Inside the BBC Singers disaster – and what happens next
We can breathe again. The BBC Singers have been given a stay of execution. Having declared on March 7 that this world-leading British ensemble was to be abolished, the Corporation said on Friday that an agreement had been reached with the Musicians’ Union to “suspend the proposal”. But beware: it isn’t time to break out the champagne. This is not a complete U-turn. The BBC is “actively exploring options” for alternative sources of funding – and only if these prove to be viable will the Singers’ future be secure.
The original news of the closure, three weeks ago, caused disbelief. For musicians in the choral world, it felt like a personal loss. Anna Lapwood, organist, choir director and presenter of BBC Young Musician, tells me: “When the news broke, I was genuinely devastated on behalf of everyone who’s involved with that organisation – myself included. We all know how they represent the very best of British choral music, and everything they’ve done for promoting new music, supporting conductors, composers, presenters, is extraordinary. The idea that that could just be cut was terrifying.”
Then came the outpouring of anger and support. The BBC suddenly faced an unprecedented catastrophe. The Singers were to be disbanded before this summer’s Proms; it was rumoured last week that Simon Rattle would boycott the Corporation’s crown jewel in protest – and would be far from the only musical A-lister to do so.
In public, star singers including mezzo-soprano and ex-BBC Singer Sarah Connolly protested the Singers’ closure, as did professional and amateur choirs across the land. A letter signed by directors of 15 European radio choirs pleaded for a change of heart. Even the Cabinet expressed support for such a move. The leading American composer John Adams said the BBC was acting like a character in the recent film The Banshees of Inisherin – determined to cut off its own fingers. Eric Whitacre, perhaps the world’s best-known choral composer and conductor, tells me that when he first heard the news, he was “gutted”.
“I just thought I couldn’t imagine the wisdom in simply stopping an institution that was a century old,” he says. “You can’t imagine how respected the Singers are – they worked with legendary people such as Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc. I think it’s not overstating the case to say that the BBC Singers represent the pinnacle of what we all do, worldwide.”
What made the decision even more painful is that it came at a time when the art form has been suffering. Naomi Pohl, general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, points out that the BBC’s Classical Music Review of May last year pledged wholehearted support for the sector and established a new head of Orchestras and Choirs. “[The Singers closure] was so disappointing,” she says, “because professional life is already so fragile. Freelancers are leaving the industry because rates of pay and expenses are so bad that sometimes they actually lose money on a date. I’ve had complaints that venues are often too cold to play in, because the managers need to save on fuel bills.”
So how did we get here? How was one of the greatest choirs in the world, the UK’s only full-time professional choir, reduced by the BBC to hawking itself around the musical world in search of a saviour? The official line was that the Singers had to be abolished “in order to invest more widely in the future of choral singing across the UK”: the BBC was now going to work “with a wide range of choral groups, alongside launching a major choral development programme for new talent”. Financial pressures were cited here, as they were with regard to the decision, announced in the same press release, to shrink the BBC orchestras in England by 20 per cent. The aim was to shift resources away from the BBC’s historic institutions, and towards “creating agile ensembles that can work flexibly and creatively”.
Yet the illogicality and evasiveness of this announcement was evident to everyone – except the BBC management who made it. If you’re looking for an agile, creative and flexible ensemble, you couldn’t do better than the BBC Singers themselves: they can perform a mind-bendingly virtuoso choral piece one day, and work with disadvantaged schoolchildren or diverse youth groups the next. Much the same could be said of the BBC orchestras. And in recent weeks, the claim that abolishing the BBC Singers would save a significant sum seemed unusually absurd: it emerged that they cost about the same as Gary Lineker’s salary.
For the commentator and journalist Norman Lebrecht, the debacle points to a hollowness in an organisation that is meant to be a beacon of civilised values in the UK. “Two facts have emerged that are hugely embarrassing to the BBC. The first is that only two senior directors of the BBC have ever even heard the BBC Singers. So they were voting to scrap an asset without even knowing what it was.”
“The other was the complete failure to consult. If you ask anyone in the choral or orchestral world, ‘Did you get a call from the BBC about this plan?’, the answer is always no. It’s policy-making on the hoof without any information on which to base the policy.” (The BBC disputes this.)
Nicholas Kenyon, one-time director of Radio 3 and the Proms (and now chief opera critic of this newspaper), agrees – though he has a tad more sympathy for BBC management. “The BBC was so misguided in trying to execute brutal cuts without having explored the alternatives. We’re not saying that nothing can change – in fact, there have to be big changes, as the BBC has to save huge sums, and music can’t be exempt. But you need to look for imaginative solutions, not just cuts. It’s very good news that the BBC has seen that.”
What the future holds is still uncertain. It may be that a consortium of institutions – or, as a BBC insider suggests to this paper, wealthy “white knights” – could club together to run the choir, which would keep the BBC name, and perhaps some Corporation funding. There has also been speculation that help may come from one of Britain’s leading conservatoires, such as the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, while the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music have also been suggested as possible contenders to run the ensemble. BBC insiders have also suggested that the Singers could be set up as a separate charity.
But whatever solution is found, it won’t assuage the widespread belief that the BBC is no longer a reliable custodian of the institutions it has created. Looking at this fiasco, it’s hard not to be reminded of a similar disaster at Arts Council England, which in November announced the withdrawal of all funding to English National Opera unless it fell into line with ACE’s new master plan. This plan turned out to be no more than a back-of-an-envelope scribble, neither properly researched nor costed. What are these exciting new choral groups the BBC wants to fund? Do they even exist? Does the BBC imagine they can be conjured out of thin air?
Like ACE, the BBC seems more embarrassed than enthused about its historic role as a patron of the arts. Terrified of appearing elitist or careless about more up-to-the-minute values, and beset by financial woes, the management probably took a gamble that few would protest about the loss of a small choir. Well, they were wrong: the whole world protested. If the Corporation doesn’t care about the great institutions in its care, it should take note and act accordingly – if it wants to avoid disgracing the name of the BBC any more than it already has.