Archives for November 2010

Vaughan Williams themes and themed hotels ...

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Andy Wood Andy Wood | 16:18 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010

BBC Concert Orchestra bass player Andy Wood concludes his blow-by-blow account of the band's US tour.

Holiday Inn Select, Panama City

Holiday Inn Select, Panama City


Ladies and Gentlemen: We will shortly be arriving in Panama City. Please set your watches back one hour. Ladies and Gentlemen: We will shortly be arriving at the Holiday Inn Select. Please set your watches back forty years.

Panama City, colloquially known as the 'Redneck Riviera' or L.A. (Lower Alabama) - you takes your choice - isn’t entirely gorgeous and has the hotels to match. The only part of my room that wasn’t artexed was the window. And frankly, if it had been, you wouldn’t have complained.

Yet we had fun. I hate to blow my own trumpet – there are others in the band paid far more to do that sort of thing – but somehow we rose above it all …


There’s no doubt about it – the hotel gods have hit back with a vengeance. After the naïve charms of the Holiday Inn, Panama City, our final stop of the tour is Orlando for five nights at the Sheraton Safari – what price a theme hotel?

Still, at this stage of the tour I think most are happy with a decent bed. Having left the bamboo-fronted reception desk, sidled past King Tut’s tomb, enjoyed the luxurious feel of the faux leopard-skinned rugs beneath my feet and overcome the temptation of following signs directing me to ZanziBar (enough already – you’re killing me), Casablanca and Marrakesh, the decent bed was duly located. After making certain to draw my mosquito net close around me, I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Zebra-striped bedding at the Sheraton Safari Hotel, Orlando

Zebra-striped bedding at the Sheraton Safari Hotel, Orlando

Zebra-striped bedding aside, Florida boasts plenty of winter sun and presumably there’s sea and sand not too far away. The hotel even has a pool. I’ve not explored it myself but am led to believe it’s the blue watery thing near the bar.

The benefit of a few days spent in the one place is that the mornings are pretty well freed up – for sleep and lunch and more sleep, for some. Other bold adventurers took themselves off to the Kennedy Space Center. Not that you have to go all that far to see space cadets round here – Downtown Disney offering plenty of opportunity for the unsuspecting to be parted from any remaining dollars and contribute to the swelling coffers of M. Mouse Esq.

On balance, it’s probably just as well that we’re not concluding our tour in the Ritz Carlton, Atlanta, else they might still be trying to prise my fingernails from the Axminster a month from now.


Mozart, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams all the way now, and I reckon the hammer will be required again as I’m pretty confident we’ll nail that programme as well. The tour de force that is Ilya Yakushev continues unabated. There won’t be too many opportunities to mention it again, so read it here in bold print: It’s a rare pleasure to share the stage night after night with that guy. How he manages to play quite so many notes whilst holding both audience and orchestra so comfortably in the palm of his hand is anyone’s guess...

Ilya’s last notes of the tour? Relatively few… Marcello*, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Just sublime.

*[The slow movement from Marcello's oboe concerto in d minor arranged by Earl Wild...]


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Turning a historic photograph into radio ...

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Michael Symmons Roberts Michael Symmons Roberts | 09:09 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010

Michael Symmons Roberts is an award-winning poet and writer of fiction, libretti and scripts for radio and TV. His latest radio drama - 'Migrant Mother' -  will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 28th November at 20.00. Here, Michael explains how the play came about and writes about the challenges and  pleasures of writing for radio. 

Migrant Mother - photo

Migrant Mother

The story of ‘Migrant Mother’ begins in Bolton, Lancashire. Bear with me... I know that Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson was taken in California at the peak of the Great Depression in America. But the radio drama Migrant Mother began when I wrote a play called Worktown for Radio 4. Worktown was written in response to Humphrey Spender’s photographs of Bolton in the 1930s, showing the everyday lives of working people - in pubs, shops, factories and funeral parlours. Spender’s pictures were part of the so-called ‘Mass Observation’ movement, the first stirrings of what we now know as documentary photography. When ‘Worktown’ was broadcast, the BBC website and the network of UK city centre ‘Big Screens’ ran a montage of the photographs to accompany the play.

