David Lister: The human beings behind the batons

The Week in Arts: Let's take a look at the least understood of all artistic skills
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The Independent Online

The new TV series Maestro is attempting something that has been long overdue in the arts. By putting several celebrities through the ordeal of trying to become a conductor, it might at last explain the least understood of all artistic skills.

All of us know, or think we do, what an actor is doing, probably even what a director is trying to achieve. The millions who have been to ballet classes as children or jigged about at a club can appreciate dance. Most people have played or tried to play an instrument, so are in a position to applaud knowingly a soloist or an orchestra. And we've all sung, in the bath or otherwise. But how many of us have actually held a baton in front of a symphony orchestra? And while we have a rudimentary idea of what a conductor is doing in terms of keeping time, how many of us know what good conducting really means, what is required of a conductor to set him above his peers?

I think it is this widespread uncertainty surrounding the conductor's art that makes us see them seem as touched with a spark of genius. I have met a lot of actors and directors and it's always pleasant to chat to them. But they are fellow human beings, if somewhat richer. Conductors, though, are a different species. When I have spent time with Simon Rattle or Colin Davis or the late Klaus Tennstedt, I have hung on their every word as they were clearly possessed of supernatural powers.

Why, come to think of it, is it only conductors who are called Maestro? Other cultural figures at the top of their profession do not get such an elevated form of address. The National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner is a talented bloke, but I'm sure he'd blush if I addressed him as Maestro. Sir Paul McCartney would consider it a bit pompous. Even the seemingly immortal Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate, revealed today to be indispensable in the visual arts and having his contract renewed yet again, is a mere "Sir". Art Galleries do not produce maestros. Conductors, though, wear the epithet effortlessly. They are simply not as other men.

And so I look to a drum'n'bass man such as Goldie, pictured, and his fellow plain speaking TV Maestro celebrities such as Alex James and Katie Derham to cut through some of the more forbidding territory that surrounds the conductor's art and to show the rest of us that it is the art of the possible.

If the BBC does manage to illuminate the art of conducting to a much wider public, then that new audience will discover that this is the age of the charismatic conductor. That was particularly apparent this week when the Proms played host to perhaps the two most charismatic on consecutive nights, Gustavo Dudamel and Daniel Barenboim.

Dudamel, just 27, has electrified audiences with his orchestra formed from musicians from the slums of Venezuela and their colourful clothes and Latin rhythms. This week, with the rather more sedate Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, he still exuded charisma. Why are innovative, exciting cultural figures such as he never on chat shows?

The next night, Barenboim brought his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, bringing together young musicians from Israel and the Arab world. The establishment and success of that interracial group is formidable. He also broke with tradition, his personal tradition, in speaking about his first wife, the late Jacqueline du Pré. There have been books and films about her, but Barenboim himself rarely talks about the cellist, whose beauty, talent, illness and early death have given her a semi-mythical status in the world of classical music. In an interview before his Prom, Barenboim said:

"Jacqueline was probably the most talented musician I ever came across. As a cellist, she set the highest possible standards. Ever since, I have demanded more from the musicians I conduct – more colours, more imagination – because in Jackie, I saw what can be achieved."

That's the other thing about conductors. They're surprisingly human underneath.

The girl's the thing

I saw the much-praised David Tennant Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon this week and add my praise to everyone else's. It's a thrilling production and a memorable performance by Tennant. The critics have rhapsodised over him, and I can't argue with that. But perhaps the one disadvantage of critics rhapsodising about a central performance is that other fine performances can be overlooked. I've read all the reviews, and few give much space to Ophelia. Some literally don't mention her at all – strange as she is a not inconsiderable figure in the drama.

I thought that Mariah Gale, pictured, who took the role, was one of the best Ophelias I have seen. Gale is a young Shakespearean actress, who has largely played classical roles on stage but also appeared in the TV series Skins. Hers was an Ophelia whose mad scene was genuinely moving, and who uncomfortably conveyed the adolescent confusion of trying to reconcile love, rejection, filial respect and a knowing irreverence. Her day in the headlines will come.

Who goes? You've decided

It's August, but something feels wrong, and it's not just the weather. There's something missing, seasonal sounds, seasonal sights that have mysteriously disappeared. A typical sound of summer most years is the tedious chattering about Big Brother – who's in, who's out, who's sexy, who's stupid, who's going to be signed up by Max Clifford. And a typical sight is the front page of The Sun breathlessly reporting on the latest antics.

But this summer no one seems to be talking about it; the press is giving it remarkably little coverage, and none of the housemates has become a household name. Indeed, I had to look up the TV listings to check that the series really was still on. Perhaps Channel 4 might take the hint from the public apathy and make this the final series of Big Brother. It had its moments; it was mildly amusing at times; it made some undeserving people rich. But the novelty has at last worn off. Shame, eh? Or possibly not.