Mike Batt: What's wrong with a musician in a wet T-shirt?

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The Independent Online

Imagine your average boy or girl band walking on stage, pretty as you like, just ready to do the hand-jive as usual. Instead, they pull out a violin, a flute, a cello and an oboe and play a virtuosic arrangement to at least orchestral, if not soloist, standard. Wouldn't that be great? It wouldn't be dumbing down, would it? It would be the reverse, whatever the expression would be – "de-dumbing"? (Dumb, de-dumb, de-dumb). Just imagine a pop group who, instead of getting by on rather dubious vocal ability, actually played live – and to a high orchestral standard. We should all rejoice, shouldn't we?

Not Sir Thomas Allen, star of the English National Opera. In yesterday's Independent we had him hurling abuse at the incoming wave of classical crossover bands. At the risk of wasting the word limit of this article, I quote yesterday's outburst, in which he says: "I was on a plane recently flicking through the British Airways magazine, and there was a photograph of these girls who had just emerged from the sea. I think they were called Bond. I hadn't heard of them. And there are these Gregorian Babes going round in cheap Janet Reger knock-offs. It's pathetic."

So if the Mediaeval Baebes wore real Janet Reger, would that do it for Sir Thomas? I think not. I do love this argument; it comes up all the time. "Should Vanessa Mae have risen from the sea in a wet dress?" – which is always followed by a description of her as an inferior violinist. The two things are completely separate. If Vanessa were as good as Kreisler, would she be allowed to wear a wet T-shirt? I hope so.

I should declare an interest, by the way. I produced Vanessa Mae's first album, put Bond together and created The Planets, a group that is not to be confused with the real heavenly bodies, though on second thoughts ...

Yesterday we were also treated to Stephen Pollard's self-confessed "snobbish" opinion that these crossover artists deliver "easy listening pap" (although Sir Thomas comes close to naming Beethoven's fifth and Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphonies as the "pap" on which audiences are being fed at the South Bank in lieu of more adventurous programmes). One man's pop is another man's pap.

But pap exists everywhere. "Cutting edge" classical artists are less easily spotted by the critics as delivering it because, firstly, they adopt a more pretentious image and persona (a necessary marketing ploy for the "serious" artist), and, secondly, the more modern ones communicate in a musical language that almost deliberately alienates the populist listener (and disguises any lurking mediocrity).

Aren't we all getting a little overwrought? There's room for what Sir Thomas does (which thrills me just a bit – though I am a big fan of the baritones Thomas Hampson, George Mosely and Bryn Terfel), and there's room for The Planets – my new band, who are enjoying their 10th week at the top of the classical charts. They are pretty, but I promise Stephen Pollard and Sir Thomas that they play just as well, if not better than, ugly people.

Pollard suggests that these crossover people aren't even classical musicians, saying that Vanessa Mae and Russell Watson are "good at what they do, making products which people buy – but they are no more classical musicians than you or I". This is to dumb down journalism itself. Just because Pollard doesn't like them, he says they aren't classical. It's like the bloke who thinks a girl is a lesbian if she doesn't fancy him.

Look at The Planets' bass player, Beverley Jones (you'll be glad you did!). She's an accomplished classical double bassist who has trailed with the LSO and worked with many major orchestras. Now she's playing something equally challenging, technically, and enjoying jumping about on television being a pop star. So? Mozart had a sense of humour. Don't you think he'd be all over the press being outrageous today? Don't tell me it's quality of work that matters – we're talking here about who's allowed to thrust themselves upon the world, and the answer is, anybody who wants to. I'd like to think – in fact I'm sure – that the quality of our work is as high or higher than that often experienced in the "straight" classical world. But even if you don't agree, this isn't about how good you are, it's about what you are.

The problem is that if any of these bands come up with something so brilliantly innovative or even so well-crafted that it is worthy of comment, poor old Sir Thomas and Mr Pollard will miss it because they will be too busy spitting and whinging. Mr Pollard says: "Three cheers for Sir Thomas for standing up to the marketing juggernaut." Really?Aren't pretentiousness and snobbishness the necessary marketing tool for "straight" classical music? Isn't that how you sell it?

Regrettably, I think so. Wear a long cloak and frown and you are a serious artist – at least until proven otherwise. Sir Thomas cites Sir Simon Rattle as one who, like himself, doesn't need the gimmick machine, saying: "We need some sort of charisma, but Simon Rattle didn't kow-tow to this kind of dumbing down." No, and if he did, nobody would go to his concerts or buy his records. He's marketing himself equally cleverly, from the reverse end of the spectrum. He's probably even more careful about his image than my artists!

The writer is a record producer whose credits range from The Wombles to Vanessa-Mae

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