Matthew Barley/Cellist

See deep enough and you can see musically; the heart of nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it.

Thomas Carlyle

Classical Star – a few last words…

I thought I would wait until the end of the series to respond to some of the comments.
Classical Star has been a pleasure to make, and my colleagues at Shine have been fantastic to work with: they have all been exceptionally motivated to make a programme that had respect for the participants and for classical music at the heart. I know that this has been our intention – and I also know that some have perceived this to have worked and some don’t.
There has been controversy surrounding the programme; some centred on the question of whether or not this is in some way cruel to children, and some concerned with the ‘music for the masses’ debate, and of course lots more besides: these are my own thoughts, and don’t necessarily reflect those of Shine, the BBC or anyone else connected with the programme, and I offer them as an individual.
The first question. Have these children been cruelly humiliated? No, I don’t think they have. And of course I would say this, but my source is the competitors themselves, who have all spoken about the learning experience that they received through the process. Granted they have, all but the winner, been hugely disappointed when they have been eliminated, but I’m sure that Barenboim was similarly upset when Rattle beat him to the Berlin job, and also sure that 7 year old x, y and z were disappointed when they didn’t pass their audition, for instance, to the Menuhin School. Disappointment is part of being a performer, and indeed of being a human being. The fact that it was on television was something that all the participants and their families willingly signed up for. Yes, a tough moment at the end, but they all gained immeasurably more than they lost.
The second question. Hmmm, an interesting one this. I have never wanted to take music to the masses, as that implies something separate from something else (the elite, presumably), and I have never wanted to separate who music should be for, and who it should not. Music, (along with food, water, love, freedom, equality, all art and probably several other things) is a basic human right, and it should be for absolutely everyone. In recent years there has been an apparent split: populist marketing of musicians who sometimes play badly, on the one hand, and artists who can appear hopelessly out of touch in their ivory towers playing for tiny minorities on the other. One of my missions with this programme was to try and bridge the gap between. Why is it that absolutely brilliant musicians can’t be populist too? There have been many musicians, and still are, who make this bridge – as well as Kiri and Pavarotti who were pointed out in one comment, you can add Bernstein, Previn, Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, and many others. I think this list will grow, and Classical Star has done its own bit to help that bridging process.

On a different point, it is also on my personal wish list to have complete performances by the competitors available on the website – this would have been great. With any big undertaking for the first time, you will find things that could be improved. It was just impossible to squeeze everything we wanted into that tiny 60’ slot (59’, actually!). If we had shown all of Victoria’s Porgy and Bess, both takes, for the audience to judge how they compared, that would have been a third of the show gone. So we have to ask the audience to trust us, and provide excerpts to illuminate our points. Of course we all want more music, but our hope has always been that this programme will inspire people (through engaging with the wonderful personalities and talents of the students) to listen to the winners CD, and hopefully other recordings. So far we are receiving a great many reports that the programme has interested a huge number of people, but we will have to wait and see just how many CDs are bought and listened to, to really assess that.
A word on the ‘cult of personality’, as the Guardian was accusing us of. I don’t want a cult of personality, I want a celebration of personality. It is personality that makes music, well, personal, and that is a wonderful thing. It seems to me there is a fundamental confusion between personality and ego. I don’t want a musician’s ego to put itself forward and subsume the spirit of the composer, but I want a performer’s musical personality to engage with the personality of the composer, and for there to a collaborative spirit that creates something greater than the sum of its parts. So personality is vital, and the bigger the better, mixed at all times with respect, humility and musical intelligence.
And here I have to reply to Mr Ordel’s comments about several things, in the same breath as thanking him for eloquent and considered criticisms that are always a stimulus to debate (far more so than the directionless rants of Lebrecht and Davan Wetton).
I agree it is amazing that many of them had not improvised prior to Classical Star, but it is a fact, and a fairly dismal one at that – but I disagree that the kitchen percussion was trivial. It was fun, but not trivial, and this is a vital distinction for me. Many of my classical colleagues think that things that are fun are trivial, but fun is so important – as a dear old mentor and friend, Leonard Bernstein always believed. What I wanted to say with the kitchen episode was that you can practice music anywhere, and it’s all still music. Incidentally, the form we used – rhythmic textures breaking off into spontaneously taken solos, and back to the whole group, is a very difficult one to master.

I strongly believe Lang Lang, now only in his 20s, will become one of the most influential pianists of his time, in every aspect of his art. For me, his interpretations carry authority simply in the way they sound. Of course he has detractors – so had a host of great artists in their time, but I believe in him, which is why he was there.

There is no chance whatever of a ‘Classic FM –friendly incidental music CD’, and Sophie’s CD will include no Debussy or Chopin.

I think the success of the competition will be proved in the long run, as careers that are being started begin to blossom. However, its true value is measured by how much the students have learnt. As I have already said, they had an inspiring learning experience, and how this settles and germinates in them, affecting their musical lives, is the real mark of whether or not Classical Star has succeeded. The public only saw 5 hours of footage. I worked with those young musicians daily for 3 weeks, often for 12 hours in a day – it was a wonderful, rich and intensely musical shared journey. I shall give an update in a few months time as to how the Academy members have fared.

Time, as they say, will tell…


  • Peterallan Dean says:

    I don’t doubt the honesty and integrity of your discussion and subscription to the venture, but can’t help feel a certain naievety about it all.
    Whatever the overt responses of participants – and it would have indeed been daring, not to say impolitic/impolite, to comment negatively – some of the observations made by thoughtful, sensitive critics (I’m excluding Lebrecht from that category, fully approving your short way with him!) do hold substance. (I won’t re-rehearse them here). I don’t either doubt that the training experience offered to participants that you briefly describe and showed snatches of, including the role-play etc bits will be of value to them, real learning not ‘trivial’. However I can’t accept the format or concept is other than flawed.

    Its title gives it away. That’s not being snobbish, élitist either. You’re not into ‘cult of personality’, you say – and persuade me you believe it (almost) and your discussion here on this website I find quite disarming. But the medium, the style into which the programme is cast, makes that the focal point, whatever your disavowals. Keep up the good work, Matthew, but think again about CS.

  • I would have been more sympathetic to Mr Dean’s comments if he had suggested one or more alternative formats to achieve the purposes of Classical Star.

    I am often horrified by the number of people I meet who have just never had any acquaintance with classical music. There are several reasons for this, but one of them is that other types of music are more commonplace and there is only so much time to listen. So, classical music has to find ways to catch the attention, and this in the limited time available in a television series. What is wrong, therefore, in trying a format which has succeeded for other types of music – though the connection in my view is only loose because I think that Classical Star attempted much more?

    I don’t see that the contestants would be likely to hold back on any negative comments. Some such were expressed at intervals during the series. I believe that the contestants did benefit from the experience apart from any technical improvements. Of the final three, Karen, from being rather suspicious and withdrawn, became an enthusiastic and open performer; Ian, from being introverted and somewhat hesitant, blossomed into, in my view, a very “saleable product” (sounds dreadful, I know, but that is what has to be the aim). Sophie’s personality seemed to me to be a winner from the start, but one or two edges were knocked off in the series.

    Indeed, I got as much pleasure from the reactions and development of the contestants as I did from the music.

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