Tuesday 16 September 2014

Scottish Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra

Yesterday, Norman Lebrecht published a blog post entitled: Scotland will lose an orchestra ‘the morning after independence.’ The text that follows doesn’t mention a source for this, suggesting he is quoting himself. Instead it gives a précis of an argument, first raised in January by critic Ken Walton, that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra would disband in the event of a yes vote in the independence referendum. Lebrecht tells us “The BBCSSO is funded from London...” as if to imply it is funded by London, and then goes on to speculate about how the, as yet unnamed, new Controller of Radio 3 might make economies to their budget. He concludes with a reference to “a journalistic view from Scotland,” which, he says, “does not markedly differ.”

Well actually it does. It differs quite a lot. The link is to an article by Kate Molleson published in the Guardian on Saturday, an excellent survey of the issues raised for classical music in Scotland by the referendum, and far more balanced and informative than either Lebrecht’s polemic or this one. Molleson cites the SNP’s white paper on the foundation of a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, which would “initially be founded on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland”. The implication is that this would include the BBC’s Scottish musicians. That’s not explicitly stated, but nor is it denied.

Molleson spoke to Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. Hyslop points out that “only two-thirds of the revenue from Scottish license fees is currently spent on BBC Scotland”, and that therefore “the future SBS could be more lucrative, and more culturally ambitious, than the present BBC Scotland.” Exciting talk, especially coming from a cabinet minister (imagine hearing such statements in Westminster).

Clearly, there is some uncertainty here, but all the indications are that a fledging SBC would have both the resources and the motivation to maintain the BBC SSO as a flagship ensemble for the new corporation. The political climate in Scotland, as demonstrated by Hyslop herself, is far friendlier to the arts than in Westminster. And the orchestra itself is in a perfect position to represent the increasingly dominant nationalist sentiment and pride. It is, as Molleson notes, one of the finest orchestras in Europe, and it is currently led by Donald Runnicles, perhaps the best, certainly the best-regarded, Scottish conductor since Alexander Gibson.

A letter from the Scottish composer Bill Sweeney appeared in the Herald on Monday making some very sensible points on this issue. The biggest threat to the BBC SSO, he says, is the BBC itself, and that “Previous axe-swings have rid [the corporation] of the BBC Big Band, Scottish Radio, Northern Dance, Midland Light, Northern Ireland and Training Orchestras without much concern for UK-national or regional sensibilities.” The letter is followed  - same link – by one from veteran broadcaster John Purser, who recounts depressing details of the BBC’s last try at disbanding the BBC SSO, in 1987. Scare stories about the end of public broadcasting north of the border are, says Sweeney “based on the idea that Scots do not have enough appetite for culture or enough smeddum to preserve and develop the rich and multifarious artistic landscape that is so evident around us.” He goes on “I suspect - and hope - that we will see a more positive interpretation of our cultural prospects expressed this Thursday.”

Right. Not that you’ll ever read views like these expressed in the (British) national press, which, presumably to further its own ends, has been deliberately underestimating the Scots’ smeddum throughout the debate. But the arts are not under threat, and the BBC SSO is in an excellent position to thrive in an independent Scotland. As with so many other aspects of the referendum, the London-based media insists on presenting as a crisis what can, and should, be seen as an opportunity.

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