I am delighted to be able to present another in what I hope will be an unending series of ‘Guest Postings’ by friends, acquaintances and strangers who are active in or around the musical world and have interesting things to say.
For this, the second posting in the series, I have to thank Sarah Spilsbury, of the broadcasting pressure group ‘Friends of Radio 3‘.
Sarah Spilsbury, who lives in Bristol, is a former Lecturer in French (University of Aberdeen), and has worked as a sub-editor on the Bristol (Evening) Post and the Western Daily Press (where — as literary folks will no doubt be aware! — Tom Stoppard and Terry Pratchett once worked in the same role).
Sarah Spilsbury co-founded ‘Friends of Radio 3’ (with Mark Sealey) in 2004. Whatever the group’s name might suggest, Friends of Radio 3 is not an ‘appreciation society’, having been created in the wake of listeners’ criticisms of the way BBC Radio 3 was diluting its classical music output and popularising its presentation to compete with Classic FM. Along with Mark Sealey, Sarah Spilsbury runs the Friends of Radio 3 (FoR3) website, and is in regular communication with BBC management. The group also has a Facebook community.
Over to Dr Spilsbury…
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Before focusing on the recently instituted now-in-its-second-year ‘BBC Music Day’, it’s worth looking at a longer-lived BBC tradition: the BBC Young Musician (formerly BBC Young Musician of the Year). This year’s competition has just concluded with a win for a teenage cellist who is not only a pupil at a state school (rather than a fee-paying private school or a specialist music school), but is also black.
Both these features put him among a small minority of young classical musicians in this country. His very victory, however, provoked the remarks that ‘Classical music is becoming ever more a preserve of the few’ and ‘Why is it that classical [music] is so restricted to a tiny elite?’
Preserve? Restricted? If a preserve is ‘a place or subject regarded as the special or exclusive domain of a particular person or group’ [OED], then who is it that regards the ‘classical music preserve’ in this way? Is it the ones inside the domain — or the ones outside? And what does ‘restricted’ imply? That young people are being excluded by those on the inside? Or that the ubiquitous provision of popular music restricts their musical opportunities and ensures that classical music remains an Unknown?
In the case of the latest ‘BBC Young Musician’, 17-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason had an ‘enlightened upbringing’: his self-sacrificing parents gave him his life chance — and that made them a rarity because society, schools — even the BBC — are today largely preoccupied with purveying, sharing and enjoying popular music in all its varied manifestations. Only a rare kind of parent — or a rare kind of teacher — will think that fostering a love of classical music in the young is worthwhile. And as for the BBC, well, let’s look more closely…
BBC Director-General Lord Hall (in post since April 2013) clearly wanted to create a new ‘brand’, BBC Music, to stand alongside BBC News and BBC Sport. As he revealed in an announcement of 16 June 2014:
“Today’s the start of something very special for everyone who loves music. BBC Music is a celebration of the brilliant musical talent across our country. We’ll be joining up music on television, radio, iPlayer and online like never before. There’ll be new shows, new partnerships and whole new ways to enjoy music.”
To bring this about, a BBC music supremo was created — in the guise of ‘Director of BBC Music’, a post to which Bob Shennan (at that time the BBC’s ‘Controller of Popular Music’, and of Radio 2, and of ‘6 Music’) was then appointed. Thus the responsibility for overseeing all broadcast music across television and radio rests upon the shoulders of a man whose broadcasting career has hitherto been devoted solely to his twin passions: sport and popular music. [See Who’s Who.]
As for what ‘BBC Music’ constitutes in practice, the BBC has a remit to promote UK performers and UK music to support the UK’s ‘creative industries’. For example, Radio 1’s ‘Service Licence’ — which defines the scope, aims, objectives, and other important features of the service — says the station should ‘nurture UK talent’, and serve creativity and cultural excellence ‘primarily through its contribution to musical creativity in the UK. It should provide a significant platform for new music and emerging UK artists across a wide range of musical genres’.
Similarly, according to Radio 2’s Service Licence, that station should ‘be committed to the development of new song writing and live performance, encouraging new artists, especially those from the UK’, and should provide popular music, including forms ‘indigenous to the UK, such as folk and brass’.
What appears to have been widely ignored is that, in focusing on contemporary UK music and musicians in this manner, these statutory remits at once put classical music at a disadvantage — and in more ways than one. First, the fact that the Western art music tradition extends back more than 500 years means that the vast majority of composers whose work is enjoyed and explored today are in no sense ‘contemporary’. Secondly, it is inevitably the case that the majority of this tradition’s composers were and are from places other than the UK. Thirdly, the modern classical music world literally spans the globe, and seldom pays attention to national frontiers: the idea that concert performers should be specially promoted, not on account of perceived artistic merit, but because they are from the UK, would be preposterous.
Inevitably, then, such remits have the effect of downgrading and ‘ghettoizing’ most classical music — driving it out of ‘mainstream’ scheduling and restricting it to ‘its own preserve’. For the BBC this ‘preserve’ is Radio 3 — whose talent-fostering New Generation Artists scheme can be seen to select a majority of its young musicians from elsewhere around the world.