The challenge of working in a sound-only medium, but taking photographs as a starting-point, was fascinating and liberating for me as a writer. I wasn’t looking for a documentary truth about the people captured in the ‘Worktown’ pictures. Quite the reverse, I was using the pictures as a springboard into fiction, interweaving stories to flesh out the imagined lives of the people on those Bolton streets. Writing ‘Worktown’ was such a compelling process, that when it was done I started to think about other photographs with dramatic potential, and quickly thought of ‘Migrant Mother’. At around the same time that Spender was wandering the streets of Bolton with a camera, a society portrait photographer from San Francisco was starting her own photographic revolution. Shocked by the rapid collapse of the American economy in the 1930’s, by the growing dole queues and grinding poverty, Dorothea Lange left her studio and took her camera on the road.

Together with her husband, the economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Dorothea travelled round the so-called ‘Hoover Camps’ that were emerging across California. These were turning into places of hunger, sickness and despair, as thousands of refugees from the dustbowl in Oklahoma packed up their lives on the roofs of old cars and headed west in search of work and hope. What they found was far from hopeful. Not only were jobs few and far between, but the travellers met with overcrowding, fear and hostility. Lange believed that the right photograph could mobilise American public opinion to respond to the plight of these migrant workers. And she finally took that photograph in a pea-pickers’ camp near Nipomo in 1936, when she came across a 32-year-old mother and her seven children. That photograph went on to become the defining image of the American depression.

As I worked with Charlotte Riches and Susan Roberts at BBC North to develop a play about ‘Migrant Mother’, the world’s economy began to slide towards a new depression. Economists began to draw parallels with the 1930s. Lange’s picture seemed more and more apposite, and the questions it raised - about the nature of hope and resilience, the political power of photography, the vulnerability of what we regard as ‘civilisation’ - seemed more and more urgent.

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The London Jazz Festival - keep on listening!

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Alyn Shipton Alyn Shipton | 15:15 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

LJF Keith Nichols's Hot Tamales

Keith Nichols's Hot Tamales, with Alyn Shipton on bass. Photo: Les Pratt

The frantic activity of last week's London Jazz Festival in association with BBC Radio 3 is now beginning to recede into the past.

With three broadcasts in three nights, then two live events to chair and a concert to review last Saturday I seemed to be as busy as ever, but sadly had to miss hearing Sonny Rollins on the final weekend. Nevertheless, what I managed to see and hear of the festival as a whole suggests that it was one of the most enjoyable editions in recent years.

And in particular, this is because as well as many of the musicians at the cutting edge of jazz, innovators and experimenters alike, there was a concerted attempt to look back as well, and connect to the jazz tradition. There were several 'Hear Me Talking To Ya' events, with musicians reflecting on their careers, and if my broadcasts with Gary Burton and Geri Allen were typical, then these offered the younger members of the audience (of whom there were more than ever) the chance to find out about an earlier era. But there were also concerts that looked back too. Frank Giffiths's octet turned back the clock to Billy Strayhorn and Ellington's small groups, and Richard Pite's Jazz Repertory company explored the legacy of the Benny Goodman quartet.

Right at the start of the festival Guy Barker's Jazz Voice event picked repertoire that had anniversary connections - such as the centenary of songwriter Frank Loesser, and the birthdays of Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock. But last Friday on a recording for Radio 3's Discovering Music at the Royal Academy of Music, Keith Nichols, Philip Martin and I were looking back even further, to the 120th anniversary of the birth of Jelly Roll Morton. Philip presented the piano music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk written in the 1840s and 50s which Morton would have heard as a small boy in New Orleans around 1895, and he also played pieces by Scott Joplin that Morton himself discussed in 1938 as part of his oral autobiography for the Library of Congress. Then Keith Nichols and his 'Hot Tamales' took the stage in the David Josefovitz Hall, and turned it into 1920s Chicago, with a rousing rendition of music by Morton's legendary 'Red Hot Peppers'

We also looked at the direct influence of Morton on Charles Mingus's work in the 1950s and 60s. I had the fun of playing bass in the band, and contributing to the jazz festival in a slightly different way from usual! The programme goes out on 20th February 2011, and it maybe takes some sort of record for the longest chronological span of any event at the LJF, covering over 120 years of music!

