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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The Classical Brit - It's one big classical charade

By Norman Lebrecht / May 22, 2002

A double fraud is about to be perpetrated at the Royal Albert Hall tomorrow night. The Classical Brit Awards are back for the third year running. As ever, they are not what they purport to be. On display are "some of the biggest classical stars in the world". In fact, only one of them, the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, is an established classical artist - and she is not Brit, but Czech.

The rest are a motley band of dabblers and distorters, rock mimics and studio-made combos who call themselves "classical" for any number of reasons, none of them credible.

The blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli exposes his pop origins on average twice in every aria, bending palladian lines in a parabolic swoop of cheap emotion. The Lancashire belter Russell Watson is unclassical as they come; a song of Mozart's would undo him like a shoelace, if ever he was fool enough to attempt one. Opera Babes are a pair of World Cup-bound ex-buskers who will get no nearer the Covent Garden stage in their future careers than complimentary seats in the stalls.

These para-singers are being paraded as paragons of art. They will be joined on stage by the 14-year-old violinist Chloe Hanslip, the movie-track cellist Caroline Dale (Truly, Madly, Deeply) and a Russian-American violinist Michael Ovrutsky, who apparently won a South African fiddle contest but, at 21, has yet to make a major-orchestra debut.

Top of the bill is The Planets - not the cosmic suite by Holst but a pack of eight conservatory students assembled in a Wimbledon factory and sold on to EMI by the enterprising Mike Batt, tunemaker to the Wombles, producer of Vanessa-Mae and inveterate muddier of musical waters. The Planets play rockbeat adaptations of classic themes; their debut album has outsold every other "classical" disc for the past 11 weeks.

No immediate harm is done by such misrepresentations. Like junk food, the stuff that is served up at Classical Brits is cleverly processed to look, sound and smell like the real thing. All it lacks is nutritional benefit and aesthetic gratification.

Some acts are technically accomplished - none more so than Bond, the near-naked, gyrating string quartet who decorated last year's show. The Bond girls are Academy trained. When the gig's over, they go home and practise Brahms. Sharing a TV-studio makeup mirror the other morning with their leader, Haylie Ecker, I learned that she flits off to Luxembourg-from time to time to play concertos-with a proper orchestra. She knows the difference between art music and artifice. She just can't admit it on Classical Brits.

The deception turns dangerous on Sunday when the show goes out on ITV-1. It is the only night in the whole gawping year that ITV concerns itself with classical music, and the aim is to put on something worthwhile, even educational, to impress franchise watchdogs. But commercial television, having shrunk the public's attention span to 14 seconds on the remote-control button, dare not deter viewers and advertisers with a proper symphony or sonata. "Young people say classical music is boring," explains the event's presenter Katie Derham, an ITN newscaster.

So what gets shown is a fast mix of miked-up singers and movie music masquerading as modern classics. The record industry plays along with the hoax because it loved the 61 percent overnight sales leap after last year's show, almost all of it crossover. Real classics now account for less than two per cent of record turnover.

And that's where the deception goes septic. The producers of Bocelli and Bond earnestly believed that they would lure new listeners into Puccini and Schubert. Market research has refuted this dream. People who buy Charlotte Church and The Planets do not upgrade to RenÈe Fleming and the Berlin Philharmonic - any more than munchers at McDonald's are likely to transfer en masse to the Manoir au Quat' Saisons.

Worse, crossover consumers are neither young nor impressionable. Most, according to internal research, are middle-aged - fugitives from headbanging, foul-mouthed rock music who cannot bring themselves to make a mature transition to masterpieces of Western civilisation.

Why they can't is a matter of conjecture. It may be that hard rock has ruined their ear for tonal subtleties. Or it could be that adults who might fancy an Eroica symphony for the weekend simply cannot find it in the shops or on telly, where crossover has usurped its racks and its slots.

Rather than extending an awareness of the finer things in music, Classical Brits has empowered the crossover merchants, destroying outlets and opportunities for endangered classical music.

And how seriously it takes its silly self. Ms Denham will announce the winners of tin trophies with a mien befitting a royal funeral. Composers who write movie music by the metre will be treated like Bach reborn and apprentice fiddlers will be likened to Heifetz.

The only way to watch this show is with Terry Wogan's Eurovision Song Contest commentary running through your head. We tend to mock small states who regard Eurovision as a validation of their place on earth. But in Estonia this weekend they will watch Classical Brits with mouths open, wondering how a once-great nation with a civilising mission can have trashed its culture into tonal slurry, seared it in oil and slammed it between the twin buns of corporate greed and televisual illiteracy. Enjoy your meal.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001