Music on Radio and television

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Everybody loves watching other people work, so the idea behind Jonathan Miller's Opera Works (BBC2, Mondays) is logical. You just eavesdrop, or pretend to, and you are drawn in. This week it was a chorus rehearsal with director and conductor. Plainly a fiction - Miller and Charles Hazlewood were so nice to each other - but easy to go along with.

That's the idea. Shame about the start. Miller wanted to show how not to stage a men's chorus from Rigoletto. The Royal Northern College student singers listened to their lecture, trying not to look shifty, then performed with some kneeling, a few sturdy arms on shoulders, that sort of thing. Cue for lots of grinning and attempted wisecracks ("Absolutely stock still like a biological version of a mechanical loudspeaker"). Then Miller went to work individualising the singers. Result, an equally camp set of poses, more aesthetically arranged.

As he wheeled around and sounded off, other kinds of theatre came to mind. An Alan Ayckbourn backstage dissection of the English at play, or an unpublished scene from Tom Stoppard's Jumpers? It would have made a wonderful role for Michael Hordern. Things began to improve when Hazlewood took a musical rehearsal and the focus shifted to the mysteries of bringing sound to life. He had a spell of playing to the camera, and the chorus stopped looking at him. But the worst was over.

Now Miller talked cogently about Bach chorales as the expression of a united voice. He went off on one of his rationalising tangents but came back with a strong, simple idea: present the musical interaction of the singers as theatre, like watching the give and take of a chamber group. On one level he had moved miles away from opera. On another, he had found the essence. Music and drama were the expression of a single impulse.

So they were in a film of Maria Callas singing a 1959 Hamburg concert (BBC2, Saturday), only the intensity was increased tenfold and nobody needed to explain. This was minimal television, just that face and voice and the unseen presence of an electric atmosphere. Her reputation was for making great drama. Yet in her 1968 conversation with Lord Harewood, broadcast the same evening, she spoke of musical truth as the essence of what she sought, not theatre. In reality the two were inseparable. Strange that the late Sir Georg Solti, whose new autobiographical book makes mealy-mouthed complaints about her supposed shortcomings, could apparently not hear this supreme quality. But then, as Lord Harewood's amusingly deferential manner showed, Solti was not the only man to find Callas's strong-minded independence more than a match for him.

Radio 3's new season has arrived with the customary sense of continuity. Whatever was all the fuss about? Certainly I miss a couple of the quirkier In Tune presenters. Otherwise this is another streamlined version of the same essentials. It's still open to the same criticisms too. For the current Radio Times week the station programmed all but about 10 of its 168 hours with music from northern or central Europe. Even the jazz is mostly European. There are five hours of Verdi, one of the Composers of the Week; a couple more Latin crumbs; and two or three hours from the United States. I can't decide which is worse: that they believed this was a good balance, or that nobody there noticed.