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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 8

The Fight for Classical Music on CBC Radio 2

by Michael Vincent / May 11, 2008

March 27, 2008, will go down in Canadian music history as the day that Canadian classical music ceased at the CBC. In a Vancouver hotel room, Jennifer McGuire, head of CBC Radio, and Mark Steinmetz, director of radio programming, told the shocked members of the 70-year-old CBC Radio Orchestra that the ensemble would cease to exist by November. Coming just weeks after the CBC executives’ March 4th announcement that they were turning their backs on CBC Radio 2’s historic classical focus, the orchestra’s destruction has become a rallying point to save classical music on the radio, and may be a case of one cut too many.

On the same evening, upon reading the news, McGill University music student Alexandra Fol created the Facebook group “Save the CBC Radio Orchestra”, which in just one month has received over 7630 members. “I just felt something had to be done,” said Fol. A few weeks earlier and for the same reason, Canadian opera baritone Peter McGillivray felt compelled to create the Facebook group “Save classical music on CBC Radio 2”, which has signed up close to 15,000 members since March 5. Together, both Facebook groups have been leading the fight to save Canadian culture.

Following the closed-door meeting, the CBC explained they could no longer afford the orchestra’s operating costs. However, the orchestra’s budget of roughly $600,000 represents only 0.0035 per cent of the total CBC budget of $1.5 Billion and 0.3% of the radio budget; basically, this amounts to two cents per Canadian.

More embarrassing for the CBC, two days after killing the orchestra, the crown corporation found the funds to run an expensive full-page ad in the Globe and Mail defending its CBC Radio 2 programming decision with endorsements from Canadian Pop music recording industry executives and artists, many of whom, including five-time Juno-award winning Feist, have no trouble being served by commercial radio.

Looking back over the last two years, cuts to classical music at the CBC are becoming more the rule that the exception. Shortly after the Harper government took power in January 2006, the cuts became more and more severe:

• The CBC Young Composers Competition and the CBC Young Performers Competition have been suspended for the past four years despite funding from the Canada Council for the $10,000 grand prize. These two important domestic competitions had been instrumental in the development of some of Canada’s best musical talent, including Angela Hewitt, Ben Heppner and Jon Kimura Parker.

• As of February 2008, the CBC has erased the classical music budget for CBC Records, on the eve of their first Grammy win by Canadian violinist James Ehnes and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey. Many artists, such as Isabel Bayrakdarian and Measha Brueggergosman, launched their careers on this label.

• The commissioning budget, previously devoted to the creation of new works by composers, is now spread out to cover jazz, folk and pop musicians, and some unspecified amount of contemporary music. CBC says they will spend the same amount on classical commissions, but their track record does not look promising.

• The proposed Fall 2008 programming reduces the number of weekday hours of classical music from 12 to 5 and ghettoizes it to the 10 AM to 3 PM time slot.

• And most recently, the 70 year-old CBC Radio Orchestra has been axed.

In terms of weekday classical shows on Radio Two, all existing and long-standing programs are to be cut:

Music & Company – Tom Allen’s morning wake-up show

Here’s to You – Catherine Belyea’s all-request show

Studio Sparks – (due to the venerable Eric Friesen’s “retirement”)

Disc Drive – Jurgen Gothe’s popular 30-year-old drive-home show

Sound Advice – Rick Philips’ extraordinarily informative and unique classical recording showcase and review

These changes come on the heels of last year’s round of cuts to vital programs such as:

• Danielle Charbonneau’s much-loved Music for a While

• Larry Lake’s new composer showcase Two New Hours

Symphony Hall – Canada’s live orchestra recording showcase

The Singer and the Song – Catherine Belyea’s excellent classical vocal program

Northern Lights – the overnight classical program beloved by night owls everywhere

• The reformatting of In Performance – a primarily classical live performance show into the unfocused Canada Live – a uniformly non-classical and confusing mix of various genres

According to Mark Steinmetz, the fundamental shift away from classical music is a response to upholding and honouring the CBC’s mandate. Apparently, classical music no longer reflects the current music demographic of Canada, and Steinmetz asserts these changes better reflect the musical diversity of the country as a whole, which necessitates a more popular-music-based station. Richard Stursberg, head of English radio, states that the changes will allow more Canadian performers to be heard.

Colin Miles, BC Regional Director of the Canadian Music Centre, pointed out that popular music is already extremely well represented in Canadian media, and it is in fact classical music that is not.

The vocal protest led by people on Facebook directly contradicts the CBC’s arguments that the 30-50 demographic are not interested in classical music. On Friday, April 11, Facebook group members organised a successful (2000 participants) Canada-wide demonstration “Raise a Ruckus for Radio Two!” in front of their local CBC offices in cities across Canada: Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto, London, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John’s. The protest prompted NDP cultural critic Bill Siksay, MP for Burnaby South, to raise the issue of CBC funding in the House of Commons. The next stage will be a May 1st meeting of the Heritage Committee with CBC executives.

More recently, on April 20th, 300 fans attended the CBC Radio Orchestra’s last concert of the season at the Chan Centre in Vancouver. During the rally and at the end of the concert, the audience spontaneously broke into the singing of “O Canada”.

Radio orchestras were originally established as a cost-cutting measure because it was too difficult to move analogue broadcasting equipment around. Although it is the last remaining radio orchestra in North America, the Vancouver-based CBC Radio Orchestra has developed into what is widely considered to be a historic monument to Canadian classical music, as it is the only Canadian orchestra dedicated to performing the works of Canadian composers, otherwise rarely preformed. In short, the CBC Radio Orchestra is an exceptional Canadian institution. By killing it, the CBC’s current board may have gone too far. Judging from this unprecedented protest, one thing is certain: the destruction of classical music at the CBC is clearly not a done deal. n

Rallies are being organised in Vancouver and Toronto on May 24, 1 pm to 5 pm. Details can be found on the Stand on Guard for CBC website

For ongoing updates to this story, please visit La Scena Musicale’s online CBC Radio spotlight (cbcradio.scena.org). See our June issue for more coverage.

(c) La Scena Musicale