If it's Tuesday, this must be ...

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Andy Wood Andy Wood | 15:04 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010


Keith Lockhart


Blog editor Graeme Kay writes: The BBC Concert Orchestra is currently on a gruelling tour of the USA, with American conductor Keith Lockhart. Keith become the band's seventh principal conductor in August 2010; for the last 15 years he has also been the conductor of the renowned Boston Pops. As part of its annual programme, the BBC CO usually undertakes one extended tour: the current US tour was suggested by Keith Lockhart's US management company, Columbia Artists' Management Inc. (CAMI), but the length of it - 15 concerts over 20 days - is unusual. A number of factors brought this about: the Concert Orchestra is currently 'homeless', pending the refurbishment of its performing base at the Watford Colosseum; and the idea of an extended US tour of broadly 'core classical' concerts allowed CAMI to fulfil a need among promoters, with the added benefit that Keith Lockhart - who has a Boston Pops following - would be able to introduce a wider repertoire to his fans. As the BBC Concert Orchestra's general manager Andrew Connolly explains, 'The Concert Orchestra is slightly smaller than symphony orchestras, so we had to find repertoire that would be attractive to the US presenters as part of their 'serious' orchestral series - but also be achievable with an orchestra of around 60.  The two main programmes were reasonably easy to formulate - "The Firebird" actually working very well in the smaller version for us. More time was spent deciding the tour encores in fact!'

Andy Wood, a bass player in the Concert Orchestra, now continues his fascinating Blog chronicling life at the sharp end of the tour ...


Fair to say that we're pretty well immersed (submerged, sinking without trace) in local culture now. The limitless refill cokes, pizza slices, 15-egg omelettes, maple syrup and execrable beer are starting to take their toll. If only my mind were being expanded as much as my waistline.

While in polite conversation with the locals in a wee bar it took four of us numerous attempts to not answer the question 'So where are you guys headed next?' Er... Newport News... No, Fairfax. No – that's where we are now. No, it's not, that's where we were yesterday. Really? Half past two. Sorry, what was the question?

The only way of really knowing where you are is by reading the changing names on the t-shirts for sale in each gas station.


The familiar plaintive cry goes up. A moment's pause before the carefully considered response: comatose. This is definitely starting to feel a bit like hard work. Hope you're still making use of the interactive guide. If not, I'll help you catch up a bit. We've done a few more shows. Annapolis, Newport News and Danville are receding rapidly in the rear view mirror, or as rapidly as US speed limits and poxy buses allow. We even had a day off. Show 8 looms: Greenville, South Carolina – so now you know.

Alumni Hall, US Naval Academy

Alumni Hall, US Naval Academy

Annapolis was... interesting. We played the Alumni Hall at the US Naval Academy for an audience of baby American sailors... Now the Alumni Hall sounds reasonably plush so I feel obliged to point out that it wasn't. More particularly, what we played in was an acoustic shell set up on a basketball court. It was a bit like playing in a tupperware box, though our performance was not necessarily kept at its most crisp and fresh. Even so, solo pianist Ilya Yakushev did his stuff, winning round an initially lukewarm audience with his customary zeal. The conclusion: one of the warmer receptions for a Russian at an American military institution...

We rang the changes concerning travel arrangements the other day, just to keep everyone on their toes. Two flights in one day, which was... er... nice (?) That brought us as far as Lexington, Kentucky - a sixth state in seven days - where we more or less settled down: some 60 hours in the same place. I am reliably informed that a good time was had (and then mostly lost in a dim haze) by all. 

Just to prove we haven't gone soft on our day off we're warming up for this evening's gig in habitual style with another seven-hour bus journey – whoop di doo – and to cap it all, even the trees are starting to look a bit ropey.

Well, that was all very factual and not terribly interesting reading – er, sorry about that, but the tour has entered that 'daily grind' stage. Though obviously we are still enjoying ourselves. We're pros after all – we can make our own fun from all manner of unpromising situations – bit like being on stage really ...


I'm trying to sell a flat, you know. I only mention that as a little reminder that somewhere out there is a real world. A real world that none of us are having too many hands-on dealings with at the moment. The occasional phone call from reality: the boiler's broken; your mother's ill; hello, dear; the kids are missing you terribly...

