David Lister: The Week in Arts

Orchestrate some controversy, maestro
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The Independent Online

I am trying to recall the last time a classical music conductor was on a chat show, or appeared on TV in anything other than a specialist classical music event. I have a feeling that it might have been André Previn on the Morecambe and Wise show in the Seventies.

Then, for a brief period, a conductor actually impinged on the consciousness of millions of people who did not go to classical music concerts, even if they probably thought of him as Mr Preview, the sobriquet given to him by Eric Morecambe.

Every other part of the arts throws up celebrities whose faces are recognised in the street. But conductors, apart from Daniel Barenboim's stint as a Reith lecturer and those brief flurries of publicity when one of their number leaves a spouse for a soprano, are not well known outside the world of classical music.

I find it odd. Of all the performers in the arts world, conductors are among the most interesting I have met, and, as these things seem to matter, the most affluent, widely travelled, well connected and influential in their field. Not for nothing are they called maestros. Why do they never widen their horizons and become spokesmen and ambassadors for classical music and the arts?

Some would say (and I hope I manage to pre-empt the letter writers here) that it is the fault of the media, which gives classical music insufficient coverage. But I think it goes beyond that. Our classical music institutions and the orchestras themselves do not give their conductors a profile outside the concert hall.

I had thought that Mark Elder at the Hallé in Manchester, a rare example of a Brit with the baton, would have been more of a national figurehead. It was Elder, who caused a stir some years back when he was reluctant to have " Land of Hope and Glory" in the Last Night of the Proms, which he was down to conduct, and departed in controversial circumstances. Perhaps that experience made him wary of speaking out, but we need someone like him to give their views to the nation on how the arts should react in times of conflict.

Well, the time of the conductor as public face of the arts may now have come. London is seeing the biggest shake-up in conductors for years. Two of these new appointments are particularly interesting. In the coming weeks, Vladimir Jurowski, thought to be the best young conductor around, will take over as head of the London Philharmonic, and Valery Gergiev will head the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, a fantastic coup for the orchestra.

It is Gergiev's arrival here in a week's time that could change the public profile of the conductor. I have chatted to Gergiev backstage at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, where he is artistic director. The charisma drips off the Russian maestro - so much in fact that one woman who was waiting for an audience caught sight of him, exclaimed, "I am so happy!" and burst into tears. Gergiev may well be the biggest world player in classical music, a friend of Putin's, a man with a staggering schedule, good looks and fantastic talent.

The Barbican should make him an ambassador for the arts. When Gordon Brown fails to come up with enough money for our cultural institutions, Gergiev, rather than some Arts Council bureaucrat, should take him on, and compare our situation with the large amounts he has won from Putin to restore the Mariinsky. Jurowski should be given a spot on Jonathan Ross's TV show. Mark Elder should become a controversialist again. These are the people who can give classical music a wider audience.

What say you, King Arthur?

I went last Monday to see Simon Russell Beale take on the part of King Arthur in Spamalot. It was strange to watch our greatest classical actor in a Monty Python musical, but he was predictably excellent in his confrontations with the knights who say "Nee" and in his rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

One magical moment, though, stumped even Russell Beale and all of his fellow actors on stage. Towards the end of the show, they dragged up a hapless member of the audience on to the stage. The knights in armour demanded the poor woman's name. "Lesley," she replied meekly. "Lesley what? Lesley What?" they shouted at her. "Yes," said the poor woman. "Lesley Watt." It took all of Simon Russell Beale's stage experience to limit his reaction to a tiny smile at the corner of his mouth, rather than the fit of giggles that must have been threatening to overwhelm him and his colleagues. It was a moment that even the Python team never thought to script.

* I would like to add my congratulations to David Bowie, who celebrated his 60th birthday this week. The many tributes seem to have neglected one area of his career - his paintings. In the mid-Nineties, Bowie asked me to write the catalogue essay on him for his London exhibition, which I was delighted to do, even though a follow-up invitation to join him on vocals on his next tour oddly never arrived.

The Cork Street exhibition was a success. But my efforts at writing a scholarly essay on his striking, figurative artworks and his career in music were thrown into sharp relief by a catalogue note from the artist, which said: "In neither music nor art have I a real style, craft or technique. I just plummet through, on either a wave of Euphoria or mind-splintering dejection." I hope he spent his birthday in the former state.