Interview: James Inverne

As the editor of ‘Gramophone’ magazine he presides over annual music awards which can create stars overnight

By Simon Round, September 28, 2010
James Inverne says his appreciation of music and the arts was honed among the guests at the kosher Cumberland Hotel in Bournemouth

James Inverne says his appreciation of music and the arts was honed among the guests at the kosher Cumberland Hotel in Bournemouth

On the face of it, James Inverne would not seem to have a huge amount in common with Simon Cowell. Inverne is, after all, not a showbusiness impresario but rather a classical music journalist who is much more enthusiastic about Berlioz than boy bands.

However, both Cowell and Inverne do share something - both have the ability to help make the careers of aspiring musicians. Inverne is editor of Gramophone, the country's most respected classical music magazine which in turn runs the world's most prestigious music awards. As such, he plays an important part in the decision over who receives the ultimate accolade of Record of the Year at this year's event on October 1.

Last year, an unknown group, the Ebene Quartet, came from nowhere to receive the award. Inverne recalls: "It was a huge shock. This was only their second record, they had a rare repertoire and it beat much bigger name opposition, but as a result of this, the Ebene have become almost a household name in the classical community."

The effects of a Gramophone award can be startling. It is not uncommon for winners to increase their CD sales tenfold. And although the revenues may not quite be in the X Factor class, this is a seriously contested honour.

So how did a small magazine based in leafy Teddington in West London come to wield so much power in the classical music world? Inverne, altogether cuddlier and (one would certainly imagine) slightly less brutal in his decision-making approach than Cowell, reflects: "As far as classical awards go, the Grammys have too many categories and the actual voting mechanisms are the subject of some contentiousness. Gramophone awards are not voted on by the public but by experts in the field. The strength is in the brand. And luckily for us, Britain, and specifically London, is at the centre of the classical music world. All the record labels of any size have offices here. And there are great studios and great technicians here."

Gramophone itself has a reputation forged over many years. "People have grown up with Gramophone. Many of those who love this kind of music have come to it via the magazine."

This was certainly the case for Inverne himself who, as a child in Bournemouth, used to cut the pictures out of the magazine even before he could read it. And although he trained as a drama critic, classical music was his first love, inherited from his father. "I was a bit of a classical music geek. Luckily I was a strong boy so I didn't get bullied at school."

The family's involvement in classical music goes back to his paternal great grandmother, who was an opera singer. "I think my father got it from her and I certainly got it from him. When you hear a classical record played at high volume as you are trying to sleep, it gets to be that it is hard to sleep unless you have the music wafting upstairs."

Such is Inverne's devotion that he has become a tireless advocate for what he feels is a relevant art form. However, he also admits that this is not a common perception. "Certainly, it has an image problem. But it is as progressive as rock music. In fact, rock musicians like Paul McCartney and Sting are producing classical music now. Part of the problem stems back to the Second World War. The Americans were keen that classical music would never again have the same anthemic power as it did for the Nazis. So they poured money into the school of composers who produced atonal music. For some observers that was like a full stop. People thought that music was becoming more about academia and experiments rather than something that spoke to them. But on the other hand, there are some great modern composers producing melodic music - there is Philip Glass who is hugely popular in the US; in this country you have Thomas Adès who is the most exciting composer since Britten. There are plenty of others I could mention."

He feels that classical scores over pop in its ability to express several complex emotions simultaneously. "It's the difference between reading a comic and a great novel," he says. However, although Inverne may not listen to Lady Gaga in the car on the way home, he is no music snob. "I have a great love of musicals and have recently become a big fan of Israeli pop, particularly Matti Caspi. I was very sniffy when my Israeli wife first introduced me to his music but I have come to appreciate that it draws from diverse roots and is musically and harmonically very clever."

Inverne is a particular devotee of opera. He thinks this may have something to do with his childhood - much of which was spent in Bournemouth's famous kosher hotel, the Cumberland, which was run by his father. "The whole place was run as a show," he says. "A Jewish hotel is full of very theatrical people , whether they are in the arts or not. There was constant exposure to music, and the theatricality of shul and shul life. I'm sure my love of the arts in general, and opera and klezmer in particular, comes from there."

The love for classical music is something that Inverne is also intent on passing on to his four-year-old son, Doron, who has already attended his first opera and several concerts. Inverne says: "I took him to Bernstein's mass. I forgot that it was very long and there was no interval. But he was watching the conductor and aping her movements. He seemed to enjoy it. All I can say is that I hope he is strong at school."

Last updated: 12:27pm, October 5 2010