Friday, March 01, 2019

The lost art of the classical music animateur


The death of André Previn prompts me to reprise the article below. Much has changed in the twelve years since I wrote it, and the optimistic conclusion now rings hollow. One of the changes has been trading the role of classical music animateur for that of social media influencer. To me that seems a very poor bargain.



I am a great fan of the late John Drummond, and have quoted him, here, many times. But, I blame Drummond for the present decline in presentation standards on BBC Radio 3. In 1987, when he became controller of the network, Drummond changed the role of the presentation team from 'neutral' announcers to presenters who, in his own words, could "communicate enthusiasm and knowledge".

Drummond's change was well intentioned, but terribly misguided. It has been responsible for a disastrous sequence of presenters from Paul 'music for lovers' Gambaccini in the 1990s to Petroc Trelawny and his colleagues today, whose idea of communicating enthusiasm and knowledge is to regurgitate half-digested chunks from a children's encyclopedia of music. The disease isn't just confined to the radio. BBC TV's 'Classical Star', which is fronted by Radio 3 presenters Charles Hazlewood and Chi-chi Nwanoku, has been described by an eminent musician as 'an obscene pantomime that plays games with the feelings of young, talented and vulnerable people'.

What John Drummond failed to see was that presenters who can communicate enthusiasm and knowledge for classical music without turning it into 'an obscene pantomine' cannot be trained. They are born with the skill, and they are very few and far between. 'Presenter' is an inadequate and devalued word for describing such a rare person. Instead I suggest the French word 'animateur' - someone who really brings their subject to life.

Radio 3 should abandon its present crop of 'classical jocks'. It should return to an enthusiastic but neutral presentation style. It should learn from Radio 4, which has avoided the 'chummy' presenter trap, and by so doing has retained its integrity, and its audience. Radio 3 should allow the music to speak for itself. Which is something it has forgotten how to do. And it should search for a few great animateurs to bring classical music back to life, both on radio and television.



The BBC need look no further than their own archives to identify the DNA of a great animateur. David Munrow's 'Pied Piper' radio programme was broadcast four times a week for five years in the 1970s. Munrow (seen above) delivered enthusiasm and knowlege in huge quantities without compromising scholarship or integrity. 'Pied Piper' brought early music to life for a generation, and I, and many others, are indebted to him for that. Munrow also branched out into television with his very successful 'Ancestral Voices' programme, and he started to develop a career as a conductor. Munrow achieved so much as an animateur of classical music, and he promised so much more. Alas, he took his own life in 1976, aged just thirty-three.

Television was the medium of choice of another great animateur, André Previn, whose BBC TV programmes reached millions without sinking to the depths of 'Classical Star'. The photo below shows Previn with Carlo Maria Giulini on the set of the television programme 'Who needs a conductor?' Previn also animated classical music in the States with his 'Previn and the Pittsburgh' TV series.



Leopold Stokowski pioneered the role of the animateur in the States, and he worked his magic in the days before television dictated the media agenda. Disney's full length 1940 feature film 'Fantasia' brought classical music to life for millions, and is still regarded today as pivotal in introducing a new audience to serious music. 'Fantasia' was Stokowski's brainchild, and he appeared on screen in a sequence which is seen being filmed in the photo below. (Picture credit Disney Productions).



When television replaced the movies as the entertainment medium of choice Leonard Bernstein took over from Stokowski' as animateur par excellence. Bernstein's famous Young Person's Concerts attracted huge television audiences for an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire, with his broadcast on Christmas Day 1967 reaching an astonishing twenty-seven million viewers.

As an example the programme for the November 2 1963 telecast of a Young Person's Concert - Moussorgsky Prelude to 'Khovantchina', Randall Thompson Scherzo from Symphony No. 2, Walter Piston Suite from 'The Incredible Flautist', and Brahms Academic Festival Overture. Contrast that with this observation from fellow blogger Jessica Duchen about BBC TV's 'Classical Star' - "The most depressing thing about the programme is the way that the music itself is sidelined and chopped up. Evidently our friends at the Beeb don't think that viewers can cope with a whole movement of Mendelssohn". My header photo shows Bernstein with members of the audience after a Young Person's Concert, and they don't seem at all phased by a whole movement of Randall Thompson. Lenny was a true animateur if ever there was one.

