Classical Music: MUSIC ON RADIO 3

The idea of ballet on radio is, of course, a paradox - and potentially a risible one. Granted, scenarios can be narrated and recordings of dance scores played - as in the fondly remembered Cormac Rigby's exquisitely high camp Royal Repertoire series of the Seventies. Granted, new productions and revivals can be reviewed in Radio 3's Nightwaves or Radio 4's Front Row. But as to conveying the direct experience ...

Last weekend's Sunday Feature in the Sounding the Century project nevertheless attempted exactly that in its treatment of Agon - music by Stravinsky, choreography by Balanchine, triumphantly launched by the New York City Ballet in 1957 and arguably still the most original, concentrated and influential dance work since the Second World War. As drawn from interviews conducted by Christopher Cook, the approach was essentially to talk listeners through a performance, with the accounts of some of the original dancers, including Melissa Hayden and Arthur Mitchell, interspersed with comments from such critics as Arleen Croce and current choreographers as Richard Alston. Part of the pleasure of the programme was the way the cross-cutting created a verbal counterpoint almost as nifty as Stravinsky's score, bits of which surfaced from time to time. And while it might have been nice to hear a few more extended passages, at least you respected the evident concern of the producer Frances Byrnes to avoid as far as possible the now almost universal abuse of speech over music.

In any case, the interplay of voices served to evoke not only the intricate daring and difficulty of the dance steps themselves, but so much else about the working personalities of Balanchine and Stravinsky, for instance, with one voice likening the letter to a kind of sonic Faberge putting his score together from tiny musical gems as it was extracted from various coat pockets. The problems for dancers of counting out the music's multiple time-spans were detailed; the mystery of how two senior Russian emigres contrived to capture the youthful feel of New York street life in the mid-Fifties was explored.

The programme not only demanded undivided attention, it also offered listeners more, the better they knew Balanchine's choreography or Stravinsky's music. When much of the network seems to be given over to the average prejudices of the average participant in that latest form of amateur dramatics, focus groups, this was a tonic.

On the other hand, Radio 3's weekday youth slot, The Music Machine, has recently been rewarded for its lively production values with the loss of its Wednesday edition to make way for yet more of Sean Rafferty's interminable In Tune. This week, Verity Sharp has been considering Music and Children, kicking off on Monday with the subject of composing for pre-school series such as Tots TV, and concluding today at 4.45pm with the raising of school standards through singing. Conspicuously absent has been any consideration of the contribution Radio 3 itself may be making to the development of musicality - and did, in the Seventies, with David Munrow's Pied Piper series.

Enquiries since Munrow's untimely death in 1976 as to when the network is going to revive a comparable spot have invariably been answered "as soon as we can find a suitable presenter". Meanwhile the decades roll by. If Radio 3 really does suffer from an ageing audience, is it so surprising?

Bayan Northcott

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