, Germany and Austria.

(Reporting By Eric Holmberg, editing by Paul Casciato)


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