Dame Janet Baker's speech from the Gramophone Awards

James InverneWed 12th October 2011

Transcribed, one of the most quietly moving speeches the awards has witnessed

Now that the event is over and the dust has begun to settle, I realise that my enduring memory of this year's Gramophone Awards will be of our Lifetime Achievement winner, Dame Janet Baker, making one of the most quietly moving and inspiring speeches the event has seen. There she stood, introduced by her old colleague Sir Peter Hall, and with effortless charisma, great modesty and unaffected charm she spoke of values which still guide all those who work in music, even when we have to fight to uphold them. Several people told me that they found themselves affected almost to tears.

Someone was kind enough to transcribe her address, so I thought it worth printing in full here. Even without her presence, its message still rings out.

 

‘Thank you Peter – you’re quite an act to follow as well – and thank you Gramophone for this wonderful, wonderful occasion. And it is a special moment to look back on one’s life. It allows you to perhaps assess the past a little more kindly as you grow older. An occasion like this is a celebration of excellence, and to be at the receiving end of the appreciation which has been expressed is a lovely feeling for all of us who’ve been honoured here this morning. I think award ceremonies are very courageous things, because they’re making a statement which is, at the time, not a terribly popular one – distinguishing quality, rewarding high standards – which of course is a right and proper thing to do.

I have a great-nephew who is with his regiment in Cyprus at this moment waiting to be posted to Afghanistan, and when he was a little boy of about fourteen, he had a passion to learn the guitar, so he saved up for one and bought one and took a took a couple of lessons, and we used to hear him in his bedroom, painfully plucking out the chords, obviously realising for the first time exactly what he’d taken on; and one day he came down and stood in front of me, despair written all over his face. He looked me in the eye, and he said, “Jan, are there any short cuts?” Everybody in this room knows there are no such things. I recently read a comment by Joan Collins, who was asked what was the formula for success, and she replied very smartly in her own inimitable way, “luck, talent and very hard work”.

When I began recording in the sixties, in my naïve youth, I thought live performance was the thing that mattered, but as time went on I could see for a start how stress-free and liberating it was to be making music in a studio, without having to face an audience. This is a tremendous thing. People have the idea that there is endless time available, and of course there is a possibility – you can edit things, correct things, sometimes repeat them – but there is always a tremendous awareness of a clock on the wall, measuring out a three-hour session, and reminding you that a specific number of minutes have to be in the can before the end of it. And I used to find it always very difficult to go into the control room and listen to playbacks, and being confronted by the sound of my own voice as other people heard it. It’s not an easy thing. And I’m not alone in this, I gather, because a lot of actors simply refuse to look at the day’s rushes of a film, because they don’t want to see themselves as others see them.

The atmosphere in a recording studio, with the large forces of the orchestra, can feel amazingly intimate though, and as we have seen this morning, can evoke that special sort of magic which sometimes descends on us, unbidden and beyond our control. It happens in the concert hall and the opera house, and it can happen in the recording studio as well. Recording has extended the perception of my own performance years in the sense that people come up to me convinced that I’m still actively singing, purely because they’ve listened to a recording played over the radio. It’s really rather nice.

I’m very grateful for all the opportunities which were available to me all those years ago and which sadly seem far fewer for young singers now. Our profession is, like all of them, going through hard times, and there’s a need to develop and broaden our audiences without compromising quality. And I believe one very good answer to this is the bright idea to put marvellous productions of opera on film and then play them to audiences in the cinema. It’s a very different experience of course, but the screen takes this ready-made product, which has cost the opera company a fortune, and gives people who well may feel – and often say – intimidated by the so-called elitism of the theatre. And it gives them the chance to see something of superb quality in surroundings where they don’t feel intimidated and they can both see and hear clearly, and I’m told by many who go what a magnificent experience it is. There’s such enthusiasm, and it’s really possible to imagine people being encouraged to try the actual theatre experience, become part of that audience as well.

But meanwhile, one of the most expensive art forms survives without compromising standards. Days like this celebrate survival, and it’s good to meet old friends, good to support each other and to take pride in each other’s achievements, and remind ourselves of the values which the arts bring to the world: things like discipline; training; pride in the job; the ability to work as a team. The other day I was speaking at the memorial service in St Martin-in-the-Fields for Robert Tear. It was a magnificent send-off on a magnificent day, and afterwards a crowd of us stood on the steps on St Martin’s, and a lady came up to me, and she said, “You don’t know me, I’m a total stranger to you, but I want to thank you for your recordings. Would you mind if I gave you a hug?” So there we stood, on the steps, in the middle of London hugging each other. And standing here this morning reminds me of that feeling. I’m not among strangers, I’m among friends and colleagues, and this award feels like having arms round me. I want to thank Gramophone and you all for giving me one of the most deeply touching experiences of my life, and thank you for this beautiful award, which epitomises it. Thank you.’

 

 

James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company, Inverne Price Music Consultancy, writes a culture column for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper and his byline can still be found from time to time in other places about subjects that get him exercised.

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