A FEW years ago, I had the dubious privilege of conducting the
Yangon Symphony Orchestra, a motley array of music teachers and
amateurs. Our rendition of Eine kleine Nachtmusik would
not have earned it a visit to last year's Proms season of global
orchestras; though the ensemble was driven by a fierce desire to
compete in the global cultural market.
Petroc Trelawny's survey of Global Classical Music
(World Service, Saturday) focused on the rather more polished
orchestras of Mumbai, Beijing, and Muscat; but he might just as
easily have chosen bands in Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar, all of
them prioritising the music of dead Westerners.
We are used to the notion of globalised pop and sport. But the
phenomenon of vast and expensive buildings being erected to house
performances of Beethoven symphonies and Verdi operas is a still
more puzzling one, not least because this is music that Western
promoters are constantly anxious to sell to their own public.
Trelawny visited Guangzhou, in China, whose new opera house is
staging a production of Carmen which originated at the
Royal Opera House; so, it was a British version of a French setting
of a Spanish drama. Music publishers are finding that they are
selling more to these markets than to traditional Western ones, and
everyone in the ailing classical-music business is keen that it
But, even in these halcyon days, there are signs of strain. In
China, music promoters can no longer rely on state subsidy as
before; which is good, in that they no longer have to give away
half their tickets to uninterested party apparatchiks, but
bad if you don't like seeing luxury-end cars parked in your foyer
as adverts for your corporate sponsors.
Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos records, which made its
money promoting cheaper, non-Western orchestras, also sounded a
frustrated note. If all those Chinese children who play the piano
(at least 30 million of them) were to buy one concert ticket and
one CD a year, the problem of filling the new concert halls would
But musical taste has only a little to do with music. It is
about self-identity on the political, just as much as on the
individual, level. It will be interesting to see what is occupying
those impressive futuristic buildings in 20 years' time.
If you are the kind of person who loves to dazzle your dining
companions with recondite facts, then Salt (Radio 4,
Monday of last week) was your kind of programme. Posing as a
historical survey of this most essential of ingredients and
preservatives, Steph McGovern's essay was really a
QI-style recital of did-you-knows.
Did you know, for instance, that the oldest cities in the world
were essentially salt silos? Or that salt played an important
strategic part in the American Civil War? You could play the
etymology game: salt takes us to soldier, salary, salsa, sauce, and
cellar. Indeed, if you really want to impress your friends, you
could point out the pleonasm which is the "salt cellar".
There was a lot more, including some interesting material on the
use of salt in folkloric practices; but I doubt you'll have any
friends left by then.