BBC orchestras ‘will improve with more freelancers’

BBC orchestras ‘will improve with more freelancers’


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2023

We have heard from several participants that a senior BBC executive told an internal Zoom meeting last week that ‘standards will improve with more freelancers in the mix.’

A plan for the closed Zoom call to be made public has been delayed.

The case that freelancers improve an orchestra can be attested by the relative performing standards obtaining in, say, London and Berlin.

It is on such specious argumentation that the BBC’s classical strategy is based.

The sooner it is scrapped, the less long-term damage will be done to the BBC’s public standing.


  • Rustier spoon says:

    For heavens sake!!!

  • D says:

    Freelancers Barely exist in Berlin orchestral life.

  • Pat says:

    If a role ie number 8 cello is made redundant then it is closed. It can’t be filled with freelancers…. can someone explain? It is the role that is made redundant because it is no longer needed not the person.

    • KK says:

      The opposite is actually true. The BBC (and any other contract orchestra) can employ a freelancer in that seat but only has to pay them for that day or week but not have to pay them a salary. A big saving on repertoire issuing smaller forces.

      • sal says:

        …not if that chair has been made redundant they can’t.

      • MN says:

        KK you are thinking like a musician and yes we generally have a rubbish deal but there ARE employment laws out there to protect against this very thing the BBC are planning. HMRC would take a very dim view of this too.

  • Hercule says:

    What a moronic thing to say! Or is it? Before long the same people will begin to occupy their usual seats and it will all come together as it otherwise would. It’ll just take a while. Cheaper for management though.

    • Tamino says:

      Not as it otherwise would.
      Maybe same people, but no social security (beyond the days employment), no pension, no bank that gives you a loan against the (relative) security of your salary…
      Neoliberalism is so passé, but the BBC is never quick.

      Who wants to live and thrive in this shitty world anymore?

      Is the ideal world one, where everybody is a real estate agent or an investment banker?

  • Heini says:

    If you’re implying that the standard of orchestral playing in London is worse than that in Berlin due to having more freelancers on the platform then that too is a specious argument.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    One hears the sound of the barrel being scraped with this ‘justification’.

  • GG says:

    Freelancers improve quality? Don’t think so. Re- auditioning however is not a bad idea (it would help complacency at, say, the Royal Opera House).

    • Maria says:

      People in a full-time. British opera chorus reaudition. It was every year or two when I was in Scottish Opera, and freelancers were employed in the orchestra.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I wonder where this individual acquired this notion? Does it work for string quartets too? The next shoe to drop will be when they decide sight-reading is better than rehearsing. There is money to be saved there. And a harmless bit of reorchestrating the great masterworks could save even more money. The thin edge of the wedge …..

    Now having said that, there are freelancers and then there are freelancers. The “His Symphony Orchestra” that RCA Victor recorded with Leopold Stokowski in the 1950s was a group of New York freelancers BUT they were also all quite accustomed to playing with each other, in various combinations. And Stokowski played a role in hand picking them. Perhaps it was never the exact group of folks in each recording but there was a certain core group for many of them. Many famous and familiar names, too.

    Without agreeing in the least that this would be a good idea, I do have to reluctantly concede that you certainly could put together a quite nice orchestra in London entirely made up of freelancers.

    • Maria says:

      Stokowski didn’t have to conduct first and last performances of new music at the Proms like the BBC Symphony and Phil are known for, and a phenomenal musicianship and an eye-watering ability to sight-reading like the BBC Singers,. Never the same programme two days running, unlike the so-called elite orchestras who can play one programme for nearly a week.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        I am not going to argue with you Maria over the phenomenal sight reading that is expected of and delivered by British musicians, but you might want to revisit the repertoire that Stokowski regularly recorded with “His Symphony Orchestra” — well packed with works that those players had never seen before and never would again, including newly composed stuff. And some of those recording sessions started at midnight ….

        • Thor says:

          Stokowski’s circumstances were very different I think. The 1940’s/50’s in the US were unique for the abundance of talent that fled Nazi Germany – especially string players. It would have been much easier to amass such an orchestra in New York or indeed Hollywood. These are sad times at the BBC…

  • Jon H says:

    Whenever a new member joins an orchestra, it can take them up to 10 years to predict the exact sound they should make at every moment. Freelancers can be very flexible with balance and tone (and they are very necessary), but they can’t figure out in a couple hours what someone has learned over extended periods of time with one group, even if that person say, didn’t have the technical agility they used to have. They still are a piece of the important whole.

    • Jon H says:

      Interesting though. You can take one player from the Berlin Phil, and stick them in the Baltimore Symphony and it will still sound like Baltimore – but if you were to take 90 players from Berlin – it would most certainly sound like Berlin.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      It is one of these aspects of orchestral playing that London orchestral managements seem particularly insulated against. One important reason why the string section of the Vienna Philharmonic sounds so special is that, in addition to uniform bowing techniques, these players have shared the same desk time and time again. They instinctively breathe together and know how their colleague will react. That is how you achieve style and a unique manner of playing. London orchestras believe they can slot any number of freelance players into any of the front, middle and back desks, and the results will still be the same. Sometimes they are lucky and standards are maintained. Not always though. And I challenge the London orchestras to carry out blind listening tests. Can anybody really distinguish the Philharmonia from the LPO or the RPO from the LSO? Rather like the blind testing of French wines in international comparisons, what comes out in the wash is often quite different from what is expected.

