Rhinegold Photo credit: Guy Levy

Alan Davey

Music in the air

9:00, 3rd October 2017

This month’s guest editor of Classical Music is Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, who looks at the importance of a public service network that has classical music and culture at its core, with programming that sets out, in the best BBC traditions, to inform, educate and entertain

Recent issues of this magazine have dwelt on the future of classical music in various guises – whether of the recording industry or of musicians’ ability to make a living while following their musical calling. Of course they are all related.

On Radio 3 we recently had John Adams – a contemporary composer whose work certainly attracts audiences – saying that he was concerned about the future of classical music, citing the poor state of music education and the conservative taste of audiences. He implied that ours is an industry that fuels the conservatism that, to an extent, is leading to creative stasis and the ultimate death of classical music as a living, vibrant art form.

I’m an optimist. Yes, things are changing; yes, old business models and ways of doing things will be challenged and forced to change further. However, with vigilance and courage from people prepared and able to take a risk, classical music (as well as other art music) can continue to hold a sway over the imagination of those who respond to its possibilities. After all, classical music represents the opposite of a globalised, homogenised cultural production.

Though access for all is an important factor that the arts industry must continue to strive towards, it’s telling that music education and facilities thrive in privately funded schools. Such institutions know what a knowledge of music can do for young people: learning music and playing instruments at school is a gift that will last a lifetime, no matter what young people go on to do.

 Opening minds: Ten Pieces has reached more than four million schoolchildren © BBC/Guy Levy
Opening minds: Ten Pieces has reached more than four million schoolchildren
© BBC/Guy Levy

These days, many young people are finding their own way to music, but are still capable of expressing and absorbing rhythmic and musical complexity even with no formal training. As we’ve shown through the BBC Proms this year, with an audience more than half of whom are under 54, we can sell 6,000 tickets for complex and not necessarily populist works, with programming that includes challenging symphonic music such as Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler as the main piece. And we can attract an audience of more than 400 mostly under-30s for some cutting-edge contemporary music in Tate Tanks. Clearly, we patronise our audience at our peril. As other pioneers have shown (Gabriel Prokofiev with his Nonclassical club nights and record label for instance), highly complex new classical music can attract an audience in more informal venues, with new approaches to presentation. For all the talk of technology shortening young peoples’ attention spans we can see time and again that younger audiences are prepared to put in the time for something that’s worthwhile – whether it be Max Richter’s Sleep or podcasts with lengthy narratives that sustain over a long period.

And as the BBC has shown through its Ten Pieces initiative – reaching over four million schoolchildren – if you can get young people to engage with classical music and you don’t try to dumb it down, they will listen and respond to it. I will never forget a Ten Pieces concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra in a school in South London where the focus was Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. What stood out was the skill of the orchestra leader who played the solo part with incredible beauty, introducing the children to the sound of the violin; then there was Roderick Williams, singing so brilliantly without amplification. You could see minds being opened to the expressive possibilities of music.

BBC NOW: The home orchestras and choirs record many hours of music specially for the network © BBC
BBC NOW: The home orchestras and choirs record many hours of music specially for the network
© BBC

For me that’s one of the roles of a modern public service broadcaster of classical music – you shouldn’t assume knowledge from any audience, but you can assume, from a millennial audience in particular, an innate openness to music, a curiosity for the unfamiliar, a desire not to be short changed by the inauthentic, and a possibility of seriousness that means that classical music is near the top of the list of things an audience could be curious about.

BBC Radio 3 is a culture channel – 80% pure classical music, with ‘contemporary classical’, and contemporary music that defies description. We also feature world/roots and jazz as well as drama, culture and ideas. We are also part of a family that includes the Proms and the BBC orchestras and choirs. The Proms provides a focus on live music daily throughout its eight-week summer season; the BBC orchestras and choirs provide many hours of specially recorded music for the network, as well as being a key part of the classical music ecology of the country. As a set of resources for classical music, that is quite a collection.

One of the things we have been trying to do recently is making sure all the parts work together, so that themes explored on Radio 3 feed into and out of themes in the Proms. We also ensure that all of the BBC orchestras and choirs concentrate on different aspects of these themes, while devising programmes that together make an interesting whole. If you caught any of our resident ensembles at the Proms this year, you will be aware of the BBC orchestras and choirs’ distinct and different qualities and the exceptionally high standards they display. Another example of joined up thematic thinking is the way the Ten Pieces initiative has fed through the orchestras and choirs, the Proms and Radio 3.

New talent: BBC Young Musician winner Sheku Kanneh-Mason © BBC
New talent: BBC Young Musician winner Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© BBC

Using all of these resources for the greater good of classical music is what being a modern public service broadcaster should be about. We are funded by a licence fee and, through that source of income, we should ensure that we help to fulfil the mission of the BBC – in the words of its founding father Lord Reith, to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. And as Sir Henry Wood ordained, we must democratise the message of great music. It is important that we reflect our musical cultural across the length and breadth of the country, allowing the best concerts to be heard in the best sound-quality we can manage. After all, Radio 3 listeners fill the equivalent of more than 250 concert halls a week.

Given all the resources we have, we should also be thinking of how we use the licence fee as venture capital to ensure that the music our audiences love has a future. So we help to find new talent – through initiatives such as BBC Introducing, the BBC Young Musician of the Year, and our annual intake of Radio 3 New Generation Artists, the new crop of whom we have just announced. Every year, we invite on to the scheme seven or eight promising young artists or small ensembles who are at the early stages of their careers and give them opportunities: recording and learning to use the studio; playing with the BBC orchestras and choirs, performing with each other. The NGA artist receive two years of support in which to grow. Benjamin Appl, Igor Levit, Katherine Rudge and Fatma Said are examples of current and past member of the scheme who are enjoying considerable success in their careers. When they’ve left us they may take up contracts with big labels or get new opportunities – and I hope they’ll always remember Radio 3 fondly. Meanwhile, our listeners will have heard the tremendous potential of young talent as it blossoms.

Making a name: Former New Generation Artist Fatma Said © FM Photography
Making a name: Former New Generation Artist Fatma Said
© FM Photography

As well as new talent, it’s also important we support new music. Our Proms ‘Inspire’ composers scheme gives young composers a chance to get their work heard. We also commission more than 30 pieces of new music a year, as well as participating in the Resonance scheme funded by PRS for Music, make sure new works are heard again. Our programming includes shows such as Hear and Now, where the newest works are broadcast; but we are increasingly introducing new works throughout the schedule. An example of this was when we embedded young composer Matthew Kaner in the network, asking him to produce a new work a week for ten weeks, which he introduced on Breakfast on Monday, and which we played every day that week. Our ‘New Year New Music’ season tries to take that further, introducing out listeners to new classical music across the schedule for a week in the New Year. Our BBC orchestras and choirs can take risks in introducing new works to audiences in the concert hall.

As I write this, the Proms are finishing and we are about to celebrate the career of Sir Simon Rattle as he arrives in London. It’s all go at Radio 3, as ever, and no rest for the expert staff who are passionate to bring the best music to the widest possible audience. We are not elitist, but offer good music, available to anyone, anytime.

That’s the role of a radio station in the 21st century: to curate great music for a wide range of audiences, to collaborate, commission and explore new things. We have to ensure that we offer something of great authenticity in its interest that is the best it can be – never to short change or patronise the existing and future audience.

There are intelligent and curious people we can attract to classical music if we all work together, and I am proud of Radio 3’s role in this modern broadcasting age.

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