Sunday, March 30, 2008

Did the Hockey Strike Kill the CBC Orchestra?

Thanks to Laurie Townsend for writing this article and for asking for it to be reposted here. Laurie is the Concerts and Communications Manager at the University of British Columbia School of Music and writes about the importance of the CBC Radio Orchestra and its importance over the last few decades as a vehicle for emerging artists.

Did the Hockey Strike Kill the CBC Orchestra?

Thoughts on hearing the announcement of the demise of the CBC Radio Orchestra

CBC and Hockey are two of Canada’s National institutions. Watching “Hockey Night in Canada” is a national pastime and the CBC relies heavily on the advertising revenues for the games they broadcast on TV. The CBC budget took a hard hit when the 2004-2005 season of NHL Hockey was cancelled. Is it possible that the CBC Vancouver Orchestra (recently renamed the CBC Radio Orchestra) was affected by the loss of these TV revenues? I could not help wondering about the trickle down effect during the hockey strike three years ago and it came to mind again yesterday [March 27th] when CBC executives came to Vancouver to announce the elimination of the CBC Orchestra to its musicians.

News reports indicate this was an economic decision. Since CBC music broadcasting has taken a radical turn away from so called “classical music”, the economic argument for killing the CBC orchestra is not honest. Stating they will use the CBC Radio Orchestra budget (less than 1 million dollars per year [later word indicated $600,000]) to record other orchestras is not honest either as they have, in recent years, cut that amount and more from what they have spent recording Canadian orchestras. Others have written about the loss of classical music programming from CBC. With a turn away from classical music broadcasting the death of the orchestra could be considered a natural consequence, one more in the series of deaths of CBC music radio shows.

Instead of grieving today, I want to offer you an example of the CBC Radio Orchestra’s impact on Canadian culture through the stories of a few of our students at the UBC School of Music. I suspect every similar school and institution across this country could share (and I hope they do) similar stories. Stories of how CBC Radio and the CBC Radio Orchestra have nurtured the young performing and composition talents of this country, each one an argument for our national public broadcaster to reinstate the orchestra and return classical and contemporary music programming onto radio and internet broadcasting.

The UBC School of Music has had four of students win at the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in New York, auditions so prestigious and famous for helping to launch international careers that the media always reports stories about the winners. Judith Forst (B. Mus 1966, LLD 1991) won in 1968, Ben Heppner (B. Mus 1978) won in 1988, Philippe Castagner won in 2002 while still a student (is now singing with the Met in New York and starred in the VOA’s recent First Nations setting of Mozart’s Magic Flute), and just last month current third-year student Simone Osoborne won. For Forst and Heppner, the CBC has nurtured and chronicled their rise to stardom on the opera stages of the world. Before the Met, Heppner’s talent was recognized by CBC when he won the CBC Competition for Young Performers in 1979. Both Heppner and Forst have been featured soloists with the CBC Orchestra in studio sessions for broadcast, CD recordings or public performances at various times throughout their careers. Philippe Castagner recently was a soloist with the orchestra and received national exposure through CBC. One of the mandates of the orchestra has been to help develop Canadian talent by providing performance opportunities and national exposure through broadcasts. Simone Osborne may be destined for a big career on world stages, but will her public broadcaster be one of those introducing her to Canadians and nurturing her career?

Like feeder teams for the National Hockey League, the CBC has trained and developed Canadian cultural stars (and journeyman musicians who populate chamber ensembles, orchestras and teaching positions in Canada and internationally) and trained every other kind of radio production and orchestra production team member. And here again, I can list UBC Music alumni; George Laverock and Karen Wilson, both former Producer/Managers of the CBC Orchestra in Vancouver, Don Harder, Recording Engineer for the orchestra and many members of the orchestra. Faculty members such as pianists Jane Coop and Sara Davis Buechner have been soloists with the orchestra and several members of the orchestra teach here as well. Sadly, other CBC farm teams have already been cut including the regional performance programs (West Coast Performance being the B.C region show) which was often a first recording experience for young musicians with exposure to a large public and continuing exposure for established musicians.

