Classical: On Air

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The Independent Culture
LET'S TAKE stock. While we wait for the change at the top of Radio 3 - it depends on whether the BBC restructures Roger Wright's old job before freeing him to take over - where do we stand with the reform project? Because that is what it will continue to be. Clocks in broadcasting always move forwards, and the noisy handful who hope for the coming of a time- warp are bound to be in for more shocks. Right now, the airwaves are still full of classical music: fuller than ever, more varied, and more listened to. It's hard to see why the noisy folk are so glad to see-off Nicholas Kenyon. The BBC still has its orchestras, now in a stronger position than before (internal reforms being Wright's old job). There is more jazz and early music, admittedly at weird times of day. World music looks like outlasting Kenyon's death-wish for it. Modern classical has loosened up a bit though it too calls for a late-night habit. The old favourites are still there, shuffled around in the schedules and spoken of in different accents.

So it still feels like a project done by halves. This is more than presentation that has one foot in your face and the other in the grave. It goes to the heart of what a public cultural or musical station should be about in a changed Britain. The debate has simply not taken place. Even among politicians, who are driving a more inclusive attitude through most institutions, the strongest voice belongs to the spirited, often to-the-point but essentially conservative Gerald Kaufman. Like Radio 4 the station has only grown up within its own world. It has to show it can develop a sensitivity to contemporary cultural life that goes beyond a cautious Europeanism with a friendly hand held out across the Atlantic - the culture of the Edward Heath generation.

The new regime will be pressured to sort out the morning schedules, and will have its views on how to arrange the pattern. It does not need to spend time tinkering with the contents of mainstream programming as they stand. In their own terms these programmes have become much stronger. Take the afternoon BBC Orchestras slot, now one of the places to look for lively surprises. Sometimes it focuses for a week on the way one orchestra works. This week it is a festival of Kodaly, Dohnanyi and Bartok, featuring three different orchestras: yesterday, for example, the Dohnnyi F sharp minor Suite and Second Symphony on either side of the Kodly Concerto for Orchestra. Accidents apart (this review was written before the broadcast), listeners happening unaware on these vivid but not exactly overplayed works must have been thrilled and gripped for the whole two hours.

The big questions, however, are elsewhere. What is the musical mainstream? On Radio 3 it has barely changed in a lifetime; we just have more detail. Go out and ask about listening and performing habits, and you get a different answer. People mix, they connect with the various British cultures, they pick up a world view from the TV, in music as in life. Take them back to Radio 3 and they wonder why it is all so narrow. The man at the top needs a sense of the real contemporary music scene, beyond the London classical mafia. To understand where the creative spirit has moved, why festivals programme black music instead of Boulez, why musicians are more excited by DJs than by Hear and Now (R3's Friday spot), why they would rather be on-line than tuned-in. There is a whole network of publicly funded music officers around the country who will gladly tell him. It could brighten the face of Radio 3 in a wonderfully liberating way.

Or consider this: the BBC has three national music radio stations. Nobody coordinates them. Some music is oversupplied, some falls through the gaps. The situation needs sorting. Would that not be a fine thing for a Radio 3 controller to be remembered by?