by Norman Lebrecht / June 14, 2000
ONE night last week, having despaired of finding anything more cultural on British television than saggy-bottomed naturists on Channel 5, I was zapping around the cable map when Italy, for once, came up trumps. Rai-Uno, the premier state channel, had cleared its schedules of sappy game shows and was relaying a live event entitled Luciano and Friends.
The mighty Pavarotti was making music in his hometown of Modena for the benefit of Tibetan charities. The Dalai Lama, no less, was sitting in the front row of the arena and beside him sat Italy’s closest equivalent to reigning royalty – the Duchess of York. Neither seemed to be having much fun.
The formula was familiar. A rock act, Eurythmics, came on and did a number. Then, when the teenies stopped shrieking, they sang alternate verses of a ballad with the Biggest Living Tenor, at the end of which Luciano hit a high note and the spangle-clad compere appealed for credit-card donations.
Simple, and not very effective. Even the political hard-rock band Skunk Anansie, who aim to “erupt in your headspace like an artillery division”, tamped down the amps for family viewing. As for the BLT, his beam grew thinner as the show wore on. The full-throated clarity of a tenorial top C does not duet well with the rasped approximations of a George Michael. Musically, Pavarotti was on a desert island. Yet we the public were expected to believe that the great man clutching a miserable white hankie was happy as a sandboy among his rock-star “friends”.
Let’s assume they go back a long way. Pavarotti was probably at school with George Michael and may well share with the Skunk an interest in collecting Restoration glassware. Friendship comes in many forms, and the intimacy achieved at Modena over the past few years has been especially rich. Charity aside, Luciano’s backyard gig sets the tone for the crossover charts. Come the autumn, when Decca releases this year’s BLT sandwich, the rest of the industry will be playing catch-up. Meanwhile, the budgets for genuine classics will be cut once again.
Now before you start getting huffy and writing to me, your MP or Sir Simon Rattle about the deplorable decline in standards, let me assure you that Modena is losing its cutting edge of egregiousness. An event is about to take place in Germany that has been condemned by Claudio Abbado, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, as being “in dreadful taste” and by Sir Simon, his elected successor, as “a horrible idea”.
A week tonight, the world’s most finely tuned symphony orchestra will appear at Hanover’s Expo 2000 which, like London’s Millennium Dome, is suffering from a disastrous lack of public interest. Attendances are running below half the break-even target. The Berlin Philharmonic should pull them in, the organisers must have thought. But the orchestra is appearing only as back-up for a rock group, the Scorpions, singing Expo’s anthem, Moments of Glory.
For those of you who missed out on Teutonic heavy metal, the Scorpions have been around since the early 1970s, singing about peace, love and sex. They have rocked at the Kremlin for Mikhail Gorbachev and share the aging-hippie circuit with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Originally, the Scorpions rebelled against all-powerful German institutions such as the BPO. Now they can afford to book the orchestra as aural wallpaper, the ultimate triumph of alternative culture.
It was the orchestra’s members themselves who invited humiliation, urgently courting any kind of commercial activity to replace the losses they have suffered from the collapse of classical recording – itself accelerated by the BPO’s extortionate studio fees of DM200,000 (£65,000) per symphony.
Nevertheless, the orchestra could not have fallen so low without the eager encouragement of the classical-record industry. The BPO’s disc with the Scorpions – precision instrument meets pile-driver – will be issued by EMI Classics, Rattle’s record label.
Two excuses are given for emitting such emptiness. Some labels, such as Decca, admit that corporate pressures force them to produce crossover in order to protect slow-earning classics. Others maintain that it hardly matters if a dodgy disc slips into the classical output, just as few people notice when a factory belches poison into God’s pure air.
Notice or not, the outcome is the same and we inhale a polluted culture. Whether it’s the BLT and Skunk or the Scorps and Rattle’s orchestra, music is being mangled and mongrelised by its most eminent performers and producers. Something particularly noxious is about to erupt in your headspace.
26 April 2000: One more knell for classical recording
7 March 1998: Who are they trying to fool?
12 April 1997: Crossed off the crossover chart
14 September 1996: Bush telegraph on classical pop
10 August 1996: Oasis at the opera?