Glenn Gould was also both a great musician and a great animateur, and I have already written about his love affair with the microphone. His radio programme 'The Art of Glenn Gould' ran for forty-eight weeks in the mid 1960s in Canada, and covered everything from the Moog synthesizer to Mozart, and in 1974 he produced a ten week series on Schoenberg. In the late 1960s he turned to television, starting with a series of four 'Conversations with Glenn Gould' in a co-production with the BBC. His television work became as arcane as his radio documentaries, with the hour long 'The Well-Tempered Listener' creating a complex visual montage of Bach's music. Gould's main successes were in the technically more flexible medium of television. In 1970, in a neat tribute from one great animateur to another, Gould produced the acclaimed 'Stokowski: A Portrait for Radio'. The photo below shows him at work in the recording studio.

Sadly one match of animateurs that seemed to be made in heaven didn't work out for Gould. In April 1962 he played the Brahms' D-minor concerto with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Conductor and soloist disagreed over Gould's spectacularly slow tempi, prompting Bernstein to deliver an apparently critical pre-performance talk. The two animateurs never performed together again, although this was due as much to Gould's self-imposed exile from the concert hall as to any long-term animosity between the two flamboyant musicians.



Last week I told the story of Radio 3 presenter Sarah Walker, who was caught out (in more ways than one I suspect) when a helpful CD player added a fifth movement to Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. Ms. Walker's CV tells us that in 1995 she completed a PhD in English experimental music. That's the problem. She, and her fellow BBC presenters may have the right qualifications on paper. But, in practice, they fail dismally; both as neutral announcers in the manner of the great Cormac Rigby, and as animateurs in the manner of David Munrow. It's not me that's saying it. It is the audience statistics.

The composer Jonathan Harvey knows a thing or two about experimental English music. He has worked at IRCAM and written a study of the music of Stockhausen. His Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco for eight channel tape was created at IRCAM, and uses computers to manipulate the sound of the great bell at Winchester Cathedral. It is one of the masterpieces of electronic music, and in the notes for it the composer writes:
In entering the rather intimidating world of the machine I was determined not to produce a dehumanised work if I could help it, and so kept fairly closely to the world of the original sounds. The territory that the new computer technology opens up is unprecedently vast: one is humbly aware that it will only be conquered by the penetration of the human spirit, however beguiling the exhibits of technical wizardry; and that penetration will be neither rapid nor easy.
We're all trying to be too clever. We've forgotten the importance of the human spirit, except when we are trampling it underfoot on BBC TV's Classical Star. We've missed the point that digital technologies, new books, internet radio and blogs alone are never going to attract a new mass audience for classical music. But great animateurs can.

The good news is that the art of the animateur is not dead. The opening of this autumn's Lincoln Centre season in New York was transmitted live on network television. The TV presenter was that indominatable human spirit Itzhak Perlman, and his words about the telecast are a lesson for all of us.
Television was how I came to the States [to appear on the Ed Sullivan show] and I've always felt very comfortable doing it. Of course, there are battles. Television will always err on the side of making something not quite as classy as it could be. I try to put my foot down because people in the mass media often don't give audiences credit. To bring a large audience to a piece of serious music and make it accessible does not mean reducing it in any way. And I've learned that if something is good, even if it is a little difficult, people will get that it is good."
Writing in the Cambridge Review in October 1957 Peter Laslett, founder of the Open University, described the BBC Third Programme as "a service which is literally the envy of the world". Fifty years later the service is in danger of becoming the laughing stock of the world. It doesn't need rocket science, or expensive technology, to reverse the decline. It just needs John Drummonds ill-judged presentation changes to be reversed. And it needs the BBC to remember those words of that great animateur Itzhak Perlman - "If something is good, even if it is a little difficult, people will get that it is good."


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