mon 22/07/2024

Axing the BBC Singers: four associated musicians on why it's so wrong | reviews, news & interviews

Axing the BBC Singers: four associated musicians on why it's so wrong

Axing the BBC Singers: four associated musicians on why it's so wrong

Dame Sarah Connolly leads musical voices on the latest cultural vandalism

The BBC Singers at the recording session for Bernard Hughes' album

Sent by a surely reluctant BBC PR, an ardent choral singer and supporter of new music, last Tuesday’s email had a title to make one groan: “New Strategy for Classical Music Prioritises Quality, Agility and Impact”. Very W1A. But this was no laughing matter – ker-pow-ing out of the thicket of corporatespeak were two devastating punches to the solar plexus.

The first, under “Future-Proofing BBC Ensembles”, told us that “a voluntary redundancy programme will open across salaried posts in the English Orchestras (BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC Philharmonic Orchestra), aiming to reduce salaried orchestral posts across the BBC orchestras by around 20%”. The second, under “Investing in choral singing across the UK”, told us that “the BBC has made the difficult decision to close the BBC Singers (20 posts [incidentally totalling half the cost of what the BBC pays Gary Lineker]) and invest resources in a wider pool of choral groups from across the UK”.

You don’t, however, enrich the BBC’s choral coverage by axing an institution that is nearing its 100th birthday, a group of singers capable of sight-reading Birtwistle and Boulez. Use them to lead choral workshops, encourage “a wider pool of choral groups” – but it’s not either… or.

It turns out from a leaked letter sent by the co-directors of the BBC Singers, Rob Johnston and Jonathan Manners, to BBC Chairman Richard Sharp that the decision was taken not only without proper consultation but that Sharp alone, among the senior team, had heard the Singers in action. There was undisguised anger against the “aggressive and confrontational” manner of Lorna Clarke, elevated from Controller of BBC Pop to the role of BBC Director, Music, whose sole experience of the group was attending one Prom and who at a sole meeting with the Singers had, according to Johnston and Manners, been “overtly dismissive of questioning making clear her lack of time for this process. She left the meeting early leaving her colleague, Simon Webb, who wept in the room in front of the BBC Singers.”

Unprecedented numbers of letters with distinguished signatories – the chief and emeritus conductors of the BBC ensembles, the UK’s most distinguished singers, 700 composers, academics, former and current BBC Young Musician winners – have appeared. Here are the responses of four musicians with direct experience of working with the BBC Singers, plus a poignant coda on where Brexit has left professional choristers.  David Nice


Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano and activist

BBC Singers on tourI first decided to pursue a solo career having observed much of how the music business works during my five years as a BBC Singer between 1987 and 1992. We accompanied many great soloists and worked with stellar conductors during the Proms and on tour (poster pictured left), performing for example Boulez and Ligeti in the world’s contemporary music festivals. Boulez chose us above all other choirs and the daily practice of sight reading, perfecting the difficult pitching, breath control and nerves during live broadcasts (everything was broadcast) was incredible training for the future. I remember somebody from a small opera company saying to me after I left the BBC Singers, “yes but what have you DONE on stage?”. Only that I had sung solos in Messiaen’s music conducted by Peter Eötvös on live EBU broadcast, performed Birtwistle conducted by him in the Châtelet and Liceu theatres broadcast live…the list is long. But they meant operatically. Did Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre count in the Royal Festival Hall conducted by the composer count? (Pictured above:: the best photo we could find of the BBC Singers at the Proms with Sarah Connolly in the line-up)

Now this avenue has been shut down.

I left the BBC Singers to join Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and then covered roles in the tour (then Glyndebourne Touring Opera).

That avenue has also been shut down.

Three years later ENO gave me my first Handel opera lead in their iconic Nicholas Hytner production of Xerxes. I sang with one of my heroines. Jean Rigby and I learned so much from Janis Kelly.

That avenue is in the process of being shut down.

Brexit limits musicians’ work opportunities to three months within six, so my extensive touring as a young soloist with William Christie, Philippe Herreweghe and Mark Minkowski couldn’t have happened now. All these experiences meant I was known and employable at home and abroad. Brexit has seriously compromised any musician wishing to represent Britain on the international stage.

I’m not exaggerating when I say our industry is under attack.


The BBC Singers perform Messiaen's 'O Sacrum Convivium'


Judith Bingham, composer

I've been involved with the BBC Singers from the 1970s, when I auditioned to be a dep. I joined the staff in 1983 and stayed in the group till 1995, after which I became the group's Composer in Residence. From 1975-2022 I have written the Singers 16 pieces, and feel that my whole professional life has been bound up with them. The Singers, from their inception, have performed new music, and to work with them means seeing most of the famous contemporary composers, from Tippett, to Birtwistle, to Stockhausen, from Steve Reich to Judith Weir, to John Tavener, not to mention Ligeti, Berio, Penderecki and Boulez. Before the 70s, Poulenc wrote a piece for the Singers during World War Two. All this is underpinned by the hundreds and hundreds of new commissions and performances of pieces by young composers, in concerts, in workshops, in the conservatoires and universities, and in schools around the country. 

