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The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Accessible Music?

  28th February 2024

28th February 2024


The news that changes are afoot at BBC Radio 3 under its new Controller, Sam Jackson, has raised alarm in some quarters. The official announcement declares – in language that W1A’s Ian Fletcher would be proud of – that ‘Distinctiveness and ambition are at the heart of the new Radio 3 schedule’, but for those who can bear to read further, it’s clear that magazine-style programmes featuring interviews interspersed with music have received a boost. Two 2024 centenaries are to be celebrated: conductor Neville Marriner and cellist Beatrice Harrison, but there’s no mention at all of Luigi Nono (see our feature of 31 January). Was he too modernist, or simply not British enough?

Perhaps most worryingly, longstanding favourites Music Matters, Composer of the Week and Record Review are all to be moved. Music Matters will move to a later time, on Saturdays from 1pm to 2pm, when many of its listeners will be having lunch. This is the beginning of the ‘graveyard slot’, by which time most people will either be eating or out and about. Perhaps the message is, Music Matters, but not that much… Composer of the Week moves to late afternoon (weekdays 4pm to 5pm), which is bound to upset its many enthusiastic fans. Record Review, cut to just two hours, moves to Saturday afternoons, 2pm to 4pm. For more than sixty years this programme has occupied a prime Saturday morning slot. Moving it to the less high-profile afternoon may be a consequence of Radio 3’s much-trumpeted ‘commitment to live music’, but at a time when classical music in all its forms is feeling increasingly vulnerable, shunting this staple of the schedules into the sidings will be regretted by many.

While nothing can replace the thrill of live musicmaking, recorded music has, over the past century, been a crucial medium not just for entertainment but for education and broadening of the mind. It raises the profiles of individual artists, but also of composers and ensembles. Even though it is no longer the money-spinner it was in its postwar heyday, its rich legacy and continued development deserve continued serious consideration. Although Record Review has for some years embraced a more magazine-like format, it now feels like it is being squeezed into the background by even more hyperbolic competitors.

A revealing interview with Sam Jackson has been published in The Guardian. Interviewer Charlotte Higgins highlights the increased focus on jazz as well as the move to Radio 3 (from sister station Radio 2) of Friday Night is Music Night. And then she tackles Jackson on one of next year’s big musical centenaries: Pierre Boulez (b. 26 March 1925). ‘Would you, I ask, do a Pierre Boulez weekend to mark his centenary in 2025?’, to which Jackson – with a shrewd use of words that perhaps reflects his commercial background – replies, ‘Of course we could’. But will they? Half a century ago, Boulez was the great feather in the cap of classical music at Radio 3, and – whether or not you like his music – he was a figure of enormous consequence for the genre well into his ninth decade.

In recent years, the modernism of which Boulez was a leading representative has become something of a dirty word. Much contemporary music today is increasingly being marketed as ‘accessible’, and diversity is another of its watchwords. None of this is a bad thing, and we’d be the first to support further efforts towards diversification across the arts. But making music more accessible shouldn’t be equated making it less demanding, or embracing easy listening at the cost of works that require more of both the performer and the listener. Increasing the accessibility of music means giving exposure to all genres and periods – including those we might not normally choose for ourselves.

Now is not the time to be passing judgement. We hope that the changes at Radio 3 are a success, because Radio 3’s reach impacts widely across audiences, performers and the classical music business. Any changes to long-established programming are guaranteed to upset some people. But perhaps, with the increase in catch-up services like BBC Sounds, such rejiggling matters less than it did in the past. All classical music – live and recorded, professional and amateur, practitioners young and old – needs our support at a time of increased funding cuts and commercial pressures.

*            *            *            *            *

Thank you to those who responded to our feature on the later Seiji Ozawa (14 February). One correspondent was keen to share a recommendation for Ozawa’s 1980 Boston recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’). First released on LP in 1981, and last available as part of the now-deleted 2014 set Seiji Ozawa: The Philips Years, ‘it still gives me goosebumps everytime I play it!’ In a similar vein, it’s still worth seeking out Ozawa’s 1979 account of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, similarly unavailable at present, but not (we hope) for long.

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