Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
LEONARD SLATKIN is certainly not the first American conductor to espouse the cause of English music. Andre Previn proved himself a superb interpreter of Vaughan Williams and Walton, among others of our native composers, and pursued his enthusiasm with the LSO and RPO as well as with American orchestras. Slatkin, however, is proving himself similarly sympathetic and active, and is beginning to impinge on our consciousness both as chief guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, with whom he conducted an outstanding Elgar Second Symphony at last year's Proms, and as a long-standing propagandist for English music at home. It was interesting to hear how this artist of such wide musical culture responded to Joan Bakewell's quizzing in Sunday's potted version of Artist of the Week on BBC Radio 3.

Slatkin is not the man to fall back on palliatives, and when given the chance to espouse a politically correct view about the role he might play as a musical educator with his orchestra, Washington's National Symphony, he gave a refreshingly honest answer. Slatkin is very far from being elitist, as his increasingly wide repertoire - symphonic jazz, classics, avant garde, ethnic music - proves. But, asked whether he was aiming to reach out to the ethnically diverse populace of his new city, he admitted that while aiming at accessibility in general, his main responsibility was to the listener already hooked on classical music, and that such a person is most likely to be white and middle class.

This kind of statement would probably not have endeared him to government funding agencies in our country, yet it cuts across much hypocrisy. Education is not an end in itself, it is a means to a fuller life, and Slatkin sees himself as nourishing that life while leaving the education to others. In our current political climate the process of education seems sometimes to be prized above the creation of art. Speak of education and funds are released; speak of creating the finest work of which you are capable, and the word "elitist" hovers near.

The Secrets of Orchestration, a mini-series under the larger banner of Sounding the Century might have been planned before Roger Wright's arrival as head of Radio 3, but it certainly chimes in with our expectations of more serious and musically worthwhile fare. Saturday's edition had Robin Holloway, himself no mean creator of orchestral magic, talking about Debussy's La Mer, and it was fascinating to hear that trail-blazing score taken apart and then reassembled layer by textural layer.

Holloway's fellow presenter Michael Oliver began a little provocatively by alluding to Ravel's criticism of Debussy's orchestration, and Holloway admitted that there are rough moments in the work. This was a talking- point that could have been taken further. Much was made, quite rightly, of the composer's exquisite aural sensibility in manipulating and developing muted shades and tiny flecks of light. But the sea is a rough and salty monster, and Debussy knew that too. No exquisitely weighted sonority can represent it at its most threatening and powerful, and Debussy's willingness to offset the delicate with the rough hewn places him in a rather different category from the eternally fastidious and tasteful Ravel. Perhaps Holloway and Oliver spent a little too long on the first movement, leaving no time to explore the finale's cross-grained, gale-driven revelations.