Simon Webb, the BBC's Head of Orchestras and Choirs, comments on its 2023 Classical Review
The BBC has released a new strategy for classical music, aiming ‘to strengthen the BBC’s public purpose for classical music, delivering the best music to a wider audience, with a significant new investment in music education’
Simon Webb comments on the BBC's new strategy for classical music, including a commitment to maintaining the five BBC Orchestras, to broadcasting from more venues across the country and to doubling the funding for music education and training initiatives – but also the decision to disband the BBC Singers, and to reduce salaried posts across its English Orchestras by around 20 per cent:
'The BBC has been at the heart of the UK’s classical music industry for over 100 years. In that time our mission has always remained the same: to bring the highest quality music to the widest possible audiences. It has guided our every move from taking over the running of the Proms 95 years ago to bringing the BBC Concert Orchestra together with Stormzy last month for Radio 2’s Piano Room.
'In my first two months in this new role I have visited each of our orchestras and choirs, heard them rehearse, record and perform at the highest level, from workshops in schools with the BBC Singers, to recording soundtracks at BBC National Orchestra or Wales, from a profoundly moving Mahler 6 from the BBC Scottish Symphony to a typically eclectic programme of Birtwistle, Dutilleux and Ravel at the BBC Philharmonic.
'Szymanowski’s third symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, preceded by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante performed by two BBC New Generation Artists Johan Dalene and Tim Ridout, brought together our brilliant amateur musicians of the chorus with one of our world class orchestras and demonstrated our commitment to developing young talent. And every concert performance available to everyone on BBC Radio 3.
'But staying true to our mission can never mean standing still. In fact, it must mean the opposite. Part of my role as the BBC’s Head of Orchestras and Choirs is to ensure we keep working to bring the full weight of that mission to bear on the times we live in, and keep making the changes that are needed to serve our audiences and our partners better. We also have to understand our place in the wider music ecology of the UK. These are challenging times financially, including for the BBC as a public service broadcaster as we carve out our role in a rapidly changing world. The BBC has a clear strategy, articulated as Value for All, and we all have a responsibility to find our way to deliver that strategy, to deliver for audiences across the UK.
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'That’s why the BBC yesterday announced an ambitious new strategy for classical music. It is designed to ensure that every single penny of licence fee funding works as hard as it can for the sector, and for audiences who love and appreciate classical music.
'We want to be able to work with more musicians, and broadcast from more venues, in all parts of the country. That will mean more opportunities for freelance musicians in our English orchestras, and fewer salaried posts. It’s a change that keeps the BBC in line with the industry standard, freelance and salaried musicians working together, but it also realigns us with the founding spirit of the BBC ensembles as flexible performing groups.
'This increased agility will allow us to take our orchestras to venues and locations they have never been before. We plan to perform and broadcast from up to 50 new venues from the 2024/25 season, breaking down barriers and connecting with future lovers of classical music in communities all around the UK.
'Second, we are doubling our investment in music education. Last week, research from the RPO showed that eight in 10 schoolchildren felt much more could be done to get young people into orchestral music. Speaking at the RPS Awards, John Gilhooly called for us all to understand the challenges schools face and work together to address them.
'The BBC is determined to play our fullest possible part. Working closely with partners, this Autumn will see the launch of a major nationwide music education offer which aims to reach every school-age child in the UK through online, broadcast, and live performance.
'Third, we are investing in choral singing across the UK. We believe it’s essential that the BBC supports more broadcast opportunities from a greater range of high-quality ensembles. That’s why we have made the difficult decision to close the BBC Singers, and invest our limited resources in a wider pool of choral groups around the country.
'Supporting emerging and diverse choirs is also vital to engaging more and different future audiences. So the BBC will establish a new nationwide choral development programme, building on the BBC Singers’ community work around London’s East Bank – the home of the new BBC Music Studios from 2025.
'There is plenty more in our strategy. We will create a new digital home for our orchestras, giving audiences access to the full range of orchestral content, new and from the archive, all in one place. We will build on the incredible success of our five orchestras, championing the unique place of each in the UK’s cultural landscape. We will convene a new Classical Advisory Group of leaders from across the industry to advise us on how best to work with the sector.
'The question I have sought to answer is; how do we best spend the resources we have, your money as licence-fee payers, that is entrusted to us as public service broadcasters, on the highest quality music for the widest possible audience? As I took on this new job there was no doubt that difficult decisions would have to be made, and at the heart of this role lie our musicians and our ensembles.
'To close one of those ensembles is without doubt the hardest thing I have had to do in my career. But we have to address the need for change in how we work, and the longer we leave that the harder it will become to find the change that secures the future of high quality live performance of classical music for the BBC. Objectively I can see that the new strategy serves our audiences better; personally I see the changes this brings for individual musicians, for colleagues and friends and I want to take this opportunity to thank all our brilliant musicians for their contribution to the success of our classical music offer, past, present and future.
'The BBC remains the biggest commissioner of music and one of the biggest employers of musicians in this country. We have a critical part to play for a thriving classical sector. It is our duty to safeguard that role for the future, and deliver our mission on a sustainable financial footing.
'This strategy is our plan to do just that. Our goal is to maximise the value the BBC can deliver for the industry and our audiences, increase our reach and impact, and drive greater access to classical music for all.'