I have a question for the BBC - why do you need five orchestras?

The head of Radio 3 needs to  convince the licence fee payers


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The Independent Online

Music lovers may be breathing a sigh of relief. Alan Davey, the new head of Radio 3, has intimated that despite some severe budget cuts, the BBC’s eight orchestras and choral groups are safe.

A misprint surely? Eight! I am also a music lover, and I will champion the BBC and most of its works until I am blue in the face...but five orchestras and three choral groups! Is it strictly necessary for the BBC to run five orchestras? It doesn’t to my knowledge run live theatre companies around the country, even though it produces a hell of a lot of drama, and very good drama. So why should it be running orchestras and choral groups, let alone eight of them? The logic is puzzling.

The cost of these eight groups is £32.5m. Were I given to hyperbole I might chuck in an adjective and say a staggering £32.5m. But let’s just say £32.5m. The figure speaks for itself as a sizeable chunk of BBC spending. Of course, those of us who love the arts and admire enormously the BBC’s invaluable contribution to them would not want to underestimate the contribution that these orchestras and choral groups make. The presence of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at many of the Proms is of itself a major factor in that great festival’s success. It is not their large output and certainly not their quality that is in question. It is whether BBC should be funding them.

London alone has four symphony orchestras excluding the BBC Symphony Orchestra, so there’s no shortage of free-lance outfits that can be used. There is no shortage either of choral groups up and down the country. Yet, bizarrely, while every other aspect of the BBC seems to be under the microscope, the question of the BBC funding its own in-house orchestras is seldom raised.

Once upon a time there were 20 orchestras and choral groups funded by the licence payer, believe it or not. That has been reduced over the years. But we still have the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales, 

Mr Davey’s exact words were: “There’s absolutely no plans to cut a performing group – I’ve not been under pressure to seek to do that.” But perhaps he should be under pressure. If not under pressure to cut, then at least under pressure to explain — to examine the current situation and give a public explanation of it. 

We may end up after a proper debate concluding that all these first-class outfits should remain as they are and continue to be funded by the licence fee payer. But let’s at least have that debate. And let Mr Davey or someone at the BBC explain why at a time when programmes and even whole channels are under threat, it spends £32.5m on eight music outfits.


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