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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

They really would do anything

By Norman Lebrecht / June 4, 2008

There is more than a smidgeon of merit in the prospectus for BBC2’s forthcoming reality series, Maestro, in which the winner among eight para-celebrities gets to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra during the Last Night of the Proms, a ticket to world fame.

It is about time television shone a light into the conductor’s rostrum. No musical function involves so much mystification. Why is it that two men, making the same gesture, obtain a completely different sound, and why do they almost always have to be men. Is it a suspension of disbelif on the part of musicians and listeners, or is there some inscrutable transmission between baton and orchestra that eludes neutral observation?

Most agree that what a real maestro brings to the party is personality, and personality is what TV does best. So take eight faces, teach them the technical necessities – how to stand, count and beat three or five in a bar – and then see if the band pays attention or if it plays, as it does most nights, on auto-pilot.

Conducting cannot, after all, be that hard to learn. Many soloists take it up as a soft alternative, the latest being violinists Maxim Vengerov who has quit playing at 33, and Nikolai Znaijder, 32, who has just been named principal guest conductor in Stockholm. If they can switch at the drop of a baton, why not assemble a pack of civilians with solid screen experience and see how they fare in the Big Brother room? It is not an unreasonable proposition.

The thinking behind the series, according to Peter Maniura, BBC TV’s classical music chief, is pure public-service broadcasting. A Saturday-night Prom on BBC2 gets a million viewers, the Last Night 6-7 million. ‘The aim is to build weekly interest through Maestro and encourage more people to come to the Proms,’ says Maniura. ‘The broad context is reaching audiences in different ways. We have eight passionate amateurs, using professional techniques, who can show what making music actually means.’

The eight consist of two rock musicians, Blur’s Alex James and Goldie; two newscasters, Katie Derham and Peter Snow; three actors, David Soul, Jane Asher and Coronation Street’s Bradley Walsh; and a comedian, Sue Perkins. Their training amounts to five days of ‘total immersion’ and three weeks of top-ups.

Two of the contenders – Maniura won’t say who – attained Grade 8 proficiency in their teens, which is Conservatory entry standard, while David Soul, star of the 1970s Starsky & Hutch, grew up in a US military chaplain’s home in Berlin, singing a capella Bach before and after meals. ‘These are serious people,’ says Maniura, ‘and we will get good music making out of them.’

The jury will be chaired by Sir Roger Norrington, who conducts the Last Night of the Proms, and the winner will have his or her fifteen minutes of glory not in the Royal Albert Hall but in a peripheral concert in the park. The music is fairly untaxing – from Haydn to Puccini – and the mix puts more women on the rostrum than you will see in six months at the Barbican. So far, so unobjectionable.

The BBC are playing for big ratings in the midweek 9pm Apprentice slot, with an expectation of morning-after conversations around the water-cooler. ‘Myself, I think they should get rid of that Alex. He was crap in the Jupiter recapitulation, while Jane had the 5/4 rhythm in the Pathetique just perfect.’ Well, maybe.

On paper, Maestro sinks no lower than the rest of reality TV, and there is always the off-button if you don;t want to watch. But what troubles me - more about Maestro even than the free casting shows the BBC puts on for Andrew Lloyd Webber Enterprises - is the moral vacuum it exposes in the BBC's cultural perspective. Over the past 15 years the Corporation has disengaged from culture. Gone are the informed documentary and live performance. In their place stand the preconditioned celebrity interview with a preening executive – Alan Yentob’s Imagine – and any gimmick that mimics the current ratings king, so long as it is certifiably trivial.

Consider Maestro on a relative scale of values. What if the BBC tried a talent show for new heart surgeons, with the winner performing a live angioplasty after five days’ boot camp and three weeks on the ward? Unthinkable, you’d say, it’s a matter of life and death.

What about sheep shearing, then? Impossible, an animal might get hurt. How about TV scheduling, with the winner becoming Controller of BBC2? Of course not, say BBC execs, that’s too skilled a job for an amateur.

But music? Anyone can do music. You don’t have to give up childhood and six years in conservatory to sing Nessun Dorma or conduct Turandot. Four weeks of being taught how to fake it and you can fool the world. That’s what the BBC is putting over in Maestro: the principle that art is unimportant and the public are plain mugs.

If I thought anyone in TV knew what the word meant, I’d accuse the BBC of philistinism – a mindset that detests art for art’s sake. If I thought it would do any good, I’d phone the director general Mark Thompson, a man who knows and plays classical music for pleasure, and argue for a return to higher values. But the BBC has made itself a hostage to market forces. In its franctic competition for ratings, it is losing one by one the qualities that made it a national treasure, different from any air-taker on earth. Maestro marks a new nadir in arts broadcasting. It is a calculated insult to art.

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



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