Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A chorus of disapproval: letter to Lord Hall

The BBC's decision not to renew the contract of the BBC Symphony Chorus's conductor, Stephen Jackson, has sparked much upset and anger these past days. Spearheaded by singer Harold Raitt, who runs a social enterprise for schools, a letter has been written to BBC director general Lord Hall, objecting to the decision and expressing considerable discontent with how the chorus has been treated in this matter. The film director Tony Palmer has added his weight to the issue, contributing strong words to a press release issued by Raitt, and he has sent me the full letter.

Dear Lord Hall,
We are writing to you as both licence fee payers and a mix of:
• proud members of the UK’s world-class community of amateur (or, in many cases, ‘unpaid professional’) musicians who sing, have sung, or are considering singing in, Symphony Choruses in London or other towns and cities across the UK
• professional musicians (soloists, choral singers, instrumentalists, conductors, teachers, composers and administrators)
• some music-lovers who are also concerned and appalled.

You are, no doubt, aware of the immense discontent at the BBC Symphony Chorus, especially now that it has been covered in Private Eye. However, you may not be aware of the way in which the actions of the BBC Symphony Orchestra General Management, and the overall management of BBC Performing Groups, have been seriously damaging both the standing of the BBC, and the potential future of one its most important assets for a considerable period.

The pictured advert for “BBC Performing Groups” was a major affront to the unpaid professionals in the BBC Symphony Chorus, as well as their colleagues in the BBC National Chorus of Wales. Why on earth did the BBC consider it has only one singing group? Are the BBC Singers only world-class or worthwhile or valuable because they are paid? Is a group of unpaid professionals such as the BBCSC or BBCNCW not as valued, despite the lists of award-winning recordings to their names, and their high profile at national events such as the Proms? Despite requests, no retraction of, or public apology for this insult was made by the BBCSO General Management or by BBC Performing Groups.

The dismissal of Stephen Jackson after 26 years’ dedicated service, without any prior consultation with the BBCSC and conducted in a way as to try to prevent the Chorus even saying a proper goodbye to him, is an affront not just to the BBCSC, but to the entire amateur choral scene in the UK. Its members subsidise classical music in the UK to the tune of millions of pounds annually. The cost of a chorus of 100+ at MU minimum rates for just a single concert would be a large five-figure sum, or a six-figure sum for much of the larger and more rehearsal-intensive rep. Yet the attitude of the BBCSO General Management towards the BBCSC has been one of a disengaged and supercilious employer. But, in the case of unpaid professionals, it is us who really hold the keys; we pay our travel expenses to rehearsals, we donate our time, expertise and (in many cases) years of training and singing lessons to you free of charge, we learn difficult rep and present it to audiences flawlessly. The very least that can be expected is that we are treated as partners and stakeholders, rather than as disposable labour who need not be considered, consulted, acknowledged or even – on occasion – properly thanked.

None of us can think of a single other Symphony Chorus in the UK where the singers (either en masse, or via their representatives on committees) would not be thoroughly consulted on a leadership change of this magnitude.

The vast majority of the signatories to this letter are not currently and have never been members of the BBCSC. However, many of us are members of volunteer choruses in London or around the UK. Some of us chose to sing with other choruses because of our geographic location, rehearsal days or because of different performing opportunities. However, we all have immense respect for Stephen Jackson, and for the choice of our colleagues to sing with and under him.

Many of us are astonished that the BBCSC has not decided to go on strike until Jackson is reinstated. However, we recognise this not as tacit support for the BBCSO management, but as a sign of the love for music and its audiences that drives all such performers to do what they are so committed to.

You should be aware of how – despite ‘perks’ such as getting to star annually on the Last Night of The Proms – the BBCSC’s capacity to attract new volunteer unpaid professionals to sing in its ranks has been considerably damaged by these ongoing slights. Those of us who are ‘amateurs’ would be much harder pressed to consider singing with the BBCSC while the current General Management remains in place and/or remains so unashamedly unapologetic.

Furthermore, as licence payers, we are appalled at the callous disregard for the integrity of an asset which, in any other country, would be valued in millions of dollars or Euros, and which remains, given its budget of £0 for its unpaid professionals’ salaries, the envy of the world. For the moment.

Yours sincerely,

Harold Raitt
+ 146 other signatories 

Responding with a statement, quoted in Classical Music Magazine, BBC Radio 3 said: "We regularly appraise the freelance contractual arrangements we have across BBC Radio 3 and the performing groups and took the decision, in this instance, not to renew Stephen Jackson’s contract. We’d like to thank him for his service over the years and wish him well for the future...Freelance musician contracts are rightly confidential arrangements between the individual and the BBC. We’re satisfied that this matter is being handled in a professional and responsible manner and are liaising with the Chorus whenever possible."