Magazine article The Spectator

In Perfect Harmony

Magazine article The Spectator

In Perfect Harmony

Article excerpt

It is worth remembering that the BBC, despite its recent, excessively well-aired problems, gives us a great many stimulating, well-made programmes, on both radio and television. Rather surprisingly, given its format and the yawning, ever-present potential for dumbed-down disaster, the BBC2 Maestro series, aired in August/September this year, turned out to be all of those things.

How could this be? A talent contest for 'celebrities', in which they were required, with no previous experience, to conduct a full symphony orchestra? It could hardly fail to trivialise a skill which takes years to acquire and which even musicians find hard to analyse or describe. What actually happened was fascinatingly revealing. Although the major failure of the series was a lack of focus on the learning process and the different ways in which the contestants worked their way towards interpreting the music, what emerged with great clarity was exactly how difficult and subtle a business conducting is. And the contestants all learnt a phenomenal amount in a ludicrously short space of time, sharing an admirably high seriousness of intent and a determination to do their damnedest with a wildly daunting challenge.

The Spectator's own Alex James was one of those contestants and, by coincidence, his mentor (each participant was guided by an expert teacher) was Brad Cohen, a conductor I have worked with and known for a number of years. What was the whole experience like from the professional's point of view?

And what, I wondered, when he was first approached, made him give due consideration to the proposal rather than responding with an immediate, 'Thanks but no thanks'?

'My agent had an email with the subject heading "Brad Cohen: Maestro", and I thought, "Well, that's polite". Then I realised it was about a television show. I can't remember the exact wording now but it was a very clear, intelligent brief, about wanting to make a serious job of popularising classical music. There's a tradition of handling the whole notion of classical music with kid gloves and approaching it in an attitude of respectful prostration, which I think is incredibly distancing and unhelpful. As soon as I met the producing team, I knew that it would be all right. They were professionals and they felt the same way as I did about stripping away the veneer, letting in a bit of air and freshness.'

The series started by showing the eight contestants -- five men and three women -- struggling through a week of 'baton camp', trying to learn the pieces of music they had each been allocated and how best to communicate an interpretation to an orchestra.

Given that not all of them could actually read music, this was hard going, to put it mildly. In Alex's case it was immediately evident that he was, however nervous and unsure of himself, able to see the orchestral players as individuals and colleagues, not as an amorphous and alarming mass. Brad agrees: 'You could tell he was just a musician with other musicians -- it was a normal situation for him, even though it was not the sort of music he's used to. Also, he's got a vulnerable, approachable quality that makes him very endearing. The players warmed to him immediately. And his face reflects his emotions to such an extent -- his expression when the orchestra first played on his beat was absolutely amazing; it was an epiphany for him. …

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