Time for the BBC to put the world at our service

music on radio
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The Independent Culture
There's a musical side to the World Service debate. Over the last year this column has reported on original programmes that have been the equal of any in the domestic networks. It has also pointed out that the range of the World Service's music coverage is unmatched. So if the service is stopped from making its own material, music will be among the aspects of life most diminished.

Really, the choice for radio is the same as for Britain as a whole. If we don't develop a more international outlook, we will turn into an offshore province of the US. Forget the jewel-in-the-crown nostalgia that infects defences of the World Service: this is a hard-headed matter of belonging to a wider world, or else switching off into parochial retirement. Elsewhere, the BBC is busily developing a world television network (mean on arts coverage, as it happens, but that's another story). The international arm should lead the domestic services, not defer to them.

On the home front, Radio 3 has been going a bit American for the last week. It took off to Tanglewood, Massachusetts, over the weekend, and of course Paul Gambaccini is still with us for a while each weekday morning. Gambaccini, though, makes an ironic case-study. He has been defeated by the very forces of reaction that feared his style would be the beginning of the end. He's starting to sound that way, too. On Tuesday, he laboured to make links between items by Haydn and Beethoven, without the brio that his early broadcasts radiated. As one who welcomed his arrival, I have to regret the turn of events. It's the freshness and engagement that counted, not the nationality, especially in a network that needed all the fresh air it could get.

The other Americana brought back an upbeat mood. Certainly it was attitude rather than geography that made the Humphrey Burton Weekend, sorry Tanglewood Weekend, into such a tonic. The place itself is an extension of Boston University, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra works there in the summer. Even for one who has never visited, an infectious vitality came bounding across from the audiences and the playing in the set-piece concerts. But you could also sense a kinship between the campus and Radio 3 itself. So the effect was like Radio 3 on holiday, or at least off at summer school. Somebody even unearthed a 1947 tape of Copland, Bernstein, Lukas Foss and Irving Fine chewing over the state of the art and frantically one- upping each other, just like a Third Programme session, only vastly more energised.

Bernstein's memory loomed large, as befits one of Tanglewood's greatest associates. The festival chorus surpassed itself in his Chichester Psalms, and Yo-Yo Ma owned up to initial qualms about the Meditations for cello and orchestra before going on to play them with committed flair. Daughter Jamie and biographer Burton loomed even larger as presenters, and caught the relaxed spirit of the occasion. But why is Burton now so prominent on the station that doesn't want to sound like Classic FM? Next thing, they will be putting out a weekly two-and-a-half hours of "Humphrey Burton's Masterworks" (I haven't made this up: it starts tomorrow). The essential point about the Tanglewood Weekend, though, was that it never sounded like a transatlantic takeover. Rather, it was Radio 3 developing an internationally aware mode. Let's hope the distinction continues to be possible.

America took another hour of Tuesday afternoon with Twilight of the Iguana, this time an America we could unequivocally do with more of: the South, or, as Radio Times quaintly puts it, "Spanish America". The continent's music still suffers more ignorance here than most of the West's, and even nowadays some of the East's. So this short series had much ground to cover. The plan was to make a continuous sequence out of performances by the Chamber Music Company, vintage recordings, and poetry read by Mike Gonzalez. On the "innocent ear" principle, it did not tell you whose music as it went along: a fact sheet is available for anybody who missed a name. This protects listeners from the common prejudice that arises at the very mention of, say, Ginastera or Villa-Lobos. Playing the game by the rules, I found the most recent selection mostly did sound very Spanish, but with a vitality all its own.

There wasn't a single familiar piece, just an inviting sense that a whole continent awaits proper exposure. Where better to do it than an internationally attuned radio station? One more instalment of the series remains, next Tuesday. Catch it while you can.