Tony Kevin. Cuts to ABC Classic FM strike at Australia’s cultural heritage’Dec 6, 2014
Limelight, ABC Classic FM’s online magazine, reported on 24 November
‘The number of concerts recorded will be slashed by a massive 50%, with just 300 performances due to be recorded over the next two years verses the 600 concerts recorded during the previous two years. Broadcasts of live performances currently account for 17 hours of Classic FM’s weekly output.’
So listeners will lose around 50%, i.e., 8-9 hours of Australian-performed broadcast music each week.
What will we lose?
Events like the 30 November broadcast of the fine new Australian opera by Iain Grandage and Alison Croggan, The Riders (2014), inspired by Tim Winton’s great novel. Many thousands of people will have heard this ground-breaking new work on Classic FM radio (and it is still up on Listen Again).
Or Max Richter’s new composition Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Recomposed (2012), which he played with the 22-piece Wordless Music Orchestra, an outstanding New York electro-acoustic group, in Melbourne on 24 November. Parts of this brilliant reworking of a familiar classic are already being broadcast on Classic FM: last week I heard Summer, and loved it.
Or the brilliant Victorian Opera Wagner Ring Cycle performed late last year in Melbourne, all 17 hours of which was rebroadcast soon afterwards on ABC Classic FM. Or Pinchgut Opera Company productions in Sydney. Or the Sydney International Piano Competition.
The 17 hours per week until now of broadcast live musical performances on Classic FM presumably reflected professional artistic judgements of how much of such music being played live each week around Australia was worthy of national broadcast.
Arbitrarily to cut it in half is like telling the ABC it can only broadcast half the days of a cricket Test series, or half of a football season. It makes no artistic sense.
Cost accountants like these cuts, because programmes of pre-recorded music CDs from overseas are cheaper than Australian live broadcasts. There are savings on broadcasting rights fees paid to creators and performers, and from not putting recording crews and announcers in place, sometimes in not-so-accessible locations in regional Australia.
But at what artistic cost? For example, if ABC FM has now to cease rebroadcasting the Huntington Music Festivals: there will be real losses in listener pleasure, and in the financial support around the nation that helps a unique festival like Huntington in remote Mudgee to attract sponsors and thus continue to thrive. Many such festivals depend on ABC broadcasting financial support to help keep them viable.
How will FM program planners allocate their halved domestic live broadcast time between the Sydney Symphony Orchestra? The Adelaide or West Australian Symphony Orchestra? Huntington? Victorian Opera’s Wagner Ring Cycle? The Riders? A Peter Sculthorpe memorial tribute concert? An international piano or vocal competition in Australia?
The national classical music live broadcaster should not be forced to make such egregious choices on any but artistic grounds. This is what ABC Classic FM was set up for, and extended across our vast land to reach 95% of Australian radio audiences; not mechanically and endlessly to play tapes from overseas. There must be a balance.
I’m not sure how one gets across to people who do not much like or understand classical music the huge cultural treasure and living musical archive that the national Classic FM network, as it has evolved over the last 40 odd years, now represents in Australia. There is nothing else quite like it in the world.
It allows listeners almost right across Australia to hear the best world music and Australian-created or performed music, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some people might see this as catering to an elite minority ‘niche’ taste. Is listening on the radio to Test cricket or an AFL series a ‘niche’ taste? I don’t listen to these things, but I am happy for others to do so.
The love of classical music has deep and broad roots in Australia. We would never have had a Joan Sutherland without our rich Australian classical music public culture, back to our early European settlement – all those church choirs, brass bands, eisteddfods, music and dance schools. And in the dark days of WW2, when visionary ABC executives like Bernard Heinze and Charles Moses, who both had a strong sense of cultural mission to the whole country while we battled Nazi barbarism, sent ABC orchestras touring around Australia and playing Beethoven’s nine symphonies to packed houses of emotional audiences. And in the rich golden years of Australian classical music from the 1940s on, inspired by the contributions of Jewish and other refugee musicians from Europe.
ABC Classic FM has inherited from ABC Radio National, and now has sole broadcasting responsibility, for nurturing this rich living musical heritage. Live concert-hall or opera house audiences are essential for music to thrive. But surely it is also a cultural good that retired people in Orange or Bendigo or Launceston or Bunbury can switch on their FM radios and hear the same wonderful music, played in our country. Hearing a tape from Frankfurt or London is just not quite the same thrill.
The national Classic FM network allows large numbers of listeners to share in hugely significant and inspiring live musical events in our country that many, because of where they live, or lack of money, or mobility issues, would never get to hear. It allows many Australians to feel a sense of belonging to a common music-loving national community, uniting young, middle-aged and older people.
A symbiotic relationship exists between a thriving classical music national radio network, which builds and enriches audiences, and the stimulation and professional development of young musical talent in our country. If one is harshly cut back, the other inevitably will suffer. A holistic approach is surely needed.
What will happen under halved live broadcasting hours to the broadcasting opportunities and performance fees of our smaller state symphony orchestras outside Sydney and Melbourne – in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Tasmania? How will they cope with loss of income and audience engagement in their states? Such national musical assets are hard to create, easy to destroy. Look at the USA now, a virtual classical music radio desert and with symphony orchestras in financial difficulties closing down around the country. Do we want this?
Somebody must speak out now for Classic FM. It is not for elites, not for silvertails. It is for the 750,000 Australians listening to their FM radios, whose parents and teachers taught them to cherish classical music, whatever their location, means, ages, or mobility. Don’t taxpayers and citizens have a right to demand that this precious intangible national cultural heritage, built up by the hard work of so many people over so many years, not be cut off at the knees now?