And so... a moment's introspection, casting your mind back across the water. But you're powerless to do anything. You can't make the days go any faster or bring that reality any closer. All you can do is smile. Make the best of it. Shake yourself from that reverie. Just get used to your responsibility-free zone and put your feet up for a while. Perhaps another margarita. Cheers. It's not always as easy as it sounds.

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Free thoughts on 'Violence, a new perspective...'

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 16:27 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010


Lord Blair/BBC

Lord Blair/BBC

Radio 3 listener blogger Rosalind Porter attended former Met Police Commissioner Lord Blair's lecture and discussion at Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. Here, Rosalind tees up next week's broadcast...

With the central theme of this year’s Free Thinking being:  ' pursuit of happiness', the title of this particular lecture did appear to sit a little out of place – surely a policeman’s lot is not a happy one?  But the opportunity to hear opinions from Lord Blair, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, enticed a large audience to Hall 2 at The Sage Gateshead: Philip Dodds, presenter of Night Waves maintained law and order as our moderator. 

Lord Blair started by making some interesting comparisons between policing back in the 1960s when he started his career as a constable on the beat, and modern times; he gave a vivid account of Friday night fights with their cauliflower ears and broken pub chairs, along with a sobering reminder that police attitudes towards domestic violence in these days was often one of 'do not interfere' – thank goodness that has changed. 

But then he went on to state that we should reassure ourselves that we are not living in an overly violent society.  This was a statement which seemed to surprise many in the audience, including myself.   He quoted some salient figures which suggested that violent crime in the UK had peaked in 1995, going on to provide some fascinating insight into the effect that media manipulation and political expediency have had on the public’s perception of violence.  This was definitely a thought-provoking argument which perhaps warranted deeper discussion with Philip Dodd and I was disappointed that there evidently wasn’t time for more analysis of this.

It was especially revealing to hear Lord Blair’s views on the effect that alcohol has had on modern violence, particularly in relation to the licensing law changes which were supposed to usher in a new 'cafe society' in Britain, but which instead have led to Britain's new reputation as a nation of binge-drinkers.

As a central point of his lecture, Lord Blair made comparisons between London and New York City in the way in which NYC has reclaimed its streets for its citizens, and how he felt that citizens themselves should act to reduce violence and the triggers that cause it.  It was an interesting idea, but given the toughness of the zero tolerance action by the police and authorities in NYC, I found myself doubting if many would approve or sanction such a move in a British city even if it did then allow the general public to 'reclaim' their surroundings from violence.

There were some interesting exchanges between Lord Blair and the audience, especially with an ex-copper who disagreed with some of his opinions ...  It would have been worthwhile to discuss in more detail terrorist violence and its impact on the UK public, as well as for Philip to explore further some tantalisingly brief comments from Lord Blair about the public and private persona of a top policeman at times of crisis.  This lecture may have been a detour on our Free Thinking pursuit of happiness, but it was a very worthwhile one.  Watch out for the broadcast!

Lord Blair's discussion is broadcast in Radio 3's Night Waves at 9.15pm on Thursday 25 November. Follow this link for details.

Marriage guidance ...

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 16:04 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Frank Cottrell Boyce

When the screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce - this year's Thinker-in-residence at the Free Thinking Festival - was asked by Radio 3 which topic he would like to be the subject of a public debate, he replied 'marriage'.

The ensuing discussion was broadcast in Radio 3's Night Waves last Tuesday - you can listen to the broadcast by following this link

To feed into the discussion, we asked audiences at Free Thinking to give us their thoughts on post-it notes which were put up on screens in the foyer of The Sage Gateshead, where the festival took place.

The notes were by turns witty, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny and poignant. You can find a selection of these messages by following this link to the programme page, but a much more extensive sample is on our Facebook page which you'll find by clicking this link. You can also add your own messages there.


On tour with the BBC Concert Orchestra

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Andy Wood Andy Wood | 11:11 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

BBC Concert Orchestra bass player Andy Wood blogs from the band's current US tour

trying to sleep on tour



Right... cab's due at twelve... flight's not 'til five past four. Should be there in plenty of time: check-in; security; quick drink (followed by several slow ones...); board plane with last minute dash to gate 306 which probably isn't even in the same postal district as the rest of the Terminal. Perfect. Just got time for a few last minute checks. Let's see: passport, check; keys, check; turned off gas, check; suitcase, check; dignity....? Ah, no point taking that, chances are I'll only go and lose it within five minutes of arrival... Hey, let's not be over optimistic here: Departure...

Some hours later in a departure lounge ...

There are quite a lot of concerned glances being cast in our direction. Innocent members of the public are clearly wondering what this strange party of people represent. They try in vain to convince themselves that they are sharing the bar with a group from the Nervous Flyers Association: wherever one looks, nerves are being steadied. Dutch courage is the order of the day. The steadiness of nerves is inversely proportional to the steadiness of balance... but what can you do? These people are clearly very nervous. Or so bystanders keep telling themselves. When all else fails, a stubborn refusal to admit the truth will see them through... either that or acknowledge the horrible reality that they are sharing a departure lounge bar with... musicians.


When first approached about writing a 'tour blog' I backed away nervously. When next approached, I turned full tail and ran like hell. The fact that you are now reading this is incontrovertible proof that you can run but you can't hide.

When given more time to consider the implications of my appointed task my reaction was 'well, that's an interesting way of handing in your resignation.'  Consequently I am sure that you will indulge me when I tell you that for the safety of all concerned some names and places – and indeed anything that may be considered founded in fact – may have been changed....

'We're like a family, you know.' All sounds cosy enough, doesn't it? Sure? Just think about it for a moment: most of us have pretty much grown out of going on holiday with our parents by the time we're sixteen. And here we are, fifty of us, no escape for three weeks. And I'll tell you what, this motley collection are less Waltons, more Addams Family, take it from me. Touring: a tricky business and not a cakewalk... there'll be emotional outbursts, doors slamming, going to your room in a sulk, tears and tantrums, and somewhere amidst it all, a few gigs. Still, I'm sure we'll muddle through, but first things first: suck on a boiled sweet - it's time for take off. Are we there yet...?


Er... yes... and a pretty tough time we've had of it too. Cab, departure lounge, plane, coach, evening meal: all that sitting around takes it out of you, I can tell you. Fortunately we've got a day off in Boston to get acclimatised.

Boston, it has to be said, seems a pretty civilised, genteel kinda place, affording you plenty of opportunity to wander around a bit, sit down a bit, have a wee coffee, have a wee drink, have a bit more of a wander around. And there are plenty of closet culture vultures in the band whose lust for learning, need for knowledge and ache for artistry was more than met by a walk round the Museum of Fine Arts   'One of the largest museums in the United States, attracting over one million visitors a year, it contains over 450,000 works of art, making it one of the most comprehensive collections in the Americas' - that's according to Wikipedia so the accuracy of that observation is anyone's guess. Still, you takes your culture where you can find it and they all seemed happy enough – heck, some of them even walked round the inside...

My one (printable) regret about our time in Boston was to have missed out on another more than worthy art collection at MOBA – the Museum of Bad Art. Anyway, not everyone is suited to the museum circuit. The BBC Concert Orchestra is comprised of myriad personality disorders / types. And between us we soaked up pretty much all that Boston has to offer in the short time available to us. We even had a quiet chat in a bar with the ever-charming Dean who once considered buying our new principal conductor Keith Lockhart's house in Utah, only to ultimately discount it as having a rather poor, disappointing kitchen. But hey, if you're forever travelling the world being generally showbiz, you don't really need a swanky kitchen... by the time you get to that stage one probably just expects silent, deferential folk to lurk in the shadows, bearing silver salvers laden with gin and tonics and tasty morsels of finger food, ready to rush forward at the merest hint of the Maestro's arm reaching out, clutching for refreshment.


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Star over London ...

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Alyn Shipton Alyn Shipton | 11:29 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Gretchen Parlato. Photo xopyright © 2010 Emile Holba.

Gretchen Parlato. Photo copyright © 2010 Emile Holba.

