• Toothless, Lame and Lazy

This post was originally the first half of Radio 3 – Hear and Now 50 (the next post in the sequence).

BBC Radio 3 tried to persuade me to listen to a programme yesterday afternoon by informing me that it was to be presented by the country’s “best-loved choirmaster, Gareth Malone”.  Or so the M&S-style voice said.

Tell me, who writes this meaningless crap?  By what yardstick is Gareth Malone ‘our’ best-loved choirmaster?  Who decided that a choirmaster had to be loveable anyway?  Was there a poll that I missed?  Or is this just slack speak for “most-frequently-seen-on-BBC2-TV choirmaster”?  There is a difference, you know.  I can’t believe for one minute that this appropriation of simplistic advertising jargon attracts anyone, except Gareth Malone fans who are, by definition, already in love with him.  Watch it, Gareth.  Radio 3 promotion is lumping you together with CDs of best-loved melodies and anthologies of best-loved hymns.  Is that really where you want to be?

The programme?  Another stunningly inventive title from Radio 3 – Saturday Classics.

Saturday Classics

Malone’s theme over this and his next three programmes is ‘musical youth’.  I hope that this develops as a more meaningful connective tissue than it did yesterday.  First we had Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, included because it was a good example.  Of what?  Because it was written when he was 30?  Then three excerpts from Vivaldi’s Gloria, simply because Malone’s mother used to play it to send him to sleep when he was young.  Ah, bless.  Then a story about unborn children being able to hear (hardly breaking news), about a singer rehearsing Aida while pregnant, etc..  Cue a chorus from – yes, you’ve guessed it.  The background to Elgar’s Dream Children was more interestingly told, but just because Chopin, like Mozart, was an infant prodigy hardly justifies playing his ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, composed when he was almost 30.  You could take any composer by this method, play a piece composed at that age, and claim a connection with ‘musical youth’.

And so it continued.  It was mild, comforting, thoroughly unchallenging musical fare, suitable for anyone without teeth.  In short, it was lame.  Malone ended with the phrase “I hope you enjoyed today’s romp through musical youth”.  Give me strength.

I just hope that future four-week presenters bring a bit more bite, insight and robustness to their themes (if they have to have them).  And that we get less standard fare.  We’re promised Simon Russell Beale, John Wilson and Alison Balsom, so let’s not give up quite yet.

The mania for ‘personal’ programming is getting thoroughly tiresome.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s a largely spurious approach to music.  If our ‘guide’ is strong, we remember his or her character and history rather than the music, which is incidental to such formats.  If weak, then the off button is suddenly very attractive.  It’ll be off for me on the next three Saturday afternoons.  What a relief it was to hear Geoffrey Smith at 17.00: a relaxed, cheery ‘HaLLO’, insightful commentary and a focus on the music.

Essential Classics

This juror is out with regard to another ‘Classics’ programme – Radio 3’s weekday morning sequence Essential Classics, whose title I lambasted two weeks ago.  It began inauspiciously last Monday with an instantly forgettable Czech composer and music (Oskar Nedbal’s Dance of the Brigands).  Its main ‘slot’ (after 11.00 each day) was worth hearing, however, not least because I trust Rob Cowan’s knowledge of recordings to provide interesting performances.  I’m far less convinced by the daily guest input.  This week the guest was the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, next week it’s a gardening expert called Rachel de Thame.  Poor souls, they’ve had to fill out a questionnaire in preparation.  Have a look at these twenty questions and ask yourself a simple one in return: will the ‘piece’ itself be enhanced by knowing that someone else chose it for one of these reasons?

1.    What was the first piece of classical music you can remember hearing?
2.    What piece first stimulated your interest in classical music?
3.    What was the first classical record/CD you bought yourself?
4.    Do you have a favourite performer, and what piece would you choose to hear him/her/them play?
5.    If you could choose to be a virtuoso on any instrument, what would it be, and what piece would you like to play?
6.    Is there a piece you can play, or would like to play yourself?
7.    Do you have a favourite composer – and a favourite piece by him/her?
8.    What piece of music do you use to relax to?
9.    What piece of music makes you glad to be alive?
10.    What piece of music would you listen to on a journey (car/train/plane)?
11.    Is there a piece that you find particularly moving?
12.    Is there a piece that reminds you of a particular place?
13.    Is there a piece that makes you laugh?
14.    Can you work while listening to music, and what piece would you choose, and why?
15.    If you are entertaining friends, is there a particular piece you would put on?
16.    Is there a piece that you think should be more widely known – a hidden gem?
17.    Is there a piece of film or TV music that has particularly affected you?
18.    If you could step back in time to hear a great performer who’s no longer with us, who would it be, and what piece would you choose to hear?
19.    If we gave you an orchestra/choir/soloists, what piece would you choose to conduct?
20.    What piece of music do you want played at you funeral/to be remembered by?

In some cases, the answer might be yes (nos 16 and 18), something interesting about the music might emerge.  Some are downright idiotic (the ludicrous no. 9).  Most are intrusive and only interesting if you are interested in the person making the choice.  In other words, their answers are intrinsically a reflection on themselves (Desert Island Discs syndrome) rather than on the music.  Private Passions it ain’t, just a feeble imitation.  Or turn the process on its head. How many of the questions would fit the choice, say, of Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet or Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, both of them works which have long been regarded as part of the canon of 20th-century classical music.  According to this questionnaire, I very much doubt that they are ‘essential’ any more.  I hope that I am confounded.

How about creating an alternative questionnaire?  Here are a few suggestions to start with:

1a.    What is the last piece of classical music you listened to?
2a.    What piece of classical music can’t you stand?
3a.    What was the first piece of music that you downloaded legally/illegally?
etc. …

Given that guests are likely to have achieved eminence in their field, just one question might have sufficed instead of the lazy twenty above: ‘What music has stimulated your own creativity?’.

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