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Radio review: The Verb, Music Matters, and World of Wisdom

28 January 2022

BBC/Adrian Weinbrecht

Ian McMillan, presenter of The Verb (Radio 3)

Ian McMillan, presenter of The Verb (Radio 3)

“WORDS are silver; gestures are golden.” The great Russian maestro Ilya Musin knew what all the best communicators know. It’s not what you say: it’s what you do. And, when you are an orchestral conductor, dealing with often bored players, possibly in a non-native language, most of your rhetorical power lies beyond the verbal.

Radio 3 has been running a series of programmes in honour of the recently deceased Bernard Haitink, including two programmes that dealt in more depth than is usual with the communicative systems employed by conductors. It is not as specialist a topic as one might imagine; nor is conducting just about waving your arms around in time to the music. But, as Tom Service’s description of Gergiev’s rehearsal technique attests on The Verb (Radio 3, Friday), there is not a great deal of arm-waving involved.

He saves the grand gestures for the performance, when the players — enduring their nth Tchaikovsky concerto — need to feel that it is still worth the effort. Of course, technical knowledge is required: Ian McMillan described the instructions for playing a 9-8 rhythm with an accent on the sixth beat as sounding as abstruse as a knitting pattern. But, generally, orchestras prefer to play the notes rather than take notes.

The business of conducting comes now with its fair share of cultural politics, the stereotype of the male maestro coming under sustained and effective attack. In The Verb, the comedy writer Jack Bernhardt presented “The Ballad of Ludwig van Amadeus Bach”: a spoof Hollywood treatment for a movie in which the tortured genius, complete with well-toned physique, is emasculated by the mere notion of a female conductor.

As we heard on Music Matters (Radio 3, Saturday of last week), the prospects for women on the podium are a great deal improved from the situation even five years ago. Indeed, the famous Dartington Summer School, presided over by the Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch, has taken the controversial step of restricting its celebrated conducting course to those identifying as women.

As the conductor and teacher Alice Farnham explained, there are now, in the world of music, as in business, many more varied models of effective leadership. Not every maestro needs to be an old dude in tails terrorising the wind section.

If you need advice on a personal problem, but the usual agony aunts are too parochial, then why not try sharing your predicament with World of Wisdom (World Service, Saturdays), a truly global counselling service, which draws on the expertise of different mentors from around the planet. Last week, Jacob, from India, told us that he was feeling used and exploited by his friends; he was a pushover, too often taken for granted.

We didn’t hear the grisly details, and the Buddhist nun Sister Dang Nghiem kept her remarks similarly unspecific; but it was in the calm reassurance of her voice that we found solace. The words were as silver, but in the gentle, lilting gestures of her voice lay the gold.

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