Radio 3's Clemency Burton-Hill defends 'classical music for all' policy against elitists

She is the Radio 3 breakfast presenter whose chatty style has won a new audience yet infuriated classical music purists. But Clemency Burton-Hill has defended her inclusive approach, telling the high culture “gatekeepers” that it’s time to come down from their ivory towers.

A musician, actress, author and broadcaster, Ms Burton-Hill, 32, has become the multi-talented new face of Radio 3.

A violinist who performed with Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Ms Burton-Hill, took over the Radio 3 breakfast slot at the end of 2013, sharing the role with Petroc Trelawny.

Figures released this week, showed that the breakfast show has added 130,000 new listeners since the arrival of Ms Burton-Hill, who passionately believes that “there should be no barriers to classical music. I don’t think you have to have credentials just to hear it and feel it and respond to it. What you need is ears and heart and soul.”

Her critics say otherwise. The presenter has been accused of being “gushy” and over-chatty, symbolic of a Radio 3 desperate to wrench listeners from commercial rival Classic FM.

The station has restricted the amount of more challenging works it plays, focusing on “hummable” tunes and is failing to educate listeners in the complexities of great music as a result, it is said.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who want things to stay the same and don’t like any sort of change,” said Ms Burton-Hill, who acted in the television dramas Hustle and Party Animals and has just published her second novel.

“You’re never going to please everyone and people have different presentation styles. At breakfast time, when people are rushing around and getting the kids to school that’s not the moment to have a 45-minute piece followed by a long exegesis about it. But you’ll certainly get that elsewhere on Radio 3 during the day. It is an incredibly rich and mixed cultural offering.”

She will not be deflected from her mission to open up the classics to new listeners. “I’m passionate about letting people know they don’t have to come with a music degree to listen to Radio 3. People are tweeting me saying they have never listened before and now they are, and they are loving it.”

“I’m against the gatekeepers of some mystical classical high culture saying you can’t come in. Everyone should feel they are invited.”

She accepts: “There are works which are a bit more challenging on the ear which if you aren’t literate in that language might be a bit more confusing or discombobulating.”

Unlike Classic FM, which she admires, Radio 3 does not employ a “computerised playlist”, she said. “Every single thing is curated and created from the heart. The idea that our playlist is contracting is absurd.”

On Sunday night, Ms Burton-Hill will present the final of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition in Edinburgh, an event which has helped make classical music accessible to a family audience for 36 years.

A Cambridge-educated former scholar at the Royal College of Music, Ms Burton-Hill is following in the footsteps of her father, arts broadcaster Humphrey Burton, who also hosted the competition.

The teenage Clemency entered Young Musician herself but only made it past the first two rounds and she admits she lacked the dedication to make music her primary career.

But the competition has also been accused of trivialising its subject. Writing in The Independent, Jessica Duchen criticised an “emphasis on musical and eye-candy-like star presenters” and questioned whether the best musicians actually win.

Not so, said Ms Burton-Hill. “Young Musician is judged solely on talent and through a strict set of criteria by highly respected judges (with one specialist judge relevant to each individual musician) and I would absolutely refute any suggestion that musicians win on anything other than talent – that’s why I’m so thrilled to present and be involved in such an important competition.” The finalists are “constantly nurtured” after the competition and even have access to a child psychologist if they need one too, she added.

The presenter said the previous two winners, cellist Laura van der Heijden (2012), who has since performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and pianist Lara Ömeroğlu (2010) were “outstanding” musicians.

This year could see the first recorder player to triumph, a victory for an instrument more usually associated with kindergarten playgrounds. Sophie Westbrooke, 15, performs in the semi-final, broadcast by BBC4 tonight and is tipped as a possible series winner.

“There’s a mini recorder revolution going on. I think it’s brilliant,” said Ms Burton-Hill. “It’s important for the competition to challenge the hegemony of piano, violin and cello. The recorder is seen as a gateway instrument and it’s a lot harder to find repertoire for it. Hopefully kids will see Sophie and say, ‘even if I can only play the recorder I can get up there and play too’.”

Ms Burton-Hill’s whirlwind professional life has slowed following the March arrival of Tomos, her son with husband James Roscoe, a former diplomat who is the Queen’s Communications Secretary. “I had all sorts of music going on when I was in Labour so he was born to Bach,” she said.

The broadcaster agrees with her fellow Young Musician presenter, trumpeter Alison Balsom, who warned that children’s “basic right” to music lessons at school is under threat from government cuts.

“Access to music without a doubt shaped who I am,” she said. “It’s phenomenally important that kids are exposed to music from an early age. You can see the impact music education can have on young people from all social backgrounds. There are by-products like improved listening, discipline and teamwork skills.”

Ms Burton-Hill bemoans the “false choice” between public subsidy for the arts against the needs of schools and hospitals in an age of austerity.

“The creative industries are phenomenally good value. A tiny amount invested in the arts reaps enormous rewards back to the Treasury,” she argues.

A former Total Politics columnist, perhaps when she tires of early mornings on Radio 3, Ms Burton-Hill will take her battle against elitism to the Westminster stage.

BBC Young Musician of the Year, Semi-Final, BBC4 Saturday 7pm. The Final is on BBC4, Sunday, also 7pm

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