Bramwell Tovey addresses CBC hearings

Members of Vancouver’s classical-music community have been given the floor this week in hearings held by the Commons heritage committee on the dismantling of the CBC Radio Orchestra, the changes to CBC Radio 2, and the public broadcaster’s commitment to classical music. As reported in the Straight on May 15, the committee unanimously agreed to hold the hearings following a motion on May 6 by NDP heritage critic Bill Siksay, MP for Burnaby-Douglas.

On May 27, the first of two video conferences took place in downtown Vancouver, at which the committee heard from Canadian Music Centre regional director Colin Miles and Vancouver Chamber Choir artistic director Jon Washburn, among others. The second video conference takes place Thursday (May 29), and the list of witnesses includes Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey and UBC School of Music director Richard Kurth.

“My concern is mostly about the important role that the CBC plays for cultivating and nurturing and broadcasting musical talent,” Kurth told the Straight by phone. “Many of our alumni have performed with the CBC Radio Orchestra over the years and launched their careers. Composers have done so. It’s been such a wonderful greenhouse for talent.”¦I know many of the players in the orchestra, a lot of them teach at UBC, and they play such an important role in our city. The abandonment of the orchestra is such a blow economically for them, but also culturally for the life of the city.”

In a phone conversation with the Straight, Tovey said he would be discussing the changes to CBC Radio 2 programming. A number of classical-music shows have been cancelled, and a new weekday schedule has classical music being played only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., as of September.

“There has been an internal debate at CBC, with some consultations from people who perform on the network,” Tovey said. “But there was not a full and passionate public debate where listeners were invited to engage in the future of the network, and that is the core of the problem and the difficulty. Now we’ve got CBC doing quite unnecessary duplication. We’ve got Shania Twain, Billy Joel”¦all available on other radio stations, and CBC are quitting their customary function as a public broadcaster of quality.”




May 30, 2008 at 12:25pm

That the CBC Radio Orchestra represents a relatively minor piece of the CBC's budget and does not deserve to be summarily axed is clear. However, this is not the same issue as that of classical programming on CBC Radio 2, and with all due respect to maestro Tovey, Dr. Kurth, and many other passionate advocates, there are serious flaws in their arguments for maintaining Radio 2 as a mainly or exclusively classical-music station. The mandate of Radio 2 is "to reflect the diversity of music making in Canada while embracing the network values of quality, relevance, and discovery." That this mission should be wholly identified with the Western classical tradition alone is completely unsound and cuts against basic Canadian and democratic values that many of us embrace. Maestro Tovey's assertion that Radio 2 will soon become the province of "Shania Twain" and "Billy Joel" (one of the witnesses in yesterday's hearings cited Avril Lavigne as well) suggests a disturbing lack of interest in, knowledge, and respect for musical traditions outside the Western classical tradition that rightly have a claim on musical sophistication, whether one is discussing avant-garde jazz, world music traditions, or roots music. The fact that Western classical music has long been enshrined in our institutional culture is not a good argument for why it should continue to serve exclusively as litmus test for "musical quality." One can quibble about the number of hours, time slots, etc. devoted to classical programming on Radio 2, but fundamentally it is worth recognizing that with the proposed changes to Radio 2 the CBC is actually taking its own mandate seriously. And this is very difficult to recognize in the current atmosphere of apocalypticism and paranoia. Perhaps if the CBC were able to establish more than one FM music channel, this would not be an issue, but if Radio 2 is indeed the only music channel, then it should rightly embrace the diversity of music produced in Canada, selecting that of the highest quality and presenting it in an intelligent manner. Let us not assume that Western classical music alone has a monopoly on quality and cultural relevance.