Antonia Quirke discovers the surprising joys of new classical station Scala Radio

The surprising joys of new classical station Scala Radio.

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Somewhere between the ads for Tim Burton’s Dumbo and a brand of cheddar vowing a “flinty texture” is a wickedly fun new show presented by electronic musician William Orbit (Monday-Thursday, 9pm). It’s on the weeks-old classical station Scala, where Simon Mayo leapt after quitting BBC Radio 2 last year. (His six-days-a-week show sounds much as you’d expect: conversational and busy, but in a way that never quite leaves you suffering from neural wear.)

The music across the station is positioned to be less sonorous than Radio 3 but not as ripe as Classic FM. So, the soundtrack to The Bridge on the River Kwai followed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory”, and perhaps a hit of Julian Bream’s school syllabus-fave recording of Concierto de Aranjuez. Sometimes they’ll stick on Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, which has oboes honking and swaying like a caravan of camels under a dawn the colour of raw meat. Other times it all sounds a little repetitive, as though programmed by an amnesiac planning a non-denominational wedding (string quartets doing versions of Blackbird).

But Orbit’s show is never remotely dull. Sixty-two, rich and cheerful, he’s predictably porous about what he considers classical (David Crosby, the Cardiacs) and has zero compunction about giving things an arrogant remix. His carve-up of Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 New York Philharmonic recording of The Rite of Spring (“I’ve chopped together four and a half minutes”) brought out a whole, West Side Story meets Jaws-theme sonic mashness designed to leave you like a gnat on a wing mirror (“Stravinsky purists, forgive me”). Pre-Beethoven’s 5th he marvelled at the “time signatures, they’re all over the place… like future multipliers with a tune”. He played something recorded by Damon Albarn on a toy designed by Mattel and wrote a whole, intense essay about Barber’s Adagio for Strings on the station website. The rest of the station sounds like it’s been there forever, especially the news bulletins, as random as on most commercial outfits – those head-lolling juxtapositions, knife-crime updates followed by the latest on Barbra Streisand’s July tour. But Orbit! He’s working on his own topologically intoxicating plane. 

William Orbit In The Space
Scala Radio

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control