Musicians accused the BBC of “cultural vandalism” as the broadcaster axed the century-old BBC Singers and announced deep cuts to its orchestras.
The “devastating” measures mean that the internationally-renowned BBC Singers, Britain’s only full-time professional chamber choir, will be disbanded, at a cost of 20 jobs, with the BBC’s three English orchestras also facing redundancies of twenty per cent.
The BBC said the cuts were essential to “ensure we deliver high quality orchestral and choral music within a sustainable financial model.”
Musicians said the move was a bitter blow as the sector seeks to recover from the pandemic. The BBC is single biggest employer of UK musicians in an increasingly insecure classical world.
“It is essential that the BBC invests in more broadcast opportunities from a greater range of high-quality ensembles, and therefore the BBC has made the difficult decision to close the BBC Singers (20 posts) and invest resources in a wider pool of choral groups from across the UK,” the broadcaster said.
This would help “emerging and diverse choirs” to engage a “wider and a future audience” with the BBC establishing a new nationwide choral development programme.
A voluntary redundancy process will begin at the BBC Symphony, BBC Concert and BBC Philharmonic orchestras aimed at cutting around 20 per cent of employed jobs.
The three affected orchestras and the BBC Singers are based in England while the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are currently unaffected.
Cutting orchestral positions would help create “flexible, agile ensembles that can work creatively, bringing in more musicians when needed and broadcasting from more venues in different parts of the country,” the broadcaster said.
First established in 1924 and a regular feature at the BBC Proms, the BBC Singers will not be allowed to retain their long-established name and continue as an ensemble outside of the corporation when the group is disbanded.
Jonathan Manners, who produces the BBC Singers for Radio 3, said the choir was “devastated” by the news.
Mezzo soprano Eleanor Minney tweeted: “I have been a very proud employee of the BBC, and even prouder member of the BBC Singers for almost nine years. This decision is utterly devastating. I’m speechless and heartbroken.”
Nicholas Chalmers, senior associate artist at the Royal Opera House, tweeted: “This is the saddest of days. Cultural vandalism. My thoughts are with you all as you digest this brutal news. Our industry needs to mobilise and come out fighting for you.”
BBC services and shows are being cut as a result of a £285m funding gap arising from the last year’s licence fee deal, which froze the level of the mandatory charge for two years. That meant taking “painful decisions.”
Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s Chief Content Officer, said: “This new strategy is bold, ambitious, and good for the sector and for audiences who love classical music. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had to make some difficult decisions, but equally they are the right ones for the future.”
Naomi Pohl, General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union, said: “The BBC is the biggest engager of musicians in the UK and it plays a unique role in the eco-system of our music industry. It is because we appreciate the BBC’s role so much that these proposed cuts are so utterly devastating.”
There was anger within the classical world as the BBC’s recent Classical Music Review appeared to commit to the ongoing employment of the Singers and its orchestras. The BBC will engage the MU in discussions over the redundancy programme.
The BBC Singers were formed in 1924 as the Wireless Chorus. Their first broadcast was on September 28, when they sung Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
The BBC’s professional chamber choir has been known by several names, from the Wireless Singers to the BBC Chorus, and also the Variety Chorus, Theatre Chorus and the Kentucky Minstrels.
They finally became the BBC Singers in 1972. Their reputation over the years has been built on their ability to tackle over five centuries of choral music, though in particular the demanding cutting-edge contemporary repertoire.
Based at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, the Singers currently number 20 performers and regularly perform for international audiences.
London’s East Bank will be the new home for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus from 2025, with tailored studios being built on the site of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as part of new cultural quarter in East London, alongside the V&A, UCL, London College of Fashion and Sadler’s Wells.
The BBC said investing in music education would be a key element of its new strategy, which would reinforce the distinctiveness of its five orchestras.
They will perform at a promised 50 new performance venues across Britain from 2024, opening up classical music to new audiences. The BBC said its new classical strategy prioritises “quality, agility and impact.”
The BBC’s Moore added: “Great classical music should be available and accessible to everyone, and we’re confident these measures will ensure more people will engage with music, have better access to it, and that we’ll be able to play a greater role in developing and nurturing the musicians and music lovers of tomorrow.”
Change to its performing portfolio was necessary even without the urgent need to make cuts, the broacaster argued.