William Dart: Revamp needs far more work

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Chris de Bazin almost feels guilty for putting pianist Yuja Wang on TV. Photo / Leila Mendez
Chris de Bazin almost feels guilty for putting pianist Yuja Wang on TV. Photo / Leila Mendez

With our television screens pumping out a stale smorgasbord of cook-ups and cars, rugby and reality shows, an invitation from the Sky Arts channel to "escape from the ordinary" may seem tempting.

The channel is having a "topline re-brand", says the man in charge, Chris de Bazin, who may have had a hand in advertising copy that talks of "kicking things off with great new show premieres and inspiring docos".

However, leafing through the listings, not so much seems to have changed, with yet more recycling of familiar fodder, some with marginal arts-related content.

De Bazin says he is "very aware" of that critique.

"Under the previous ownership there were never less than six plays of anything bought," he adds. "Now we're getting down to five or four."

What of the man who plays such a key role in deciding what New Zealand art and music-lovers see on their small screens? In 2012 he told journalist Graham Reid that his top music read of the year was Swirly World by Kiwi rocker and radio host Andrew Fagan.

The three films he would insist anybody should watch to understand him better were Rambo, Mission Impossible and Transformers.

When I ask de Bazin for some classical music favourites, he starts off by confessing his fear of "waking up one morning in a Groundhog Day of the Philip Glass that I listened to the night before without Philip's variations between variations".

While my brain is still trying to fathom what that might mean, he adds "sweet little pieces like the Nocturnes" (Chopin's not those of Glass) to his list, and Mahler's Second. "Some people refer to Mahler as bloody folk music, but I dunno," he laughs. "I like the guy."

Moving to interpretative issues, he tells me how much he enjoys "the variations between players of Brahms pieces". Violinist Anne- Sophie Mutter (initially pronounced to rhyme with stutter) is dismissed as "too clinical".

Working through a fairly cursory list of favourites, he adds that conductor Lorin Maazel was often "criticised for being too much of a clinician".

After violinists and conductors we move to pianists. "Here's one for you," he proffers. "Yuja Wang, the Chinese girl. You almost feel guilty putting her on television actually because you think she's just eye-candy for people. Is she a real player?"

I gulp to the affirmative and he says: "Well, that's wonderful."

It turns out I am not the only one to gripe at the channel's insistence on broadcasting most of its operas without subtitles, rendering intriguing productions of Weinberg's The Passenger and Zimmermann's The Soldiers totally incomprehensible. It turns out that subtitles do not necessarily come with the original production and constitute a separate expense, bringing up the issue of budgeting.

But where does the subscriber's monthly $13.05 go? "It's a bit like road tax," de Bazin explains. "It goes into a big pot but not all of it necessarily goes back to the roads."

Yet minutes afterwards, he says, "This is a grown-up world and we've got to wear long pants. Every channel has to stand on its own two feet."

In the meantime, am I alone in feeling that the educative and cultural potential of television is being squandered?

Although de Bazin worries about material that is "so poncily self-serving as to be ridiculous" (the example given concerns the throat-singing of nomadic Tibetan herdsmen), how long must we wait for more documentaries such as Bill McCarthy's survey of the 2013 Wallace National Piano Competition, recently broadcast on Sky Arts?

- NZ Herald

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