There is no one with power to fight for classical music at the BBC now. It’s as if Herod runs the creche | Paul Hughes
By Paul Hughes,2023-03-14
For 23 years as director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and latterly the BBC Singers, I was custodian of three great ensembles that have shaped the musical landscape of this country for almost a century. They are celebrated worldwide for unparalleled versatility, flexibility and ability to respond to an ever-changing landscape and the demands of (in my time) six director generals, each keen to leave their mark. Delivering quality first and value for money was the mantra, and meeting the challenge of reaching new and diverse audiences was the reward. Or so we thought.
The BBC announced last week that its great cultural assets are to be savaged so violently that they may never recover; that is the reward. The corporation runs one full-time professional chamber choir, three full-time orchestras in England, and one each in Wales and Scotland. The plan is to axe the BBC Singers before the Proms, on the eve of their centenary, to reduce the headcount by 20% of the three English orchestras, while Simon Webb , the newly appointed fall guy is working with the nations’ orchestras “to consider whether there could be any lessons ” for them. A dark warning indeed.
How has this been allowed to happen? Early last year, the BBC’s music review recommended an extraordinary restructure. Alan Davey, the recently departed controller of BBC Radio 3 and the Proms, ceased to have direct responsibility for the classical ensembles that are now under the control of former head of rock and pop Lorna Clarke, while Webb, the former director of the BBC Philharmonic, is the new head of orchestras and choirs in England.
The BBC’s timing is as calculated as its strategy is callous: ensembles struggling to recover from the pandemic, exhausted from keeping the show on the road throughout, three of the ensembles without a permanent director and all contractually gagged. There is not one single champion for classical music left at the BBC in any position of power or influence. Herod has been left minding the creche.
The rhetoric wrapped around the plan is as predictable and flimsy as it is insulting to the licence-fee payer, the UK’s music lovers and all BBC musicians. “Bold. Ambitious. Good for the audiences who love classical music. Ensuring every pound of the licence fee works harder for the sector and for our audiences.” And so it goes on . We’ve heard it before.
What does it mean? Imagine having a garage with five high-performance sports cars, and deciding to save money by removing a wheel from each one and using the spare when you decide to race one. Oh, and that’s when you’ve already shot the only champion racehorse you had in the stable. It takes years to train musicians and forge an orchestra or choir to operate at the highest level on a world stage; that almost telepathic connection that thrills an audience can only be achieved from musicians who work together day in day out.
After the long dark months of Covid, when the world wondered whether live music would ever be heard again, it was the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra that came together in an empty Royal Albert Hall for the first night of the 2020 Proms to give performances of such profound emotional depth of the sort that only those musicians could, working in such alien conditions. How proud the BBC was of them then and how grateful music lovers everywhere.
Why does this matter? Because reductions in the BBC’s commitment to classical music will shrink the sector and offer increasingly less value to audiences. It’s all very well to speak of music education, but for what? If there are no beacons of excellence to aspire to, and inspire, no opportunities for young musicians to experience live music, for composers to find their voice, for conductors to practise their craft, and for audiences to be engaged and enthralled, isn’t that hypocritical? Because that is the trajectory of classical music in this country. If we don’t wake up soon, there will be no live classical music. Whether you engage with it or not, its right to exist needs protecting.
When I joined the BBC in 1999, I understood the role of public service broadcasting, which, in turn, defined the role of the orchestras and choirs. To serve our audiences with great and familiar music, to share the less well-known and neglected repertoire, to introduce new talent and to bring to the UK important new works from around the world. I think back to UK premieres of John Adams’ operas The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic , or Jake Heggie’s searing Dead Man Walking , all dealing with controversial issues relevant to our time. Every time I read or heard “only the BBC could do that”, I felt so proud, and how often were we and our work championed by the BBC every time the charter review came around or the big cheeses were entertaining at the Proms.
I no longer know if the BBC is a public service broadcaster; I don’t recognise it any more, or its values. If it no longer exists to do that which others cannot or will not, then what is it for? After 23 years of constant change, the ensembles of the BBC have never been more agile, flexible or willing to adapt, and they represent tremendous value for money in the grand scheme of the BBC’s budget and our licence-fee payment.
The role of cultural patron is not optional, and the responsibilities as custodian of music ensembles do not give the BBC permission to dispose of and dismantle them without serious public discussion, not to mention honest, transparent internal debate. The values and behaviour of what we are told repeatedly is “our BBC” must matter to all of us as much as the content.
Paul Hughes is a former director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and of the BBC Singers