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Ken Walton: would SSO survive Scottish independence?

Picture:  Drew Farrell

Picture: Drew Farrell

Writing in this month’s Classical Music Magazine, SNP culture secretary Fiona Hyslop has attempted to answer growing concerns over the future role, indeed, the future existence, of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in an independent Scotland.

Her article does nothing to allay these fears, but instead reaffirms the central point I and others have been making for some time: that the case of the BBC SSO is practically and politically troublesome, due to its mainly London-based funding and predominant role in servicing Radio 3, making it realistically impossible for assurances to be made about its future until the outcome of the referendum is known.

The problem for Hyslop is that she has tried in her article to make assurances, but as a result has only once again highlighted the impossibility of doing so. The piece is littered with tendentious statements, selective and confusing facts, and a blatant lack of understanding of what makes the BBC SSO tick, and thus survive. It is a classic example of political bluster designed to make a messy issue go away.

I don’t doubt her genuine desire to make a solid and workable case. Quite rightly and understandably, she is at ease when it comes to expressing how “we’ve protected cultural spending in relative terms to ensure the stability of the RSNO, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera and National Theatre of Scotland – who we directly support”. There’s no denying that. But all of that is in current Scottish government control.

Not so the SSO, a sizeable portion of whose funding comes from the same central London pot as the other UK BBC orchestras. To give a reassurance that the SSO “will remain a vital part of Scotland’s vibrant classical music scene post-independence”, simply based on speculative future agreements with the BBC, is hardly categorical and is tenuously based on negotiations that are still to be had.

Hyslop writes: “The SBS [Scottish Broadcasting Service] will seek a joint venture with the BBC to provide the current level of content from Scotland to the BBC in exchange for on-going access to BBC services. This would include a Scottish Symphony Orchestra continuing to play for Radio 3.” That’s not fact; it’s wishful thinking. And if I were one of the 76 playing members of the SSO reading that, I’d be brushing up my CV.

The key point here is that a broadcasting orchestra – for, unlike the RSNO, that is the SSO’s raison d’être – can only function if it has a network to broadcast on. At the moment, Radio 3 is the SSO’s lifeblood for which it provides the majority of its output, around 80 programmes each year. Hyslop is clearly hanging her hopes on Radio 3 continuing to broadcast the orchestra at that level, and to pay accordingly for the programmes.

How likely is that to happen? Well, the timing isn’t good. As Hyslop rightly says, “there are many voices within the UK government calling for further spending reductions” in the BBC as it approaches renewal of its charter, to which she adds that “the BBC has fatefully said that any further reduction in resources beyond 2017 would mean closing an orchestra”.

The orchestra threat has been on the cards for some time, though the feeling now is that the SSO would not – as the only Scottish BBC orchestra, and one that is riding on an enormous high – be the obvious choice for the axe. Should Scotland vote no, you could argue that its case for survival would be politically even stronger.

On the other hand, the proposed scenario in an independent Scotland effectively does the BBC’s job for it, leaving Hyslop’s proposed deal with an already heavily provided-for Radio 3 on a shoogly peg. And ask yourself this: if independence went ahead and the BBC did cut one of its remaining orchestras in England, how could it then justify buying in material from a “foreign” orchestra?

So what happens if Radio 3 doesn’t play ball with an independent Scotland? It’s worth remembering that the station is currently in a state of upheaval while it seeks a new controller to work under the newly appointed head of BBC Music, so there’s no guarantee at all as to what strategic direction it will take.

The only other logical means of creating enough work for the SSO would be through a Radio 3-style channel on the new SBS network. I don’t see anything in the white paper or Hyslop’s article addressing that, other than simply to say that the SSO “will have additional opportunities through the new radio and television services that SBS will introduce”. The vagueness of that is startling.

As is Hyslop’s comparison of the SSO with the RTE orchestras in Ireland. This is hugely misleading, not least because the RTE National Symphony Orchestra is Ireland’s only symphony orchestra. Scotland has two, so the broadcasting remit of the SSO is fundamental in defining its relevance and justifying its continued existence in relation to the RSNO.

And what exactly does Hyslop mean, in comparing the productivity of the RTE with that of the SSO, when she states that “in 2014, the SSO is scheduled to play at 26 engagements”, as if that was the entirety of its year’s work? It’s a confused statistic, which leaves you wondering how fully versed the culture secretary is in what she’s writing about. (According to the orchestra, the SSO will give a total of 68 public concerts this year, “not counting schools concerts, conductor workshops etc”.)

And on what grounds does she reckon “the SSO’s great reputation depends not on BBC branding, but on its players and the position established under conductors Ilan Volkov and Donald Runnicles”? Major international players – and their agents – simply wouldn’t have been interested in the SSO job without the BBC cachet and all that goes with it, not least the guaranteed appearances at the BBC Proms.

The simple truth is this: there’s a good chance that the BBC SSO could become collateral damage in the creation of an independent Scotland. No amount of political spin can change that. So why not just admit it?

If I were one of the 76 playing members of the SSO reading that, I’d be brushing up my CV.

 

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