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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

We’re going to make a classical star

By Norman Lebrecht / October 17, 2007

Music competitions are no longer what they were. Once a guarantee of global fame for rank unknowns, they have been beset by decline and decay.

Last summer, I was invited to serve as a judge at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, a blue-chip event that lists Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Gidon Kremer and Viktoria Mullova among its distinguished winners.

My role, I was told, was to root out corruption. Not so much the political threats and bulging brown envelopes that bedevilled past contests, but the everyday coffee-break deals where one judge tells another, ‘I’ll vote for your pupil here if you vote for mine in Santander’. Collusions of this kind have resulted in the award of big prizes to pallid automatons, discrediting the competition mechanism and diminishing its impact.

This year, Moscow broke the secrecy curtain by publishing each judge’s vote in every round. While applauding the new glasnost, I could not spare three weeks for judging. I also wondered privately whether the format could still be saved.

Music competitions, at their peak, were a fast track for real talent and a window for the world on the effort that goes in to making an artist, more hours of practice each childhood day than most adults spend at work. Audiences at the finals and, via live broadcast, at home stood and cheered when Barry Douglas won the Tchaikovsky in 1986 and Bryn Terfel triumphed three years later at Cardiff’s Singer of the World.

But television, with its chronic attention disorder, got bored of traditional contests and came up with pop alternatives – the X Factor, Fame Academy, Britain’s Got Talent – all of which adopt verbal and psychological abuse in the name of entertainment. It was only a matter of time before these ratings-chasers were applied to classical music.

Classical Star, which has just launched on BBC-2 and will run for six weeks, takes nine teenagers aged 12 to 19 from hundreds of applicants to be groomed at a country-house boot camp for a synthetic form of stardom. ‘I am looking,’ says frontman Matthew Barley, ‘for an edge of arrogance.’

Barley, an odd-bod cellist who is married to the lustrous Mullova, engages in ‘stripping down the defences’ of his contenders by getting them to sing and act out their names, rather like first-day arrivals at a 1950s holiday camp. Unlike the desperate wannabees of X Factor, these are professionally trained musicians who have worked their fingertips off to achieve Grade 8 proficiency, pre-conservatory level, and are heading for university. ‘I want to challenge everything they have learned,’ declares Barley. ‘I think a lot of my colleagues are really quite boring. The whole profession needs to open up much more.’ Recognise the tone? It’s the PC mantra we hear day and night from counter-elitist politicians and BBC dumbers-down.

The four judges are made to the same measure. They consist of the BBC’s classical presenter Charles Hazlewood; winner of its 2002 Young Conductor workshop Jason Lai; the double-bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku; and a rumple-suited talent agent, Steve Abbott, who has organised a record deal for the eventual winner.

If you think you have seen this before, many times before, you won’t be wrong. But appearances can be misleading and Classical Star does not get far into its first episode before Abbott, the stage villain of a ten-percenter, emerges as a dragon of artistic integrity, arguing against the rest of his image-conscious panel that ‘we’re all looking for musicianship first, right?’

Well, up to a point – the point of competitions being to win, not to play music. Classical Star wastes no screen time on losers, maybe 30 seconds on discards in the 50-minute episode that whittles down from 18 finalists to nine. And while it avoids X Factor abusiveness it subjects sensitive, dedicated, intelligent, self-sacrificing classical teenagers to agonies of unnecessary suspense as they await the selection verdicts. As well as playing set pieces, the musicians are put through a tough four-to-one interview for which they arrive totally unprepared.

On the evidence of my eyes and ears, there is one artist in the pack who could make it onto the concert stage without much further assistance and two or three who might be moulded into plastic replicas of Nicola Benedetti, the expressionless Scottish violinist who was signed by Abbott to a huge record contract. The rest will suffer no lasting harm. One sensible lad seemed to enjoy his golf as much as his guitar.

Since the aim is to find a classical star, not a classical artist, the series is peripheral to anyone with a serious interest in music. It is mildly entertaining in the way the late-night weather forecast can be when seen through a bad head cold. I shall probably watch it again, with Lemsip. What it is doing on the BBC, I have no idea.

The BBC exists to inform, educate and entertain, ‘to reflect the nation to itself’. That’s why we fund it with a licence fee. Classical Star is a rip-off of commercial shows and is produced by Elizabeth Murdoch’s company, Shine. It adds nothing to our self-reflection and suggests that the commissioning echelons of the BBC have lost all contact with reality, as distinct from reality television. Classical Star marks a new nadir in the decline of public broadcasting, a dreg of imitative despair.

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


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