As for TV, BBC Four is, of course, the BBC’s ‘home of classical music’ on television. What does that mean? That classical music on television is restricted to its preserve on BBC Four? Pretty much so – except that it is virtually invisible there too.
And for a clear demonstration of that fact, we can consider last year’s inaugural ‘BBC Music Day’. BBC Four celebrated music and music-making with a schedule that ran as follows:
Spot the classical music. Meanwhile, over on Radio 3 at 19.30, something quite extraordinary was happening: listeners to the only classical music outlet on BBC radio were treated to a special, celebratory, BBC Music Day simulcast of … Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night:
“The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is joined by an exciting cross-genre line-up of artists including tenor Noah Stewart, the violinist Jack Liebeck, pop legends Lulu and Deacon Blue, Bhangra artist Jaz Dhami, Scots folk star Claire Hastings, harpist Catrin Finch and jazz pianist Jamie Cullum.”
An ‘exciting line-up’? Possibly so. But: exciting for whom? This 2-hour(!) slice of Radio 3’s evening featured: 4 ½ minutes of a Bernstein work that is already a perpetual Classic FM ‘Hall of Fame’ favourite; 4 ½ minutes of familiar Mozart, 12 minutes of familiar Mendelssohn (one movement from a three-movement work, with its composed connection to the following movement simply sliced off); 5 minutes of relatively familiar Rimsky-Korsakov; 3 minutes of a familiar Puccini aria, and 5 minutes of favourite Classic FM Massenet (yes, that piece), all these interspersed with rock music and pieces from sundry other genres. For a classical music audience — such as would have been listening via Radio 3 — not even the classical music was exciting.
This whole shebang seemed to be a reinterpretation of the short-lived “Radio 2 Electric Proms” of a few years back. But at least their life didn’t interfere with Radio 3.
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And on 3 June 2016 we shall have the Second Annual BBC Music Day. Will it be any better?
So far, we know that the evening’s big celebration will be a 4-hour extravaganza from the Eden Project in Cornwall, in which ‘BBC Music Day Ambassadors, and musical legends, Duran Duran’ will be the headline act. Radio 2 will cover it live, 8pm until midnight, and it will also feature on BBC One and The One Show.
The ‘BBC Director of Music’ says: “…wherever people are in the UK, they will be able to enjoy their new music and sing along to their classic hits.” Which ‘people’ would that be? Like, everyone…?
Thankfully, there is no mention of a simulcast this year: Radio 3’s evening concert will be performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra…
Hang on: the BBC Concert Orchestra?
No disrespect to the Concert Orchestra (veterans also of the Electric Proms); but this happens to be the BBC performing group which specialises in the lighter repertoire. It’s regarded as Radio 2’s house band on the regular on Friday Night Is Music Night, a programme which seldom includes anything that would satisfy a classical audience. But, even so, on Music Day’s Friday Night, it seems that it will be Radio 3, rather than Radio 2, that is using them.
And the BBC’s other orchestras? Well, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (which last year accompanied Lulu and rock band ‘Deacon Blue’) will again be performing – this time accompanying the rock band ‘Travis’. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Chorus will perform a concert celebrating ‘the music from the terraces which propelled Wales to qualification for “‘Euro 2016″‘. The Ulster Orchestra will be playing with what is described as ‘a wide variety of cross-genre musical talent spanning generations’; and the BBC Philharmonic will be giving a free Salford Family Orchestra and Chorus concert. If none of that strikes you as the kind of fare to which the classical audience is entitled on BBC Music Day, then I could point out that the BBC Symphony Chorus will be involved in a concert of British choral works for the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival. Sounds great — but look closer: it seems it won’t be broadcast as a BBC Music Day event. Meanwhile, the BBC Symphony Orchestra isn’t performing anything, anywhere…
The Big Idea of 2015 was the Music Day ‘Wall of Sound’: various musicians performed on Hadrian’s Wall, then passed a baton along the wall to other musicians who played something and passed the baton on to the next group. A small wind ensemble was briefly glimpsed in the distance playing something, presumably classical, though it wasn’t possible to make out what it was playing.
This year the Idea is ‘Take It To The Bridge’ (the phrase is a reference, according to the Oxford English Dictionary blog, to the lyrics of James “Mr Dynamite” Brown’s hit song ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’). ‘Take It To The Bridge’ will include ‘unique musical collaborations on over 40 bridges across the UK and the Channel Isles’. The only event noted so far is from the Severn Bridge: Classical Brit award-winners ‘Only Men Aloud’ will lead the performance of a new song composed especially for BBC Music Day by Grammy award-winning songwriter Amy Wadge…
Ooh, What A Day This Will Be…
But, then, as pianist Susan Tomes has commented, classical music is now the scapegoat where the heritage arts are concerned. Sidelining it — and its complex, subtle language — is tantamount to replacing traditional literature with contemporary ephemera, or exchanging Shakespeare for improvised plays. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, black and state-educated, demonstrates that, far from being ‘restricted’ to a tiny elite, classical music is as much for minorities and a broad general public as it is for that ‘tiny elite’.
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