The BBC has taken the decision to shutter the BBC Singers, the UK’s only full-time professional chamber choir, established in 1924.

In Tuesday’s announcement of its “first major review of classical music in a generation”, the BBC set out its proposals for the future of its five orchestras and other musical ensembles. 

BBC Singers, conducted by Alexander L’Estrange
© BBC | Mark Allen

A 20% reduction to salaried positions in the BBC’s English orchestras has also been announced, via a voluntary redundancy scheme.

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s Chief Content Officer, said: “This new strategy is bold, ambitious, and good for the sector and for audiences who love classical music. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had to make some difficult decisions, but equally they are the right ones for the future.”

Since the announcement, the decision has attracted widespread criticism, including from within the BBC’s own musical institutions.

A letter decrying the proposals has been signed by several of the broadcaster’s most senior conductors. These include Sakari Oramo, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; Ryan Bancroft, Chief Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales; and Ryan Wigglesworth, Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The letter has also been signed by several guest conductors and composers in association, including Dalia Stasevska, Semyon Bychkov, Ilan Volkov and Roderick Williams.

The letter’s writers condemn “irreversible, catastrophically damaging plans”, adding that “aside from the jargon, to claim that by cutting jobs you are somehow ‘reinforcing the distinctiveness of the BBC’s unique orchestras’ is nonsensical.”

On Twitter, Sakari Oramo commented: “I am disgusted by the BBC’s announcements. The axing of BBC Singers is an action of blatant vandalism.” Richard Morrison, chief culture writer for The Times, wrote that “axing the BBC Singers is a gross miscalculation”, adding “heads should roll”. 

At the time of writing, a public petition opposing the decision has attracted almost 40,000 signatures.

The BBC’s licence fee has been frozen since 2022. Simon Webb, the BBC’s Head of Orchestras and Choirs, said that the broadcaster “had to address the level of funding we have and what we can deliver with that funding. These changes will give us a sustainable financial model for our orchestras so we can invest in their long-term future.”

The announcement included an increased commitment to supporting music education. The BBC will be “doubling funding for music education and launching new training initiatives”. In the absence of the BBC Singers, the broadcaster promises to work “with a wide range of choral groups alongside launching a major choral development programme for new talent.”

These commitments were noted but themselves attracted criticism. In the letter addressed to the BBC, the writers ask: “what is the use of ‘doubling funding for music education and launching new training initiatives’ if at the same you reduce the number of secure jobs available?”

Naomi Pohl, the General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union said: “The BBC is the biggest employer and engager of musicians in the UK and it plays a unique role in the ecosystem of our music industry.” She added that the union was in “urgent talks” with the broadcaster.

Also announced on Tuesday was the creation of a new digital home for the BBC’s orchestral content, to include “new and archive performances, educational content and concert listings.”

After the closure of Maida Vale Studios, from 2025 the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Chorus will be based at the new East Bank studios in Stratford, on the site of the former Olympic Park in East London. It has also been proposed that the BBC Concert Orchestra be moved to a new location “outside the M25.”

Simon Webb also proposed that the BBC will convene a new Classical Advisory Group, “of industry leaders from across the classical music sector”. The group is intended to “advise on strategic decisions and sector-wide engagement”.

Commenting to BBC Music Magazine, Simon Webb said: “As I took on this new job there was no doubt that difficult decisions would have to be made, and at the heart of this role lie our musicians and our ensembles. To close one of those ensembles is without doubt the hardest thing I have had to do in my career.”