Magazine article The Spectator

Proud to Be Populist

Magazine article The Spectator

Proud to Be Populist

Article excerpt

At the end of an exhilarating week which saw the launch of one of Radio Three's most important projects, its largescale festival of 20th-century music Sounding the Century - inaugurated by a performance under Pierre Boulez of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring described variously in the papers as 'stupendous', 'stunning' and 'shattering' - was it depressing to open The Spectator (Arts, 22 February) and find, instead of any mention of this venture, another tired rant against Radio Three's so-called 'accessibility' by Michael Kennedy?

Not particularly, for it is par for the course that commentators take far more notice of our style than of our substance (there is not a whit less demanding and challenging music on Radio Three these days than there used to be), and such attacks at least reassure us that what we are doing has been noticed. Personally, what I really object to is not Michael Kennedy's accusation that under my controllership Radio Three has become more approachable, but his accompanying attempt at a compliment - that in a previous existence I was `once the anything but populist critic of the Observer who certainly wrote de haut en bas and good luck to him.'

As insults go, this is rich. De bas en haut, I salute Michael Kennedy for the consistently high standard of his writing about music. But to suggest that I was ever not a populist is a slur. Everything I have ever done in writing about, talking about, broadcasting or most recently programming music has been done out of a desire to popularise it - which is to say to share one's enthusiasms, to communicate them, and to encourage others to explore them. Why else is Michael Kennedy, a fellow enthusiast, writing about music in the papers?

The real irony of Kennedy's diatribe is that most of us would consider him to be one of the best populist writers about classical music. I don't see his Sunday Telegraph columns strewn with terms like rubato or chiaroscuro, but with strongly held opinions and great learning very lightly worn. So why does he expect to find this technical abstruseness on Radio Three? He knows to adapt his style to his audience: he doesn't write his Telegraph columns as he writes his books on Elgar or Vaughan Williams. Similarly, Today presenters do not talk like Daily Telegraph leaders (thank heavens) and we do not expect broadcasters on Radio Three to speak as if they were either writing for or reading from Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

As Russell Davies knows well, broadcasting is different from writing. …

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