Maestro at the Opera E1 (BBC2)

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Back in the summer of 2008, BBC2 aired a show called Maestro in which eight celebrity contestants tried to learn the art of conducting a classical orchestra in time to perform during that year’s BBC Proms season. Comedian Sue Perkins deservedly won it and in career terms hasn’t looked back since (she’s back for the voiceover of this new series, too.)

I thought at the time that it was exactly the sort of programme that a public service broadcaster like the BBC should be making: using the tools of the commercial TV world (in this case, the format of the reality talent show genre such as Strictly Come Dancing, The X-Factor and the like) and using them to make accessible subjects that normally wouldn’t appeal to a mass audience – such as classical music. It seemed inexplicable and a bit of a betrayal of that public service ethos that the series never returned for a follow-up season.

It’s taken four years, but finally the show had risen again: and this time, it’s opera. We were told in advance that it was not simply “a new series of Maestro” and that the format had been tweaked, and indeed the number of celebrities has been halved and the series reduced to a compact three episodes. If I had to guess I’d say that there’s far fewer educational scenes of the celebrities learning how to conduct than there were the equivalent in the original series; this seems more about the celebs doing gushing pieces to camera about what they were going through, how they were feeling, how hard it was and how it was opening their eyes to the world of classical music and opera. This may be unfair – it’s been four years since I saw the original series and maybe I’m just seeing my fears of the show “dumbing down” in the interim come true – but it does seem as through we’re being shared less actual information about the music, opera and the skills involved in conducting.

I certainly seem to recall learning a huge amount about the role of the conductor from the original 2008 show, which was very welcome as I have no musical knowledge, background or capability whatsoever: can’t play any instrument, can’t read music. I can listen and appreciate music as much as the next person, but I can’t say I listen to music any more or any deeper than is average. I knew that conductors didn’t just stand there waving there arms around aimlessly, but I had no idea how they did what they actually did. It says a lot, then, that even this slightly cut-down format does leave you with some take-out knowledge from what you’re viewing. Despite itself, it manages to teach at least a little as it entertains.

That was brought home to me as we watched the first live performances conducted by the four celebrities, after which one of them was to get voted off the island (or Royal Opera House in this case.) I had my own immediate thoughts as to how well they were doing – which is pretty audacious of me considering I have no clue about the skills required of conducting other than that I’d seen in this show and its predecessor. What was surprising was that my reactions and conclusions to each were pretty much exactly the same as the three experts on the panel, led by Sir Mark Elder.

There was mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy, who is already well known for his passionate wide-eyed intensity from his TV presenting work which meant that one of the teachers in this show described him – while he was wearing a black roll neck jumper during one of the training sessions – as looking like a serial killer. Having that sort of laser intensity directed at you as a member of the orchestra must be quite disturbing; but on the other hand, du Sautoy used his academic lecturing skills to make sure that he really did look right into the eyes of the musicians and leave them in no doubt that he was engaging them full-on. With his perhaps overly-precise conducting style he did come over as a somewhat old-fashioned conductor, but you immediately felt that the orchestra would be reassured that he knew what he was doing, was in control of the situation and that he wasn’t holding back on directing them at all times.

By contrast, comic actress Josie Lawrence clearly had a wonderful appreciation of the music, and at her best she could manage to embrace and convey what she wanted with every expression on her face and move of her body. It was exactly this sort of communication ability that worked so wonderfully for Sue Perkins in the original show. No one was in any doubt what emotional effect she wanted from the orchestra even if in Josie’s case the technique did waiver from time to time. Unfortunately, that ability to convey her inner feelings could also work against her: after a major pre-performance panic attack, her final performance before the judges saw her stumble on a number of occasions and then compound the misstep by screwing up her face and closing her eyes in fright, cutting herself off from the orchestra and coming close to creating outright panic among the musicians who had been suddenly left alone and were being told by her expression that the whole endeavour had become a disaster.

Then there was Radio 1xtra DJ Trevor Nelson, who had no prior knowledge of classical music, professed to dislike opera and simply not understand it, and who also had the setback of not being able to read music. If there was any true sense of dramatic character arc in the real world, then Nelson would have triumphed over these early problems and emerged as the winner of the series after undergoing a profound journey of joyous awakening to the art form – much as rapper Goldie nearly beat Sue Perkins in the original series from a similar starting point. Alas, that wasn’t to be: Nelson was clearly getting into opera and starting to genuinely love the aria he’d been given to work on, but when he got up on the conductor’s podium it was as if he forgot the orchestra was even there: he shut his eyes and looked for all the world as though he was just listening to the music on his iPod. His joy and love for it was evident; but unfortunately it meant he was simply following and reacting to the music rather than leading and shaping it, and his closed eyes totally left the poor musicians cut off and all at sea.

Strictly Come Dancing’s acid-tongued bad boy judge Craig Revel Horwood started off waving his baton around as if this was a competition to be the most camp person in the room (in which case he won, by a huge margin) and the rest of the programme had the various experts teaching the celebrities trying to get him to dial it back in more and more. Even by the end, the effect was still rather too comedic for comfort, and it looked like he was in a competition with the soloist to attract the most audience attention on stage rather than being the semi-invisible facilitator of the singer and orchestra’s performance. It was a wonder he didn’t start tap-dancing mid-aria to complete the effect. And yet for all that it was easy to poke fun at Harwood’s exuberant gestures, there was no doubting that he did manage to convey to the orchestra the emotional feel that he was after, and while his gestures were flamboyant they also managed to contain the key technical information the musicians needed to carry on performing.

In the end, the panel of judges got to ‘save’ two of the contestants, while the orchestra themselves voted for the third person to stay – a very nice touch, since they are the true experts of how well the celebrity came across to them. I was a little surprised that Harwood was one of the two that the experts saved straight away – to me, he still seemed rather too wrapped up in his own performance and too little interested in what the orchestra was up to, and he was almost completely dismissive of the soloist. I’d have chosen Josie to save since her first night problems were more a consequence of nerves, and those surely can be addressed with lessons. However, I think if Harwood had been put to the orchestra vote then he’d have lost and exited the show – and that would actually have been unfair. The right person was voted off the island in the end, however nice a personality they were.

As for the vote on the show itself: it was nice to have it back, but the cut-down format did make me miss the rest of it. The selection of celebrities was fine, but there was no one as shiningly good as Sue Perkins or as utterly dreadful as Peter Snow from the original. For a show about opera, this outing was too muted and unfortunately not bold and brashy enough.

Currently airing on BBC2 on Fridays at 9pm.

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