 One of the great things about any jazz festival is the opportunity to hear singers and instrumentalists for the first time. And sometimes, you're fortunate enough to hear a musician who really stands out, and has that indefinable quality that denotes a star.
I'd been aware of the young American singer Gretchen Parlato from her eponymous debut album in 2005, and last year's follow-up, In a Dream. But up until the opening night of this year's London Jazz Festival, with Guy Barker's opulent 'Jazz Voice' show, I had never had the opportunity to hear her live. And the experience was a revelation.
That's not to say she hasn't performed here before, just that I've never managed to get to a show.
Yet, there haven't been all that many opportunities. She is becoming very well-known in her native United States, where she works a lot, and in Europe her main appearances have tended to be in Scandinavia, with showcases this year at Copenhagen, Molde and Stockholm.
However, I suspect that after this year's appearances in London  — she appeared as a guest in bassist Esperanza Spalding's South Bank concert, and did a sold-out solo show at Ronnie Scott's as well as appearing with Guy — she will be back often.

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Free thoughts on musical emancipation ...

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 11:27 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Soweto Kinch Photo: Getty Images

Soweto Kinch Photo: © Getty Images

Musician and regular Radio 3 Listener Blogger Rosalind Porter reflects on a stimulating session at the Free Thinking Festival

I am rather ashamed to admit that before this lecture I knew little of British jazz star Soweto Kinch, the saxophonist, composer and rapper who has twice won a MOBO award and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.  Sometimes being so heavily entrenched in the classical music genre has its drawbacks.

Soweto Kinch has a charismatic presence onstage and communicated an obvious passion for his subject matter:  the relationship between music and emancipation.  It was thought provoking to accompany him on a whistlestop journey through black social history and its inseparable bond to music.   The choice of music examples was excellent and brought the lecture to life.  Segueing through the pathos of  'John Henry’s Ballad' from the mid-19th century, to rebellious 1980s English punk performed by The Clash, the highlights were definitely Mr Kinch’s own alto sax solos – an expressively played blues by Duke Ellington and bebop from Charles Parker.

After his lecture, Soweto Kinch was interviewed by BBC Radio 3 Night Waves presenter Rana Mitter, who also invited questions from the enthusiastic audience.  This provided a much appreciated opportunity to hear some of Mr Kinch’s own music commenting on social issues, as well as to discuss the current dichotomy of contemporary popular musicians taking a serious view of society and politics against the meaningless pap of mass-produced pop sold to the masses via the X-Factor and other media outlets.  

But I was left with a sense of optimism that the development and democratisation of technology, the continued importance of the live gig and the many independent means of music distribution would further enable musicians with a conscience to spread their feelings to a wider audience. 

I would have liked to have heard more about Soweto Kinch’s music festival working with underprivileged groups in Birmingham, and was sorry to hear that he has not yet collaborated with classical musicians in his music-making.  My pervading thought as I left The Sage Gateshead's Hall Two was:  Where is classical music’s Soweto Kinch?   Where are the young classical composers and musicians who can make their music-making vividly relevant to social and political issues of today?  We talk about improving the accessibility of classical music to the younger generation – perhaps this is a route we need to explore, or does the still predominantly middle-class and white background of classical music preclude this from happening?  I sincerely hope not.

Do look out for details on the BBC Radio 3 website for the broadcast date of this Night Waves programme. It is highly recommended.

Having a good rant ...

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Ian McMillan Ian McMillan | 15:06 UK time, Saturday, 6 November 2010


Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan blogging from Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival

I'm fresh from the ranters event here at Freethinking which was, as they say, an excellent example of cross-generational thinking . Four young people and two older members of the public stood up in front of an audience and ranted for two minutes (guided by my trusty Radio 3 horn) on the broad themes around the central Free Thinking idea of Happiness guided by me and the excellent Alfie Joey.

The subjects of the rants (although 'rants' is an odd term for some of the polite, witty, well-constructed essays that we heard) ranged widely from exasperation at the amount of change you get in your pockets, via a plea for us all to step out of our comfort zones, to a passionate plea for us all to value our friends more;  everyone was moved and stimulated by the sight and sound of people standing and delivering in such a lively way.


