BBC Radio 3’s decision to broadcast live concerts is music to my ears

imageThe news broke yesterday that BBC Radio 3 will start to broadcast “live” concerts again after a four-year hiatus. But not just a few celebrity events dotted here and there: no, every weekday evening for 46 weeks of the year we will be able to tune in to a happening event as it happens.

This is an outrageous, audacious, astonishing move by Roger Wright. It shows confidence in the quality and relevance of concerts, of broadcasting, and of the great music that will be performed. Although in some ways it is a return to past policy, the new proposal is for a much greater number of concerts than before, and, in the internet age, the “cast” is broader than ever.

Radio, since the invention of television, has had to fight its corner. Why would we merely listen when we can watch as well? The radio is fine as we’re ironing or shaving or driving, but if we really want to concentrate on or be absorbed by something important we turn on the telly. The BBC’s resourcefulness in hiring some of the finest minds and sharpest wits to fight against this bias over the decades is acknowledged throughout the world; and serious radio, through the internet, has a serious following as far from Broadcasting House’s Langham Place as it’s possible to imagine. A great radio play, or panel discussion, or musical analysis is still best heard without distracting pictures. Even Gardener’s Question Time (don’t ask me why) seems more tangible and earthy out of a speaker than on a screen. But concerts? Why does it matter?

Concerts have a sense of danger about them which a CD can never match. It’s not just a matter of “will she forget, or make a terrible mistake, or walk off the stage?”, but the more subtle and profound risks of interpretative freedom – hearing a piece played as it’s never been played before. To be able to share in such creative moments, as they actually happen, whether in the hall or on the radio, is hugely exciting. The crackle of the audience’s conversation, dropping down in an expectant diminuendo as the lights go down and the conductor walks on stage, is one of those magical rituals that cannot happen elsewhere and which never fails to thrill.

The BBC Proms is the largest and most ambitious music festival in the world, and part of its power and presence is the fact that every concert is broadcast live; but strangely this seems to increase audiences rather than encourage people simply to listen at home. It gives an edge, a focus to what is happening on stage (to both audience and performer) and it underlines the importance of “live” music itself. The commitment to setting up microphones and recording machines, and transmitting via that big BBC bus by the stage door broadcasts an unspoken message: what we’re doing here matters.

Of course, the BBC Proms has a number of particular focus points contributing to its success: it is geographically fixed in one huge, South Kensington building; tickets for the standing room arena are priced at less than a breakfast coffee and muffin; it takes place during London’s sultry summertime; there’s a park nearby in which to stroll before or after the performances. But this new scheme to broadcast concerts “live” throughout the year and throughout the country has the potential to open many doors of opportunity in Britain’s wider arts community, as well as to put a daily shine in Radio 3’s schedule. It will give a chance for young or less well-known artists to be heard; it will give new life to the superb regional orchestras and ensembles through the United Kingdom; it will showcase venues outside London that rival the capital in their innovative programming and acoustic excellence. In short, it is a massive shot in the arm for Britain’s arts – a great affirmation, a confidence booster at a time of financial nervousness.

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