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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On stars and superstars,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH


Why do we always see the same performers booked over and over again, when there are many fine musicians of equal (or even better) quality who never get a chance? Are we just a culture of 'superstars', and no one wants to take a chance on someone less known? BTW,I want you to know that you have a loyal following here in the US.


Dear Suzanna,

Thanks for the vote of confidence and also many thanks for the question, which I bet many people have wondered about, especially over the last decade.

We live (as we're always being told) in a culture of celebrity. Anything to do with Jennifer and Brad, Michael and Catherine Zeta, Madonna, various pop groups too inane to numerate etc is news, big news. The Royal family, despite being almost entirely composed of morons, is big news. Magazines dedicated to nothing more than what X wore to Y's wedding sell in their trillions. Yet most people on the street, if pressed, would guess that Yo-Yo Ma is some kind of Yu-Gi-Oh card, and that Barenboim is a variety of champagne.

Popular culture, in short, has passed classical music by. To you and to me, Ma and Barenboim are superstars: to the average person, they are exactly as famous as you or me. Now it gets complicated. Are there enough classical music lovers out there to make booking Ma a better economic prospect than booking (just to take a case at random) me?

Correct answer: yes, but only in certain places. Carnegie Hall is one, the Queen Elizabeth Hall is another. Where enough of the elect are foregathered so as to make up a decent number. But here in Orpington, I can assure you, I would be a much better bet than Yo-Yo Ma, and the same thing probably applies (to different cellists of course) most places.

So that is the trouble. In a shrinking, aging market, it's incredibly hard for a brilliant young cellist, such as Jamie Walton, to break into the superstar bracket, and start swarming all over the world. People such as my parents (the backbone of most professional symphony concert audiences) haven't heard of him. They haven't heard of him not because he isn't sensational, but because he isn't already famous. OK and Hello aren't interested in Jamie Walton, or in Emma Bell the singer, or in any other exploding talent in classical music. Classical music is so far off the radar of the average reader that it would be tedious to explain, first, what a cello was and secondly, what is so exciting about it when really played well.

The vicious circle here is that, given the apathy of audiences and the importance of agents, orchestras are most likely either to stick to the tried and true (and expensive) Yo-Yo Mas or else to be sold 'the next Yo-Yo Ma' by someone who may truly not know great cello-playing from a hole in the ground. Hence your personal objection to some of the chosen few (who may very well NOT be chosen next year) who are given at least a shot at becoming the next big thing. Competitions can be rigged. Who you know DOES matter. And, in the ensuing stampede and melée, only a handful of the true stars will actually get their chance at recordings and Carnegie Hall.

I was struck, when reviewing two recent autobiographies (Janos Starker's and Renée Fleming's) to find that they quoted, at different points, exactly the same, rather bitter, rather wistful story about the classical music business:

Year One: The agent picks up the phone. 'We need someone like Nemo!'
Year Five: 'Get me Nemo!'
Year Ten: 'Nemo's too pricey. Get me the new Nemo!'
Year Fifteen: 'Nobody plays the violin like Nemo anymore.'
Year Twenty: 'Who's Nemo?'

(If that's how it seems to people who really DID make a solo career, I shudder to think how it feels to all the others ...)


Ask Alice

And here we pause for station identification. This is 'Ask Alice,' on mvdaily, and I want to put in a plug for Bob Geldof -- bless his cotton socks -- and his espousal of Make Poverty History, whose wristband is currently adorning my wrist.

This is a perfect example of how celebrities can actually do some good. Geldof is, like so many top celebrities, a crap musician, but, simply because he is Sir Bob Geldof, every channel devoted some time yesterday to discussing his free concert publicity stunt for one of my very favourite causes.

Do not listen to the smart asses claiming that free trade is fair trade. These African bongo-bongo economies have exactly the same chance to compete fairly with Europe as I do of competing with Yo-Yo (see answer above). Trammelled by debt-servicing amounting to as much as 1/2 their national incomes, their countries shot through with HIV and AIDS, they have no hope of coping with our subsidised (and dumped) food, goods and services. Future generations will look at us and shudder at our combined stupidity, feebleness and apathy.

Why is there economic immigration? Because people will do ANYTHING to try to make better lives for their children. Every three seconds, an African child dies of poverty. And we sit on our pudgy Western bums and do (almost) nothing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes, Africa is riddled with cupidity and corruption, poverty's ugly cousins. Yes, there are African leaders who should have been shot at dawn. But, especially if you look at what the campaign has done in places like Uganda, you can see where aid, with strings attached so as NOT to be hijackable by governments, HAS made an amazing difference in a very short time.

I urge you to log on to the Make Poverty History website.
I urge you, if within travelling distance of Edinburgh, to make the trip.
I urge you to get a wristband, to send money to Christian Aid or Oxfam.
(You notice I can't urge you, in all conscience, to actually HEAR any of those grisly concerts.)
Put down your trumpets and prepare for action!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(End of station identification. Cue music.)

Copyright © 3 June 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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