The only thing high-brow at this station is the music


LONDON -- You hear the sappiest stories on that radio station.

Like the one about the woman who was taking a shower after a dip in a public swimming pool. She started humming Mimi's part from the first love duet in "La Boheme." Suddenly she heard, through the thin wall from the shower room next door, a strong male tenor starting out on the part of Rodolfo. Next thing you know the two of them were in full flight: Puccini in the nude.

"Standing there as I was," she said, "gripping my sponge, we went soaring through the entire aria."

It was one of those ineffable moments in life that people here, when they experience them, never forget but at the same time decline to make too much of. They are usually confined to diaries. The woman in question never met her Rodolfo, she said, though she thought he might have been the little bald-headed guy she saw emerge from the showers furtively clutching his bag about 20 minutes later.

The show on which this letter was read is called "Classic Romance." It airs Sunday mornings. People are invited to send in their boy-meets-girl reminiscences and request music that relates to them.

It is the most popular offering on Classic FM, the most popular classical music station in Britain and the newest.

It came on the air last fall as the first national commercial radio station in the United Kingdom, breaking the BBC's monopoly on national radio broadcasting. Recently, it won an award as the National Station of the Year.

Classic FM is a high-brow music station for the hoi polloi.

"The aim of its creators," said Penelope James, a spokeswoman, is "to make classical music accessible, less frightening, less ivory-towerish to ordinary people."

This it has achieved, in part by its format, which is plainly that of a popular-music station. The pop strategy includes chatty announcers and disc jockeys (known here as presenters) who tend to avoid the more esoteric selections.

The station creates its own versions of successful classical music programs. One such is "Celebrity Conductor," an obvious imitation of the 25-year-old BBC 4 program "Desert Island Discs."

The station's pop inclinations are evident in shows such as "Classic Countdown," kind of a top-of-the-charts show that airs every Saturday morning and plays the best-selling classical recordings of the day.

It was that show, with its American presenter, Paul Gambaccini, that helped enlarge the international reputation of David Zinman by its frequent playing of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director.

But not everyone has been won over by Classic FM, least of all the starchier listeners of BBC 3, with its patronizing presenters and their abstruse selections and snooty guests.

Some people actually make fun of Classic FM and at the ineptitude of its presenters. There is reason for this, for to stimulate the popular tone of the station, Classic FM declined to hire people who really knew much about classical music.

They took on instead the less erudite but more congenial types such as the Irishman Henry Kelly, who freely gives out racing tips on the air. The idea was to get regular blokes on the air and let them read record jackets.

But Mr. Kelly and others at the station, despite the efforts of a professional pronunciation specialist, now and then have trouble with the names of classical composers, especially the Hungarians and even sometimes the French.

Thus, a presenter was heard on Classic FM introducing "Bidet's 'Carmen,' " and "Revel's 'Judo.' (Bolero?)

Mr. Kelly, a naturally enthusiastic man, occasionally gets carried away; he lends support to the idea that a little bit of knowledge, newly acquired, can be not only dangerous, but embarrassing.

"And here," he once announced, "is a symphony that Schubert finished."

Also heard on the station, from another presenter, was this pronouncement: "It was Nigel Kennedy [a young British violinist] who made Vivaldi what he is today!"

In fact, so many bloopers have floated out over Classic FM's airwaves that they have given rise to a kind of public game, the invention of apocryphal Classic FM howlers. Among the best are Verdi's "Rigor Lotto" (Rigoletto), Elgar's "Dream of Geronimo" (Gerontius) and Stravinsky's "The Rice of Spring."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad