2 Conversations

A conductor.

Over a period of five weeks during August and September 2008, the BBC broadcast a television programme entitled 'Maestro'. The basic concept was to take eight personalities (not celebrities), and pit them against each other in a competition to see who could make the best job of conducting an orchestra, none of the eight having attempted to conduct before. The show was hosted by one-time lawyer and some-time humorist, Clive Anderson.

Each candidate was allocated a mentor to act as a musical coach and to assist them technically, psychologically and generally in any other way they could. As each week of the series progressed, at least one of the eight was eliminated. A jury panel of music professionals would select two of the contestants for elimination, the final decision being made by the orchestra themselves, who voted to keep one or other of the two drop-zone candidates. The prize for the ultimate winner of the competition was to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra in front of 30,000 people, at the 'Proms in the Park' event in London on 14 September.

The Candidates:

  • Jane Asher: actress, writer and cake-maker.
  • Katie Derham: newsreader and radio presenter.
  • Goldie: electronic music artist and DJ.
  • Alex James: bass player with the band Blur, journalist and radio presenter.
  • Sue Perkins: comedienne, comedy writer and presenter.
  • Peter Snow: veteran TV political journalist.
  • David Soul: singer and actor (Starsky and Hutch).
  • Bradley Walsh: comedian and TV soap actor.

The Jury:

  • Zoë Martlew: cellist and composer.
  • Sir Roger Norrington: chief conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart; this year's conductor at the 'Last Night of the Proms'.
  • Dominic Seldis: principal double-bass of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
  • Simone Young: conductor and music director of the Hamburg State Opera.

Week 1

We, the viewers, were introduced to the contestants and to the jury, and learned a few perhaps relevant facts about the contestants: that Goldie cannot read a note of music, that Sue Perkins learned the piano to Grade 8 standard and that Katie Derham also plays the piano. It was clear right from the outset that poor Peter Snow was not blessed with so much as a gram of a natural sense of rhythm; much arm-waving, but none of it connected to the music. An exercise that caused a lot of difficulty for a number of people was attempting to draw simultaneously, over and over again (on a whiteboard), a square with one hand and a circle or a triangle with the other hand. Goldie may not be able to read a score, but he is a consummate musician and finds ways to circumvent problems as they crop up; having found those ways, he then applies himself very well. The problem they all found was that when the orchestra followed (or rather tried to follow) their beat, the music was v-e-r-y s-l-o-w. One contestant asked 'How do I make you go faster?' A wise voice from the orchestra was heard to say, 'Try moving your hands quicker.'

Musical Works:
  • 'Montagues and Capulets' music from Prokofiev's ballet 'Romeo and Juliet'.
  • Grieg: 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' from 'Peer Gynt'.
  • Strauss: 'The Blue Danube' waltz.
  • Prelude to Bizet's opera 'Carmen'.

Peter Snow and Alex James came bottom of the table; Peter did not make the cut.

Week 2

Musical Works:
  • Bernstein: Symphonic Dance from 'West Side Story'
  • Intermezzo from Mascagni's opera 'Cavalleria Rusticana'.
  • Dukas: 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'.
  • Barber: Adagio for Strings.
  • Theme from 'The Simpsons'.
  • Khachaturian: Adagio from the ballet 'Spartacus'.
  • Wagner: 'The Ride of the Valkyries' from his opera 'Die Walküre'.

In marked contrast to the previous week, this and the subsequent ones were broadcast live. The pieces performed sounded better, but sadly this was due to what all orchestras do when faced with a conductor who is not competent: they moved into auto-pilot mode. As a result, the conductors were at best following the orchestra, instead of directing it. The one hour time slot meant that Clive Anderson was constantly pushing the jury for quick answers. The contestants were marked as they went, rather than at the end, as they would be in say, the Eurovision Song Contest. Sadly, we saw almost nothing of the work done in preparing their pieces prior to the broadcast. The jury vote resulted in David Soul and Bradley Walsh facing the vote-off, with David Soul departing. Why Bradley scored as low as he did relative to the others is a mystery to me; his 3 in a bar beat was crystal clear, but he lived to fight another round. Jane Asher danced her piece rather than conducted it and looked to be in danger next time. Katie Derham could not go much further (at least in this programme) on the basis of a sweet smile and a wiggling bottom. Both Bradley and Sue seemed self-conscious and tried to cover it with comedy, a natural fallback position for them; they needed to focus.

