Wednesday, 29 March 2023

BBC Classical Music "Strategy" Update, or, A Disappointing (to put it mildly) Response

 Since we last wrote on this senior BBC management (Davie, Moore, Clarke and Webb) have sent replies to at least two of the groups who collectively protested the original strategy. These replies are as un-reassuring as the press release announcing the pause of the decision to close the BBC Singers. They continue to present arguments which date back to the first announcement of the new "strategy" and which we (and others) have taken to pieces. You can read our previous posts on the matter here, here, and here.

I'd much prefer not to have to keep on writing about this situation. I'd also much prefer it if what passes for the press in this country would question senior BBC management robustly about this "strategy" but unfortunately outlets seem to have swallowed the argument that the BBC Singers have been saved, are treating debate as over, and it has faded from mainstream coverage. So I'm afraid it is necessary to repeat myself.

Friday, 24 March 2023

BBC U-Turn on Singers Closure?, or Questions that Senior Management Still Need to Answer

 What was a rumour (on Lebrecht's blog) last night appears to be fact this morning with a BBC press release announcing that the decision to close the BBC Singers has been "paused" by the corporation. This is, as far as it goes, good news, but there remain major questions for senior management at the corporation to answer.

First, and purely with respect to the Singers, what is to happen going forwards and on what timeline? There's a troubling statement in the report that implies the pause is because "a number of organisations came forward to offer alternative funding". Maybe this is (as my brother suggested to me this morning) just a fig leaf to cover management's retreat on closure. But it seems equally plausible that the BBC still intend to save the money, or some of the money, closure would have afforded by passing the cost to some other body. How would the corporation justify this in relation to their public service broadcasting remit? And if the Singers are now to be partially dependent on some kind of additional external funding source what safeguards will be in place to maintain that in future years (bearing in mind that the broader situation with arts funding for individual organisations is perennially uncertain).

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

The BBC Classical Music Cuts, or, We Must Have Accountability and Standards in Senior Public Appointments

 Just over ten days ago now I wrote at length here about the BBC's new classical music strategy, of which the most notable element is the proposal to close the BBC Singers and to make 20% cuts to the three English orchestras (BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Concert Orchestra). I asked a whole series of questions about the evidence (& mostly lack of it) underpinning the strategy and about the strategy itself.

Since I published that blog post, public criticism of the cuts and the strategy has gathered pace. A letter was leaked which is damning of BBC management's conduct in relation to this strategy and particularly the BBC Singers closure (the letter was also reported on by The Times). Later in this blog I will attempt to summarise what has so far been said and done and indicate the steps readers can take to amplify that criticism should they wish.

However, my focus here is on what I regard as the key issue with the BBC's response, or rather lack of it so far, which speaks to other recent problems at the corporation and to the broader damage that has been done to how publicly funded organisations operate by the current government.

Publicly funded organisations like the BBC should be subject to standards of competence and accountability. This is all the more the case for individuals who hold senior managerial positions in such organisations and receive very substantial salaries. The behaviour of senior BBC management both in approving the original classical music "strategy"/press release and in their subsequent response to the significant protests and even more significant questions asked of that strategy, demonstrates that those standards are very substantially eroded. This should be a matter of concern to all of us, whatever our views on the specifics of this particular case.

Let us start with the strategy itself. If you are a Manager (on a substantial salary) in the public sector, and you have ultimate executive responsibility for a strategy on a particular issue, then the taxpayer (in this case the licence fee payer) has the right to expect that that strategy, particularly where it involves job losses, possesses a rigorously constructed argument, underpinned by appropriate and sufficient evidence. This is not the case with the classical music "strategy" as I and others have shown.

Further, if a strategy not so based, is then subjected to legitimate and substantive criticism, the licence fee payer has the right to expect that senior management, who are responsible for the strategy, will respond to the substantial questions. Of course this may not be pleasant for the managers concerned (though had they developed the strategy robustly in the first place they could have avoided the situation) but it is one of the main things by which such individuals may justify their positions - in other words, not by doing the nice bits of the job (accepting awards, opening new buildings, claiming credit for commissions) but by dealing with the nasty bits - in this case publicly accepting ownership of cuts and publicly responding to legitimate criticism of them and the "strategy" underpinning them.

