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Vanessa-Mae at the Philharmonie
Still Hooked On Classics

Classical music is big business. The genre itself may be based on a canon of "greatest hits," and its aficionados still content with the etiquette of the hall. But away from the rarefied atmosphere of high culture, record companies are still acutely aware that a touch of the classics goes down great in the charts. From Wendy Carlos's magnificent classical-quoting soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange in 1971 to the gigantian Montserrat Caballe and Freddie Mercury embarrassing everyone with "Barcelona" in the late '80s, pop has relished cuddling up with the past.
Violinist Vanessa-Mae, who plays at the Philharmonie in Munich (11.02), is the latest in a long line of "popular classical" performers. She's certainly big business. Her CD The Violin Player has sold well over 100,000 copies in the UK alone and the single "Toccata and Fugue" was a sizeable European seller. EMI, who had the foresight to sign her, got an unexpected public relations coup when her violin, a rare and costly Guadagnini, was stolen just before the recording of her video for the "Toccata and Fugue" single.
Although she was discovered by the classical division at EMI, Vanessa-Mae is being mercilessly promoted as a pop star. Take the video to the "Toccata and Fugue" single: the attractive 17-year-old of Asian origin (she was born in Singapore and raised in Britain) is shown performing in a sun-drenched exotic location, paddling through the waves on a tropical beach and staring passively back at the camera in a personification of the Western male view of the gentle, subservient Oriental woman. Ultimately Vanessa-Mae's goal, like that of her immediate predecessor in the violin superstar stakes, the now passe Nigel Kennedy, is to make classical music acceptable to the masses. Although these artists some flak from purists, they serve as a reminder of the potential interest in classical music which still exists.
In a way, it's all the Beatles' fault. Nearly thirty years ago the Fab Four, plus producer George Martin, hit upon the idea of using a string quartet on their "Eleanor Rigby" single and a baroque trumpet for "Penny Lane." Since then there's been an uneasy alliance between the popsters and the classical buffs. Back in the era of progressive rock, this led to the sort of dreary concept albums peddled by the Moody Blues. Other offshoots included the rock opera and the resurrection of the musical starting with Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Probably the best, however, was the Who's Tommy, written mainly by lead guitarist Pete Townshend. Originally recorded in 1969, it was the subject of a Ken Russell movie in 1975 starring Oliver Reed, Roger Daltrey and Elton John and is now a critically applauded musical. It is currently playing in the Frankfurt suburb of Offenbach; call (069) 82 97 82 97 for ticket information

by David Buckley


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