This story was updated on April 3, 2008, at 1.43 p.m.
A national uproar has ensued from the news that the Vancouver-based CBC Radio Orchestra is to be dismantled, with protesters lobbing accusations of censorship at the national broadcaster.
On March 31, faculty members of the UBC School of Music were given the go-ahead from Richard Kurth, director of the school, to cancel classes in order to attend an April 1 demonstration in front of the CBC building in downtown Vancouver. A protest in Montreal is being organized by musicians and Radio Two fans on Friday (April 4), while a national day of action demonstration is being planned for April 11 at CBC sites.
“This is our orchestra, it belongs to the people of Canada,” Colin Miles, the Canadian Music Centre’s B.C. regional director, told the Straight. “The people who are destroying it—I can’t just say they’re foolish, I have to say they are vandals. They are destroying not only our past heritage but our living heritage. And how can we talk about anything other than censorship, cultural vandalism, and the demolition of hope.”¦Where is the hope for our young musicians, for our composers, for our listeners, all the young people who are fascinated by contemporary [classical] music?”
The CBC Radio Orchestra’s mandate, as stated on its Web site, is to “make engaging musical radio programs, commission and perform works by Canadian composers, showcase Canadian performers and conductors, and discover and expose Canadian excellence”.
As the Straight reported March 28 on its Web site, members of the orchestra were called to a closed-door March 27 meeting with CBC Radio music director Mark Steinmetz and Jennifer McGuire, executive director of programming at CBC Radio. According to Miles, the musicians were given less than 24-hours notice of the meeting, where they were told they would perform their last concert in November. By March 31, a new Facebook group, Save the CBC Radio Orchestra, had 3,613 members. Another group, Save Classical Music on the CBC, had 10,355 members.
The CBC Radio Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Gene Ramsbottom, told the Straight the changes at CBC Radio 2 came in the midst of “a power vacuum” that occurred when Jane Chalmers, vice president of CBC Radio, retired in December. “The irony is that, according to our conductor [Alain Trudel], he had 2008 and 2009 all mapped out. In fact, they had agreed to expand the season and give us more money for the next year’s season and full steam ahead: ”˜You’re doing great, your product is wonderful, it satisfies our mandate.’ ”¦And then in December, when Jane Chalmers retired, in the first possible instant, it would seem, suddenly the whole thing gets pulled.”
The loss of the orchestra comes after a string of decisions by the public broadcaster that critics say are shunting classical music off the airwaves. In 2003, the CBC Young Composers Competition and the CBC National Competition for Young Performers were suspended indefinitely. Last year, popular CBC classical shows Music for a While, Two New Hours, Symphony Hall, The Singer and the Song, and Northern Lights were cut; Music & Company, Studio Sparks, and DiscDrive have since been scheduled for the axe. This February—only days after violinist James Ehnes won a Grammy for his CBC Records performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra—Randy Barnard, general manager of CBC Records, announced that the label would be moving away from classical releases. And starting in September, classical music will be confined to a slot between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
George Laverock, Festival Vancouver program director and CBC Radio Orchestra producer from 1979 to 1989, told the Straight he has noticed a decline in live classical performances broadcast by the CBC. “If you take Festival Vancouver as an example, in the first few years of the festival [which began in 2000] we had anything from 16 to 20 concerts aired on the CBC. This year they’re looking at possibly doing three.”¦All you’ve got to do is talk to classical musicians and soloists and chamber-music groups, and they’ll say the CBC hasn’t broadcast them in quite a long time.”
Jeff Keay, a spokesperson for the CBC, defended the decision to dismantle the orchestra in a phone call with the Straight. “We did a very detailed evaluation of this and we determined”¦that we could bring more music to Radio 2 by pursuing initiatives with existing music organizations rather than supporting the infrastructure of the CBC orchestra,” he said. “Part of the nature of having to make decisions on resources is that you have to make hard decisions.” Keay would not reveal the exact size of the orchestra’s annual budget, but said it was “under $1 million”.
Laverock disputed Keay’s figures. “It’s somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000, depending on how much of the producers’ salaries and the technicians’ salaries you add into it,” he told the Straight. “The actual cost of the musicians is around $400,000.”
According to the CBC’s annual report, the public broadcaster’s budget for the 2006-2007 fiscal year was $1.52 billion, with $914 million coming from government subsidies and $543 million from advertising, program sales, and other initiatives. On March 29, two days after announcing that budgetary constraints had forced it to shut down the radio orchestra, the CBC ran a full-page ad in the Globe and Mail, promoting Radio 2’s new programming structure. Based on the Globe and Mail’s advertising rate card, the basic cost of such an ad, without discounts, is $50,205. The Straight left a message with the CBC asking to discuss the ad, but the call was not returned.
Ramsbottom said the loss of his CBC job would mean the end of his Out for Lunch concert series. “It will stop, because I feature CBC orchestra members in it and because I finance it on my own.” But he, like other music lovers who have taken up the orchestra’s cause, remains optimistic. “We have a small window of opportunity to reverse this decision.”