Since the odd interview immediately following the original press release, I have not seen one senior BBC manager give a single interview or respond in substance in any other way. These individuals appear to be assuming that they can get away with doing this. They may, sadly, be right, but it is a terrible indictment of the standards of our public life if they are able to do so.

Now, if this was a one off for the current senior BBC management, it might be said that perhaps I should be more forgiving about it. But it isn't. We've just seen a similarly woeful piece of senior management mishandling with the Lineker episode. To be clear, this is irrespective of what your view may be of Lineker's tweets. First, if you take a senior presenter off air in that way then I would expect the manager concerned (in this case the Director General) to have gamed out likely scenarios that might follow so that preparations could be made in advance to manage those scenarios. I think it is completely clear from the fiasco of 11-12th March that no such planning was undertaken before the Lineker decision was made. Secondly, once it becomes clear you have a fiasco on your hands an effective manager would take immediate and rapid steps to get the situation back under control. Again, it was very clear over the weekend in question that there was no such managerial grip. Finally, once a senior manager has got a fiasco under control (as the Director General eventually did on Monday 13th) such a manager would make clear that a proper investigation of a situation, which had evidently been very poorly handled, would be undertaken. And because this is a publicly funded organisation, the public (or the licence fee payers if you prefer) should reasonably be expected to be reported to on what the outcome of that investigation was, and what steps management proposed to take to prevent a recurrence. Instead the Director General appears to be behaving as if nothing really went wrong, and certainly as if there is no particular mismanagement on his part for which he should be answerable.

I suggest all this has its roots in our current governmental culture. That's to say we have a government for whom, in recent years, mismanagement has been the norm, and one which seeks to evade responsibility for that mismanagement far too frequently. That culture has got into other publicly funded organisations either through direct appointment (I needn't rehearse here the significant ethical problems with the appointment of the current BBC Chair) or indirectly because the wider environment has made acceptable such behaviour. It seems unlikely that my writing one blog about this will do anything about it, but it's about the only thing I have the power to do. And I refuse to close my eyes and say all this is acceptable, there's nothing we can do.

The BBC should be one of the great organisations of this country. I don't want to see it destroyed (though plenty on the government benches do and lacking the courage to own that policy themselves are seeking to enact it by other means). And so all we can do is to fight for what it should be. To fight for accountability and standards in its management and governance. To be, as my co-religionist George Fox wrote in 1663 "of good faith and valiant for Truth." 

Bluntly the conduct of senior BBC management in this matter thus far has been shameful. It is not too late for redemption. I continue to hope a call for accountability and standards may be heard.

What Steps Can You Take?

1) Sign the petition - at the time of writing over 141,000 have already signed.

2) Complain direct to the BBC or to your MP. This blog post provides the e-mail addresses for three of the senior BBC executives involved, a link to the BBC complaint form, a link which allows you to find the contact details of your MP and a short text you can either use verbatim in your communications or adapt - It is worth noting the laziness of the BBC response others have received which is little more than a regurgitation of the original press release (the serious inadequacies of which we have previously discussed).

What Steps Have Others Taken?

There have been a series of collective letters from different classical music sub-groups protesting the closure decision - almost all the current conductors of and composers/artists in association with the BBC Performing Groups (many of whom, see for example the Twitter feeds of Chief Conductor, BBCSO Sakari Oramo and Principal Guest Conductor, BBCSO Dalia Stasevska have been vocal in protest on social media), nearly 800 composers (a public statement from the great John Adams attracted particular attention), the UK's freelance professional choral ensembles (notably one of the groups that in theory the BBC press release seemed to be promising more air time to by axing the Singers), 220 amateur choirs with over 18,000 members, the chief conductors of all the European radio choirs, past and current winners of the BBC Young Musicians competition, a group of our leading classical singers (including current and former members of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme), the UK's specialist music schools and the UK's classical music publishers.