Remoter Worlds by Judith BinghamThe uniqueness of the Singers is that they work together all the time, and become incredibly fluent in their responses. As has been said, nobody works faster than the Singers; their agility cannot be replicated by ad hoc singers.They have the highest technical ability, as is recognised around the world. The American choral conductor Philip Brunelle has said: “I am in disbelief about this. I (along with hundreds of other USA
conductors) have signed a petition to the BBC directors. I hope they will reconsider this pennywise/pound foolish decision.”


Bernard Hughes, composer and writer for theartsdesk

The loss of the BBC Singers is a devastating blow to composers, from professionals to students. I first worked with them on a student workshop in 2002 and this led to a 20+ year collaboration which has gone from that workshop, to commissions, to a commercial album and a Proms premiere. I am a great advert for the system in action – and it has all been taken away from future generations of composers.

Bernard Hughes CDThe recent commitment to 50/50 gender split in programming has been trailblazing and led to the emergence of many previously unheard voices. You would think this would be cause for celebration and pride, not destruction and annihilation. The loss of the BBC Singers is terrible for the individuals involved, and for the whole ecosystem of music in this country. But for composers it is a terrible blow from a group who almost certainly perform more music by living composers than any other in the country.


Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano

I must say I’m finding it difficult to put into words just how shocked and furious I am at this cavalier act of cultural vandalism. I was never a full-time member of the BBC singers as Sarah was, but at one time, shortly after leaving the Royal College of Music, I certainly sang with them very often;  the first two times were Proms, conducted by Rozhdestvensky, and hugely memorable…. followed by many studio recordings and concerts at the Festival Hall and other venues, during the following five or six years as I was establishing myself as a soloist.  

The level at which the Singers worked was always excellent and they were consequently highly respected by the international conductors who came to work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This excellence continues today. I shall always be grateful for the times I sang with the Singers. Of course there was the financial support it gave me as a young singer, but the skills I had started to develop at the RCM were honed by working to such a high musical standard and the experience of performing with artists who were at the top of their game. Catherine Wyn-Rogers teachingNow I have added teaching to my performing career (pictured above), my heart bleeds for my students whose opportunities for employment in the classical world for which they’re being trained are disappearing - wasn’t the whole idea of leaving the EU to provide British jobs for British people?   Then why on earth is the BBC, the public broadcaster of this country, undermining the sector which is so internationally respected - just to chase after some populist idea that you can dilute classical music in order to make it more acceptable? That is an unbelievably patronising attitude to those who haven’t yet experienced the effect of this music; to assume they cannot possibly understand classical music unless it is jazzed up or played in a car park is to treat people like babies…and selling the genre short isn’t the way to bring people to it.  Excellence is not elitism, it is giving all people the very best of yourself as a performer - and thereby respecting your audience.  


And a take on the wider problems of the professional choral scene for British musicians…

Philip Sheffield, tenor

Another example of Brexit. I was asked to fix an opera chorus for a production in the Netherlands. Good English singers to be offered a three month contract. It has now fallen through because the organisers are too nervous about the visa problems and will hire Austrian singers. Quite apart from being a kick in the face for British singers it exemplifies the struggle that newer British entrants into the profession will now suffer permanently. Thanks Brexit. The gift that continues to give. Personally out of pocket as well due to loss of a decent fixing fee.


I can understand the pain expressed by all these people - but four things strike me. The BBC does not have infinite resources. It's been starved for a decade or so by current government. Why don't your writers acknowledge and turn their ire on the Tories? I've been staggered to see the right-wing press blasting the BBC for cutting the Singers while often simultaneously arguing that the licence fee is outdated and should be abolished. The Telegraph is guilty of this. No licence fee means not just no singers, but no BBC Orchestras at all, let alone Radio 3 with all its excellent work with ensembles around the country. Every other part of the BBC has been cut: if savings are to be made by the classical music area, perhaps your writers could make some suggestions? Or should their particular field be utterly exempt? Finally, one word is noticeably largely absent from all these pieces - audiences. The Singers are great for singers as a training ground, a career launchpad, as a commissioner for composers, as performers of challenging music, as hosts of workshops - what about the public? Audiences - licence fee payers - don't seem to matter at all (apart from that slight sneer at the excellent work done by the likes of the MultiStory Orchestra).

You make some good points there. Certainly no-one in this article would dream of advocating the axing of the licence fee, though you make a good point about the right-wing press, and though the government is ultimately to blame (and see an earlier article by Sarah Connolly), the focus here is on the insulting managementspeak and the way no real consultation took place. I think I speak for the audience, at least, and I don't know who was sneering at the likes, of the MultiStory Orchestra - they're marvellous. Again, it's not either...or, and nor is the repertoire of the Singers.

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