The current executives say the resources are so limited that they could not afford to continue having a broadcast orchestra. The amount reported is something less than one million dollars. An amount that is less than a starter house in North Vancouver. It is also less than what is spent to produce some 30-second TV commercials, and depending on the show, I understand significantly less than the cost of producing a single episode for TV. This seems such a small cost for the value that this orchestra provides for our Country. For years the orchestra has been threatened, yet past CBC executives with vision have had the courage, creativity and tenacity to keep it alive.

Did the Hockey strike kill the CBC Orchestra? I believe it led to cuts in many areas of CBC programming including the orchestra. Yet the Canada Council has recently received more funding to support Canadian Cultural institutions and even the B.C. provincial government has increased support for the arts. I would like to see the Canadian federal government increase funding to CBC so that it may fulfill its mandate to the Canadian public rather than squeeze budgets throughout the Corporation to the point of killing our national cultural jewel, the CBC Radio Orchestra.

Laurie Townsend
Concerts and Communications Manager UBC School of Music.
Formerly Orchestra Librarian of the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, Production Assistant for CBC Radio Music in Vancouver, Orchestra Librarian of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and holds a B. Mus. from UBC.

March 28, 2008


PS and A few facts and figures . . .

You can hear Simone Osborne sing the role of Rosalinda when UBC Opera Ensemble per performs a concert version of “Die Fledermaus” with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra May 15th at the Orpheum Theatre.

The Cutbacks have been going on for years.
The orchestra used to mostly work in the studio recording repertoire for radio broadcast and LP/CD release.

15 – 20 years ago the orchestra recorded approx 30 studio sessions and about 3 public performances each year.

Over the years the number of sessions continued to reduce until a couple of years ago the orchestra was told it could only perform publicly and then were not given the administrative or promotional support to advertise the concerts sufficiently. And in spite of this audiences at recent concerts have been very good.
This year they are giving 6 - 8 concerts.

Recording orchestras across the Country has reduced drastically over the years.
When I worked for the VSO the CBC recorded approximately 12 concerts a year.
Last year 5 were recorded. This year only the concerts of their Beethoven Festival will be recorded for radio broadcast.

Any list of artists who have performed as soloists with the CBC orchestra or have had works commissioned or performed by the orchestra in its 70 year history is a list of the who’s who of Canadian musical talent.

Some other CBC music programs cut or being cut: DiscDrive, Global Village, Sound Advice, Music in Company, Here’s to You, Studio Sparks, Choral Concert, Music for a While, Two New Hours, Symphony Hall, The Singer and the Song, Northern Lights.

Good Music is good music is good music. CBC Radio 2 (Ne CBC Stereo, CBC FM) has been broadcasting jazz, world, folk, roots and singer/songwriters in addition to its classical offerings for decades in programs dedicated to each genre. And all genres collected together with a huge audience following in shows like DiscDrive.

In September 2006 CBC recorded and broadcast the entire Wagner Ring Cycle from the new Canadian Opera Company’s theatre in Toronto.
Niche programming for an elite audience or exciting and risky programming packaged and promoted to bring the opera art form to a larger audience?
Cost - priceless

The CBC Radio Orchestra - also priceless

“Any public broadcaster,” wrote Lord Pilkington about the BBC in 1960, “whose aim is to give the public what it wants, first underestimates that audience, then debauches it!”

One outcome of CBC Radio 2’s heavy emphasis on “serious” music
I started listening when I was a teenager. CBC Radio 2 is one of the reasons I have dedicated my life to working in the arts.

What can you do?

