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Jessica Duchen
Thursday 10th September 2009

Amazing: with just two days to go, nobody's slagged off the jingoism of the Last Night of the Proms yet, unless I missed something while I was away in Amsterdam (for pics of my trip see Facebook). The news that David Attenborough will be making his debut playing the floor polisher in Malcolm Arnold's Hoffnung-inspired 'A Grand, Grand Overture' is probably the best pre-emptive strike ever invented against offslagging. This crazy piece involves an all-star vacuum-cleaner quartet and can have the same darling-little-England Ealing Comedy effect as that ukelele orchestra the other week, with knobs on (literally). I'd been planning to do a bit of it myself (offslagging, not playing the floor polisher...). 'Land of Hope and Glory' indeed - with the country in its current state? You gotta be joking. 

But there's more good news around than I'd expected. On one hand, Elgar, if he were alive today, wouldn't be too pleased to see that the UK's social mobility is back where it used to be in his lifetime. He was born in a tiny cottage in the middle of a field and ended his life as an Order of Merit, but he had an over-long struggle to get there, against snobbery, anti-Catholic feeling, pro-Oxbridge old boys' clubs, the need to be essentially self-taught as a musician from a poor background, and all the rest.

On the other hand, he might applaud one initiative we haven't heard enough about: apparently we are about to start a National Year of Music. Of course, it's got to be justified by the now well-established fact that music lessons improve kids' memories, help to civilise them and are not widespread enough for those whose daddies don't run a bank. But it's better than nothing.

Actually there are a number of fine initiatives around aiming to bring music to youngsters - the Sing Up campaign, In Harmony inspired by El Sistema, and more. But these projects, though large and nationwide, haven't in general found countrywide recognition - they don't shine out in the media as they probably could and should. Whatever does Venezuela have that we don't?

Their activities tend to be very diverse, spreading through many genres in many places - it can be difficult to find the focus with which to put everything across. Therefore the media doesn't see them, or music education in general, as a terrifically sexy topic.

Gustavo Dudamel is Venezuela's not very secret weapon. The public image of music education in Britain could be transformed by a Dudamel, if only we had one: a sexy young dynamic conductor possessed of musical genius, limitless charisma and a sky's-the-limit outlook to be pictured on every front page, prime-time news bulletin and concert hall poster in the country. With such a figurehead as a focal point to bring everything together, there's be a better chance for the message to get through.

At least they're trying. And I don't have to attend the Last Night of the Proms anyway - I shall be up a mountain somewhere near Salzburg. I hope you all enjoy the Hoovers.

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September 13th, 2009
2:09 PM
There is one. Mervyn Davies who used to be at Standard Chartered plays the cello and he is a Cambridge economist. Can't recall his exact title now, but he was recently appointed to some high office by the PM. When he worked in Hong Kong, Standard Chartered Bank sponsored the Asian Youth Orchestra.

Jessica Duchen
September 11th, 2009
8:09 AM
You're quite right, Peter - it's a sad state of affairs. Apropos of economists and the arts...I have two friends who studied economics at Cambridge University. One of them is now an actress and teacher of ballroom dancing; the other is second violinist in the Allegri String Quartet! I am not sure what this tells us about the joys of life as an economist.

September 10th, 2009
5:09 PM
Venuzuela has what we haven't got, an economist who is an amateur musician (when have you heard of an economist who plays music in the UK). He managed to persuade the ministry responsible for social affairs to fund this programme - this was a stroke of genius. Can you see our department for work and pensions funding this (or rather the Min of Education, on a national scale, seeing it's responsible for child welfare now, apparently?). Given that we have philistines in high places, I wonder how long it will take to take off in the UK. What we need is data evidence how many £££ the system will save the public purse by reduced crime rates, reduced vandalism, better educated young people and so on. But that takes a few years to work through. Governments are not interested in anything that cost them money without having immediate (and ideally vote-creating) results.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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