Make Me A Maestro: Alex James goes to Baton Camp

As Alex James competes to become a conductor in a new BBC reality show, he and his mentor talk to John Elmes

How do you solve a problem like Von Karajan? The BBC thinks it has the answer. In a new music reality show, Maestro, eight celebrities – Jane Asher, Peter Snow, Goldie, Katie Derham, Alex James, Bradley Walsh, Sue Perkins and David Soul – will compete with each other to become a conductor, and display their new skills at a BBC Proms in the Park concert, in front of an audience of 30,000, and countless more television viewers.

These diverse personalities were first put to the test at the menacing-sounding "Baton Camp" earlier this year, where they were assigned their classical-music mentor. They then faced demanding and intense tutorials to help them master the disciplines of orchestral, choral and operatic music, as well as learning how to inspire and engage with the orchestra, the music and the audience.

Having hopefully acquired the skills required to be a conductor, the competitors will conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra under the gaze and appraisal of a studio audience and an expert judging panel made up of leading musicians, including Sir Roger Norrington (who will be conducting this year's Last Night of the Proms).

At the end of each weekly programme, hosted by the comedian Clive Anderson, the celebrities will wait anxiously as the judges and members of the BBC Concert Orchestra decide which student will be voted off. Under the watchful eyes of the professionals and those they are leading, the pupils will have to convince, without any doubt, that they have the fervour and steely disposition to conduct a full orchestra at the Proms, the premier concert event in the classical-music calendar.

The creators are hoping that Maestro will take viewers on an exciting and educational voyage into the realms of music-making. According to Peter Maniura, head of BBC classical-music television, Maestro contestants will "delve into the practicalities, magic and mystery of what a conductor actually does to make great music happen". A daunting prospect for any layman, but maybe if you were already a famous musician...

Here, the former bassist of Britpop band Blur – and Independent columnist – Alex James, and his Maestro mentor Brad Cohen, who is one of the country's leading conductors, with a repertoire of more than 80 operas, and numerous classical CD recordings under his belt, talk about their work together in James's bid to be crowned overall "Maestro".



'Maestro' begins on 12 August at 9pm on BBC2

Alex James

The first thing you have to learn as a conductor is how to stand up straight. If you stood on a rock stage like that, people would throw pints of urine at you. Classical music is quite irksome, it emanates a sort of pomposity, but it's one of the best things I have ever done, I'm loving it.

You don't need to have been to a conservatoire to write pop songs, and it's more expensive to train conductors than it is to train astronauts or fighter pilots, but there's something about classical music. Yes, the classical-music fraternity are worse than Christians or Alcoholics Anonymous for wanting you to join, there's a kind of desperation about it sometimes, but when you're ready for it, it blows your mind.

I've been teetering on the brink of diving into the ocean of classical music for ages, sort of dipping my toe in, and this programme was the opportunity for me to take the plunge and take my knowledge of music a stage further.

The only slightly tawdry aspect of it is the reality-show nature of it, but you can't have television without jeopardy, I suppose, and it does work as a format. And nobody on the show is stupid. Everybody's got some sort of musical background, and the girls have all got Grade VIII piano and have been to Cambridge.

I expect it to get more and more competitive, but at the moment it's all very jolly. It's good to be surrounded by people who live and breathe classical music; it's like being surrounded by people who love oysters. You might not like oysters to start with, but soon you've eaten a few and you're one of the gang, and all you can think about is oysters!

There's a misconception that classical music is for old people, so it does need rebranding. I would definitely recommend that kids listen to Rossini. You know, rock'n'roll is 50 years old now, and I wonder if it hasn't said everything it has got to say. Classical music really makes you appreciate what you're doing when you're playing a big, loud, out-of-tune, distorted bass.

Brad Cohen

I'm not an ancient fossil, so my aim in making this programme is to bring classical music to as many people as possible, and let them see how powerful and enjoyable it is. The music is more accessible than it is perceived to be. It is for everyone.

I must also stress that conducting is not about pomp or mastery. It's about communication and creating an atmosphere in which everyone feels they're pointing in the same direction, and working towards a similar goal.

There have been times when Alex has found it hard – starting something completely new, and having to stand up in front of a group of people and feel like a prat – but we're very patient with each other. We're mates.

I've listened to some Blur since I started working with Alex, and we have a lot of fun together. Both being musicians helps – there's a lot of common ground and our sensibilities are similar.

Alex knows there's a lot about conducting that is nothing to do with music, but the musical side is obviously a lot easier because he can read music, while other competitors on Maestro can only do so in a very limited way. It's a great advantage, with so much musical material to master, that he can learn scores a lot quicker.

Alex is doing a great job, I have a lot of faith in him.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence