Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
WATCHING AN eclipse on the radio has its advantages. Nobody flies helicopters or lets off flash bulbs, and the cloud cover is more exciting. If you chose to listen to Radio 3 you had the extra pleasure of hearing the solar spectacle heralded by a rousing version of the "Marseilles" complete with extra harmonies by Berlioz and a solo by Placido Domingo. Whether by accident or design, this promotion of the French national anthem sent a neat message over to all those who, like BBC1, took off to Cornwall for their holidays. Sorry chaps, you chose the wrong country.

As intra-BBC one-up-manship goes, this broadcast had an edge on television's Michael Buerk trying to sound enthusiastic under the grey skies of St Michael's Mount. Then again, it might just have been broadcaster's normal summer madness. They've all been at it this last week. Radio 4 on Sunday offered Mary Allen trying to discover the world's greatest waltz. You run the Arts Council and the Royal Opera House and now it comes to this - there's clearly a curse in action. Radio1 turned the event into a shameless plug for various DJ's money-spinning activities in Ibiza, as if that island were the centre of the universe, never mind the triumphant world-wide export industry that British dance music has become.

Back on Radio 3, the famous new dawn of world music, after a few days of hope around the Womad festival, has turned into another eclipse. Only Festival Music Matters, featuring yesterday's Irish Prom, kept an ear open. Somebody missed a chance to run a Prom Genre of the Week. Thriving and developing traditional music would have sat well in the now liberated Composer of the Week niche. Still, the actual choice of composer, Leonard Bernstein, was more or less a genre of his own, or at least a unique synthesis of many genres: "Bernstein and the Meaning of Life", to quote the title of today's programme.

This one focuses on his Mass and, surprisingly, the straightforward Chichester Psalms rather than the awkward, questing contemporary Jewishness of the Kaddish Symphony - one of Bernstein's more problematic works which could have benefited from Edward Seckerson's sympathetic treatment as the week's presenter. The other days' themes - song, dance, Broadway - explored his familiar strengths.

It was good to hear the idealistic and nowadays neglected Songfest. Dance for Bernstein mean ballet or musicals, the latter usually working better than the relatively stilted scores such as Facsimile and Dybbuk that he wrote for more formal companies.

If only he had lived another ten years he would surely have found more inspiration in the broader and looser contemporary dance scene (and I don't mean the one in Ibiza) that has evolved since his composing heyday and which parallels the instinct for musical unity in diversity that was one of his strongest characteristics.