Scottish independence: uncertain future for BBC SSO

What would happen to the BBC SSO after independence. Picture TSPL
What would happen to the BBC SSO after independence. Picture TSPL
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This is not a political statement; it is merely a matter of fact. The result of October’s Independence referendum could have a potentially catastrophic effect on the quantity and quality of orchestral provision in Scotland. Should the Yes vote win, a huge question mark will hang over the future of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In my book, that is the most important issue facing Scottish classical music in 2014. So far, it has not been seriously considered in any public context.

But here are the facts. Currently, the Scottish Government funds the “national orchestras” – the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – as well as our national opera company, Scottish Opera, which has its own part-time orchestra. The BBC SSO is one of several UK regional broadcasting orchestras that receive a substantial chunk of their funding from Radio 3 in return for broadcasting the majority of their performances. In the SSO’s case, and to justify the cost to the licence payers, almost everything they do is part of BBC broadcast output, a small proportion of it on Radio Scotland and television.

But what if Scotland becomes independent? What then the relationship between Scotland and the BBC? Would a separate Scottish Broadcasting Company (SBC) be established to cater for public broadcasting needs in Scotland? Would it have the same requirement for orchestral music as Radio 3? That’s unlikely. So what justification would there be for the public funding of a full-time broadcasting orchestra? Has any thought been given to a separate cultural broadcasting channel?

Even then, would a new SBC not be obliged to give the RSNO and SCO their fair share of air time? These national orchestras would certainly demand it, leaving even less exclusive air time for the SSO. Things could hardly look any less certain for the orchestra which, by virtue of its currently loaded Radio 3 remit, is capable of exploring music the RSNO, for one, would rarely touch, particularly frontline contemporary music.

The SSO’s existence, in tandem with the more conventional RSNO and SCO, is what makes Scotland’s orchestral scene so unique. Are we in danger of losing it if the Scotland votes Yes? Questions, questions, questions. We need answers before it’s too late.

Ironically, it’s with the SSO over the next few months, leading up to a collaborative tour of India with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, that James MacMillan will take to the podium as a conductor in Scotland for the first time in ten years. He’ll direct a programme of his own music (including three world premieres) later this month, and in March conducts a special Commonwealth Games concert prior to the India trip. And let’s just remind ourselves it was the SSO that first championed MacMillan’s music, making him an overnight success at the 1990 BBC Proms.

Staying with orchestra music, the RSNO has two mega-performances in store: a performance of Messiaen’s ecstatically colourful Turangalîla Symphony in March: and a blockbuster season finale of Mahler’s Symphony No.8, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand, directed by music director Peter Oundjian in May.

In February the SCO marks its 40th birthday with a specially commissioned work from Glasgow-born Martin Suckling, the title of which is still under wraps. The anniversary programme also features the revived partnership – so successful in the orchestra’s 2012 European Tour – of chief conductor Robin Ticciati and pianist Maria João Pires in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No2.

Back at the SSO, a combination of the daring and spectacularly traditional is epitomised in two concerts: March’s Commonwealth Games programme in which MacMillan conducts pianist Danny Driver in the Hindustani Concerto by maverick 20th century Glaswegian composer Erik Chisholm; the other in April featuring Mahler’s gripping Symphony No 9 under the baton of Donald Runnicles.

All three orchestras will no doubt play a part in this summer’s Edinburgh International Festival, which is Jonathan Mills’ last as festival director. Will he build on the success of last year’s excellent music programme? And is there any truth in the rumour that the closing concert will feature one of his own works? We’ll find out when all is revealed in March.

Around the smaller festival circuit, all we know so far about Orkney’s St Magnus Festival is that the BBC SSO will be the resident orchestra. East Neuk, celebrating its 10th anniversary, extends its duration to ten days, while the Lammermuir Festival in September, celebrates Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday. The new kid on the festival block is James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst, launched last October in a blaze of publicity, and which promises - early this October - to be one of the most exciting new events in the annual Scots calendar.

Among this year’s musical chairs, American composer/pianist Jeffrey Sharkey takes over from John Wallace as principal of the RCS, a move that could well open up new links for the Conservatoire in the US.

And what about Scottish Opera? Will it find a musical director to fill a position now viewed as a poisoned chalice since Emmanuel Joel-Hornak vacated it after only a few weeks in the job? At least it’s getting a new £12 million facade to its Theatre Royal home, which opens in time for May’s Madama Butterfly. All we need now is a sustained programme of main-scale opera to fill its interior. But that won’t happen anytime soon.