BBC brass drowns out Scottish airs

"Could we have complete silence before we start?" says the voice from a loud-speaker. The red light on the high-ceilinged studio wall blinks on. The conductor cuts hard with his baton, and the 69 members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO) burst into music. Three minutes later they end as they began, on breathless silence.

Then the recording light blinks off and the stillness dissolves into chat, banter, and odd toots. They are a remarkably buoyant lot, these musicians -- considering the circumstances.

At the end of February, they learned that the British Broadcasting Corporation, hard pressed by its $:40 million ($90 million) deficit last year, intended to make their silence final and permanent. BBC director-general Ian Trethowan, in Feb. 28 letter to his 28,000 staff, spelled out cuts of $:130 million ($290 million). They include the finale for five of the BBC's 11 orchestras, the SSO among them.

Before the announcement, says principal conductor Karl Anton Richenbacher, "I didn't even hear a whisper. I was always under the impression that the orchestra was going to be increased."

But BBC spokesman Mike Stanger, while admitting that it is "a tragedy of the first dimension" for Scotland, says that the corporation has been trying for years to reorganize its four symphony and seven light orchestras, which currently employ 551 musicians.

Cutting the SSO will save $:660,000 (nearly $1.5 million) -- and still, he says, leave Scotland with the 120-member Scottish National Orchestra (itself in financial straits).

Young Scottish musicians, he feels, can also find opportunities in the three smaller ensembles of the Scottish Philharmonic Society and in the house orchestra of the Scottish Opera. In the nationwide view, he says, the BBC simply has too many orchestras. Besides, most of the 1,500 jobs axed by the BBC will be in south.

Musicians here, however, do not take that view. They see themselves serving 5 million Scots rather than 50 million Britons, and have already begun a bumper sticker, write-in, and petition campaign to parry what they see as yet another blow directed against Scottish culture by a supercilious London.

They point happily to their fan mail, including a telegram from the Berlin Symphony and a powerful letter of support in the Times of London from Carlo Maria Giulini of the Los Angeles Symphony. Mr. Giulini praised the BBC for transforming Britain into "possibly the world's liveliest, most concentrated center of musicial activity" and singling out the SSO for special approval.

Can a nation of 5 million support two symphony orchestras? Mr. Richenbacher leaps on the question with the example of Switzerland. There, he says, 5 million people have (he counts silently on his fingers for a moment) "more than ten" symphony orchestras.

Concert-master Raymond Ovens points out that the SSO has a broader repertoire than the Scottish National Orchestra. Traveling less, the SSO rehearses more, and does not have to lean toward what he calls the "classical pop, the bread-and-butter Beethoven and Brahms" that concert-hall audiences want. This repertoire, adds principal flutist and composer George Macilwham, includes original Scottish music, which the national orchestra would hardly have room for.

But, counters Mr. Stanger, "We're not here specifically to make music" but to broadcast.

The intended cuts, now under consideration by the corporation's board of governors, have brought to fortissimo the debate about the nature of the BBC. Should it compete for popularity with independent broadcasting? Should it cut its cultural contributions while continuing to air hours of recorded popular music? Should it seek outside sponsorship to keep its orchestras alive?

Mr. Macilwham feels that the BBC is in danger of destroying itself by aping the commercial networks. "We always regarded the BBC as that wee bit different, " he says sadly.

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