Radio: On The Air

The Week on Radio and TV, Reviewed
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The Independent Culture
IT'S GERSHWIN everywhere, again. His centenary sees him featured as a Radio 3 "Composer of the Week", and quite rightly, too.

You have to be called Kaufman to complain the network is too full of Jewish-American composers (imagine that coming from a nice Aryan name like Smith). Even as an attempt at humour - and that is to be kind to Gerald Kaufman's newspaper efforts last weekend - it is a dodgy move. You would have to be unmusical to think of Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein as three of a kind on any grounds other than genius.

Bernstein, for one, was Gershwin's direct opposite. A product of the American classical system, he discovered through theatre and film music a path to integrating a modern urban flavour into virtuoso composition.

West Side Story is a highly calculated product which just happened to unleash a rare talent for songwriting. Most classical composers can't manage it - try Schoenberg's Cabaret Songs.

Gershwin was an outsider, a hard-working natural who acquired the skills to handle symphonic and operatic forms and held on to his flair. This is a rare feat, too - compare Paul McCartney's Standing Stone. He died before Bernstein was out of his teens, so we can't know what he would have thought of the younger musician. But Bernstein was mealy-mouthed about Gershwin, and he liked to rubbish the structure of Rhapsody in Blue.

And Copland? He was a different phenomenon again, the Thirties artist with a social conscience who used vernacular materials.

If he had been a Soviet citizen he would have done socialist realism. Nazi Germany had Carl Orff. The British version, as usual, came ten years late and watered down, telling tales of everyday life in Suffolk. More cosmopolitan than either Bernstein or Gershwin, Copland's music was the way that a major international current surfaced in the Land of the Free.

Most listeners are surely happy to have plenty of all three. Gershwin, in practice, is rather under-exposed on British radio.

Lots of the famous songs on Radio 2, plenty of Porgy and Bess and the orchestral pieces on Radio 3, but the rest mostly goes unheard. That makes him a classic case for "Composer of the Week" treatment, and so it has proved. His musicals and piano music fill the gap seamlessly between the more familiar extremes. A few more hearings for his one-act opera Blue Monday might finally put an end to the pigeonholing of Porgy as a one- off "folk opera" that sprang to life as though by spontaneous generation.

Perhaps Kaufman was happier with the other composer of the week, that pillar of Covent Garden, Constant Lambert. Again under-represented on the air, Lambert was one of the most brilliant originals in British music, for once keeping up with trends in the wider world. Yet nothing of his survives in the repertoire. A week's exposure shows why. It misses the elusive essence that fixes music in your soul for the rest of your days. Was anybody's life changed by the tunes in The Rio Grande? Game, set and match to Gershwin.

A better target for the Kaufman barbs would be ITV's Young Jazz Musician of the Year. The Carlton regional final, on 24 September, presented six candidates, all men,90 per cent white, delivering solo morsels from the same tired modern mainstream. There was no explanation of the judges' choice, unless you count presenter Jools Holland's jocular forecast that a pianist would win because of the panel make-up (he did). Even less did anybody reveal how such a narrow range of performers came to be picked. You'd think jazz-funk and creative experimenters had never existed.

Try harder next time.

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