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Music on TV

While the rest of broadcasting fell into seasonal silliness, televised music flourished. It makes sense: concert life is dormant, the audience is mostly at home. Even families can listen without some vain conductor stopping the show if a baby cries, as in Bill Oddie's recently reported experience.

Luciano Pavarotti's still-splendid Pagliacci (Monday, BBC2) deserved cheering like a veteran footballer on his way to an athletic goal. But it wasn't all operatic blockbusters. It wasn't even the all-male Vienna Philharmonic waltzing away New Year's Day this time (except on Radio 3). Instead, BBC2 carried a recording from July of the mostly male United Nations World Orchestra for Peace in suitably symbolic music by Rossini and Beethoven. Why the UN thought it helpful to splash out on a culturally exclusive display while making a pig's ear of Bosnia is a moot point. But the playing was terrific. Conducted by Sir Georg Solti with a ferocious concentration that would override a whole ward of new-born lungs, this hand-picked group of the world's best players brought a single-minded virtuosity to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

It all gelled, the players said, in two days. That's enough to inspire a New Year resolution: here we are wringing our hands about too many permanent orchestras with too few audiences, while players nowadays have the skills to get it all together in no time. Answer: instead of maintaining expensive institutions for habit's sake, give the musicians some useful work, such as attaching a professional to every town in the land. Then bring them together for the concerts that really need to happen.

Some of the season's music was well hidden, it's true. Who could guess that Roald Dahl's Little Red Riding Hood (Monday, BBC1) centred on a new, 40-minute orchestral score by Paul Patterson, unless they knew about the Dahl Foundation's commissioning policy (or had read Andrew Green's feature on these pages the week before)? The Radio Times carried no credit. Perish the thought that somebody decided a composer's name would deter viewers. Yet this lyrical and witty music (it even had an original Beethoven Five joke) would have deterred nobody, except hard-core modernists. On the contrary, it gave the day's broadcasts a touch of appealing originality that deserved boasting about.

Another musical surprise came with Riverdance: the Show (Sunday, C4). On stage it's famous for the footwork and the principal dancers. The real star, however, turned out to be the traditional music of Ireland. Played or sung with passion and flair, it underpinned the whole performance: now straight and unadorned, now zapped up with extra beats in the bar, now transformed ingeniously into Spanish or jazz variations. And it suggests another resolution. There's a rich source of concert music here. In the Bartok era, folk music was taken out of context and put into classical moulds. Now, creative musicians work the other way around - making extended pieces that grow from traditional forms. Theirs is a contemporary music that can speak to all; we should be encouraging them.

"I know it's Handel," said Dame Joan Sutherland, "but it doesn't have to be sung like a virgin." Notes from a Diva (Sunday, BBC2), billed as her first televised masterclass, was a spin-off from the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the World event in which Sutherland's role was small but by some way the sharpest and the least self-regarding. Tom Krause took up much of the students' short sessions in singing himself. Ileana Cotrubas gave insights into character and drama, yet still imposed herself. "You have to agree!" she concluded. That this chilling line actually got a laugh from the audience is a tribute to her exuberance, but it doesn't say much for anybody else's judgement.

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