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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

And this man is a classical hero?

By Norman Lebrecht / April 16, 2008

Even in a recessionary spiral, nothing is losing value faster these days than awards in the arts. There are far too many of them, that’s the trouble. If Ian McEwan fails to win the Man Booker or the Costa for one of his slighter novels in 2007, along comes last week’s Galaxy award to keep his mantelpiece warm.

Maxim Vengerov may have announced he’s giving up the violin at 33, but he, too, wins an award last week from BBC Music magazine readers for a documentary film about his first year of not playing. There is also a Pulitzer for Bob Dylan, presumably because he hasn’t won much this year. Everybody must get prizes is the golden rule in our egalitarian culture and the slogan ‘award-winning’ on the jacket of a book or record has been devalued to the point where it means little more than certifiably average.

Still there are some awards that make the heart beat faster – Mitsuko Uchida winning the BBC Music vote, for instance – and there is one perennial that is guaranteed to boil my blood year after year with its cynical amalgam of naked populism and blind unreason.

The Classical Brits 2008, booking now for May 8 at the Royal Albert Hall, contains not one classical work in its list of ten for album of the year - which may be a record of sorts. The contenders for top disc include Blake, a middle-of-road boy band formed on Facebook; Natasha Marsh, touring partner of Britain's Got Talent winner Paul Potts; All Angels, a kind of Spice Girls remake for Saga cruisers; and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

If ever proof was needed that the classical record industry has ceased to function in any meaningful form, look no further than Classical Brits which, for those with an eye on their nest-egg, is sponsored by our very own National Savings and Investments. The event, devised eight years ago to boost flagging classical sales, is driven by ITV’s demand for ratings and voted on by Classic FM listeners from a list fixed by a clutch of controlling labels.

Somewhere down the lineup, below the Myleene Klass prize for opening an envelope, you will come across a non-voting award for Outstanding Achievement, which in past years has gone to such greying classical eminences as Simon Rattle, Placido Domingo, Cecilia Bartoli and James Galway. There will have been no shortage of nominees for 2008. Sir Neville Marriner, the most prolific living conductor on record, has yet to be recognised. There is Dame Gwyneth Jones, heroine of many Rings, and Bryn Terfel, the other Welsh belter. Christoph von Dohnanyi and Lorin Maazel are stepping down from key orchestras. John Williams, 50 years on the fingerboard, is still plugging leftwing causes in a church down your way. Each and every one of them is a passionate advocate of the kind of music that Classical Brits exists to extol.

So who’s getting the ‘prestigious’ award this year? Who is the classiest and most classical of them all? Andrew Lloyd Webber, that’s who. And what has he done to deserve it? Well, that’s not easy to fathom. The rather strained reason given by the Classical Brits organisers is that it’s ‘almost 25 years’ (23, actually) since Lloyd Webber won a classical Grammy for Requiem Mass. That’s no excuse. But they go on to say that ‘his musical legacy includes unparalleled success in music theatre, for which he has become famous through (sic) the world.’

Incontrovertible, to be sure, but what has that to do with classical music? The man in the Saturday night golden chair whom Graham Norton has archly dubbed ‘The Lord’ has been honoured for his music theatre triumphs from Hollywood to Washington, D. C. The Lord’s good deeds in public benefaction have not passed unnoticed, either. He has an award coming up next month from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of the US Smithsonian Institution, no less.

Which is not to say that Kevin Spacey was wrong the other week to attack the way The Lord gets to cast his own shows (and Cameron Mackintosh’s) on BBC prime time in Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything. In these deals, the blame for any impropriety lies with a BBC that has gone blind to its charter obligations, rather than with Lloyd Webber who is doing what he does best, being the most successful theatrical businessman this country has ever produced.

As a national treasure on BBC1 few would begrudge The Lord whatever media honours come his way, but when it comes to services to classical music his contribution is minute. Juvenilia aside, Lloyd Webber has one requiem mass to his credit and a set of variations on Paganini’s Caprice in A minor, scored for 15 rock musicians and his cellist brother Julian and used as the theme for Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show. Requiem is a tribute album to Verdi, Faure, Puccini, Britten and other venerable hearse followers while Variations is pure pop. Lloyd Webber has said that he listens to the chart show every Sunday. That is where his heart belongs. He has said ‘I am absolutely thrilled that my music is being recognised at this year‘s Classical Brit Awards,’ but I can’t quite share his joy.

His last musical, The Woman in White, was supposed to be his most operatic. It had three string instruments in the pit, plus solo woodwind, brass and timpani, and at the few moments when it toyed with an intriguing sonority the downward rush to pop banality seemed almost panic-stricken. It is not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mission to challenge the ear and mind. He is not a classical composer by any known measure. He is a popular entertainer of inestimable attainments.

Honouring him at the Classical Brits is like giving Jeffrey Archer the Nobel Prize for Literature. It won’t change anyone’s perception of what the man writes. All it does is to discredit the award itself.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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