Week 3

Things now got a tad more complicated. The conductors had to cope with the orchestra and the BBC Symphony Chorus, as the programme moved on to works for chorus and orchestra. The pieces given ranged from Handel's great coronation anthem, 'Zadok the Priest' and the 'Confutatis' from Mozart's Requiem, to more modern works: 'O Fortuna' from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and Sir Michael Tippett's 'Go Down Moses', from his oratorio, 'A Child of Our Time'.

With six contestants left, there was a little more breathing space in the hour TV slot, but only just; we still needed to see more of the preparation work.

Given a new toy to play with, the contestants concentrated on communicating with the chorus, and left the orchestra to get on with it; this is largely true, but there were exceptions. What was the biggest change from last week? Attitude – they were now starting to take this very seriously.

First up was Alex James, who strode out like a man on a mission and launched into the four thumping G minor chords of the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem; you just can't get the beat wrong with that introduction. Alex had come a long way since the previous week, and an unimaginable distance from where he was at the start of the series, but the non-baton hand was still living a life of its own. The sound impressed, but the jury were not, scoring him quite low.

Jane Asher was given Handel's 'Zadok The Priest'. The previous week she danced her piece; this time she started the gentle orchestral introduction with her eyes shut. Herbert von Karajan might have done this, but only after many years with the same orchestra and countless hours of rehearsal. She firmly identified with the singers, but exaggeratedly mouthed every word to them, as though the chorus had inexplicably all left their vocal scores at home. Zoë Martlew observed that Jane's performance was 'lines perfectly learned and carefully rehearsed'; exactly the same each time, both in rehearsals (which we learned only now the jury had access to) and in performance – the actress in her won through.

Sue Perkins got one of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor. As her mentor said, this is raw and unsophisticated Russian music, and needs to be played that way. Sue must have pushed all the right buttons, because she impressed the jury, scoring very high indeed.

Bradley Walsh was given the spiritual 'Go Down Moses', from Tippett's oratorio. In my view, this was the most difficult of all the pieces and needs very tight control of the tempo to avoid it sagging. Bradley came on stage all beams and smiles and looked set to play the fool again. But as he stepped onto the dais, he put on his glasses to read his score (he used a marked-up score to make sure he kept himself on track) and like turning off a switch, the smile was gone. Finally we saw the true, serious figure that I suspect *is* Bradley Walsh, rather than the comic persona we usually see. We had just a glimpse of this in his preparation, when he was beginning to show signs of stress with his mentor. I thought his performance quite superb, given his technical short-comings, but the normally fairly unanimous jury were divided. Both the male jurors were very harsh – 'Disaster... this is a simple piece' was Sir Roger Norrington's verdict – but the ladies were far more supportive. However, with very low scores from Sir Roger and Dominic, the damage had been done.

Goldie gave us 'O Fortuna' from Carmina Burana (UK readers will remember the 1970s adverts for Old Spice aftershave), and oh boy, did he give us it. This was electrifying stuff, with wonderful contrast between the three sections. The praise and scoring from the jury (9-8-9-9) reflected that fact; Goldie was beginning to look a clear favourite to win this competition.

Finally, Katie Derham conducted the 'Confutatis' from Mozart's final masterpiece, the Requiem. Gone this week were the enchanting smile and the wiggle, and the musician in her was let out. The look on her face as she waited for the orchestra to settle was sternness itself – 'I'm in charge and I want no mistakes'. A total score of 30 points put her in 3rd place, 5 points clear of Jane Asher, who managed to avoid the drop zone by just one point.

The scores left Bradley and Alex to face the orchestra vote (not the chorus, we note), who elected to keep Alex; so after a second week facing the vote-off, by a substantial majority Bradley sadly departed the competition. My personal vote would have been the other way, keeping Bradley at the expense of Alex.

Next week, the remaining five would have to conduct operatic arias with two soloists, a soprano and a tenor. The golden rule for a conductor with either instrumental or vocal soloists, is that they have the lead and the conductor follows – a reversal of the usual roles. Also, we should lose two of the three lowest-scoring contestants instead of one, leaving three for the final programme. Could anyone now catch Goldie, or was he away and gone? Conducting singers might perhaps be a different kettle of fish.

Week 4

You know how you get that comfortable feeling that the worst is behind you? Well that's the time to start really worrying, and not just in front of the camera.