 Notable individuals and organisations have also spoken out. Those I spotted include the Shadow Minister for the Arts and Civil Society Barbara Keeley, MPs Anna Firth and Stephen Doughty, the Principal & Chair of the Royal Academy of Music, the Michael Tippett Foundation, the former Cabinet Minister David Miliband, and the podcaster and commentator Alistair Campbell. It was also reported this morning that Cabinet ministers (or at least Dowden, the quotation from Mordaunt in the piece is more ambivalent) have expressed concern - although they have a get out from actually doing anything of BBC independence and there's no question it would be problematic if the government openly told the BBC to reverse course - though if this is the only way to stop these cuts we might have to accept it as the lesser of two evils. There have also been plenty of letters to the editors of various newspapers and criticism in a number of Radio 4 interviews.

There has also been commentary from various arts journalists, perhaps most notably late last week when The Times's Richard Morrison proposed that a boycott of the BBC Proms might be required. What has been much less in evidence is front page coverage, although the management failures are as egregious as those exposed by the Lineker debacle (arguably more so since they may result in costing multiple employees their livelihoods).

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

The BBC's New Classical Music "Strategy", or Could We See Your Evidence Please

 Yesterday the BBC released their new classical music strategy. At first glance, and for obvious reasons, most attention has focused on the decision to close the BBC Singers, but reflection on the strategy as a whole exposes a whole lot of contradictions and questions which are pretty troubling.

The press release presents five summary bullet points and I propose to comment on each of these in turn:

1) Creating agile ensembles that can work flexibly and creatively, working with more musicians and broadcasting from more venues – up to 50 – in different parts of the country, and reducing salaried orchestral posts across the BBC English Orchestras by around 20%.

You plainly do not need to reduce the size of your orchestra through redundancies in order for it to perform in more flexible configurations or in different venues. During Covid, for example, BBC Orchestras performed and broadcast in differing sub-sections. Major orchestras have long had sub-groups spun out of them (the Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic come immediately to mind - the full list of their sub-groups is remarkable and demonstrates my point even more clearly) without having reduced the size of their overall orchestra to create them - and indeed the high quality of such sub-groups is at least to some extent a function of the relationship they already have as a result of being members of the main orchestra. Then there's the question of what does "working with more musicians" mean here? If the BBC means it can collaborate with more soloists/freelance groups by sending smaller ensembles to smaller venues as already explained there is no requirement that the BBC orchestras be subject to redundancies in order to do that (unless it is simply a question of money which the press release several times attempts to argue has not been the main driver of these decisions). An alternative interpretation is that by reducing the size of the orchestras the BBC is trying to throw a sop to the profession by saying this is okay really because it will open up more opportunities for freelance performers to work with us. I highly doubt that the amount of work that might be generated via this will be equivalent to the job losses the 20% cuts will occasion, and it seems to me that any limited good for freelancers is undone by the fact that the cuts are potentially increasing the pool of freelancers looking for work in an already difficult marketplace by 20%. 

Thursday, 11 August 2022

EIF 2022 - There's Runnicles with Fidelio, or, A Powerfully Felt Performance

 Regular readers will know we are admirers of Donald Runnicles at this blog, well our name is a bit of a giveaway. His performances of concert opera at the International Festival over the years have consistently been highlights, and it's been really excellent news that after the baffling gap of the Mills era, Linehan has in recent Festivals resumed inviting Runnicles to give concert opera. I sincerely hope Nicola Benedetti will continue to do so when she takes over as Artistic Director next year.

