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Jessica Duchen
Thursday 14th January 2010
Don't Kill Alex Prior

[UPDATE, FRIDAY 15 JANUARY: Since writing the post below, I've been in contact with Alex Prior who tells me that he was "totally misquoted" in the articles that caused the fuss!]

I've been watching with dismay the fuss created by the Daily Telegraph's piece yesterday on Alex Prior, the 17-year-old conductor-composer. He's been given a post by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra - a 'specially created six-month fellowship' in which he becomes assistant to the guest conductors. The follow-up interview yesterday quoted him, and his mother, making some very sweeping and singularly unfortunate remarks about the bitterness of the attitude towards young talent in Britain. The piece has caused orchestral musicians, managers and just about everyone else to go into near meltdown with fury on Facebook and Twitter.

It's all ridiculously exaggerated, of course, and frankly, nobody comes out of it very well. But I want to add a few words in his defence - because young musicians with this much talent do not grow on trees. Also, I'm anxious that other ambitious youngsters will be put off by the bile that's being flung at him before he's even had a chance to grow up.

Most of us were arrogant in our late teens. At that time I, too, probably regarded music as 'the search for beauty through suffering' - one just does at 17 - but luckily this wasn't of national interest. And I'll never forget my first days in the music faculty, aged 18, where cocky lads fresh from public school paraded around the library saying "Prokofiev's rubbish!" and amused themselves by photocopying certain bits of their own anatomy. That wasn't of national interest either, though I bet the Daily Mail could have had some fun with it if they'd known.

The Telegraph doesn't look good. Prior's fellowship in Seattle is exactly what any young conductor should be doing anywhere possible: a sort of apprenticeship that offers the chance to shadow and learn from seasoned professionals. Countless conductors regularly pay tribute to their days as assistants - Daniel Harding and Ed Gardner, for instance, have both praised to the skies this aspect of their training. But it's not a significant conducting appointment in the slightest, and shouldn't have been reported as such. 

But also the Prior family doesn't look good - if, that is, that they've been accurately quoted... they should probably know by now that giving the impression of arrogance is a massive sin in this country (though they could probably get away with it in the US or Russia). If they encouraged the coverage, it wasn't a great idea. Alex is conducting at The Sage, Gateshead, next week (as his PR has told me several times, with the kind offer of 'press accreditation' which I've had to refuse since I will be trotting around Tenerife with Vladimir Jurowski & co just then) and they should be trying to build up good will, not ill will, in advance. Over-selling mild successes generally does create bad feeling, inevitably so, because this is a very, very competitive field and there are others in the picture too, often more highly awarded...

But actually the UK isn't perfect. The words dissing British orchestras are frankly nonsense - our orchestras spend huge amounts of effort, money and creativity on providing opportunities for young conductors, players and interns, many very successfully. But the fact remains that the standard of musical training in Britain is not always internationally competitive. This isn't the colleges' fault - it's a matter of national attitude. To become a good professional musician you have to start very young, be very well taught and work very, very hard. None of this is encouraged here; there is no widespread 'system' for training the gifted young - yes, there are junior colleges, youth orchestras, Saturday music schools etc, but living near a good one is a lottery, and there are only four or five small, high-level specialist full-time music schools in the whole country of 60 million people. It's generally assumed here that childhood is desperately precious, that it's all about having fun, and that being gifted or prodigious will lead you to MISERY later on. Hmm. It's worth remembering that not being gifted or prodigious doesn't actually guarantee that you will live happily ever after...

So what is happening to Alex Prior is sadly typical of what happens to gifted youngsters in Britain, especially if their background involves cultures where attitudes towards talent and publicity are perceived as deeply unBritish (his mother is, of course, Russian). There's plenty of attention, but it is attention designed to destroy, not to encourage others by example. And of course reality TV is a sure-fire path to notoriety. There is such a thing as bad publicity, and this is it.

HOWEVER. I have seven nephews, some of whom are a similar age to Alex. And if anyone did to any of them what the media and commentators are doing to him, I personally would go round and tear these people limb from limb. You are talking about a 17-year-old boy, for God's sake! What anybody does at 17 is really not supposed to be all that interesting; what he'll do at 37, 47 and 57 is a great deal more significant. *IF* he has suitable mentors and the chance to grow up and learn the lessons he must - without being publicly lynched for it before he's even old enough to vote - he might just have what it takes to do something very interesting indeed. I only hope we will have the chance to find out. 

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Barbara Griffin
January 11th, 2011
9:01 AM
Hi Jessica, quite agree. My armchair psychologist take on it is that the music critics sometimes feel insecure that only 27 people in their local village read their column vs. the 27 bazillion people who watched the TV programme, therefore fight a little harder to make an point, which of course has to be the opposite - because of feeling some sort of survival threat. hmm, it's a theory. and of course I exaggerated and made up those figures. love your work. Barbs (in NZ, just having seen 'it' on telly here.)

Helen Li
March 16th, 2010
6:03 PM
A very well-written article. You are absolutely right in saying at Alex Prior will become should be the main topic of concern, not what he is doing or saying now in the time-honored fashion of teenage irrespresiblity and exaggerated ego. All parents are dotty, not only Alex' mother. At least Alex has written over forty musical pieces at the tender age of 16/17. So I guess she has a right to brag a little. Give the young man a chance to grow up.

Chris Gordon
January 15th, 2010
5:01 PM
Thanks for this fairly unbiased article. Whether he has really been "totally misquoted" is questionable - they ALL say that. A position for 6 months (only), which, given he was a finalist at Leeds, doesn't appear to me unreasonable. However, my problem with him is that, a lot of what he is about has been achieved purely by the financial and PR backing he has. He (or his mother) is also guilty of making this small appointment a big deal through the media. "After people found out that he had got an appointment in America, orchestras here started ringing" is no doubt a carefully thought-out promotion sentence.

David Nice
January 15th, 2010
10:01 AM
Words of wisdom, Jessica, and eloquently put. I, too, didn't find the young whippersnapper very appealing on that TV programme, and couldn't understand why he had it in for a supremely talented young cellist, but - yes, it's youth. I shudder to read what I put in my diaries of that time.

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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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