Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
It is a measure of its barometric importance to the nation that all Radio 3 has to do is adjust a couple of starting times and enliven the afternoon dead air for a chorus of outrage to arise from people who seldom listen to a symphony end to end, or know where on the web to find a repeat. Radio 3, for reasons typically English and mostly irrational, is on the front pages again – and a good thing, too.
The fuss began when Roger Wright, its controller, let it be known that he is bringing forward the evening concerts by half an hour to start at 7. They will be followed by the heavily-branded Composer of the Week series and then by Night Waves, which is the most serious bedtime chat you will find anywhere outside an Oxford hall of residence. Choral Evensong is being moved to Sunday, which makes so much sense you wonder why no-one did it before, and the wash of light music and show tunes that accompanies afternoon teatime will be replaced by concerts and opera.
Wright says there will be more live music than before, not less. Some of the concerts will be as-live – pre-recorded, but uncut. Wright further swears, hand on heart, that ‘there will be no reduction in cultural patronage’. The Corporation splashes more cash per listener on Radio 3 - £28 million for a 2 million audience, on top of £28 million for BBC orchestras - than on any other part of its output. The view from the top floor of Broadcasting House is that Radio 3 represents the Reithian ideal of informing, entertaining and elevating the nation. It is the flagship of any political bid to secure a new Charter and license fee. Michael Grade would sooner lose the National Lottery than dumb down Radio 3.
Nevertheless, and despite the good intentions, Wright’s tweaks at Radio 3 have provoked a national squall, with citizens writing letters to the newspapers, to the station’s own message board and to the wonderfully alert pressure group, Friends of Radio 3, which exists chiefly to contest ‘the gradual loss of airtime devoted to classical music and the arts over the past six years’ – close to the period of Wright’s controllership. Debatable as this premise may be, what the protestors seems to want is a protected enclave, frozen by treaty.
‘What is the problem with reserving one radio programme for intelligently presented serious music?’ cries Paul Jansz of Hertfordshire on FOR3. ‘I am not alone!’ echoes David Penfold in East Sussex. ‘Fight the plan!’ exhorts the Stephen Sondheim Society.
Before I tap another key, I had better declare an interest as presenter of lebrecht.live, a monthly discussion programme which purposely subverts the old rules of Radio 3. Like many who grew up with radio as our window on the world, the station (like most girls I knew) seemed at once alluring and forbidding. It offered the most glorious sounds on earth couched in cold academic scripts and bookended by topics of such obscurity that only three nerds and a Nobel Laureate could have understood them. The assumption seemed to be that by tuning in you were joining an elite that offered no explanation, take it or leave it.
Mostly, I left. When Roger Wright approached me to join his team in 1998, I signed up on condition that any programme I presented would be interactive and unscripted, antipodal to 3 style. Wright consented and we have been running ever since. Radio 3 under his rule has become a broader church, accommodating the London Jazz Festival as well as the far horizons of world music. Late Junction presenters Fiona Talkington and Verity Sharp are astonishingly eclectic and audience friendly. Stiff collars are long gone from the sound booth. A meeting of Radio 3 presenters could blend unseen into a Babyshambles audience.
Every controller must try to make improvements and Wright remarks with no little rue that his schedule contains far more classical music and highbrow talk than the launch formula of 60 years ago when long hours drifted away on yachting contests and country crafts. Much as I sympathise with those who want nothing but classical music dawn to dusk, the Third Programme and its Radio 3 successor were never that.
The core function was, and remains, as much intellectual as cultural, a haven of seriousness in a world overwhelmed by triviality. That perspective has become all the more significant as multiculturalism and its political arm, inclusivism, are enforced on other media outlets. Radio 3 is the last redoubt of a civilisation in retreat. That is why many who never tune in rise in outrage at the suspicion that someone might be tampering with the station.
Remember the row when Nicholas Kenyon, the last controller, hired rock jock Paul Gambaccini in a nod to Birtist populism? Kenyon had to backtrack, not because Gambo was classically dumb but because he represented barbarians at the gates. Radio 3 is supposed to stand solid while other sands slip through our fingers. You don’t have to listen to know it is there. But you want it to be there unchanged, like tea and scones, should you ever feel the need.
Nothing survives unchanged, however, and I, for one, am happy to adapt my own show next year as part of the revamp. It seems to me that Radio 3 is attempting honestly to refresh its look while staying true to principle. If nothing else, the upsurge of protest will give it a welcome boost in the long-running struggle with Classic FM, which will never arouse the same passions.
English National Opera’s new star will never be seen on stage, though she has more screen credits than anyone else at the Coliseum. Janice Graham, who has just been hired as Leader of the orchestra – ruler of the string sections and first point of contact for all conductors – has solo roles on the soundtracks of Notting Hill, The Heart of Me and True North, Steve Hudson’s new doc on the trade in Chinese immigrants.
Starting on the front desk at the London Symphony Orchestra, Graham went off to lead the BBC National Orchestra of Wales before winding up as artistic director of English Sinfonia. After trialling in three operas at ENO – Clemenza di Tito, Sir John in Love and, triumphantly last month, in Jenufa – she was offered the hot seat in succession to Barry Griffiths, who retires after 15 years.
‘I’m really chuffed,’ she tells me. ‘It’s great to be starting at the same time as a new music director, Ed Gardner. We’ve never worked together, but we’ve talked and I really like him.’
To pluck a Leader of Graham’s calibre is a coup for ENO and a sign that, in terms of musical confidence, it may have turned a corner. Members of the pit orchestra, persistently at odds with their management, were smitten by her solos in Jenufa and look forward to having a forceful personality in their front seat.
* CD of the week Catherine Bott; Convivencia (Fred Music)
A luminous soprano on the early music circuit and a presenter on Radio 3, Catherine Bott has taken a leap onto an art-dealer’s new label with an album evoking the 15th century reconquest of Spain for Christianity. The country was ethnically cleansed of Moslems and Jews, but its music could not be purged. Eastern austerities pervade courtly romances of the winning side and the accompanying instrument is none other than an Arabian ‘oud, forerunner of the lute. Much of the music has been unearthed and recorded before by scholarly groups. What Bott brings to the party is a splash of showmanship and an emotional immediacy that will catch the breath in your throat. A pavan for a dead king (track 12) and an Arab love song, Zaranil mahboub (14), go straight onto my playlist as top hits of 2006.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]