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.