Listen Up!

Written by: Colin Anderson

Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3, talks about Listen Up! – six weeks of orchestral concerts … and more

We are invited to Listen Up! A welcome opportunity to lose the Walkman and the mobile and switch the car stereo to Radio 3; even more importantly to sample first-hand some quality live music-making. Radio 3, with the “Association of British Orchestras” and “Making Music”, is playing a major part in the Listen Up! initiative and devoting evening broadcasts to orchestral music. “It’s a health-check,” says Radio 3 Controller, Roger Wright, “and the hope is for a new audience, one made aware of groups performing within a stone’s throw from them. We’re also tackling community and education work.”

Listen Up! is launched on 23 September and lasts six weeks. It embraces amateur and professional orchestras across the country, 250 concerts, “made as accessible as you possibly can to as larger number of people without patronising that audience. All the material that these groups are putting out puts the marker down that Listen Up! is here; suddenly these groups become part of a bigger thing. The Listen Up! website lists all the events, and we hope that local messages delivered through traditional means and also the national ones will build up to a genuinely UK-wide experience.”

Something rather concerning though is that certain orchestral instruments are not being taken up by youngsters, even the oboe and trombone. “A lot of the infrastructure isn’t there. If through Listen Up! parents and children can connect with the excitement of live music, then they might also connect to a local orchestra and find a way in. If you learn an instrument you will get more pleasure because you’ll know just how difficult it is to do the things that people do on stage.” This is true: my own attempts at the piano and violin gave me insights into the skills needed, and one listens with more-informed ears.

It’s easy today to download music and play it through headphones, but the concert experience remains unparalleled. “One way is for people to connect to a particular orchestra. If we can build on localness and the recognition factor, that’s one way of breaking down the orchestra as this anonymous beast. There are not many places in the country where there isn’t an orchestra, whether amateur or professional. We have to reach those people who would have a jolly good time but don’t know it.”

It’s also overcoming people’s listening insularity, such as through the Walkman? “You’ve put your finger on it. Maybe we take music for granted or think that the Walkman experience is the same as the concert experience. The challenge is to go beyond the remote control. Listen Up! isn’t just an orchestral festival, it’s also about why live music is so exciting, it’s central to Radio 3, and we need to keep the excitement of the live event up there for people.”

Roger Wright believes that “audiences are in danger of losing that business of sitting and listening to something for 40 or 80 minutes; that attention-span thing is something very tricky for people who are used to instantaneous gratification.” There’s also the “very damaging” sound-bite: bits of symphonies. “We should celebrate good music being widely available. There are still some great recordings coming out; I love live radio and I love fantastic recordings on CD. What we need to do is to put quality as the benchmark and say how do we get that; the problem is when second-rate stuff is too available or we treat music as background in a way that we shouldn’t.”

Do check out the Listen Up! website. Do go to a concert. This is a significant and inspiring enterprise, one also social and educational. “There’s a job to do, to break down barriers; but you have to play the music straight and we’re back to our business of a passion shared – that’s the spirit of Listen Up! If you know a good piece of music, you want to share it.”


  • Radio 3 Listen Up!
  • ABO
  • Making Music
  • The above article (revised) was published in “What’s On in London” on 22 September 2004 and is reproduced here with permission

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