• 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?’.

• Conundrum – When Does ‘Late’ Mean ‘Early’?

Talking about the dead is fraught with difficulties, dressed up in all sorts of niceties.  We seem to have gone past phrases like ‘the dear departed’, but we still cling to euphemisms whenever possible (dead parrot, anyone?).  But ‘the late’ sticks around.  Why?  To remind us of a recent death, in case we’d forgotten?  Or in case we hadn’t realised that he or she had ‘left us’ in the first place?

I was set yesterday to musing (well, frankly, fuming) on the general idiocy of ‘the late’.  It seems to have no boundaries or rationale.  In its most vacuous incarnation it has the urge to alliterate – ‘the late, great’.  Aaagh.  Taking purely musical examples, I can just about understand why the singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006, aged 52), on the left, is still referred to on the radio as ‘the late’.  It’s harder to comprehend why presenters feel it necessary, as they still sometimes do, to talk of another soprano, Arleen Auger (right), as ‘the late’.  She died 18 years ago (1939-93, aged 53).

What took the biscuit for me was listening yesterday morning to the first edition of BBC Radio 3’s new morning programme Essential Classics.  Rob Cowan, whom I like and respect as a presenter, referred to the early-music pioneer, David Munrow, as ‘the late’.  Well, honestly.  That’s ridiculous.  He died 35 – yes, 35 – years ago (1942-76, aged 34).  What can ‘the late’ possibly signify?

It seems to me that there’s a prolonged whiff of undue sentimentality, bordering on mawkishness.  The past tense surely suffices and nothing else.  Benjamin Britten (1913-76, aged 63), who died in the same year as Munrow, lost the label long ago.  I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘the late Witold Lutosławski’ (1913-94, aged 81) – and he died less than a year after Arleen Auger.  I wouldn’t even use it when speaking about Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010, aged 76), who died ten months ago yesterday.

It’s noticeable that all three of these ‘late’ musicians were performers, not composers, and all died ‘before their time’ (two of cancer, one by suicide).  Has ‘late’ therefore come to mean ‘too early’?  I suspect so, but did people in 1863 still refer to Schubert (1797-1828, aged 31) as ‘the late’?  Or talk likewise, in 1915, about Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80, aged 44)?  I hope that devotees of Maria Callas (1923-77, aged 53) no longer apply it to their ‘dear departed’.  Somehow I fear that they do.

Should there be a statute of limitations?  Ten years?  Five years?  Six months?

Or why don’t we just have done with it and abolish it altogether?  Better never than ‘late’.

• What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?

Oh dear, Auntie Beeb is at it again.  She’s asking us to sit comfortably in our antimacassar Queen Anne chairs, our tooth mug by our side and a cup of … well, you get the picture.  Welcome to Radio 3’s new morning ‘not-drive-time’ replacement for Classical Collection.  With its aura of chocolate boxes and nice gift shops, that title wasn’t much to shout about either.  Now, make way for … (‘Drumroll’, among other symphonies) … Essential Classics.

What a stroke of genius.  It’s fresh, original, unforgettable.  Others will soon catch on, mind.  I can see the future: fascinating CDs and downloads called Essential Vivaldi, Essential Mozart, Essential Mendelssohn.  We might even get, wait for it, Essential Ravel or Essential, Essential Classics.  And, dare I think the unthinkable?  How about Essential World Music or Essential Classic Jazz (a double hit there, surely)?

Say the word over and over and it becomes meaningless.  Actually, it’s pretty meaningless anyway.  Essential for whom, for what?  I believe that the title is nothing but a cynical ploy to be seen to try to attract less-demanding listeners.  Are radio listeners that dumb?  Radio 3 has a robust following, so does it think that its survival depends on some putative untapped constituency with few musical brain cells between the ears?  Seriously, who these days is going to be won over by such a title?  Not the younger listener, that’s for sure.  In any event, I don’t think that Radio 3 really believes in titles like this.  Classical Collection frequently goes beyond expectations, so why shouldn’t Essential Classics?  It had jolly well better do, otherwise it will lose listeners.

There is so much twaddle that accompanies schedule changes.  Radio 3 says: ‘The extended length of this programme will allow for longer pieces of repertoire to be played and will include, for example, a performance of the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation’.  To take the latter point first: Classical Collection presents the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation already – so what’s new?  As to ‘longer pieces of repertoire’, there are plenty of examples in recent Classical Collection playlists of works lasting 20’-30’.  Less than two weeks ago, it  broadcast Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, which comes in at c. 50’.  So another piece of promotional tosh.

Yet there may be hope for those of us who like a challenge or something ‘inessential’ in our morning (or anytime) listening.  I’m thinking of a wonderful use of my least favourite word in the marketing of an Olympia CD back in 1993.  It was of music by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (OCD 385) and was clearly piggybacking on the phenomenal international success of Elektra Nonesuch’s CD the previous year of the Pole’s Third Symphony, ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).

What better way to encourage sales than by calling the CD  The Essential Górecki Orchestral and Choral Music.  Recordings Selected by the Composer?  Brilliant.  Though I’m damn sure that Górecki didn’t choose the headline title.  Pity the poor enthusiast for the Third Symphony who bought this CD expecting more of the same, because isn’t that what was being implied?  If the enthusiast listened to music from the comfort of a well-upholstered and well-protected armchair, then a life-threatening shock was in store.

Why?  Because the five works on The Essential Górecki were nothing like the Third Symphony.  There was the terse, Webernian Epitafium (1958), the explosively avant-garde Scontri (Collisions, 1960), the gritty Genesis II (1962), the Messiaenic Refrain (1965) and the modal v. serial-atonal Old Polish Music (1969).

If, on the other hand, the listener was open-eared, unconcerned with mantras about ‘core repertoire’, a wonderful, mould-shattering surprise awaited.  Because, to appropriate the word ‘essential’, this music from 1958-69 was and is representative of the composer’s creative drive and imagination and an essential component in an understanding of his musical journey.

Olympia’s marketing was either a cynical move or an inspired hijacking – of a stale, tired, forgettable term – whose subversive intention was to stimulate individual hearing buds and catch the listener unawares.  If that’s what Radio 3 has in mind for Essential Classics, but isn’t telling, than hurrah for that.

Listen out from 9 a.m. on Monday, 12 September.

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