If you want to get ahead, get a hat

by Keith Clarke

A few years ago, in a spirit of experiment, BBC Radio’s classical and music network, Radio 3, made available for free download all of the Beethoven symphonies – a different one each day, with a limited time period in which they could be nabbed.

Since it had never been done before, the good sorts of Radio 3 had no idea whether the idea would only stir interest in a few switched-on souls and the producer’s friend Julian. Little did they know. The clamor for free Beethoven was astounding, stretching internet servers to breaking point and causing a great stink among record companies (understandably, since they only stay in business by selling the stuff).

The BBC made some half-hearted defense, saying how it had usefully tested the market for the record companies, which were then dipping their toes in the download waters, but the corporation never did it again.

These days, anything that goes out on Radio 3 is available in the UK on a listen-again basis for a week after transmission, and if you’re tech-savvy and have a disregard for copyright legislation, you can record it for posterity, which must also upset the record companies.

These random thoughts occurred last night when, returning from a fortnight of staring at the sea and trying not to do anything at all, I bestirred myself to go and hear David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Choral Symphony. I don’t know whether anyone was illicitly recording it at home, but I doubt they would want to replay it too many times, for it was one of those off-night performances, a special disappointment as it followed hard on the heels of an entirely wonderful performance of the world premiere of Graham Fitkin’s cello concerto with Yo-Yo Ma (a review will appear on the sharp end of this site in due course).


I can forgive David Robertson many things, but I remain envious of the immensely elegant Panama hat he was sporting when I turned up to interview him in California a few years ago. I had travelled from London bringing in my suitcase an item of headwear that was advertised as a “crushable Panama,” which was literally true, since you could certainly crush it. Getting it back into shape afterwards was a whole other thing, and as I admired Robertson’s titfer (Cockney rhyming slang – tit for tat = hat, geddit?), I couldn’t help drawing a comparison with what had taken on the appearance of a sad omelette, discarded in my hotel room.


The summer vacation is hardly a music-free zone, since we now get music on tap from all sources, but what makes a holiday special for me is hitting the off switch and getting down to the real thing. Never mind “Practice, practice, practice” to get to Carnegie Hall – what about “Play, play, play” for the sheer hell of it?

Little in life yields such instant joy as making music with friends just for fun. It happens all the time at home, and the only difference when friends and family visit for vacation is that the instrumentation changes a bit. The resident ensemble is violin and piano and, ok, most violin sonatas were not written with an obbligato part for mouth organ, but whenever there is live music everyone wants to join in. So it is that a motley crew, variously kitted up with washboard, tambourine, saucepan lids etc., forms a lively combo that throws itself into the most unlikely music and has the neighbors shouting for more. Well, it has them shouting, anyway.

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