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Does Radio 3 really need to tiptoe around every controversy?

Topics they would rather avoid talking about: Rattle's Great Hall of the People, the humiliation of ENO, the Faber cartel, the cult of Muhly...

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

This week the Southbank Centre began its ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ festival — a series of concerts and talks claiming to explore the influence of religious inspiration on music. Last summer, after reading its miserably right-on publicity material, I wrote in this column that ‘Beyond Parody’ might be a better title. Jude Kelly, the Southbank’s artistic director, accused me of jumping to conclusions before the programme had been finalised.

Well, now it has. In addition to concerts with no discernible connection to their composers’ faith, we’ll be treated to ‘How to be a Shaman’, ‘Mindfulness’, ‘What If God Was A Woman?’ and ‘Right to Die?’. Plus speeches from Mona Siddiqui, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, and ex-bishop Richard Holloway — all veteran purveyors of lefty platitudes on the BBC’s Thought for the Day.

The Beeb is covering the festival. I know that because someone from Radio 3 rang me and asked if I’d like to discuss the ‘wider issues’ it raised. Sure, I said. I’d like to discuss the wider issue of the arts establishment’s ignorance of religion, as illustrated by the ‘Beyond Belief’ circle jerk. That wasn’t what we had in mind, he replied, but he’d get back to me.

He didn’t, of course, but it got me thinking about Topics We’d Rather Avoid On Radio 3. Here’s my list. Feel free to suggest others.


1. The Southbank’s transformation into a drop-in centre for Kinnock-era bores. Many of these people aren’t really into classical music, but they do have good friends in Broadcasting House, which is why you’re unlikely to be booked by Music Matters if you’re planning to slag them off (see above).

2. The humiliation of English National Opera. With the exception of Handel’s Partenope and Ryan Wigglesworth’s Winter’s Tale, ENO is offering only guaranteed money-spinners: Rigoletto, Pirates of Penzance and Carousel. This is how chief executive officer Cressida Pollock is clawing back the cash lost when the Arts Council turned off the tap in protest at the company’s grotesque financial ineptitude. A sensible move, in my opinion, but say that on Radio 3 and you’ll be drowned out by bel canto histrionics from arts luminaries.

3. Sir Simon Rattle’s Great Hall of the People. Not a banned topic, but don’t expect his preposterous demand for a £278 million home for the LSO to be torn to pieces on Radio 3. Not when ‘our vision to provide access to great music’ is being promoted by Barbican chief Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the station’s former director. Rattle’s vanity project relies on the fiction that Londoners have an insatiable appetite for classical music. They don’t.

4. The cartel of ‘safe’ composers such as Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, Colin Matthews and Julian Anderson. All four are Faber ‘House Composers’; the Beeb and the big festivals shoehorn their well-crafted pieces into every available slot. Don’t expect a discussion of the Faber/BBC relationship on Music Matters. Or, for that matter, a satirical piece on the cult of Nico Muhly, whose Twitter acolytes will poke your eye out if you suggest that he could give Karl Jenkins lessons in gloopiness.

5. The career of Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3. His Wikipedia entry mentions that he was previously director of culture at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport — but not that he reported to secretary of state James Purnell. Nor does it record that Purnell backed Davey to be head of the Arts Council and — when Purnell slid from parliament to the BBC — beckoned him over to Radio 3.

None of this, incidentally, stops Radio 3 from being the best classical music radio station in the world. And there’s no doubt that it’s operating in a fragile ecosystem: Daniil Trifonov’s recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes became America’s top-selling classical CD after shifting just 190 copies. But does it really need to tiptoe around every controversy as daintily as a Mendelssohnian fairy?

I picked up the snippet about Trifonov’s sales from Norman Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc, which breaks more stories in a day than Radio 3 does in a month. Funnily enough, I haven’t heard Lebrecht on any of its programmes recently. Maybe it’s personal — it was he who drew attention to Purnell and Davey’s overlapping CVs on The Spectator’s website in 2014. Or maybe there’s a general rule that, with the exception of a few critics licensed to mock old recordings on Building a Library, we must all be nice about each other.

If so, we’re moving closer to the sort of environment that cushioned Kabalevsky, a founder of the Union of Soviet Composers, and further away from the critical bear pit that — whether they liked it or not — tested the resolve of every experimental genius from Bruckner to Boulez. The Southbank Centre is already a ‘safe space’ for chattering ideologues and their protégés. How do we stop the same thing happening to Radio 3?

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