Thursday, January 25, 2007

Your son is working on Petrouchka


Postcard from Igor Stravinsky to his mother in 1911. The message says 'From Beaulieu where your son is working on Petrouchka.'

This afternoon I was returning from a business meeting by car, and caught the last few minutes of a performance of the 1947 suite from Petrouchka on BBC Radio 3. I didn't know who the performers were, but it was very clear that there was some pretty amazing chemistry between the conductor and orchestra, and the sound they were producing was equally impressive. After a well deserved ovation I heard that the band was the BBC Scotttish Symphony under the Russian conductor Alexander Titov, and the concert was relayed live from the orchestra's superb sounding new home in Glasgow City Halls. The BBC Scottish revel in Stravinsky, and I have already enthusiastically praised an earlier performance by them of the Firebird here.


Nothing delights me more than to praise a BBC orchestra and broadcast, and the very fact that the BBC can produce such great live music making is the very reason why I feel so strongly about the Corporations current financial policies which threaten essential resources such as the Maida Vale home of the BBC Symphony. The threats are very real, and the BBC Scottish still carry the scars from an earlier round of budget cuts. So I offer no apologies for repeating the story here.

A financial crisis that had simmered at the BBC for several years flared up in February 1980 when a large package of economies were proposed to save £130m ($235). The proposal involved disbanding five orchestras, including the BBC Scottish, in a move aimed at saving £500,000 ($900,000) a year, or eight per cent of the BBC's music expenditure. On May 16 1980 the Musician's Union voted to strike against the BBC, and two weeks later the musicians of the BBC Symphony, and all other BBC musicians, stopped work. The dispute was not just about job losses, the musicians suspected a hidden agenda of a move away from contract orchestras to freelance arrangements.

The 1980 Proms season was at the centre of the dispute, and the Managing Director of BBC Radio publicly said the concerts were of 'less consequence than the music policy of the orchestras for the future'. The dispute was extraordinarily bitter, and for the first time ever in the history of the series the First Night was cancelled. The BBC broadcast a recording of the scheduled work (Elgar's The Apostles) while the BBC Symphony Orchestra played a protest concert in an alternative venue under the baton of that musician's musician par excellence Sir Colin Davis. As plans for more protest concerts gathered momentum, including one conducted by another musician with experience of the barricades, Pierre Boulez, the BBC began to back down. On July 24 a compromise solution was reached, and the BBC caved in to the Musician's Union demands and withdrew all the notices of dismissal. The BBC Scottish Symphony was thankfully saved, although long term damage was inflicted on it by limiting the number of musicians, but two other orchestras were disbanded with many job losses.

Twenty concerts were lost from the 1980 Proms season which resumed on August 7 with a programme of Ravel, Messiaen and Mahler's Fourth Symphony conducted by Sir John Pritchard. The 1980 autumn season was in full swing for the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC Symphony on 22 October which was dutifully attended by many of the BBC Governors who just months before had tried to drive a dagger through the hearts of the same BBC musicians. The dispute was settled, but we should not forget that this very week in 2007 'the BBC board will once again start deciding where to swing the axe.'

Sources: The BBC Symphony Orchestra 1920-1988 by Nicholas Kenyon (ironically), publisher BBC (out of print), and Is the Red Light on? The story of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra by John Purser, publisher BBC Scotland (out of print).

Listen to the BBC SSO concert until 1st Feb here, read the BBC Scottish Symphony blog here, and see Stravinsky's apartment in St Petersburg here, and, incidentally Alexander Titov was born in that wonderful city when it was called Leningrad.

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2 comments:

Pliable said...

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is just fantastic. By sheer coincidence, as I work this evening, BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a concert of Sibelius' Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies with the BBC SSO conducted by Leif Segerstam.

Stunning playing, stunning conducting and stunning sound.

Bravo BBC SSO, bravo Maestro Segerstam, and bravo live music.

Catch the concert for the next seven days here.

Pliable said...

I should have added to the comment above bravo Sibelius!