Wednesday, 13 August 2008


Cassandras would claim that classical music and television have been falling out of love in recent years and sometimes it's hard to disagree. This year's BBC Young Musician of the Year was marked by an almost complete absence of ... errrrrr... music. Instead we were treated to hours of the competitors hooking up on Facebook in between embarrassedly small snippets of the actual music. But never mind - you could see the entire performances on the web, so that fulfilled the public service requirement.

So, mine was one of the many hearts that sank at the prospect of eight 'celebrities' (from C down to about Y) in an X-Factor knockout competition to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Proms in the Park. In a nod to Marxist dialectics, the candidates ranged from untrained music-lovers, through classically-trained non-musicians, through to untrained professionals, so part of the idea seemed to be to have a kind of nature-versus-nurture debate.

Actually it wasn't bad at all.

Conducting is a mysterious and invisible art and some people, in thrall to egos like Karajan and Solti (affectionately known by London players as The Screaming Skull), think the conductor just sort of windmills around a bit, vaguely in time to the music.

It's one of those things that is best demonstrated by going hideously pear-shaped. I well remember some appalling last-minute-replacement hack managing to turn Berg's Violin Concerto into something resembling Berg's Trombone Concerto.

Maestro's band was under instructions to do whatever they were told, which goes somewhat against some orchestras' natural instincts. If they take against you, you're dead: being at the head of an out-of-control orchestra must be one of the most terrifying experiences you could have.

So it was nice to see the mechanics being explained, including getting the arms to work independently by simultaneously and repeatedly drawing a triangle and a square (counting three in one arm and four in the other) - a ramped-up version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach.

When it came to getting to grips with the dots on the page, were the untrained at a disadvantage? The assigned pieces (the prelude to Bizet's Carmen; Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King; Prokofiev's Montagues and Capulets, and a filleted Blue Danube) were all under about five minutes and, since there was no tricky Rite-of-Spring counting, after some hard slog they could be learnt by heart.

Amusingly, the untrained Goldie quickly sketched the sort of diagram he uses to convey his ideas to his collaborators, and it was absolutely in the tradition of 1960s graphic scores that arch-exponent Cathy Berberian affectionately mocked in Stripsody, where the performer is inspired to make appropriate noises by a series of cartoons.

But back to the maestri. Clips from the final concert are here.

Had windmilling been item one on the job description Peter Snow would have been a shoo-in but it was painfully clear almost from the beginning of the programme that he'd be going for an early bath. He was further disturbed by his insistence on using the score (beating time, molding the sound of the orchestra and turning the pages proved too much) though it wasn't as bad the audience's hilarity would have you believe.

The other nominee for eviction was the man universally known as Blur's Alex James who, as you may have heard, in between television and radio appearances and newspaper articles, runs a cheese farm. A former professional musician clinging on by the skin of his teeth, one felt his pain - though only momentarily. He didn't so much conduct the middle section of the Carmen, as wave his arms in an ... errr ... ecstatic(?) Ibiza moment. Also, it's embarrassing not to be able to count without moving your lips.

Of the others:

David Soul's post-Hutch pop career climaxed with Jerry Springer: the Opera. Soul plays guitar (often, though not in this case, a sign of innate musical inability), but sadly, he's simply not in control of things. Closer to following the band than leading it.

Despite having mastered the piano to Grade 8, Sue Perkins beats time simultaneously with both arms, like Marcel Marceau tossing a giant salad. Apart from being twice as much work as necessary, it stymies any possibility of doing anything else with the music. Having said that, she's progressing well with the conductor-ish gurning, if occasionally there's a look of surprised pleasure that what she wanted to happen actually came to pass. Nevertheless, unless she can loosen up, she's for the chop.

Katie Derham is possibly someone else for whom a little knowledge will be a dangerous thing. The pianist-violinist-newsreader-Classic-FM-presenter (favourite piece: Rhapsody in Blue) has doubtless spent many happy hours conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the comfort of her own living room. But then again, haven't we all? Though my preference is for the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. She was obviously trying to inject a bit of interpretation (a bit of rubato, etc) but is still too concerned with doing it 'right'.

Actor-comedian-entertainer Bradley Walsh is determined not to be bested, no matter how much he seems to play the clown. Obviously taking it far more seriously than he's letting on (it's on his website), he could well come up on the inside.

On the strength of episode 1, the finale will be between Goldie (an inspired natural, with minimal 'technique') and Jane Asher (a ruthless perfectionist, and a redheaded cake-maker to boot).

I'm looking forward to it.

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