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BBC – Our Classical Century: Breaking the Sound Barrier (2019)

BBC Our Classical Century Breaking the Sound Barrier

Part 4 of 4.

Suzy Klein and West-End star Alexandra Burke chart how, in the 80s and 90s, a new generation of young musicians – from Simon Rattle and Nigel Kennedy to Vanessa-Mae – defied tradition and burst out of the accepted confines of the classical genre. We look at Torvill and Dean’s triumph at the Winter Olympics, the Three Tenors at Italia 90, Tavener’s haunting anthem accompanying the funeral of Princess Diana and the successful launch of Classic FM.

Alexandra meets Torvill and Dean to explore how Maurice Ravel’s Bolero burst into the pop charts in 1984. The skaters reveal why it was chosen and why it worked so well. Composer Richard Hartley explains to Suzy how he had to re-orchestrate Ravel’s composition on the synclavier to get it to the right length for the Olympic performance.

In 1989 Nigel Kennedy burst onto the scene with his punk loom and ferocious playing. A protege of Yehudi Menuhin, he tore up the conventions of the classical concert hall. Producer Barry McCann reveals how they marketed Kennedy and his chart-topping version of Vivaldi’s Summer and we see Kennedy in action today performing Jimmy Hendrix.

Sir Simon Rattle reveals how classical music transformed the reputation and fortunes of a city – Birmingham. The Midlands was the birthplace of Heavy Metal, music forged in the din of its industrial heritage. But the car industry had collapsed and in 1980 the arrival of Rattle, a charismatic young conductor with a passion for Mahler, proved the unlikely catalyst for Birmingham’s transformation. Suzy goes behind the scenes at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, one of the world’s finest concert halls while Sir Simon reveals why The Queen stayed away from the opening ceremony

In 1990 Puccini’s Nessun Dorma brought opera to a whole new audience of football supporters when the BBC used Pavarotti’s 1972 recording as their title music. When Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo performed together for the first time on the eve of the final, The Three Tenors became icons of popular culture. At Arsenal FC’s Emirates stadium, Alexandra meets football fans inspired by Nessun Dorma to create the FA Fans Choir.

Until 1993 the options to hear classical music were through records, concert hall or Radio Three. Broadcaster Petroc Trelawny tells the inside story of the early days of the country’s first commercial classical radio station, Classic FM. Its recipe of popular music for a broad audience was an immediate hit, but Trelawny reveals that ‘the critics were quite sniffy.’ He also tells how founder Michael Bukht would reprimand him on air if the talking got in the way of the music.

During a rare interview with Vanessa-Mae, we see her barnstorming arrival on the music scene. Mae made her debut with the London Philharmonia aged 10 and at 13 set a world record as the youngest soloist to record both the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven violin concertos. A child of the 80s, a fan of Michael Jackson and Prince, Mae wanted to experiment, which she did with an album heavily influenced by pop and rock. To accompany it, she was filmed in pop videos shot cavorting in hot pants in Ibiza and playing the violin in the sea. It shocked the classical world, but gained Mae instant popularity and recognition with the young.

But as classical music was flirting with the pop world, it retained its power to unite the nation in exceptional times. The funeral of Princess Diana was a moment of national mourning, with John Tavener’s piece Song for Athene at the heart of the service. Martin Neary, who conducted the choir, explains why he chose the piece. Suzy explores why it so aptly captured the sense of ancient ritual and tradition, modernity and spirituality for the congregation and the millions watching the event on television. World-class cellist, Stephen Isserlis, performs excerpts from Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, a piece composed for him, and discusses the spiritual quality of the music.

In 2007, an ensemble of 12 to 26-year-olds from Venezuela’s most troubled neighbourhoods rocked the Royal Albert Hall with the Telegraph asking, ‘Was this the greatest Prom of all time?’ The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra was the product of a government-sponsored initiative known as El Sistema. Our presenters explore this remarkable illustration of how the idea of who can play classical music was transformed.

Crashing through the sound barrier the programme finally looks at the work of one of the UK’s most exciting young composers, Anna Meredith, who combines classical, electronic, pop, vocal and visual styles in her work.

Our Classical Century climaxes with a look to the future in which barriers between musical genres and performance styles are breaking down. Sir Simon Rattle explains: ‘Music’s like the virus you don’t get rid thankfully of because it’s incurable! We just try and spread it to as many people as we can and it should be in everybody’s life in some way or other. Music’s like weeds, it’s amazing where it grows.’

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