And then we made a song up! Last year we'd made a kind of flat-cap rap about the rants and this year I foolishly said I'd help to make a song on the theme of happiness; we wrote lines on a flipchart and then someone referred to the phrase 'happy as Larry' and wondered who Larry was and we were away!


The song built and built and there was a great deal of community singing about Larry and the pursuit of happiness… but here's a funny thing about the function of memory. I can't remember any of the lines. I know that at the time it was a magical occasion; somebody called it a 'miracle' but maybe the idea of a miracle is that it's for the moment, and then the ripples spread out over history. Just like Free Thinking, in fact. And you'll be able to hear the song on a future edition of Radio 3's Night Waves memorably…


The Free Thinking Festival at The Sage Gateshead continues on Radio 3 until Sunday 7 November; recordings from the Festival will be broadcast in the coming weeks on Radio 3.

Free thinking kicks off ...

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 18:28 UK time, Friday, 5 November 2010


Humanaquarium at The Sage Gateshead

Humanaquarium at The Sage Gateshead

It's 630pm on Friday 5 November and the first event at this year's Free Thinking Festival is starting in The Sage Gateshead's Hall Two: it's the Free Thinking Lecture by Dame Jacqueline Wilson, creator of the Tracy Beaker novels - she's drawing on years of correspondence with her young readers andt their families, to understand the changing nature of happiness (one of the Festival's key themes), and how we can find it today.

As ever, The Sage is buzzing with activitiy - the central core of the building is its busy cafeteria; there are cello cases standing by tables as members of the Northern Sinfonia meet for a coffee and a chat before their evening concert at 730 - you can hear the concert (Ives's The Unanswered Question, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's 'Little Russian' Symphony No.2) on Radio 3 at 7pm next Monday, 8 November.

One fascinating feature of the foyer installations this year is 'Humanaquarium' (see picture). It's a gauze box in which a singer and an instrumentalist sit and perform ambient music live. The technicals, as I understand them, are that the front wall of the 'Humanaquarium' is a touch-sensitive window. Software translates the locations of touches into control data which acts on the varius sound beds of the music. So you can interact with the musicians and the music by going up and touching the screen. The installation is attracting a lot of attention ...

Free Thinking events are broadcast on Radio 3 during the weekend, and on various Radio 3 programme strands such as Night Waves in the coming weeks. Scheduling details are on the Radio 3 website.

For an unusual take on the festival, I recommend Jon Jacob who's an independent presence, wired to social media through tweets, YouTube, blogs and audioboos. His boos are short clips and interviews which give a vivid up-to-the minute commentary on what's going on, filtered through Jon's fertile imagination. You can hear about his arrival in Newcastle - And the Sage is where? - by clicking this link, and one of the first people he bagged for interview was Anthony Sargent, director of The Sage Gateshead - you can hear what Anthony had to say by clicking this link.

More news as it happens ...

And the news is that The Verb's host Ian McMillan has just come to the desk as I've been writing this to tell me he'll be on the computer during the breaks tomorrow to give us his up-to-date thoughts and ideas.        

Full details of the Free Thinking festival are at



Drawing the battle lines at Free Thinking

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Rana Mitter Rana Mitter | 12:49 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

Countdown minus two days to the greatest concentration of minds since the Enlightenment – well, maybe that’s a bit much, but certainly the greatest concentration since last year’s Free Thinking Festival.  Once again, I’m heading for the Sage Gateshead for Radio 3’s annual festival of headscratching, steam-letting and general high-level cogitation.  I’m particularly excited as last year’s event was a lot more fiery than I’d expected – I have particularly vivid memories of architectural history buffs who were vocally determined to salvage Victorian heritage from the wrecker’s ball, starting in the streets of Newcastle if necessary...  And this year, as the economic crisis continues to bite, the Festival’s taken on the much-needed theme of Happiness – what is it, how can we get it, and will we know it when we have it?   

As an academic myself, I’m particularly looking forward to the debate on academics and the media, asking a question that’s central to the work that some of us do – can we get complex research over to a general public without simplifying it beyond reason?  And I also hope we address a point that isn’t always as clearly understood – can we explain to the public why some work isn’t easily explained in general terms, and that it’s the technical and inward-looking nature of the work that makes it so groundbreaking?