First up to the podium was Sue Perkins, who had been given Puccini's soprano aria 'O mia babbino caro' from Gianni Schicci. Wisely eschewing the baton, this was beautifully executed, Sue keeping contact with the soloist throughout (as far as we were able to tell) and was rewarded with a well-deserved 32 points from the jury.

Next it was the turn of Katie Derham to conduct the old warhorse Neapolitan song 'O sole mio'. In the backstage lead-in to the performance, we were shown Katie losing the plot big-time with her mentor Matthew Rowe, swearing and storming out of the rehearsal room; the pressure was really telling. Clearly the week had been a strain on Katie and the relationship was turning sour. She tried very hard (on her mentor's advice) to make it a sexy performance, in keeping with the tango rhythm of the song. However this advice did not go down well with judges Zoë, Simone and Dominic, the latter saying that he was outraged and he would be having words with Matthew after the show about his advice. Nonetheless, Katie picked up 29 points.

Superstar of the previous week, Goldie, drew Susanna's Act II aria 'Un moto di gioia', from Mozart's comic opera 'The Marriage of Figaro'. He could not have had a worse choice. Mozart generally, and this piece is no exception, requires the lightest of touches. For a man with no real prior experience of Mozart, and a drum'n'bass exponent at that, this was the piece from hell. But being Goldie, he set about dealing with it at rehearsals with hard work. Things were going reasonably well at the start of the performance, but then, after the first rallentando, at the return to tempo, the wheels well and truly came off the bus. Poor Goldie never fully recovered from this and by the end his conducting was completely off the beat. It was doubly disappointing as we learned from judge Simone Young that at the afternoon rehearsal, he had been near perfect. However the scoring was for the performance on the night and for that Goldie scored only 27 points.

Jane Asher's piece was the very well known tenor aria 'E lucevan le stelle' from Puccini's Tosca. Her mentor was dismayed; 'it's all rubato... it's all over the place'. Unlike the rubato, Jane was not all over the place, kept peacefully still and made a very reasonable fist of it. The judges were not unanimous (9-7-6-7), but the total of 29 for a difficult piece, put her equal second with Katie Derham.

Finally we had Alex James, the survivor from the orchestra vote the previous week. His piece was Gershwin's 'Summertime' from Porgy and Bess, certainly a more fortunate draw than it might have been. If Goldie's was the worst draw, then Alex's was the best possible. The fact that he was there at all was quite an achievement, given that his wife had given birth during the week of rehearsals - congratulations to both him and his wife. Last week, Sir Roger Norrington criticised what he called Alex's left hand 'flipper'. Work on this was done during rehearsals and at the start of 'Summertime' it was up there working with the right one, but eventually it got bored and just hung around waiting to go home, until just at the very end. The judges all thought the performance was too laid back, and Alex's score was a bottom-placing 23 points.

At this point, activity in the control room must have been a tad frantic, as the tie between Katie and Jane meant that there was no clear bottom three for the vote-off. It was decided that four, ie all bar Sue, would have to face the orchestra, and the two lowest scoring would leave the show. The result of that vote was that Katie and Alex would not make the final. Goldie had escaped; despite his showing on the night, I feel it was the right decision to keep him, rather than either of the other two.

In this episode in particular, the TV production was infuriating. The camera script was exactly what you would expect for a regular programme with two special guests. We saw long close-ups of them and kept missing the crucial moments where the conductor had to wait on their phrase. The primary characters of the show should, on this occasion, have been the conductors, not the soloists.

I have also seen criticism elsewhere of the placement of the soloists relative to the conductors. I don't agree. The singers were exactly where they would be in a concert performance. Part of the test for our contestants was for them to have to partly turn to see their soloist, and at the same time keep working with the orchestra.

So next week would be the final week. Who would be conducting at the Proms in the Park the following Saturday? Would it be this week's supremo, Sue? Was Jane coming up strongly on the rails? Could Goldie rise again?

The Final

The live grand final of Maestro arrived. Of the original eight invitees, three remained and there could only be one winner; one of Jane Asher, Goldie or Sue Perkins would earn the terrifying privilege of conducting at the Proms in the Park event in front of 30,000 people.

There were a number of changes. Firstly, jury member Simone Young could not be present as she was being presented with a prestigious conducting prize. Her place was taken by the charismatic virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov. During the week, the finalists each had to learn three pieces instead of one: a set concerto piece, an orchestral piece of their own choice and a symphonic movement. The set pieces were extracts from three different concertos, featuring different solo instruments: piano, cello and violin. To accommodate the extra material, the programme was extended to 90 minutes.

There was to be a two-stage elimination. After jury-votes for the concerto pieces and their own choice pieces, the two lowest-scoring contestants would face an orchestra vote, leaving two to go head-to-head, both being required to conduct the whole of the 1st movement of Beethoven's Symphony No.5. The final decision of who would be declared the winner would be made by telephone voting by the viewers themselves.

Goldie was first to try his hand with an extract from the 3rd movement of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2 with Nikolai Demidenko. His performance was good, but he was up against the limit of what he could do without being able to read music. He is very good at communicating the emotion, but without knowing where the bar lines are, his ability to communicate tempo was restricted. The jury must have had a good pre-final dinner as they were scoring very magnanimously; Goldie got 10-9-10-9, a score which in my view significantly overstated the performance.

Jane Asher had to conduct an extract from the 1st movement of Elgar's Cello Concerto with Natalie Clein. This was not an easy set piece and she was in trouble with it right from bar 1. However, to her credit she managed to hold it together and significantly improved during the latter part of the piece. Again the jury were rather magnanimous, awarding 9-7-8-7 points.

Last to take the baton in this first session was Sue Perkins - actually she didn't take the baton, continuing to use her hands only. Her set piece was the conclusion of Bruch's Violin Concerto, with soloist Tasmin Little. During our view of the rehearsal sessions (far too little once again) it emerged she had suffered a crisis of confidence, but her mentor had brought in a specialist coach to her with this and it clearly worked. Whether she was really confident or not, it didn't show, and in my view her performance was the best of the three. The jury score 8-8-9-8 was fair but perhaps the post-dinner bonhomie was wearing off.

The position after the first round was therefore Goldie in the lead with 38 points, Sue in second place with 33 points and Jane in third place with 31 points.

On to the own choice round...

I was led to believe (though I haven't had this confirmed) that each contestant was invited to offer three own choice pieces, one of which would be chosen for them to learn and perform.

Jane Asher chose the overture to Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro. This was a good choice for her, it needing the light touch which seems to be where she is most comfortable. Jane is the most infuriating person. She clearly has a great affection for the music, and the sound was enjoyable, but as for her conducting – at times I couldn't tell whether she was conducting or icing a cake! However the jury liked it, awarding 9-8-8-8 points, giving her a total score for both rounds of 64 points.

Sue Perkins chose the conclusion of the Suite from Stravinsky's ballet, The Firebird. This is gorgeous music, but Sue's tempo was f-f-a-a-r-r too slow, and the flames of the Firebird were almost extinguished. Inexplicably, the jury voted 9-9-9-7, the 34 points giving her a total score of 67 points and a 3-point lead over Jane.

Goldie's choice was the ninth variation, Nimrod, from Elgar's Enigma Variations. This great Union Jack piece (although actually written to portray a German music publisher, August Jaegar) gave Goldie the opportunity to convey the music's emotion, which he managed to do without wallowing in it - a successful performance. The jury score 8-9-9-9 gave Goldie a total score of 73 points and the clear lead, leaving Jane and Sue to face the orchestra vote.

Whom would they pick? Well after the typically drawn out (theatrical) pause, it was Jane who left the programme, leaving Sue to go head-to-head with Goldie, both conducting the same piece – Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

The final instalment:

This was fascinating. A direct comparison could be made and perhaps it would be easier to choose between the two conductors. Not a bit of it. Goldie went first and Sue second, the choice being made by the leader of the orchestra by picking one of two envelopes. The two performances were quite different and yet neither could be said to be better than the other. The one thing they did have in common was that both now appreciated just how physically hard work it is to stand there and conduct; they were both exhausted, and after all that, I still really couldn't decide which way to vote.

Having a telephone vote meant that we had about 15 to 20 minutes to fill in. First item was the replacement jury member, Maxim Vengerov, conducting the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5. This was followed by an unusual, if not hitherto unheard of spectacle. All eight original contestants took turns to conduct, while the orchestra played Strauss's Radetsky March. I think host Clive Anderson described this as 'Tag Conducting'. Each conductor passed the baton on (without dropping it) to the next while maintaining the beat – well sort of! I don't see this catching on as a spectator sport. Finally it was the turn of jury chairman Sir Roger Norrington to show us how it should be done, by conducting Rossini's William Tell overture. This is very familiar territory for the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sir Roger had a bit of fun with it. I guess they (the BBC SO) must play this popular piece a fair few times during the course of a year.

