Another Stab at Popularizing Classical Music — French Style

Susan Brodie, Toi Toi Toi
By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!

Once again French TV stupifies. Tuesday night 2 1/2 hours of prime time on the major French network channel France 2 were devoted to La Grande Battle, a “reality” competition to choose the best interpreter of a theme from classical music. Nagui, the game and genial MC, clearly not a classical music lover, managed three panelists, including tenor Rolando Villazon, an orchestra of young conservatory grads lead by a cute female conductor , a genial co-host who provided music appreciation explanations at the piano, and eight groups competing for 25,000€ worth of musical instruments.  Each segment treated a composer (for the record: Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bizet, Rossini, Handel, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky)

The finalists, chosen from videos submitted from all over France, performed pop-inflected versions of the chosen classical “greatest hits”. These acts covered a gamut of pop styles, including a Sinatra (Brat Pack-era) imitator, a kilt-clad quintet of clash-pop Celtic rockers, a hyper-kinetic sextet in clownish clothing who evoked Brave Combo, and even a home-grown salsa band complete with merengue dancers. As in any good reality show, more time was devoted to videos of their preparation at home and to onstage and backstage interviews with the contestants. The winners were chosen solely by the television audience, who voted by SMS or on the internet, presumably after discussion in online forums during the broadcast.

The winners were the sweetly nerdy Zig Zazou, eight long-time buddies from Amiens who played the “Habañera” from Carmen on  an imaginative array of home-made instruments. In their blue workers smocks they evoked a laid-back Blue Man Group minus the face paint. Interestingly, their version hewed most closely to the original style than the other groups. And ironically, as players of “found” instruments they had least need of a prize of musical instruments, but they were eager to buy cases and percussion instruments.

The program assumed a respect among the general population for high culture even in the absence of knowledge, which may be an outdated assumption even in France. But the tone was cheerful and the energy level was high. The didactic segments–short videos, demonstrations at the keyboard and with the orchestra (including Nagui’s comical stab at conducting), and interviews–were well-realized and appealing, providing snippets of human interest along with token facts about each composer’s most famous work. If the orchestra’s intonation was occasionally shaky and Madalena Kozena’s “Habañera”  was underrehearsed few are likely to have noticed. As Rolando Villazon observed, the real winner was “la music classique”. I doubt that a show of this sort will win many converts to classical music, but I admire them for trying.