Classic FM scrap the Evening Concert after 30 years

It’s been a while since I wrote about Classic FM, but the latest news about changes to the schedule and presenters from next week needs commenting on.

Some people, particularly those who prefer Radio 3, look down on Classic FM as it is perceived to be lightweight, downmarket even, and not a station anyone who is serious about classical music would listen to. I have always argued against that point of view, making the case that if you listen to the right shows, there is some good content, and there are actually many opportunities to learn more about classical music.

Ever since the station launched 30 years ago, it has featured an Evening Concert every weekday, where they play whole works in full without interruption, for example a full symphony or concerto. It has had a few name changes, becoming the Full Works Concert, and most recently simply the Classic FM Concert. I believe the first presenter was the writer and historian John Julius Norwich. He was controversially replaced after a couple of years, provoking cries of protest from listeners, by Richard Baker, a former newsreader (and since then there has been a common theme as far as personnel changes on Classic FM have been concerned). The Evening Concert is the main example I have always used as to why Classic FM is a station worth listening to. Far from low brow or dumbed down, I have discovered new composers (for example Kurt Atterberg or Alan Hovhaness) and rarer works by well known composers. An example of the latter is Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana. I specifically chose to go to a BBC Prom concert in 2019 in order to hear this played live after first discovering it on Classic FM. All of the Radio 3 listeners at the Prom exclaimed, “I’ve never heard that before,” or “What a lovely piece”. Perhaps they should listen to Classic FM!

However, from next week, the Evening Concert will be no more on Classic FM. Instead, they are going to extend the preceding Smooth Classics at Seven to fill the full three hours. Smooth Classics is itself a long-running programme of around 25 years. I have no issue with an hour of so-called smooth classics in the evening before moving on to the concert. In fact, at various times in the past, Smooth Classics at Seven lasted for two hours with the concert on later. The trouble is, from next week, there will be no concert, and instead, Smooth Classics at Seven will be followed by… Smooth Classics. That’s right: six hours of smooth classics in a row. How imaginative.

Ever since it started, Smooth Classics at Seven has been presented by John Brunning, a presenter whose voice is made to present this show. He has the most wonderful, deep and calming voice, and even then he moves it down a gear when the hour of smooth classics begins. When John is on holiday, it simply is not the same, whoever stands in for him. (In fact, there was a brief period where John did not present the show, after the fiasco where Classic FM’s parent company decided to close some of its digital stations, and redistributed the presenters whose contracts still had time to run. Fortunately, this particular aspect was corrected before too long, and John Brunning restored to his rightful place.) Sadly, John announced yesterday that he will no longer be presenting Smooth Classics at Seven from next week, handing over to BBC Radio 4 newsreader and announcer Zeb Soanes. Now, to be fair to Zeb Soanes, his voice seems far more suited to Smooth Classics than any of the previous stand-ins, so it could have been much worse. Let’s face it, John Brunning would probably want to retire one day in any case. The show won’t be the same without him, though.

A bigger issue is that the changes have come in due to John Suchet standing down from presenting the Classic FM Concert. John Suchet, a former newsreader, took over the concert two years ago, after deciding to leave the morning show. Instead of replacing him on the concert, they have clearly decided to take the opportunity to scrap the programme completely to leave a three hour showcase for their new Smooth Classics presenter. I can not see this as being anything other than dumbing down. They could have had Zeb Soanes present Smooth Classics for an hour and then the Evening Concert. Or they could have had the extended show, and then replaced the 10pm show with a new concert programme (the Evening Concert did run until midnight at one stage) even keeping the same late evening presenter, Margherita Taylor, if they must. However, they have chosen not to, and decided to dumb down the evening schedule instead. Given that they already failed to renew the contract of the extremely knowledgeable Rob Cowan at the end of 2020, and cut the equally excellent David Mellor’s show from two hours to one, I have to come to the conclusion that Classic FM no longer wishes to be considered a serious classical music station, even by those of us who previously would have defended it.

