The CBSO playing Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand

And the band played on

Cash crisis in the arts — what’s new?

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Another week, another classical music funding crisis and if you deal with this shit for a living you know the pattern by now. The story breaks on the Slipped Disc blog, and the serious classical journos pause for 24 hours so they can pretend they read it somewhere else. The rest of the sector doesn’t hold back.

Social media lights up with fury, initially directed at whichever funding body has made the decision, but swiftly refocused (the mental gymnastics are Olympic-level) on the usual suspects: the Tories, Brexit, choose your right-wing bogeyman. Gradually the shock fades; the great and good sign an open letter, and underpaid, exhausted admin staff start picking up the pieces. Again.

So why did I get the feeling, this time, that people were looking at me? Birmingham’s bankrupt City Council has voted to abolish its entire arts budget over the next two years, and because I worked for years in the management of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and later wrote its history, colleagues assumed I’d have views — ideally loud, angry ones, rather than the resigned ache of someone who’s been through the whole miserable process so often it barely registers any more. But I mean: this is classical music. Surely you’ve seen Amadeus? Haven’t you read Berlioz’s memoirs, or Thomas Beecham’s; or Crescendo! — Beresford King-Smith’s history of the CBSO (which comes with actual financial stats)?

I’m guessing not, because to work in classical music and be surprised by a funding crisis is like a sailor being scared of waves. If this one isn’t exactly a tsunami, it’s because the sum that Birmingham gave to its major arts organisations had been shrinking for years. “100 per cent cut!” makes for a scary headline; but when that represents only around five per cent of an organisation’s overall income (which is more or less the case with the CBSO and at least two of the other affected organisations — the chamber choir Ex Cathedra and Birmingham Opera Company), well, it’s a knife in the guts, for sure. An ex-colleague was quick to remind me that arts fundraising outside of London can be agonisingly difficult: that five per cent will not easily be replaced. But it is (hopefully) survivable.

The paradox is that, artistically speaking, the CBSO is in vigorous health. Symphony Hall is still the finest orchestral venue in the UK, and musicians and audience both adore the new Japanese principal conductor, Kazuki Yamada. True, a recent change of chief executive has ruffled feathers, but you’d expect that with an organisation that has had only three CEOs in the last 61 years.

It takes a certain kind of personality — the hide of a rhinoceros and the mind of Henry Kissinger — to manage a full-time symphony orchestra, and the recruitment process was said to be difficult. The new boss, Emma Stenning, came from the theatre world with no top-level classical music experience.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. London-based commentators, some of whom have been waiting for Birmingham to fail since before Simon Rattle’s departure in 1998, have been quick to paint a picture that simply doesn’t match what I’m seeing and hearing here in the Midlands.

Later in the decade I sat on the committee that voted to abolish my own pension

True, Stenning made early errors: publishing a bullshit-bingo vision statement seemingly lifted from one of those corporate awaydays where everyone can just shout out whatever they think — no wrong answers! Some concerts have been given a lame-sounding makeover, with visuals, and injunctions to clap whenever. Or so I hear; I haven’t attended one yet. They might be rather fun. Stenning deserves the benefit of the doubt as she attempts to replace the missing £600,000 and negotiate any future relationship with the Council. That’s the real stinger, and it’s emotional as much as financial.

The CBSO was founded by Birmingham City Council in 1920. That relationship endured for 104 years, and its termination marks the end of something more than just an (often inadequate) cash handout. It’s the death of a century-old vision of enlightened civic governance in which great art could be supplied on the rates, as well as streetlights and bin lorries (on its current showing, Birmingham will be lucky to retain even those).

In some ways, that’s the saddest outcome: orchestra and city are each losing part of their shared identity. That seems to call for more than just outrage; we need a deeper conversation about the decline of civic culture, and the future of the arts in our national life. But the immediate problem is a familiar one.

I joined the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1990s amidst a wave of redundancies (a decade earlier, Derek Hatton’s Militant regime had suggested selling off the Philharmonic Hall to serve as a bingo hall). We watched from Liverpool as Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra came within hours of insolvency. “Can we get 20 boxes of subscription brochures to Manchester this afternoon?” asked our then-CEO.

In 1999 the Bournemouth Sinfonietta was defunded into oblivion — ah, that golden New Labour dawn! By then I had moved to Birmingham and straight into another existential financial crisis. A couple of years in, redundancies were on the table again. It didn’t come to that, but later in the decade I sat on the committee that voted to abolish my own pension.

Read the history. It’s the same story all the way back to 1920 — the City Council’s grant never came close to providing security. The orchestra was in serious trouble as early as 1923, and financial crises recurred during the Second World War and in the early 1950s.

In 1978, the whole outfit nearly self-destructed when the musicians defenestrated both their general manager and their chief conductor, Louis Frémaux, in the space of a weekend. Frémaux, a Frenchman, had fought the Nazis in the Résistance and saw action with the Foreign Legion, receiving the Croix de Guerre for courage. The CBSO players’ committee broke him.

What came next was Simon Rattle. Any one of these crises could have finished the CBSO off, but instead it landed (sometimes painfully) on its feet, and I have to believe that it will weather the latest blow. Perhaps there’s a strain of pessimism so deep it becomes a weird kind of optimism. But “seen it all before” doesn’t offer much comfort to those in the thick of the fight and make no mistake: Britain’s orchestras need your financial help, as well as (from government — any government) a huge expansion of incentives to cultural philanthropy.

If that sounds a bit beyond you personally, you could always buy a concert ticket. To quote the CBSO’s great post-war chairman Stephen Lloyd — announcing the imminent (happily abortive) disbandment of the orchestra in 1952:

The Management Committee regrets that it can no longer maintain the orchestra throughout the year. If Birmingham people share that regret, the remedy is in their own hands. They should fill the Town Hall.

Substitute Symphony Hall for Town Hall — and Birmingham for any community in Britain supporting a professional orchestra or opera company — and that advice still stands.

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