Thursday, January 03, 2008

Another fruitless nod for Tod

The British 'honours' system appears a closed book at the best of times and probably ought to be thrown clean out of the window; but while we're stuck with it, it continues to cause controversy. Pliable at the Overgrown Path has an excellent post about the veteran British conductor Vernon Handley, who despite having done more to further the cause of British music than probably anybody else alive is still one of the few older UK conductors to be left without a knighthood. This despite a high-profile campaign a year or two ago at Gramophone with a petition named 'Nod for Tod' (we all call Handley 'Tod' for short).
Talking it through with musician friends who are as annoyed about this as I am, we looked at a list of top British conductors and came to one uncomfortable conclusion. Most of 'em went to Cambridge. Tod didn't (he attended Oxford!).

Quite why Cambridge should produce so many successful conductors is a moot point, because you do not learn how to conduct there.

The big exception to the rule is (Sir) Simon Rattle, the best of the lot, who has left the country.

UPDATE: Friday 4 Jan, 9.15pm - Julian Lloyd Webber had an article in yesterday's Telegraph about why there are so few successful British conductors, arguing that the top jobs here always go to foreigners. He's right. He's also right in saying that it's because young conductors are not properly nurtured here.

I reckon that that also explains why the Cambridge brigade gets on. Given that there is no systematic programme for good, serious, high-level musical education for young children in Britain beyond four or five specialist schools and some well-meaning Saturday joints, and nothing except keen amateurdom is seen as desirable in any case (fine in itself, but not for professionals), a would-be anglomaestro can only fall back on experience gained through personal initiative. In Cambridge, any kid who has the drive to do it can book a chapel, put together a student band, stand in front of them and wave the baton. Bingo: experience. This doesn't make them technically adept. Some have gone on to better training chez Musin or Panula. Others haven't. Look at the pedigrees of our resident orchestras' bosses, Jurowski, Salonen and Gergiev, and don't be surprised that we can't compete.