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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Orchestral manoeuvres on the air

By Norman Lebrecht / April 25, 2002

A few years ago, I was sauntering into the marbled lobby of Broadcasting House when I was accosted by the seething manager of one of our top orchestras. "Who," he demanded, "do I have to f*** around here to get one of our concerts on the air?"

I mentioned a bald bloke on the third floor, but he'd been to him already. There was no one else to turn to, no ear open anywhere at the BBC to the magnificent work of major ensembles up and down the island. Under John Birt, the BBC blanked out on its Charter obligation "to reflect the nation to itself" and turned self-interestedly inwards.

The BBC's own orchestras had first call on airtime. The rest was shared between London bands and an international so-called "elite". Except during Proms time, the Hallè, Bournemouth, Liverpool and Birmingham ensembles hardly got a look-in. British chamber orchestras were more likely to be heard on German and Spanish state radio.

Hopes that Classic FM, founded in September 1992, might have created new slots for live concerts had been swiftly dashed. Classic played bits and bobs of canned music, seldom longer than a movement's length. To most orchestral managers, the two classical broadcasters were either irrelevant or anathema.

Consider, then, the impending cultural revolution. Over the past few months, the BBC and Classic FM have been signing exclusive deals with orchestras. Classic kicked off with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The BBC last week nabbed the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Classic, in a cute counter-move, shook hands with Symphony Hall, home of the CBSO, specifically for non-CBSO events. The BBC is about to sign the Bournemouth SO, the Hallè and possibly the Northern Sinfonia. Classic has nipped in for the Chamber Orchestra of Wales, newly created by the National Assembly.

The substance of these contracts does not always withstand daylight scrutiny, but the gestural value alone is enough to put heart into ailing orchestras - and the strategic shift at the heart of classical broadcasting is almost enough to take one's breath away. For the first time in a generation, orchestras are being pursued as genuine objects of value.

Roger Lewis, who runs Classic FM, is reluctant to say how often he will broadcast a concert from Liverpool. When he is pressed, it comes out to three or four a year. But in naming the RLPO Classic FM Orchestra of the North-West, he is committed to playing its own-brand discs 20 times a week, as well as giving editorial coverage to studentorientated £5 concerts, factory outings and similar outreach initiatives.

"This is not about relaying concerts," says Lewis. "That's old BBC thinking. We're talking about social responsibility, trying to play a part. There is a new audience that is coming to classical music through the radio. The least of what we are about is persuading them to take the next step and hear it in the flesh."

Roger Wright, who heads Radio 3, resists the suggestion that he is playing catch-up. "The orchestras we are signing have exciting new relationships with music directors - Sakari Oramo, Mark Elder, Marin Alsop," he explains.

"There's no point in reflecting this in one-off concerts. We want to be involved. The BBC supports the live and the new. We will relay nine live concerts a year from each orchestra and co-commission new works." Each concert will also be streamed on the BBC's website for a week, allowing repeated listening.

There is a gritty edge to this chase. No love is lost between the two Rogers, who spent years contesting with one another for key posts in the recording and broadcasting industries. Both are now riding high. Lewis has scored Classic's best ratings - 6.7 million weekly listeners, of whom 1.3 million are under 25. Wright has stabilised Radio 3 at 1.3 million and is drawing in fresh blood to his eclectic fusions of live chat and world music.

Their sudden engagement with orchestras is highly political, but it is also hugely significant in what has long been thought of as a dying medium. In the United States, dozens of classical radio stations are switching to rock in pursuit of higher ratings. Since 11 September, the conversion rate has accelerated, mostly from classics to chat. Americans, never tongue-tied, have needed a constant jabber of radio reassurance since the day of disaster.

The retreat, which started with commercial stations, has spread into National Public Radio (NPR), which is funded by tax dollars and private donations. "Classical music lovers are not the best pledge donors," explained executives as one metropolis after another heard its last sonata on the air. "Folks driving home at night want news, not music, certainly not classical," said the axemen.

Two weeks ago, NPR took the chopper to Performance Today, America's only nationally syndicated classical music and talk show, a cross between Radio 4's Front Row, Radio 3's In Tune and Radio 2's Arts Show. I have appeared on it many times, mostly without fee, since America is a poor country. It was a platform for intelligent discourse in an ocean of garrulous blather, and now it has gone. The US is switching off its European cultural heritage.

What the BBC and Classic FM are doing will appear incomprehensible to US broadcasters. To them, it represents an amazing opportunity. Using powerful websites, the BBC and Classic FM can offer American commuters and homebodies essential music that has been removed from their lives by market forces. The whole of their output is available free, online, worldwide and around the clock.

BBC World Service showed a 25 per cent rise in US listeners last year. BBC Radios 3 and 4 will do better still if the big brass at Broadcasting House can tear themselves away from television screens and allow steam radio to lead a classical, cultural assault on the US's recklessly undefended airwaves.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001