Peter Phillips

Choral cull

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The Myerscough report about the future funding of the BBC, entitled Delivering Quality First, is another classic in the long-running serial about how everything will be much better once the Corporation has made further cuts to its staff and programming. This one, which follows on from another published what seems like just the other day, is the direct result of the BBC having acquiesced in freezing the licence fee until 2017 while taking on new costs, such as the World Service and the switchover to digital services. Two thousand jobs must go and this time the funding of the Performing Groups — the five full-time orchestras and the BBC Singers — is not protected.

The report does not say who should suffer what, but comes to the conclusion that none of the Performing Groups should be cut completely and speculates about what percentage of their funding could go without hobbling them completely; 20 per cent was found to be too steep, leaving 10 per cent as the obvious benchmark. However, what has become apparent in recent days is that the 10 per cent is not to be shared out equally: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic will take single-figure cuts, while the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers will take cuts much greater than 10 per cent. In the case of the Singers this translates into a loss of four posts (on top of two sacrificed only a few months ago after the last round of cuts), taking the staff membership of the group down from 24 to 18 voices.

To reduce the size of an ensemble like the Singers by 25 per cent is to deprive it of repertoire as well as morale. With 24 voices you can perform just about all the choral repertoire; with 18 you can’t. To try to sing the great Romantic masterpieces, for example, with fewer than 24 will be like trying to play Brahms with a reduced string section. And to say that some ad hocs can be drafted in on occasion misses the point: for any ensemble to produce a stylish, distinctive sound all the singers need to know each other and their voices inside out. This is the work of many weeks together. There are no short cuts.

The value of the BBC Singers to the artistic life of the country is not always appreciated. There are plenty of ensembles out there who expect to sing many different repertoires well, without being the best there is. Some of the most renowned are not the best at any of the many things they do, and ultimately are dispensable. The Singers are also required to perform in many different styles — inevitably not always to everyone’s satisfaction — but in contemporary repertoire they are simply unrivalled. As Richard Morrison said in the Times last week, referring to a performance at the Cheltenham Festival: ‘No other choir in Britain could prepare these challenging multipolyphonic pieces to such a high level. The BBC’s plan to inflict a disproportionately large cull on this superb ensemble needs to be fiercely opposed.’ There is a difference between best and second-best: if you scrap the best you lose something irreplaceable.

Perhaps few people care that impossibly difficult modern pieces — or the kind of rare repertoire from any period that it is the Singers’ job to explore — would disappear from the lists if the Singers didn’t sing them. But that is to misunderstand the real value of Radio 3. Most countries have their Classic FM station — serving up the same familiar diet week after week. It is not the Classic FMs that prepare for the future. Diminishing the Singers diminishes the BBC more generally, and with them our cultural life.

One recurring problem is that these big artistic decisions are often taken by people of similar background, who broadly agree on what is important. They tend not to be interested in contemporary choral music, or indeed in choral music of any kind, and to prefer orchestras. It is not a coincidence — though in the current climate it is extraordinary — that the BBC maintains five orchestras; and yet it is its only choir that has to be reduced to the point where it cannot function properly. If it is four performers who have to go, why not four string players from one or more of the orchestras?

Choral singing of every kind is on the up these days. From Gareth Malone to Tallis’s ‘Spem in alium’, currently standing at number one in the classical charts, there is a breadth of interest that is challenging more traditional ways of thinking. This interest is set to increase, and when it does it will need brand leaders. At the moment the BBC is in a position to lead the way, which after all is what we pay it to do.