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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there