The BBC’s coverage this year of the annual biennial Young Musician of the Year competition has caused a considerable amount of controversy in classical music circles. (Message board threads of complaint may be read here, here – where contestants themselves have been complaining about their broadcast treatment – here and here, as well as a Guardian column by Susan Tomes here.) In previous years (and the competition and programme is celebrating its 30th year) the coverage has centred around uninterrupted television broadcasts (often in prime time) of the performances of the various finalists, reaching a climax in the grand final with concertos performed by each of the category winners (strings, wind, brass, percussion, keyboard).
This year, the coverage of young musicians actually playing anything has been decimated: in each of the five category final programmes (each an hour long) it was around 45 minutes before viewers saw anything of the players actually doing their thing: and even then we were given only snippets, often with commentary voiced over the top. The overwhelming bulk of each programme was devoted to rather trite, repetitive documentary of the lives of the competitors – going shopping, looking at Facebook, etc. The unavoidable message seemed to be “look – these kids may be into classical music, but they’re normal really”. And the thing is, no, they’re not normal teenagers – they’re prodigiously talented and have sacrificed a great deal in the furtherance of that talent. That makes them exceptional. To portray them as otherwise appears doubly wrong-headed: firstly, why should the BBC, the viewer, or the contestants themselves, be embarrassed by excellence and the difficulties of its pursuit? And secondly, isn’t the remarkable gifts of these teenagers the reason people might want to watch in the first place.
The result was more like Fame Academy or X Factor than the Young Musician broadcasts that people remember and that were very recently hugely popular. The conclusion being drawn in many quarters is that the BBC is simply ashamed of broadcasting classical music on TV – perhaps even ‘high’ culture in general. One disturbing aspect of this affair is that in earlier years, Young Musician would have appeared on the analogue channel BBC 2. This year it was, as in recent years, on the digital BBC 4 (not available to all) – set up ostensibly because channels 1 and 2 no longer felt a obligation towards serious arts broadcasting, and BBC 4 would therefore take up the slack. But if BBC 4 isn’t the place for Young Musician, then what is? Ah, the Beeb say, the full performances are available online through iPlayer. Which is all very well if you are fortunate enough to have a home computer, broadband access, and don’t mind watching classical music broadcasting while sat at your desk and on a Flash player that gives a grainy picture, compromised sound and a frequently interrupted feed. Hardly a commitment to public service broadcasting.
With all the above in mind, a petition has been set up. (Ignore the stuff about donating after you’ve signed – just navigate away from that page, your sig is still recorded.) I can only encourage people to sign, for what little good it might do. The question is, who exactly benefitted from this shambles?