    • Maria says:

      Ten years to get into a rut and complacency!

  • UK Arts Administrator says:

    By the same argument, a highly-tuned football team whose members know each other’s style of play inside out and can thus work together seamlessly – let’s today suggest Manchester City or Arsenal as apparently both teams are rather good – will perform much better if they replace some of their regular players with a few freelancers who happen to be free on that particular day.

  • James Ross says:

    The BBC manager who said this should be willing to express his or her unorthodox opinion in public, and be willing to defend it. If it’s such a good idea, why hide? Freedom of information request?

  • Ich bin Ereignis says:

    Yes, because they are actually concerned with artistic standards.

    The only standards these spineless sophists turned administrators are concerned with is the bottom line.

  • D says:

    i want to be clearer :

    The major 5 Berlin orchs and the operas all have academies! Unless you are married to a concertmaster or filling in guest leading, you are frankly not hired. Now a moment for respect for Brit musicians. I have never seen such astonishing talent and sight reading. Part of it is sink or swim. No proper rehearsals and one concert of perhaps a difficult program. The BBC bands are the only salaried ones. It’s a shame young violinists- and trust me they are the first in the cull- will forgo benefits, and just grab the work. the violinists will be the first to go. Can’t really make do with a random wind section! Honestly it’s all so stupid. Such a tradition and what a shame

    • Alison Bates says:

      As a BBC Arts Administrator in another life I was once asked, quite seriously, by a business consultant being paid thousands by the BBC why we couldn’t simply eliminate the wind posts as they were so highly paid and just play music that didn’t involve wind in future. I don’t think he understood a word of my reply. But we did more or less win the argument back then. Sadly it Seems the BBC has now given in to this sort of ignorance.

    • IC225 says:

      It’s not true that the BBC orchestras are the only salaried ones (if by that you mean that they have players on a full time contract). With the exception of four of the five London orchestras every full-time symphony orchestra in the UK, as well as the orchestras of most of the major subsidised opera companies, employs its players on a permanent contract. The London freelance model is the exception, not the rule.

      Interestingly the BBC exec who made this foolish statement used to play in one of the freelance London orchestras and throughout his management career has repeatedly demonstrated his inability to understand or value the very different working culture of contract orchestras.

  • Tamino says:

    That is just complete BS. There is nothing more to say about that.

  • Derek says:

    I’m not sure they are saying the orchestras will be better per se – they are saying that if they work this way they can manage to keep the orchestras, which is better than losing one.

    • Alexander More says:

      And it will leave executive salaries in the BBC unaffected, which is the principal object of the exercise.

    • C Kerins says:

      It’s ALWAYS the musicians, the ARTISTS, that lose out. As a string player in the USA I am constantly asking why aren’t Orchestras look at, and make cuts, to the salaries of the administrators? Cuts always happen to the people who MAKE the music, and we are already hustling to make a living. I’d have better (any) benefits, and employment stability working in the Symphony Office than playing on stage. It’s a sad truth.

  • Practicum says:

    It will probably be mostly the same players but with lower salaries and fewer benefits. May even cut some of those ‘redundant” string players all playing the same part. Cost cutting pure and simple.

  • Jeremy Neville says:

    Entirely agree. The BBC’s decision to axe the BBC Singers and to drastically reduce the numbers in some of its House Orchestras cannot be put down to ‘good housekeeping’. It’s a blatant attempt to con us into trying to sidestep what we all know to be the root of the problem. What has occurred is the BBC’ s pathetic and cowardly reaction to the Licence Fee Dilemma.

    • Maria says:

      What do ypu recommend we do then with the television licence? Get an expensive Sky or Virgin Media package?

  • Practicum says:

    … and less security…the gig society advances.

    • SVM says:

      But “the other side of the coin” is that the organisations cannot rely on being able to get a given freelancer consistently for each and every gig, especially if the player is in demand from multiple fixers. A key characteristic of a freelance engagement is “no mutuality of obligation”, which is to say that a freelancer is at liberty to decline a given engagement, unlike an employee (who does not get to “pick and choose” which gigs he/she does). Of course, saying “no” too often could result in fixers no longer bothering to ask, but an experienced freelance player with lots of enquiries may well feel in a position to “pick and choose”. If the BBC decides to rely too heavily on freelancers, it may find itself at the mercy of the schedules for more lucrative session work (“We apologise for cancelling our scheduled live broadcast from the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Radio 3 this afternoon; unfortunately, most of our regular freelance players were unavailable due to a recording session for [insert name of pop star or film producer with massive budget]”), or compelled to offer much better per-service pay to match/outbid such session work.

      Having said that, engaging on a freelance basis works very well for promoters who do not mount performances all year round, or who want the flexibility to vary the size and composition of the orchestra. Perhaps the BBC planning to scale-back its recording/performance output to a level where it makes more sense to have a relatively small core of permanent employees and hire freelance extras.

