Classical: music on radio

A lunch time concert of popular music from the 1920s and 1930s which was broadcast live from the Wigmore Hall on BBC Radio 3 last week brought back to mind a salutary conversation I had some years ago with an American composer friend.

We were both lamenting the rather fractured sense of harmony which many present-day students displayed when entering upon a university course. He said the trouble was that recent generations had been brought up on a diet of rock music unless from rigorously classical backgrounds, and whatever its other virtues, rock rarely exhibited any but the most primitive harmonic characteristics. "You and I were luckier," he went on, "being born in the Thirties, we were subjected as toddlers to the most sophisticatedly harmonic popular music imaginable." He meant, of course, Gershwin, Kearn, Rogers, Porter, Berlin and the rest of that fantastic generation of popular masters.

It could, of course, be argued that the casting aside of that highly literate harmonic language enabled the rock generation to set out on new paths, while their classical music counterparts cast aside the by now over exploited expressive worlds associated with orderly harmonic dialectic. Listening to the Piccadilly Dance Orchestra's offerings, however, I could not help regretting the loss of, say, Cole Porter's wondrous harmonic subtleties in the pop music that followed after him.

It was also fascinating to observe that for all their enthusiasm, the present artists seemed to have lost touch stylistically with that earlier golden music age. Is it that decades of often harmonically simplistic music has somehow affected our natural musical responses? The effortless sense of style and musicality which we so often take for granted in the recorded performances of the great vocalists and dance bands of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s has somehow not left its mark on this attempt to recreate the past. Instrumental balance seemed raw edged, phrasing a little stiff, and the very real tenderness, which so often underlies the smart surface of that period's popular music, was somehow missing.

The highlight of this week's broadcasting, though, was undoubtedly the final stage in that much discussed and sometimes vilified competition for a new 12-minute piece of "broad and lasting appeal", Masterprize. The six pieces that made it to the final were broadcast not only to British listeners on Radio 3, but around the world via the BBC World Service to 40 foreign stations, yielding what was possibly the largest audience ever for a contemporary concert.

Little needs to be added to Robert Cowans's review of the live event in yesterday's paper, but it is perhaps worth reiterating that there has probably never been a competition where one has not disagreed with the judges, and this one was no exception. I was very pleased for the young British composer Andrew March who won, but thought his opulently post- Baxian tone poem Marine-a travers les arbres needed a harmonic and textural clarification. I made Zhoe Long the winner, and he didn't even get into the top three... Ah well!

Chris de Souza's panel of radio commentators made a number of interesting points, while we awaited the jury's decision, not least, that the issue of the six pieces as a BBC music magazine cover-disc prior to the event meant that listeners were much better prepared than usual for a contemporary programme. If only funding allowed this to happen more often. Then there was the absolutely justifiable reservation that the prizes demand for, in effect, a crowd pleasing piece was not the way to produce music of lasting worth. We shall see.

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