The vital cultural legacy of the BBC Singers and BBC Orchestras
Posted on 28th April 2023 at 16:02
BBC Symphony Orchestra of London rehearsing for the Last Night of the Proms.
Image credit: Steve Bowbrick, used under creative commons licence.
If you’ve been following the news recently, you may have heard about some proposed cuts to the BBC’s orchestral music provision – including changes that would see a number of its salaried musicians made redundant. The proposals would have seen the BBC Singers, the UK’s only full-time professional chamber choir, scrapped. Further proposals, which received less public attention, included a 20% reduction in funding for the BBC’s three England-based orchestras: the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the BBC Philharmonic.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the UK music world, with many organisations leaping into action to campaign against the cuts.
Here at the Music Workshop Company, along with others across the sector, we firmly believe the BBC Singers and the BBC’s orchestras are vital for inspiring young musicians.
Performing orchestras have been part of the BBC since the early days of the corporation’s history, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra founded in 1930 as the first permanent, salaried orchestra in London. The BBC Concert Orchestra, which focuses on more populist pieces, formed in 1952, while the BBC Philharmonic, based in Salford, grew out of one of the BBC’s original regional orchestras. The BBC Singers, meanwhile, are due to celebrate their centenary next year, having started life as the Wireless Chorus in 1924. The BBC’s classical music provision also extends to other nations – the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Scottish Orchestra are not currently facing cuts under this raft of proposals.
All of the ensembles have a reputation for high standards and for pioneering new music: the BBC Singers have premiered several compositions that are now considered standards in the classical repertoire, such as Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia. Regular viewers and attendees at the Proms have been treated to stirring performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, particularly on the all-important First and Last Nights. And the groups also contribute to the BBC’s wider programming, recording soundtracks for high-profile programmes such as David Attenborough’s documentaries, bringing classical music to a broader audience.
But the groups’ remit covers more than live and broadcast performances. All of the orchestras, and the BBC singers, are engaged in educational work that aims to open up the world of classical music to young people. And the ensembles take a leading role in the BBC Ten Pieces programme, which provides resources that help to bring classical music to 7-14 year-olds, and its annual BBC Young Composer competition for those aged 12 to 18.
Proposed cuts – and the reaction
It’s no secret that funding for the BBC has been hotly debated for many years. Funded primarily through the licence fee, which is set by government, the broadcaster has been grappling with its budgets following its latest five-year licence fee deal. That deal, announced in 2022, saw the fee frozen for two years, with the BBC expecting to see a £400m funding gap by 2027 as a result.
In its last annual report, the BBC said that it spent £25m a year on orchestras and performing groups. Speaking to BBC’s Front Row programme, the BBC’s Head of Orchestras and Choirs, Simon Webb, spoke of the need for ‘tough decisions’ to ensure financial sustainability.
But critics of the proposals questioned how cutting the BBC Singers – which employs 20 musicians – would make a big enough difference to justify the impact of losing the choir, and pointed to the important role the BBC’s performing groups play in the wider musical ecosystem. In its statement, the Musicians Union (MU) singled out the performers’ contributions to music education, as it vowed to fight the cuts. The Independent Society of Musicians and UK Music, among others, joined calls for a rethink, and a petition against the proposals garnered 150,000 signatures from the public.
BBC Singers and Ensemble Singers rehearse at BBC Maida Vale Studio 1.
Image credit: VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, used under creative commons licence.
Saved, for now – but what happens next?
The public outcry seems to have worked – at least for now. On 24 March, the BBC reversed its plans to close BBC Singers, with the choir resuming its rightful place in the Proms programme, and earlier this month (April 2023) the BBC changed its mind on the rest of the proposals following pressure from the public and the music industry. It says it is now committed to working with the MU, which represents the performers affected, to explore alternatives to the original proposals.
But it remains to be seen what those alternatives will look like. And while the MU has welcomed the reprieve, it has pointed out that the future of the choir and orchestral performers may still be at risk.
The Music Workshop Company’s view
The BBC has a long association with high quality music across multiple genres, something they have historically been proud of. For example, the BBC Proms, whose 2023 season has just been announced, are titled ‘The World’s Greatest Classical Music Festival’. The announcement regarding the job cuts, and the closing of the BBC Singers in particular, has angered the music world, with letters being sent by composers, academics, singers and others. Disappointingly, it seems the BBC sent a standard letter in response to these heartfelt, impassioned letters without referring to points raised by the individual letters.
The UK has long been a supporter of music and the BBC has upheld this tradition, but at a time when music education is continuing to suffer from cuts and Arts Council England has had to stretch its budgets further than ever, it is sad that the BBC is turning its back on the excellence it has been associated with.
The BBC’s mention of further investment in Music Education has brought a response of: how do you inspire young musicians while cutting job opportunities in classical music? Mentions of working with a wider range of ensembles raises additional challenges when the one UK full-time professional choir may be axed.
Senior figures in the classical music world have raised concerns that discussions of the future of the BBC Singers have only been put on hold until after the Proms, and many fear that the cuts will still be made.
Simon Rattle recently featured the BBC Singers in a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra where he made an impassioned speech against the proposals.
The Music Workshop Company team, alongside audiences, young musicians, professional musicians and the rest of the music world, hope that the BBC reconsiders and finds a way to retain the BBC Singers and keep their orchestras at full strength to ensure the BBC continues to be a world leader in music.
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