Wednesday, 28 July 2010

TV review: Orchestra United **

An email I sent recently to Channel 4. I'd be interested to hear other people's considered responses, particularly those who are musically inclined.

I am writing with some comments on Sunday night's opening episode of "Orchestra United".

I have been involved with amateur, community-level music making for many years, and I also do voluntary work with teenagers. I feel very let down by the contents of the opening episode of this programme. It is not clear to me the extent to which this was due to editing for television rather than flaws in the orchestral initiative itself, but in any case, I feel that "Orchestra United" has done the world of classical music a great disservice, not to mention severely underestimating the talents of the young people involved.

The programme fatally misrepresented or glossed over the background of many of the participants. It was billed as an attempt to form an orchestra of young people who had no classical experience, yet the vast majority were proficient - many of whom were very talented - at their instruments. A talented violinist or harpist cannot help but already have exposure to classical music. It was mentioned in passing that at least one of the young people was already a member of the Halle Youth Orchestra - this is hardly in the spirit of opening up a new world of classical repertoire to a generation raised on popular music.

Consequently, the programme failed to address the inherent difficulty in persuading young people of the merits of classical music. Yet the programme presented itself as an attempt to sell the virtues of classical music to those with no experience of it. For example, much was made of the cornet player saved from going off-the-rails by joining his father's brass band. Surely this was the act of most interest. Why did he start playing the cornet? How was he persuaded to keep going to rehearsals? What do his friends think about it? How does he feel about the repertoire he is discovering? All this would have made for a significantly more interesting programme. Furthermore, it would have been educational for those of us who have similar problems in our community music-making.

The crux of the problem with the approach shown on screen is that all of the young people were already motivated by the idea of being in a professionally-led symphony orchestra. Because of this focus, the programme came across as deeply patronising. It also set unrealistic expectations for what young people, particularly disadvantaged ones, might achieve in similar circumstances.

At the same time, the technical process of establishing the orchestra seemed hopelessly naive. Including musicians with "potential" who could neither read sheet music nor play a traditional orchestral instrument was a worthy idea but not in the spirit of the specified intention of the project. One might cynically conclude only that this makes for good television and serves no purpose for the orchestra itself.

These young people were then placed into a full orchestral rehearsal with no preparation whatsoever, and the rehearsal was shown to be disastrous. Unless James Lowe has spent far too long working with professional musicians and has forgotten what it is like to be a student (and a teenager), this was completely inevitable and should have been easily foreseen.

The conductor waved his baton and then shouted at them that the music was "in two". Since the entire premise was that most of the musicians had never been in an orchestra before, why assume that any of them understood his instructions or even knew what a conductor is actually for? Why did Lowe not take the time to explain this? Why did he not take the entire contingent to watch an orchestral concert first, so that they knew what to expect? Why did he not begin with sectional rehearsals instead of trying to co-ordinate 75 musicians on the very first try? The conductor was extremely unrealistic and naive about what would happen.

The fault for that first rehearsal was entirely in the planning and organisation, yet the programme appeared to blame the young people themselves, perhaps in an effort to emphasise how much work is required in order to achieve concert quality. This does a further disservice to the musicians involved and to those hoping to inspire other young people.

Because "Orchestra United" was funded by a public service broadcaster and in association with the Arts Council, I had high expectations that were profoundly missed by the opening episode of this programme. I look forward to the balance being redressed in the remaining instalments. But I shall continue to be extremely disappointed if the musicians' pre-existing talent is not acknowledged, if Lowe continues to act as if he is conducting a professional orchestra, and if the series does not adequately explore what opportunities classical music can offer the disadvantaged.

Channel 4's response message:

Thank you for contacting Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries regarding ORCHESTRA UNITED.

We are sorry to hear that you feel that this programme has done classical music a disservice and underestimated the talents of the young people involved.

Please be assured your complaint has been logged and noted for the information of those responsible for our programming.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us here at Channel 4 and for your interest in our programming.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Quarterly film roundup - April to June 2010

Son of Rambow *** - Interesting if somewhat implausible coming-of-age type drama about two boys with very different backgrounds who begin an awkward friendship over a shared desire to shoot a short film.

The Fox And The Child **** - Thoroughly beguiling dramatised nature documentary from the makers of March Of The Penguins that does exactly what it says on the tin.