SELLING THE JEWELS c
German jibes about das Land öhne Musik, Britain has long been the singing nation, thanks to its peerless choral tradition. Cultivated since Tudor times amid an ecology of Oxbridge colleges, amateur choral societies, and church choirs, the BBC entered the scene a century ago to play its own crucial role in the nurturing and dissemination of this cherished tradition, commissioning an endless stream of new works, performed by its expert — if overworked and underpaid — vocalists.
So much so that no less a monumental figure than Pierre Boulez could claim that the jewel in the corporation’s entire musical crown is the BBC Singers. These 20 gifted sight-readers, who turn on a sixpence from a Harrison Birtwistle premiere to a Christmas carol and back, are widely regarded as the finest vocal unit of their kind in the world, and the envy of it.
In their near 100 years of existence, many future stars of the operatic world have served their apprenticeship among them, including Peter Pears, Dame Sarah Connolly, and Brindley Sherratt. They are, in a word dreaded by the mediocrities of BBC management, “elite”.
then that the BBC Singers are to be scrapped — along with 20 per cent of the salaried staff of the BBC’s Concert, Philharmonic and Symphony orchestras — as too good for the brave, new W1A world of middlebrow crime drama, relentless food programmes, BBC3, and those sports shunned by the Sky and BT channels.
This act of spite and vandalism will save just a little more than Gary Lineker’s annual salary for presenting a football highlights package. It is further evidence of what many have long suspected: that there are people in powerful positions at the BBC who want to rid the corporation of classical music entirely.
Classical music is beautiful, it is diffi cult, sometimes it is long, and — worst of all — its core repertoire is that of dead, white, European males, whose genius,
though self-evident and once at the heart of the BBC’s Reithian mission, is no defence against the high priests of the diversity religion, who, it can now be said have an agenda to cancel classical music.
clerisy is Lorna Clarke, the BBC’s Director of Music (formerly “Controller of Pop” — no not the Etonian society, but the ubiquitously banal soundtrack to twenty-first-century life). Clarke was strongly, and bravely, criticised in a letter written by the BBC Singers’ co-directors, Jonathan Manners and Rob Johnston, and sent, at considerable professional risk, to the BBC Chairman, Richard Sharp.
Leaked to the Slipped Disc website of The Critic’s Norman Lebrecht, the letter described an atmosphere of “fear and paranoia” towards the BBC’s classical paranoia” towards the BBC’s classical musicians, amid a “toxic culture”, and drew musicians, amid a “toxic culture”, and drew particular attention to Clarke’s allegedly “aggressive and confrontational” style. Her “calamitous handling of the situation”, is said to have left colleagues in tears as she headed for a fortnight’s holiday.
Manners and Johnston wrote of the utter lack of curiosity about classical music and the high arts in general demonstrated by BBC managers, though that should hardly come as a surprise, given their background.
Clarke, for example, is a former programme director at the dance music station Kiss 100 FM, was head of mainstream programmes at Radio 1, and was the creator and “curator” of the Electric Proms, which, in a commission of breathtaking originality and inspiration, brought neglected talents such as Sir Elton John, Dame Shirley Bassey, and Sir Paul McCartney to stage and TV screens.
Ben Palmer, artistic director of the Covent Garden Sinfonia, has drawn attention to Clarke’s numerous social media comments, hardly any of which mention the BBC’s orchestras and none of which mention the BBC Singers. Her Twitter header declares her to be “director music” (of what?) against a background on which the single word “pop” is displayed.
to see, despite the bluster of Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s Chief Content Offi cer and Clarke’s boss, who claims, in witheringly banal management speak, that there is a strategy behind the cuts — “to future-proof our ensembles and invest in education”. Moore’s claims were dismissed in language more concise and precise, by the eminent conductor John Eliot Gardiner on the BBC itself as “baloney”. The likes of Moore, Gardiner contends, “don’t give a flying fig” about classical music.
It has been the default of the classical music community in Britain to blame any attacks on the genre on a combination of Brexit and the Conservative government, but it is now clear that the cultural vandals, the real enemies of classical music at the BBC — on which so much, perhaps too much, British music-making is dependent — are within.
And where there is cultural vandalism, the name of Nicholas Serota cannot be far removed. Indeed, one of those cc’ed on the letter to Richard Sharp is the blessed Sir Nick, as an “independent director” of the BBC Board. The man who gave us the glorified Bankside café that is Tate Modern, and is now doing his worst at the
/ B B C
M A R K A L L E N
THE CRITIC 2 APR 2023