Finally the telephone voting lines were closed and the waiting was over. Goldie and Sue stood bravely together to await the outcome. All the last few weeks of work were over, but for one of them it would be back to the grindstone for the next 3 or 4 days in preparation for Saturday, when we would be able to watch...

... Sue Perkins.

Some post-competition thoughts on the programme:

One way in which I feel it failed significantly was that people whose only familiarity with the job of conducting came from that programme, would be left with the impression that the conductor more or less turns up at the start of the concert and starts conducting. Of course that is so far from the truth; it missed pointing out the hours of work for a professional conductor with the orchestra preparing a piece for performance, in places bar by bar. Professional orchestras do have the standard repertoire in their back pocket, but each conductor will have a different take on the work, be it tempi, phrasing or whatever.

Did the competitors do themselves justice? I'm sorry to say that whoever suggested Peter Snow was seriously off-target. He is a lovely man and may thoroughly enjoy listening to music, but the man does not have the 'right stuff' to be a musician. I wish Bradley Walsh had given us what he showed he was capable of with Sir Michael Tippett's spiritual from his oratorio 'A Child of Our Time', a little earlier and played the fool a little less. I feel he has talent that was kept hidden apart from that brief moment.

Katie Derham was a real disappointment. In the run-up before the show started, when the guests were first announced, I had a sneaking suspicion she might be the winner, but it was soon apparent that she had a mountain to climb.

Of Goldie I knew nothing before the show. What a revelation he has been. The man is a natural musician and given some theory training could be anything he chose to be (it was only a few years ago that Paul McCartney learned to read music). He has drive, inventiveness and a completely open mind to new things. I hope he has been bitten by the bug.

What of the judges? The odd marking during the final aside, Zoë and Dominic were the upfront opinionators, but for me Prof Simone Young was the best judge - Sir Roger seemed to want to avoid criticising anyone too harshly; perhaps he was cringing inwardly.

The production was marred by the lack of time for the 'behind the scenes' moments which would for me have been the most interesting. Also, it would have been nice to have had the occasional comment from a member of the orchestra.

What ultimately worries me, though, is the possibility of another series. Maestro should remain a one-off experiment. As such I hail it as a success. I wonder what odds would you have got from a bookmaker two or three years ago, if you'd predicted that one half of Sue and Mel would conduct in Hyde Park at the Last Night of the Proms?

Would Sue be able to handle the situation at the Proms in the Park, in front of a live audience of 30,000 people, not to mention an audience of millions around the world, listening and watching on radio, TV and the Internet? We needed have had no doubts on that score; Sue was the epitome of calmness, certainly outwardly if not inwardly.

On 13 September, 2008, Maestro candidate Susan Elizabeth Perkins graduated magna cum laude at London's Hyde Park. She was even blessed with fine weather, not only in London, but also at the other Proms in the Park events in Glasgow, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast – probably the only day this year when that could be said. The gods did smile down and were fully rewarded. Let's not beat about the bush, this was a superb performance and I could not have been more proud of her if it had been my own child up there on the platform. As I watched, tears began to well up inside me, and they do again as I sit here typing this and recalling the event.

Sue had to learn three new pieces in as many days: Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No 4, with its famous 'nobilmente' central tune, the aria 'Merce, dilette amiche', from Verdi's opera 'The Sicilian Vespers' and 'The Impossible Dream' from the musical 'Man of La Mancha', the latter two pieces sung by English soprano Lesley Garrett. In the Elgar, the BBC Concert Orchestra paid Sue the greatest possible compliment – the autopilot was switched off, they trusted her and they followed her precisely. Any nitpicking would be both churlish and irrelevant here.

For her encore, Sue reprised the Puccini aria 'O mia babbino caro', from Gianni Schicci, the piece she prepared for the week 4 programme with opera extracts.

Bravo Maestro Sue

In a pre-concert interview, she said how much she'd enjoyed the whole series and the experience - 'an ongoing journey of confidence' is how she described it. She told Clive Anderson, 'I'm just going to go out there and enjoy it', and she clearly did just that.

And afterwards, 'If only I'd been 18 again and possibly could have made a different choice in my life', she said, 'but I've really enjoyed it. It's been an incredible thing to do.'

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