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.

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