Anniversaries on BBC Radio 3 are a lottery. If you are Mozart or Shostakovich you scoop the jackpot. If you are Robert Schumann or Malcolm Arnold you win a token prize. And if you are Edmund Rubbra, Peteris Vasks, Gerald Finzi and many others you lose your stakes. And interestingly the lottery also applies to Radio 3 itself. September 30th 2006 saw the sixtieth anniversary of the first broadcast by Radio 3's predecessor, the Third Programme, and unless you were listening very hard you would have completely missed any reference to that anniversary on Radio 3.
There are many possible explanations as to why the Third Programme anniversary won only a token prize. Was it because Sir William Haley's original vision for the service was jettisoned with the introduction of Network Three in 1957? Or was it because the horizon-widening aspirations of the Third Programme sit uncomfortably with today’s populist Radio 3 which so often does no more than mimic the commercial station Classic FM?
Personally, I think the BBC knew that today’s Radio 3 just doesn’t stand close scrutiny. Many voices are saying the same thing, and Richard Morrison’s Times review of one of the few anniversary events, the BBC’s own celebration concert, pretty well sums up Radio 3 today – ‘Counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzro deserves the highest praise for his accomplished performance of Jonathan Dove’s Hojoki (An Account of My Hut) after so little preparation time (Pliable note – Zazzro took over the premiere at four days notice after David Daniels fell ill). That redeemed an otherwise mediocre concert. There were three reasons why it should have been so much better. It marked the 60th anniversary of the BBC Third programme, forerunner to Radio 3. It was dedicated to the memory of Sir John Drummond, whose fierce defence of highbrow standards at the BBC and elsewhere is much missed, even by those of us who felt the full froth of his indignation. And it launched the month-long Listen Up! Festival of British orchestras, marked by a new Copland-like brass fanfare by Gareth Wood. All to no avail. In the hands of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was bland, boring and not very well kept together. They need to raise their game.’
If 2006 was an entertaining year for anniversary lottery watchers 2007 is going to be even better. If there is one composer irrevocably linked with the original Reithian vision of the Third Programme it is Sir Edward Elgar, O.M. and Master of the Queen’s Musik. Elgar was born on June 2 1857, so the lottery numbers mean that 2007 is his 150th anniversary. And if there is one composer that sums up the new, cool, internet-enabled and US-obsessed Radio 3 it is John Adams (above), and he was born on February 15th 1947, which gives him a 60th anniversary.
So in 2007 two of the main players in the BBC Radio 3 anniversary lottery will be Edward Elgar and John Adams. Fortunately I’m not a gambling man, but I’m pretty sure I can predict the result as Adams is the BBC Symphony's Artist-in-Association, and shares a super-agent with the orchestra. But there is one possible resolution to this clash. The BBC could commission an anniversary work from John Adams called My father knew Edward Elgar as a companion piece to his My father knew Charles Ives. You see it is not as silly as it sounds; by a bizarre coincidence both Elgar and Adams were born in Worcester. There is only one small difficulty; Sir Edward was born in Worcester, Worcestershire, while John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. But why spoil a newsworthy BBC Proms premiere for a mere 3360 miles?
* The BBC is still capable of producing great programmes, including the profile of Brother Roger of Taizé and the Sofia Gubaidulina Festival which I have highlighted with delight here in the past two weeks. But such broadcasts are rare, and they increasingly look like 'flagship' projects aimed at filling the quality programme quota of the Corporation's Charter. When I wrote about the dire quality recently a regular reader from the UK emailed to say that the programmes were so bad he was planning to dispose of his TV to avoid paying the license fee. On the basis of the BBC's Christmas programmes I am sure many more people will be following him. And where is Jiří Bělohlávek? I was one of many who welcomed Bělohlávek back in July 2006 after the dark days of Leonard Slatkin. But as the review above confirms the BBC Symphony's new chief conductor has made little impact to date. As Richard Morrison says, the BBC need to raise their game.
Now read about Elgar’s other enigma
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