And as an avid consumer of snazzy electronics, I’ll be looking forward the debate on 'Do possessions make you happy?' … and perhaps to being strong-armed by a gang of militant ascetics who are determined to prove that possessions certainly don’t make you happy, and prove the point by chucking my new laptop into the Tyne…

But happiness endorphins may have to give way to adrenaline on Saturday night – as I gear up for a radio first – the battle of the radio stations.  This makes Eurovision look like a piddling little affair, as the BBC is staging the first ever grudge match – er, I mean civilized debate, between Radio 3 and Radio 5Live, battling it out over the honour of Britain itself.  We’ll be debating where our nation’s greatest talent lies – is it in the arts, or the world of sport? 

I’ll be chairing for the Radio 3 side, and we’ll be fielding critics Jonathan Sawday and Sarah Dunant to speak up for the Sage over St James’s Park, for the White Cube Gallery over White Hart Lane. 

But friends have warned me to beware of the demon debating skills of my co-host, Radio 5Live’s Eleanor Oldroyd, honed in the crucible of that station’s fast-talking Fighting Talk show.  Well, I reply, we’ve got form too – our side has been sharpening its rhetorical rapiers on numerous editions of Night Waves.  So let battle commence, along with the chanting. 

Come on now: Radio 3 – there’s only one Radio 3…


Read 5Live presenter Eleanor Oldroyd's Free Thinking blog by clicking this link.

Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival takes place at The Sage, Gateshead, from 5-7 November.

For a full schedule of events download the Free Thinking festival PDF as a brochure

Visit The Sage website to book tickets.

Or call The Sage Gateshead ticket office on 0191 443 4661

Tickets are free and you can start booking from 16 September.

Follow us on Twitter @bbcradio3live (link to )
Use hash tag #r3freethinking for your Free Thinking tweets.

Meet the new World Routes Academician ...

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Peter Meanwell Peter Meanwell | 17:30 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Hari Sivanesan

Hari Sivanesan


After an incredible inaugural year delving into the music of Iraq, the World Routes Academy shifts its focus to South India for 2011, as the newest members of the Academy were announced on World Routes this Saturday afternoon. In the first session of many for the 2011 Academy, Lucy Duran was joined in the studio by the new protégé of the scheme veena player Hari Vrndavn Sivanesan.

Londoner Hari, whose parents are originally from Sri Lanka, has studied the veena since he was eight at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and it was from there that as a teenager he ended up being invited to tour with Ravi Shankar and George Harrison and to record on the album Chants of India. Brushes with stardom aside, Hari is an amazing advocate for the music of South India, and a soulful and virtuosic player of the veena, managing to combine devotion to the instrument and a deep knowledge of the culture around it with a keen sense of humour.

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Available from Tuesday: chart downloads!

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Gabriel Gilson Gabriel Gilson | 15:18 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010


Top of the Pops


Gabriel Gilson, Radio 3's Interactive Editor, on a new solution to an old problem.

If you're of a certain age, you'll remember the weekly excitement generated by the broadcast of the Top 40 and the nail biting build up to the new Number One. It was so unmissable, many of us spent our Sunday afternoons holding a portable cassette recorder up to the radio in a desperate attempt to capture the excitement. The snatches of family life those tapes would have on them if they hadn't been unspooled somewhere along the M1 could be a great cultural archive!

It's taken a few years, but Radio 3 are now able to offer the same thing, though with much more convenience. Every Tuesday we'll be releasing a weekly podcast (free download if you prefer) with highlights from the week's Specialist Classical Music Chart, as broadcast on Radio 3 Breakfast. So you'll be able to take it away and listen where you want to.

I'm looking forward to having a soundtrack to my cycle rides, though that's probably not the safest method. If you try it, you'll notice it features longer extracts of music than our other podcasts. For a six-month trial, we're able to include up to 9 minutes of music from each CD. It's new for us and the music industry, so we'd like to hear what you think. You can comment on this blog, and there'll be an online survey in the new year.

We think it'll be a great new way to listen and a quick way to find out which new releases you might want to find out more about. In these days of digital plenty, that's pretty handy - all now available without the sound of the dog barking from the next room.

The Radio 3 Specialist Classical Chart podcast will be available from Tuesday by clicking this link

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