My history of staged Fidelios has been pretty dismal, in fact I think I've probably seen more failed productions of this opera than of any other. The last time the Festival included the work was a candidate for the worst opera staging I've ever seen, and since then the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne have added problematic productions. It occurred to me after this performance that directors perhaps start from the premise that the work is a problem and feel they have to do drastic things to it - not least because of the chunks of spoken dialogue. Somewhat to my surprise Runnicles had decided to include some narrative summary between the musical numbers here - adapted by Sir David Pountney and delivered by Sir Willard White (also singing Don Fernando). The odd thing for me was that as the performance went on I think I was tending to tune the summary out and feeling the musical performance as a compelling drama in its own right. Maybe it's because I now know the work well and my mind could fill in the gaps, but I also think it's to do with how much is there in the libretto and Beethoven's music, assisted here by the deeply felt performances of all the musicians on stage. In other words it really struck me that actually this work doesn't have to be nearly such a problem piece as directors have so often seemed determined to treat it - everything you need is there for powerful emotional drama - done more straightforwardly on stage as it essentially was here it could be gripping, moving - as this was for me.

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

EIF 2022 - The Pulse at the Playhouse, or, Simply Mesmerising

 At the start of this performance, Gravity & Other Myths and the National Youth Choir of Scotland conducted by Mark Evans lulled this viewer into thinking he had seen it before. The Choir are singing numbers - 1,2,3,2,1 etc. (I suspect a Glass setting) and the movement of the acrobats recalled to mind the work of others - William Forsythe's choreography, Glass's Einstein on the Beach. Then the acrobats subvert it as they climb on one another's shoulders - forming first a set of two person towers, and then moving up to three - the moment when the set of trio towers cross through each other was the first of a stunning series of acrobatic peaks. From then on I was gripped by a show of mesmerising movement and acrobatics which makes full, successful use of the often tricky Playhouse space.

Gravity & Other Myths have three styles - those breath-taking set pieces, the ground level collective movement (both as individuals and in small groups - there are some lovely human mobile moments late on), and individual turns - the guy towards the end who slid along on his back and then bounced upright as though made of rubber particularly sticks in my mind.

EIF 2022 - Rusalka at the Festival Theatre, or A Superb Substitution

 When the 2022 EIF programme was announced I confess to a lukewarm reaction to Rusalka as the sole staged opera simply because it's never been one of my favourite works and I've seen it a couple of times and not been wowed. I booked for this run of performances more for completionist reasons. As it turned out this is a show that is well worth seeing and makes a very strong case for the merits of the piece.

Before we go on to any other aspects of the evening Elin Pritchard, stepping in to the title role for the indisposed Natalya Romaniw must be singled out for special praise. Pritchard gave a compelling singing-acting performance. It obviously must have helped that she covered the role during the Garsington run, but had an announcement not been made I doubt anyone would have realised she was stepping in. Both as an individual and in her interactions with the rest of the ensemble, aided by Jack Furness's thoughtful direction of people, she really brought the character and the story to effective, moving life. The moment in the third act when she kisses the Prince & Dvorak's score climaxes was especially powerful. She also has a voice of distinctive character with great power at the top of the range, and is clearly thinking about the text she is communicating - the force of some of the repeated single words in the lower register particularly struck home. 

EIF 2022 - Burn at the King's, or, Mr Cumming is Self-Indulgent

 I was sceptical about this show in advance. When it began with a projection of the title (a theatrical tick I particularly dislike) on the back video screen my scepticism increased. The subsequent hour did not change my mind.

There's no doubt that Alan Cumming is a compelling stage presence - having that indefinable quality of charisma I've observed in very few performers in my years of theatregoing and which renders the individual inherently watchable. He is also a very effective deliverer of text. But neither these qualities nor throwing the kitchen sink at the staging can disguise the fundamentally thin character of this show.

Friday, 3 June 2022

Samson et Dalila at the Royal, or, I'm Sorry, Mr Jones, We're Fresh Out of Pillars

 I have a recollection of listening to a classic recording of this opera, I suspect one of a number of opera CDs inherited from a beloved uncle, and finding it enjoyable. There's certainly a lot of beautiful music in the piece, and I'm not sorry to have heard it live, but it is also not a mystery to me that it has largely fallen out of the repertoire.