So what are the alternatives? There is a new commercial rival to Classic FM in the form of Scala Radio. Several presenters are actually former Classic FM presenters who left involuntarily during previous changes, most notably Jamie Crick and Mark Forrest. They play a slightly wider range of music, pushing the boundaries of what may be considered “classical” and veering into “crossover” music. They don’t currently have an evening concert programme on weekdays, but it still offers an alternative for anyone who wants to listen to something other than “smooth” music. In the late evening, they also have their own version of smooth classics called The Space, which features far more contemporary, ambient and electronic sounds, similar to The Chiller Cabinet that was once on Classic FM late at night, if anyone still remembers that. It could be worth a listen for anyone who is tired of the usual smooth tracks that play on a loop on Classic FM, particularly after hearing them for six hours a day. On Sundays, Scala have a show at 8pm called Sunday Night Scala which indeed is a concert of full works, very similar in format to the Classic FM Evening Concert. Finally, I do strongly recommend Mark Kermode’s film music show on Saturday lunchtimes, which is one of the best things currently on the radio.

The other alternative, of course, is BBC Radio 3. They have their Radio 3 in Concert in a similar slot to the Classic FM one. However, unlike Classic FM, this is a broadcast of a real concert (live or recorded). The concerts can vary from very mainstream to less so, but it’s worth looking at the schedule. My main issue with Radio 3 is that there are too many gaps and too much talking, as they tend to broadcast concerts as live. On the plus side, there are of course no adverts.

Classic FM and its management should understand that if they change the station and scrap long established programmes (or presenters), even their most loyal listeners will look elsewhere. It’s not too late to think again and bring back the Evening Concert, which has been a fixture of our evenings for the last 30 years.

Smartphones require smart people

The other week, the BBC ran an item on their various news outlets about people who are giving up smartphones in favour of “Nokia-style” phones that can only make and receive calls and text messages. I have seen similar articles before, but this one started with a young mother who had noticed how many parents at the local park spend all their time looking at their phones rather than interacting with their children. This is something I have increasingly noticed, too. I am frankly fed up with the antisocial way that so many people behave in general when it comes to smartphone use. You are trying to have a conversation with someone, but they are more interested in looking at their phone. You are talking to someone when their phone notifies them of something or another, and they immediately have to look at the screen, a reflex action like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell. Whatever happened to manners? I just can not understand why a message on a phone is considered by so many people to be more important than interacting with the person who is physically there with you.

I have a smartphone, but it spends 99% of its time in my pocket if I’m out and about, or on a shelf or table at home. Smartphones are very useful, for example for checking bus or train times, for looking at a map when trying to get somewhere, for finding that piece of information from your e-mail account, for displaying a QR code at the post office to send a parcel without having to print a label. The list goes on. The “solution” to the problem of people’s addiction to and antisocial use of smartphones does not have to be to switch it for a Nokia.

Here are some suggestions. Disable or silence almost all notifications. Most things are not so important that you need to look the second they occur. Messages and alerts will be there waiting when you next look at the phone. Smartphones have very sophisticated and fine-grained control over sounds and alerts, so use them. Uninstall all social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) so as not to waste time obsessively scrolling through inane rubbish. If you must use social media, use a web browser either on your phone or a computer and do so at a set time in the evening when there is genuinely nothing else to do. Uninstall proprietary messaging apps such as Whatsapp. If a message is really important, someone can send an SMS, otherwise most messages are likely pointless. And finally, put the phone in your pocket. Manufacturers do not help here, as they seemingly make their phones bigger and bigger each year, without really offering small phones as an option.

It’s not the type of phone that’s the problem, it’s the user. It’s perfectly possible to have a smartphone and use it for all sorts of useful purposes, but to not let it rule your life and make you antisocial and rude towards people who are with you: including your own children.

Queen’s Platinum Jubilee an opportunity for newly named honours

Order of the British Empire Insignia, by Robert Prummel (CC licence)With the recent publication of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, we yet again have voices calling for the word “Empire” to be removed from the name of those honours.

I addressed this issue back in 2016, and do not have much else to add to what I said then. In summary, you can not rename an order of chivalry like that. Now to be fair, some of the better informed people are suggesting a new order called the “Order of British Excellence” be instituted, rather than renaming the existing one. The trouble with that is that you can’t have the same sets of postnominal letters referring to two different orders. Plus there is still then issue that the “Order of British Excellence” sounds likes a prize awarded by the local Chamber of Commerce.

