Classical: On The Air Davis plugs himself in

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The Independent Culture
AS RADIO 3 settles into a "Proms-everywhere" groove, it's a good moment to check out the farther reaches of classical broadcasting. Radio 2 has sprung a surprise. Carl Davis Classics is, at face value, the latest in an ancient Home Service line: celebrity presents cosy hour of favourite snippets. But there are some odd things about it.

Take the timing; 7pm on Tuesdays. Not only has it escaped from mid Sunday evening, where you find other survivors of the genre like Your Hundred Best Tunes. This is prime time, in competition with the drive-time and home-coming strands of Classic FM and the BBC's own Radio 3. Another of its distinctive features is that the celebrity isn't the usual amateur fan, but an accomplished musician.

The result is that rare thing; a musically coherent line-up. Italy was at this week's centre, with a sequence of Respighi, Vivaldi, Verdi and Rossini. Less than obvious playlist material appeared, including a Schubert song and a Handel organ concerto, and warhorses turned up in distinctive versions - Jorge Bolet's quirky way with the Chopin Minute Waltz, and Jascha Heifetz playing his violin arrangement of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess.

Davis was up-front about his film interests and wasn't one to turn down the chance of playing some of his music. Proper English presenters would think of it as vulgar self-promotion, though they usually make sure somebody else gives them a plug. I admire the honesty. No doubt he gets a few sneers, but he also had the confidence to follow his own Phantom of the Opera score with a masterpiece of the genre by Nino Rota.

Porgy and Bess in its original form was all over Radio 3 and the BBC's printed media. Good to have a talk that asked whether the opera demeans the community it features. The current Radio Times twice calls Porgy a folk opera, as though it had sprung directly from the grass roots with never a Gershwin in sight. This newspaper's review said that Ira and George "easily assimilated the legacy of an entire musical culture". As someone who has struggled for half a century to assimilate my own musical culture in a fraction of its entirety, I gasp.

According to The Guardian, the conductor Wayne Marshall "brought out just how deeply Gershwin had immersed himself in black musical culture". Just how Marshall did so was not specified. I'd buy the view of Cynthia Haymon, who has regularly starred in the show. In a BBC Music Magazine interview she says: "There's a lot of unhealthiness around it, so it's not the easiest thing to commit yourself. It would be wonderful if there were another opera that was as easy to listen to, that presented a more positive aspect, and it would be fantastic if that opera came from the same community as the people who are on the stage."

It would be even more fantastic if we saw the same people in an opera that isn't about that community. Even Wayne Marshall has had to make his way with a little help from Gershwin, the classical world's proxy black composer. Institutional racism in music is a hotter topic than the history of Porgy, so maybe Radio 2 will give it some space.

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