Music: On the Air

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The Independent Culture
IF SUMMER is the broadcasting silly season, Christmas is just weird. Music doesn't escape the flood of desperate efforts to look original. This year's BBC2 offerings were big on grand British companies pretending to be demotic, a ploy about as believable as Marie Antoinette offering you a slice of cake.

Welsh National Opera led the way with what was flagged as a soap-style Poppea, starting Tuesday and running through until tomorrow in a prime early-evening slot.

It is a tested idea. The BBC had some success a few years ago when they presented The Vampire in daily episodes, and this version of David Alden's stage production had the confidence to present the work straight, sung in Italian with subtitles, and performed in a theatre. The racy story took some mildly spicy treatment in a straightforward and mainly contemporary way, and Monteverdi's arching lines were eloquently sung.

Mixed messages there still were, and they came from the packaging. Short, awkward resumes started with the line "Previously on Poppea". What is this "on"? Whoever said "previously on EastEnders"? Just when you were getting used to the austere musical and acting style, the show ended and you had to remember the time for the next day. Was it meant to be an opera relay or an attempt at good television? If the latter, you had to wonder at the slow pace and the dramatic and visual tameness. The best of the real soaps have a speed and energy that opera has never tried to match. In which case, there is only the singing to make Poppea special. So why pretend otherwise? Since audiences don't like sugared pills, the real purpose of the disguise must have been to convince the TV-managing classes that they are not just indulging their own expensive tastes but doing something worthy for the masses. A further whiff of double standards came from the alarming amount of smoking that went on. OK if it's art, apparently. Nobody else gets away with that on television at 6pm, not even Bernie Ecclestone.

Birmingham Royal Ballet's crazy idea was Nutcracker Sweeties (Christmas Day), a half-hour of nostalgia for an imaginary, camp America of the Fifties, choreographed by David Bintley. Spoken links here, Voice of America-style, were supposed to be on a car radio. If that wasn't arch enough, the ballet itself took Duke Ellington's big-band version, or rather appropriation, of the Tchaikovsky score and had it danced to by a flagrantly white company prancing around in the usual European way. Culture shock twice over. The stage performers were top-quality, in their own terms at least, though best of all was the unseen, 15-piece "Echoes of Ellington" band.

Then there was Simon Rattle (Moving On, Sunday 27) explaining yet again how to reconcile a conductor's ego-tripping with a semblance of orchestral democracy. Charm, that's how: same as a popular politician, really. Funny how the profession talks about him as though he were still the whizz kid of 20 years ago who would unlock the secrets of music to all our children, while before our eyes he has grown into an international heavyweight. He can still put it across passionately to his own generation, but they have grown up with him. A man for the converted, these days.

Radio 3's seasonal folly has been a glut of whimsical series. Novelists have been writing about favourite moments in music; Natalie Wheen (welcome back) has made you guess whose music room she is reporting on; Leonard Slatkin is airing his personal form of musical outreach. Most intriguing has been The Harmonic Series, Adrian Jack's laconic 10-minute essays about chords. As neat as a crib-sheet and as suggestive as a Victorian painting, they manage to be didactic and highly personal at the same time. I am in two minds about what they are there for. They show beautifully why disconnected pieces can sound mysteriously alike. Yet does anybody listen who doesn't already know? I think I will settle for calling them entertainment of rare sophistication.