When the BBC unveiled its new strategy for classical music last week, it did so with what can only be described as a thick and unsavory soup W1A speak to management. Its latest master plan would, it said, “prioritise quality, agility and impact.” So far it hasn’t explained what this might mean in reality; There is vague talk of “investing” in unspecified educational projects. What we do know, however, is that the money for this will come from the meager savings made by cutting out the BBC Singers, the UK’s only full-time professional chamber choir, and 20% of the employed musicians in its various orchestras.
The music world reacted with understandable fury after the Arts Council England’s decision last November to cut funding for (among others) English National Opera and the Britten Sinfonia. Sakari Oramo, the Finnish conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, called it “blatant vandalism”. Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant said he was “shocked and disappointed”. Dame Sarah Connelly, the celebrated mezzo-soprano, described it as “crass, ill-informed and appallingly treated”. Composer and conductor John Rutter pointed out that Latvia, a country of less than two million people, manages to sustain a 24-piece full-time chamber choir. In response, the BBC rolled out Simon Webb, who was recently appointed leader of the orchestras and choirs, to defend the move. His agonizing excuses spoke for themselves.
Musicians and music lovers alike are determined to fight back. An open letter signed by Oramo and other BBC conductors was sent out. Petitions have been started.
Will the BBC buckle under the pressure? Unfortunately, at this point it seems unlikely. Bringing the arts to the people has been her job from the start, and yet it’s been apparent for some time that she considers some of the arts to be more “elitist” than others – and elitist is a word that makes her extremely nervous.
We have to hope someone, somewhere, is listening. This is a huge and unforgivable miscalculation on the part of the BBC
The fact that the BBC will make savings by cutting these jobs is likely to be little more than what it pays annually to one of its most famous presenters is neither embarrassing nor embarrassing for its executives. Analyzing Bukayo Saka’s skills is not elitist. The work of Franz Schubert is to be brought closer to a new generation.
But still, we have to hope that someone, somewhere, is listening. This is a huge and unforgivable miscalculation on his part. Classical music in Britain may still be thriving, but it is also a complex and fragile organism. If the decision to ditch the BBC singers is a personal crisis for each of its members, its wider implications may prove far more serious. To give just one example of how this works, as a choir (brilliantly) performing a great deal of new music, the BBC Singers are helping to support the work of a new generation of composers. Now where do these talented people get their ideas from?
The BBC likes nothing better than talking about diversity. But when music careers — jobs with pay and decent prospects — are no longer viable in this country, young people, whatever their background, are unlikely to think about pursuing them. And then there is a danger that classical music will be caught in a death spiral – at which point the BBC’s seeming notion that it is for the few rather than the many ceases to be just a highly patronizing assumption. It becomes a grim and painful reality.