1. Write!
Send letters, e-mails, contribute to blogs (NB: Letters sent by post are counted more!)
Talk to others and encourage them to write.
I heard that one person is sending a cheque with their letter stating the money is to be used to reinstate the orchestra.
I'm still drafting my letter [Mar 30] to the CBC Executives, CBC Board, Prime Minister and Heritage Minister etc. I'm going to include a cheque with each letter expressly for the reinstatement and ongoing support of the CBC orchestra. For the cheques to the govt people it will be made payable to the Receiver General (same as when you pay your taxes) with a strong statement that I want my tax dollars to support our Public Broadcaster; for the CBC folk the cheques will be made out to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
I did a quick calculation – at the current level of activity the orchestra costs each Canadian less than 2 cents a year.
$5 represents share for 250 Canadians, $50 represents 2,500 and $100 represents 5,000.
(some addresses are included at the bottom)

2. Forward this message

3. Attend the last concerts of the Orchestra

April 20th at 3:00pm at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts
Programme – Great Canadian Songbook II
A programme of Canadian popular singers interpreting the music of four classic Canadian songwriters in original arrangements for orchestra by Canadian composers.
A wonderful example of the kind of creative, interesting, innovative, risky and entertaining programming that only the CBC can do and has been doing for 70 years!
And a brilliant programming idea when faced with pressure from above dictating the shift in direction CBC music content was taking. The traditional audience of the orchestra and Radio 2 must all cringe at the idea of pop music on Radio 2, what way to turn an unpalatable dictate on its head.

Look out for listings of the the Fall series of concerts which will include their last concert in November

4. Buy recordings of the orchestra and other CBC recordings by Canadian Artists (while you still can)
ie. – Mozart Horn concertos with James Sommerville and CBC Vancouver Orchestra which won Juno award or the latest recording of violin concertos with James Ehnes and the Vancouver Symphony which just won a Grammy Award. Note – CBC Records will no longer record music to be released on CD
Many fabulous CDs to choose from

Links to news stories of the announcement of the demise of the orchestra

Names and Addresses you can write to. . .

President CBC
Hubert T. Lacroix President and CEO,
P.O. Box 3220, Station C,
Ottawa, Ont.,
K1Y 1E4,
Phone: (613) 288-6000,

Tim Casgrain, Chair, CBC Board of Directors and other members of the CBC Board

The Two CBC Executives that came to Vancouver to tell the orchestra is was cut (they would have been the decision makers as well and requested board approval)
Mark Steinmetz, Director of Radio Music

P.O. Box 500, Station " A"
Toronto, Ont.
M5W 1E6

mark_steinmetz [at] cbc dot ca

Phone: (416) 205-3100, Ont.
M5W 1E6
Phone: (416) 205-3100

Jennifer McGuire, Executive Director of CBC English Radio
P.O. Box 500, Station " A"
Toronto, Ont.
M5W 1E6

jennifer_mcguire [at] cbc dot ca

CBC/Radio-Canada - English Services
Audience Relations

250 Front Street West
P.O. Box 500, Station A
Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6
1-866-306-INFO (4636) Toll-free
416-205-6688 (TDD)

Corporate Communications, Head Office

P.O. Box 3220, Station C
Ottawa, ON K1Y 1E4
613-288-6033 (General)
e-mail: liaison [at]

The Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
K1A 0A2

Fax: 613-941-6900
e-mail pm [at]

The Honourable Josée Verner
Minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

To send an e-mail from the Canadian Heritage web page go to this page. . .

The Member of Parlaiment for your riding

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting
attn.: Ian Morrison
Box 200/238
131 Bloor Street West
Toronto, Ontario
M5S 1R8
Fax: (416) 968-7406
E-mail: friends [at] friends dot ca

Laurie Townsend
Concerts and Communications Manager
University of British Columbia
School of Music


  1. Sign the petition at Forward the site to your friends. Post a comment, a rant, view contacts you can write.

  2. Thanks, tomzilla. I'll mentioning the Save the CBC Radio Orchestra later today in a full blog posting!

  3. I have read about the dismembering of the Vancouver orchestra announced this past weekend. The Globe suggests that CBC without an orchestra can be sound step for Radio 2 and that that there will be classical music (four hours every day) on Radio two, so the classic lovers should not be complaining.