In 2016, I did suggest my own solution, which was to create a new Royal Elizabethan Order in honour of the Queen. This could contain ranks such as MRE, ORE and, CRE. People would soon get used to these new designations, and no-one would consider the old or new awards to be inferior, just as people in Australia and New Zealand coped when they switched from the Order of the British Empire to new orders of chivalry.

It does strike me, however, that the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee next year offers a great opportunity to establish the new order. What better way to mark the reign of our longest serving monarch than to name an order of chivalry after her? The advantage is that the change could be sold in this way to traditionalists unhappy at retiring the old honours. People who object to the name of the current order would be satisfied, so everyone would be happy. Any takers?

20 years of internet shopping

Novak: Slovak Suite etc. CD coverToday marks twenty years to the day since I first bought something online. The item was a CD of Novák’s Slovak Suite and other works, and it was bought online from for the princely sum of £11.24, plus £1 for postage. The site still exists today, although HMV must have been in administration and changed hands a few times in the intervening period.

I wanted to buy the CD after hearing the same recording, of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Libor Pešek, played regularly by John Brunning on Classic FM’s Smooth Classics at Seven. It proved impossible to find in the shops, so it had to be online. Today, I don’t think twice about buying something online. It’s still the case that I buy things in the local shops if I can find them, but in most cases it simply isn’t possible. Of course, over the last year, we’ve seen most shops closed, so online shopping has been a lifeline for everyone.

I do still buy CDs, too. The sound quality is still better than most downloads. Admittedly, I tend to buy second-hand CDs and make FLAC files out of them. Sometimes I have bought CDs containing recordings of concerts where I was in the audience, as it’s nice to have something physical as a memento.

Some things don’t change, though. The first movement, At Church, from the Slovak Suite, is still a regular on John Brunning’s Smooth Classics at Seven, and I still love it just as much as I did 20 years ago.

Grow up!

I’ve never been much of a fan of Boris Johnson. His antics were mildly amusing when he was Mayor of London, a position that was created to be filled by personalities as much as politicians. However, his behaviour was often inappropriate and damaging when he became Foreign Secretary, and the mind boggled as to what he might be like as Prime Minster.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has rather put a damper on Mr Johnson’s shenanigans, and I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with him last week when he said that people who take photos of empty hospital corridors to “prove” that the virus is a hoax need to “grow up”. I think this is a fitting response to various conspiracy theorists. Think Donald Trump is secretly fighting a paedophile ring operating among Washington’s elite? Grow up! Left-wing activists dressed as Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol? Grow up! I would also extend it to climate change deniers and flat Earthers. Grow up, the lot of you!

Some people need to realise that this is real life, not a Hollywood film where incredibly far-fetched conspiracy theories are somehow concealed against all the odds. The political conspiracies are bad enough, but what particularly enrages me is when people deny scientific fact. The coronavirus pandemic is deadly serious, and people who trespass in hospitals or protest against lockdown restrictions are costing people’s lives.

I often consider parallels between the pandemic and a war. During World War II, fascist leaders such Oswald Mosley was interned: put in prison without being charged with a crime, and without trial. One could argue that Mosley was expressing his own political beliefs, to which everyone is entitled; however as those beliefs happened to align with and support our enemies, he was put in prison. The coronavirus, on the other hand, is not a belief; it’s a scientific fact. There is no justification or argument for anyone to protest against the virus, or claim it doesn’t exist. I would therefore argue that people who do so – or at least their ringleaders such as Piers Corbyn – should be thrown straight into prison in the interest of national security. If it wasn’t for the fact that a pandemic is probably a bad time to greatly expand the prison population, I think this should be seriously considered. This is, after all, a time of national emergency akin to a war.

We are not talking about hanging above London on a zip-wire here. We are talking about people’s childish attitudes that are costing lives. Some people need to take a good, hard look at themselves, take some adult responsibility for their actions… and grow up!

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