  • CA says:

    The idiocy in the orchestral world just never ceases to amaze me anymore. Statements like this by one whom I believe has run a professional orchestra before just make one vomit. I’m sorry but this is just ridiculous:

  • Johnny Morris says:

    Apparently they wrapped it up by asking everyone to enjoy Red Nose Day, so maybe this whole thing is just one big anticipatory April’s Fool.

  • Barry says:

    Why not adopt the same policy for administrators – just bring in freelancers when you really need them? Preferably never.

  • japecake says:

    I mean, it’s true of surgeons and airline pilots, so why not orchestras?

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    Perhaps what the BBC needs is more freelancers in management.

  • sonicsinfonia says:

    You cannot make a salaried position (say 2nd desk viola) redundant and then employ a freelancer on that desk. That contravenes employment law. Redundancy means just that, the position ceases to exist.

    • MN says:

      Absolutely…. one would hope that rather than having discussions with the BBC the Musicians Union are seeking advice from HMRC and specialist employment lawyers.

  • Dickie445 says:

    I genuinely don’t get what all the fuss is about. Given that they have lots of microphones at the BBC couldn’t they just have one violin, perhaps one of the big person-sized ones so it plays as loud as possible, and then magnify it’s sound with a microphone?

    • Tamino says:

      Sure they could do that. but why the hassle, just use a synthesizer instead. fire all the musicians. Finally we can directly eat the money then, nobody is wasting it anymore on these useless artists.

  • Nina says:

    Why is the BBC killing orchestral music? Are there better projects out there? I wonder what a classical orchestra of one-day workers will look like?

  • John Humphreys says:

    Nothing like a few freelancers to improve the ‘mix’…

  • Alan Partridge says:

    Still, good news for freelancers

  • peter lilley says:

    If you are a member of an orchestra then you take pride in it and you have an interest in the daily running of the organisation. You work as a team with your friends and colleagues and the orchestra as a unit works and plays in its own unique style. This will suffer greatly with a large influx of freelance players,irrespective of how good they are.

  • Herbie G says:

    Could this be a feeble attempt at blackmail? The BBC proposes these savage cuts, there’s a massive protest and the government then steps in with lots more money to resolve the matter – everyone is grateful and it’s a vote winner.

    Sadly, it won’t work. This government is strapped for cash as it is, without shelling out more to placate rich toffs who like classical music. In any case, this government wouldn’t recognise culture even if it bit them on the ankle.

  • Salami Man says:

    I’d like to think that the various calls for a re-think of this whole sorry fiasco will bear some fruit. However, when dealing with people who seem to value their own self-aggrandisement over something of national importance, we may just be time-wasting. Let’s see.

    Please accept first that I am absolutely appalled by and against the closing of the BBC Singers.

    Nevertheless, turning to the orchestras, the salami-slicing approach that is being proposed is, of course, the most damaging way to address the BBC Management’s desire to save cash. This way of working means that each ensemble will be damaged and, as a result, could then embark on a slow decline to closure which will not have been of their making.

    An example. If audiences feel that the concert they went to with BBC orchestra X last year was better than the one they went to yesterday, then they are less likely to book for another concert next month. Apply this reaction across the 1000 people that might attend said concerts and, inevitably, BBC orchestra X will lose its audience and income. It will then be deemed uneconomic. As the final act, the axe is dropped and BBC orchestra X closes with management saying that “no one is interested in it and what it does anymore”.

    This is a pretty grim picture but, having worked in local government when a salami slicer has been taken to cultural services, many of those services have now gone.

    Someone has mentioned applying the BBC’s orchestra model to football. Other than the fact that the annual salary of one premiere league footballer could probably cover those of all the player in the BBC orchestras, if you decide to remove a core team member and replace them with a string of excellent locums, the strength of the team will decline and you will be relegated down the football leagues. However, in football, there is always the chance that a new owner will pump in new money and build the team back up again. Do you see the BBC doing this?

  • Tim says:

    We now have almost 70 years worth of recordings spanning most of the repertoire in high fidelity sound. Their artistic and technical excellence is unlikely to be surpassed now or in the future. They can be enjoyed on demand at little or no cost, without the need to dress up, travel or expose onself to pathogens. There is some new music, but most of it is garbage. Am I a philistine? I suppose so, but the artistic community is going to need to justify the millions they’re demanding, because the philistines far outnumber the musicians, and they’re going to control how the money is spent.

  • Harold Wilkin says:

    A 20% reduction in salaried post in the BBC’s English orchestras only makes sense if the intention is to reduce the orchestras’ normal playing strength.

    The Symphony and Philharmonic string sections could be reduced from 60 players to between 45 and 50 players, i.e. 12 or 14 first violins instead of the present 16.
    This would be a huge backward step.

    For larger works freelance players would then be engaged as extras rather than deputies.

    However, instinct tells me that the more likely outcome is that the number of BBC orchestras will be reduced.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Even more so, BBC orchestras will improve with hungry amateur players who will “give just that much more”, and won’t be giving tired, routine performances (like jaded professional orchestra musicians).