The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened its new season in Glasgow last night. It was a blistering occasion – a heady mixture of Russian music, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, Scriabin’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s tenth symphony. The City Halls were packed for the concert, which featured the Tchaikovsky prize-winning pianist Barry Douglas (above) and which was conducted by the orchestra’s charismatic chief conductor Donald Runnicles. It was broadcast live on Radio 3.
In the classical music world, the future of the BBC orchestras is a constant topic of idle speculation, and over the past couple of months the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been the subject of particular attention. One of the consequences of Scottish independence would have been the break-up of the BBC. Whether a Scottish broadcaster would have had the resources – or indeed the inclination – to maintain the orchestra was unclear.
The BBC’s pivotal role in the development of classical music in Britain cannot be underestimated. It remains one of the primary patrons of new music, in addition to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it sustains orchestras in Wales and England (the BBC Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic and the BBC Concert orchestras) and its funding for the Ulster Orchestra is critical to its survival. The BBC Proms remains one of the most remarkable festivals of music in the world today.
Times have changed, resources are limited, and the pressure on BBC Radio Three is enormous.
When the Ulster Orchestra was founded in the 1980s, its funding model was supposed to be rolled out across the BBC orchestras. The BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra morphed into a new organisation with the Beeb as a partner alongside the Arts Council, Belfast City Council and the private sector (in the form of tobacco giant Gallaher – now JTI).
Luckily for the other orchestras, the experiment stopped there. Unfortunately for the Ulster Orchestra, it has left it in a perilous position – underfunded by the Arts Council (itself underfunded by a Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure which is no champion for the arts) and neglected by Belfast City Council which does not understand the value of this cultural asset.
The notion that the private sector in Northern Ireland would step up to the plate was fanciful. There’s no private sector there worth talking about.
Compared with its sister city Belfast, Glasgow is well served. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble and the BBCSSO all command audiences, and the music scene is vibrant.
They benefit from being able to draw on a larger population base than their Belfast cousins. But crucially they are based in a city which has put cultural tourism at the heart of its strategy. Glasgow is proud of its cultural assets in a way Belfast is not – for all the investment there has been in capital infrastructure in recent years.
As the broadcasting environment changes, the BBC orchestras will face more and more challenges to justify themselves.
Many people will have little sympathy for an art form for which they find it hard to relate to, and the arts are an easy target for the number-crunchers and bean counters. The creative industries rely on people, and people are expensive.
But without creativity, we are nothing. Directly and indirectly, the creative industries feed our souls and have a significant impact on things we do value as a society – the creation of wealth. In a world where brain rather than brawn is the key differentiator, creativity has added importance.
Our musicians, actors, dancers and singers provide the type of creative environment which stimulates our minds.
And there is another reason why we should support and sustain our orchestras. There is nothing quite like the communal experience of sitting in a hall with 1,000 strangers experiencing music live. There is a level of engagement and excitement which cannot be replicated (as BBC Radio 3 discovered through its ill-fated experiment in broadcasting concerts ‘as live’ rather than live).
We live in a needy world, we have to priorities where we spend our money, but a world which has no place for the arts and creativity, which has no ears for music, is not worth inhabiting.