Classical: Music on Radio 3 - That's Kay, as in take-over

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In his eloquent obituary tribute to Robert Simpson in The Independent last Monday, Martin Anderson justly emphasised his unique contribution to serious music broadcasting in this country. Other composers, of course, have worked for the BBC from time to time: Arthur Bliss and Lennox Berkeley were on the music staff during the war; Michael Tippett recorded many talks for the early Third Programme; the young Alexander Goehr was a concert planner in the 1960s; Michael Berkeley is a long-established presenter; and George Benjamin is currently helping to steer the Sounding the Century project. But over his 29 years as a BBC producer from 1951 Simpson exerted a palpable influence over British musical taste: both positively, through his promotion of Bruckner, Nielsen and the long-neglected Havergal Brian, and, more ambiguously, as the central figure in the resistance to the Second Viennese School and the post-war avant-garde.

It would be tempting to suggest that his strengths and weaknesses alike were functions of a narrowness of vision, and it is true that, as broadcaster, writer and composer, he was preoccupied by the Western tradition of symphonic thought - with less concern for vocal forms such as opera, and less still for light, vernacular or non-Western musical traditions. Yet in that sadly missed series he used to devise and introduce, The Innocent Ear, in which one was invited to listen to pieces about which all information was withheld until the end, he could often surprise one by choices seemingly quite outside his own known areas of preference. And when he resigned in 1980 over the BBC's attempt to butcher its house orchestras, and what he already diagnosed as a tendency to sacrifice standards to ratings, he published as a parting shot a pamphlet entitled The Proms and Natural Justice advocating a change of Proms Director at least every five years, so that talented composers of whatever persuasion need not face indefinite exclusion if any one Director happened to dislike them.

Yet Simpson's salient excellence as a broadcaster was surely his expository power - the way that gravelly, no-nonsense voice could convey the significance and excitement of the tonal structure of, say, a Beethoven symphony to ordinary listeners who thought they knew nothing about music. One could not help but listen and one remembered what he said for years. Whereas today... In the proliferation of all those On Airs and In Tunes for casual listeners, the preference seems to be for sweet-talking presentation so instantly forgettable that nobody could possibly be stimulated into turning the thing off. And the archetype of this trend is surely the impeccably homogenised radio persona of Brian Kay.

That Radio 4 chooses to bill its one regular token music slot as Classics with Kay might be construed as a naughty nuance in the direction of Your Hundred Best Tunes. But that sprawling, middle-of-the-road Radio 3 miscellany with only the feeblest attempts to meaningfully link its ad hoc choices, Brian Kay's Sunday Morning, is another matter. Of course the largest audience of the week switch it on: Sunday morning is the time when the maximum number have the leisure to do so - not a few of whom might long since have welcomed the reintroduction of programmes then with a little more variety and substance.

Nothing daunted, Radio 3 may well be introducing from next April a Saturday morning record slot on the lines of Brian Kay's Starter Collection which has been running its conventional way in BBC Music Magazine for years. Meanwhile, it will not have escaped those who tuned in for Andrew Davis's magnficient reading of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, given in St Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday in celebration of the BBC's first 75 years, that this too was billed in Radio Times as Brian Kay's Concert of the Week. Where will it end? Brian Kay's Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts? Brian Kay's Radio 3? After all, apart from his early involvement in the King's Singers, who the hell, musically speaking, is Brian Kay?