The first problem lies with the way Saint-Saens structures the piece. The drama has an episodic feel, and tension both musically and dramatically has a tendency to drop. The balance between ensemble spectacle and exploration of the principal characters doesn't seem quite right. Most seriously there appears to be a glaring omission to stage a key plot point - that is so far as I could judge Dalila never does get the secret of Samson's power out of him at the climax of Act Two thus making it inexplicable that he can't escape from the mob.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Oklahoma at the Young Vic, or, A Dissenting View

Oklahoma is not a musical about which I previously had strong opinions. I saw it once more than a decade ago in an amateur production in Edinburgh (I think put on under the auspices of the Catholic Chaplaincy) and it didn't leave me with a desire to see the show again. I mention this to stress that I don't think I arrived at this performance wedded to the view that the show should be staged in a particular, say traditional way. I wouldn't even say, based on that one previous viewing, that I thought it was a show that especially needed a revival. Given those feelings and the fact I didn't need to see it in order to tick it off my list of unseen musicals, I really only booked because the production came trailing so much praise from its New York City run and because I thought it might be thought provoking. I left the theatre bored and baffled.

The problems start with the failure of the set (co-designed by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher) to give much in the way of a sense of place. We're in a bare space with two trestle tables making a T and a further single line of tables down the right and left sides separating audience from playing area. The railings of the upper level have been covered over with wood on which guns are hung. The thing never loses the sense of being a hall which could, frankly, be any number of places. The corn fields and farm drawing on the back wall is nice to look at but feels increasingly disconnected from the action. Productions with little sense of place seem to be in vogue these days (see most recently the Donmar's Henry V) and was one of a litany of things about this production that struck me as wearily familiar rather than daringly original. It is worth noting here that it may be that if seated downstairs the show works differently (we were in the gallery).

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Peter Grimes at the Royal, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

 This production has garnered pretty much universally high praise. In advance I was sceptical, having not been wholly convinced by Deborah Warner's Billy Budd for the House back in 2019. From my vantage point in the Amphitheatre I thought the production strengthened as the evening went on, but despite some fine individual performances it never gripped me with the emotional intensity of either the Snape Maltings concert/Grimes on the Beach experience or the Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival.

The main reason for this is a production which can't decide between abstract or realist approaches. The contrast shows up between the Prologue and Scene 1. The Prologue plays out on a bare stage. Grimes (Allan Clayton) appears to be almost dreaming it. Nearly the only light comes from the electric torches everybody is holding (from the Amphi much of Act 1 is too dark generally, though this is rectified in the later Acts). Scene 1 by contrast is a rather cluttered fishing market set-up, with a low wall which did remind me of Aldeburgh. We never get back to quite the spareness of the Prologue but the show has an uneasy feeling of being caught between those two approaches. For me it thus never fully achieved immersed me in its world. Elements of geographical confusion - particularly as to where Warner imagines the sea to be (in Act 1 it could be in at least three directions) - also do not help.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Henry V at the Donmar, or, Back to the Same Old, Same Old

Note: This is a review of the preview matinee on Saturday 19th February 2022 and written shortly afterwards. In view of the Covid cancellations and delayed press night I decided not to post until after the press night which has now taken place.

 Henry V feels to me like one of the more frequently staged Shakespeares (certainly among the history plays) and a new staging consequently runs up against the challenge of how to make the work fresh. It is a challenge which this production sadly fails to meet.

This was my first encounter with director Max Webster, though family members had recently reported positively on his Life of Pi. Webster and designer Fly Davis go for a very bare staging. There's a metallic like backdrop and a three level raked bare platform on which virtually the only furniture in three hours are occasional plastic chairs which look more suited to a classroom than a throne room. There is little concrete sense of place at any point - the single sustained exception is the Henry/Mountjoy scene towards the end of the first half. For atmosphere Webster is reliant, as far too many current directors seem to be, on projections supplied on this occasion by Andrzej Goulding. These are used in three ways - to explain elements of the plot (fair enough on the Salic Law speech, superfluous when we're on the road to Agincourt), to project the faces of the two monarchs, and to reinforce the text (waves to make clear that we're travelling by sea when the Chorus is describing this). As a whole the projections make little impression, and particularly in that last instance, suggested to me a lack of confidence in the audience to use their imagination. Overall the environment is dull to look at, and feels like a repeat of an approach I've seen often before.