‘People want to escape reality and find something that gives them solace’


You wouldn’t think a BBC Radio 3 presenter had anything left to learn about the transformative power of live music. But the past nine months have taught Petroc Trelawny, who hosts the station’s daily breakfast show, more about the value of listening to something at the same time as other people than at any point since his mother used to take him, aged five, to concerts in the far corner of Cornwall they called home.

“A lot of people have rediscovered that radio can unite us and give us truly shared experiences that we can’t have quite so easily in ways we might have had in recent times, like going to the theatre or a restaurant together,” he says, via Zoom from his living room in his north London flat, where he lives alone. A lunchtime concert comes alive with everyone simultaneously tuning in. “When a pianist plays the first notes of a sonata, everyone is hearing that at the same moment.”

A New Year with a difference

Today, Trelawny, 49, will throw television into the mix when he hosts BBC Two’s coverage of the Vienna Philharmonic’s venerable New Year’s Day Concert, which first took place in 1939. This will be the first year in a decade Trelawny, who has presented the concert every year since 2011, has woken up in London, not Vienna, where celebratory midnight fireworks – “like wartime shelling” – usually make sleep difficult.

Conductor Christian Thielemann and musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are pictured during the traditional New Year’s Concert in Vienna, Austria (Photo: HERBERT NEUBAUER/APA/ AFP)

“It will be very strange being in London, but the important thing is the concert is happening because it’s such a symbol of the end of one year and the start of a new one,” he says. “The regularity of the event is part of its charm, climaxing in Strauss’s Blue Danube and the Radetzky March. I just hope this year we can think: ‘Well, we certainly have grim times ahead but at least things are moving hopefully in the right direction with the roll out of the vaccine and the hope that at least in the second half of the year we can return to some sort of normality.’”

For many fans of morning radio, Trelawny has become the butter on the pandemic breakfast toast, his smooth voice softening the start of another day stuck in the relentless cycle of solitude or working from home, or whatever variant of existence that people might be finding tough. Twitter is awash with praise for Trelawny’s show, which many listeners say has lured them away from hard news programmes such as Radio 4’s Today.

Consolation and calm at breakfast time

“I haven’t got concrete figures but [our] social media has gone mad this year,” Trelawny says; he has become the BBC’s go-to guy for big classical moments, presenting anything from numerous Proms to the annual Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which airs on BBC Four. “A lot of people have said they find the circular nature of the news agenda a bit hard to deal with. They want to escape and park reality in one place and find something that gives them solace and consolation and calm… There’s that sense that we’re there as a support network when needed.”

Petroc Trelawny believes he has gained listeners during the pandemic as people have wanted a break from hard news (Photo: BBC/Leigh Kiely)

Although Rajar, the body that collates radio audience research, has temporarily halted its regular survey, a recent report showed listeners during the latter stages of the first lockdown opted for music stations instead of news-centric channels, with more than four million tuning into a station for the first time.

Patron saint of Cornwall

The youngest of five brothers, Trelawny has his mother, who was a keen church organist, to thank for his love of classical music – and his grandmother to thank for his unusual name. “Family legend has it Petroc, one of the patron saints of Cornwall, was added at the christening; my grandmother was going through a Cornish nationalist phase.” Even growing up in Cornwall, Petroc was an unusual name: Petrov, Petrarch, even Petshop – he’s heard it all before.

This year, Trelawny, normally a huge Beethoven fan, has found particular solace in Schubert. “There is something about the intensity of his music I’ve found very appealing.” Pressed, he suggests Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-Flat Major D.929 as one for newcomers. “It glitters in the light, almost, and gives enormous satisfaction. There’s something very pleasing about committing to 40 minutes of listening and pushing everything else out of your mind and focusing on the interplay between the violin and the cello and the piano.”

No wrong way to enjoy classical music

Not that he is prescriptive about how to listen to classical music; his iPhone might broadcast a concert while he’s in the shower. “One of the problems we have with classical music is we make grand claims about it being a symbol of our civilisation. We need to relax; there is no right or wrong way to listen.”

New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna 2021 is on Radio 3 and BBC Two on 1 January from 10.15am, and is also available on BBC iPlayer later


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