Friday 26 December 2014

Seduced by sound of masters at work

Published 14/10/2006 | 00:11

There are three music programmes on RTE to which, I confess, I am addicted. I regard them as models of broadcasting: elegant, authoritative and attractive. The last attribute, possibly the most important, is habit forming. One can admire elegance, bow to the authority of good preparation and good research, but unless one is drawn in - unless the seductive force is there - a ra

There are three music programmes on RTE to which, I confess, I am addicted. I regard them as models of broadcasting: elegant, authoritative and attractive. The last attribute, possibly the most important, is habit forming. One can admire elegance, bow to the authority of good preparation and good research, but unless one is drawn in - unless the seductive force is there - a radio broadcast can easily be passed over.

Only one of the three is a Lyric FM programme. This is Tim Thurston's Gloria on Sunday mornings, that runs from 8.30am to 10.30am. Time, and I hope popularity, have expanded the slot to its current two hours. This is a challenge for the presenter, despite the huge resource of choral music, to sustain listeners' interest, not just for those two hours, but for the way the programme ranges through the centuries, from early plainsong to modern choral works.

The second programme I admire is Padraic O'Rourke's Sunday morning presentation of classical music, Weekend On One. Again, the strength of it lies in the careful research about the pieces he chooses: the mixture of musical and human information about composers, singers or performers, or just setting the works in their social or historical context. This task is shouldered and delivered with a light touch.

The approach is not the same as Tim Thurston's Gloria which is tightly focused. Although one has the sense that the presenter's musical knowledge is much wider, he confines himself to what his listeners obviously enjoy, testing them at times with minor eccentricities or departures from expectation, but never losing the basic attraction.

Padraic O'Rourke's Weekend On One throws a much wider net over the whole range of classical music, risking the pitfalls of this approach such as jarring voices, people or choices. It never happens.

I hesitate to use the word infallible, yet O'Rourke has a remarkable skill in weaving together descriptive and analytical interludes with the lovely sound of familiar works or acknowledged masters of an instrument such as James Galway or Nigel Kennedy.

For this type of programme, there is an invisible line drawn between the presenter and his listeners. It is hard to define and varies from one programme to another. Some music programmes are spoilt by the aggression with which intimacy is claimed. The listeners are almost ordered to conform to an injunction which says: "I know you personally and am trying to give you pleasure, involve you, bring you in!" It is reinforced by phone-in lines which emphasise the concept of a personal relationship.

It is unreal, of course. Presenters cannot know their vast numbers of listeners, and it is entirely false to claim this or to offer a personal service in respect of the pieces played. It sounds, and it is, false. When it happens, making the airwaves sound like the invigilation of a one-to-one telephone call, it reminds me of that T.S. Eliot phrase: "If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close".

Padraic O'Rourke, and indeed Tim Thurston, recognise that professional intimacy between broadcaster and listener can be seductive and appealing, without breaking a long-established code of reality. I do not know these people and they do not know me. I listen to them as professionals and expect them to respect me as a consumer of what they offer. I want them to be consistent, informative, balanced, clever and witty.

I want them to know what they are choosing and what they tell me about it. I do not want them to create the entirely false picture that they are doing this for me personally and that, personally, I matter to them. I don't and can't.

The third programme that I value is the Sunday evening O'Brien on Song. Jack O'Brien is as focused as Tim Thurston. He is not presenting music but is dealing with song, often taken from light opera and circumscribed by his own deep knowledge and enthusiasm.

I choose these three, well aware that there are many others. Take, for instance, Donald Helm who presents jazz, country and western expert Sandol Harsch whose experience is immense, and the eclectic output of Gerry Godley, whose worldwide knowledge about music in remote places is unparalleled.

What one likes and how one judges it is the criteria at the heart of what is called public service broadcasting. I listen to many hours of Lyric FM for the music and to Radio One for the chat. Both are often out of control in their attempt to match the focus and clarity of the kind of programmes mentioned here.

I do not know how many times Vivaldi's The Seasons has been played since the Lyric FM station started. But, every time I hear it I am reminded of that impressive Irish composer, James Wilson - who died a couple of years ago - saying what a limited, indeed uninteresting composer Vivaldi was. Telemann is much better.

And if Lyric FM was doing its job properly, it would be offering a wider and better researched musical output with a closer relationship between what we hear and what we are able to anticipate.

For broadcasting, if we designate it a public service, there has to be a fulfillment of anticipation. We have to know what it is we are going to hear.

I trust Tim Thurston, Padraic O'Rourke and Jim O'Brien to give me value from listening. I know it cannot be specified in advance more than it is - choral music, song, a wide range of classical pieces - but it will be balanced and professional, it will have a measure of musical authority and a human or personal touch that will not come too close.

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