What is classical music for? That was the question posed by The Guardian in a hostile op-ed that framed orchestral music as an agent of exclusion (rough sleepers are blasted with Vivaldi) and as a vehicle of conspicuous consumption (top Proms tickets cost a lot).
Classical music has plenty of problems in terms of the diversity of its concert audience and that the canon is largely made up of works by what The Guardian terms ‘dead white men’, but then, such criticisms apply to other art forms such as theatre. What’s more, it’s a tad rich to blame Vivaldi, rather than the local authority, if The Four Seasons is being weaponised to disperse homeless people.
Let’s rephrase the original question. Who is classical music for? A YouGov poll of 4,000 adults for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the latter’s national listening exercise found that 62 per cent said they would like to broaden their musical horizons and learn about less familiar genres. And orchestral music topped the poll of genres, whether core symphonic repertoire, film music or orchestral treatments of pop or musical theatre.
Rather than charging the music itself as elitist, we should consider whether the traditional concert hall format discourages curious newcomers. How might the content be revitalised by the method of delivery?
The BBC Proms is a strong example of the way that a concert hall programme can reach audiences that might not book up for a season of the LSO. Nevertheless, the Proms’ dominance of the orchestral arts calendar has obscured media coverage of imaginative initiatives. To take just one example, The Manchester Collective is a perfect representative of the new breed of energetic ensemble that has attracted new audiences by targeting alternative venues and formats, without sacrificing artistic ambition.
The Guardian’s editorial also ignores another important point. The classical music sector is acutely aware that the withering of state music education has narrowed entry points for young people who might want experience of orchestral music. As a trustee, I’ve seen how Orchestras Live’s work with culturally under-served rural, coastal and deprived urban communities is invaluable in offering young people an initial access to live orchestral music. There are the long running Lullaby concerts with City of London Sinfonia which established a pattern of orchestral engagement with very young children and their carers in Essex and Suffolk; Cumbria Calling’s young composer initiative with Manchester Camerata; the Able Orchestra’s Nottinghamshire project with the Halle, an inclusive ensemble where young musicians with profound disabilities maximise digital technology to perform on equal terms; and Classically Yours, a major project in the East Riding of Yorkshire that builds new audiences for orchestral music through engaging with older people in care homes, community and school choirs and pre-school children.
Relaxed concerts – interactive occasions where attendees can touch the instruments, move to the music and be encouraged to be – are becoming widespread. I’ve sat in some of these concerts and seen at first hand the extraordinarily energising effect on hundreds of young people of hearing a full orchestra for the first time.
Despite the persistent perception – embedded in The Guardian’s headline – that classical music is a fixed status symbol rather than a constantly-evolving genre, the classical sector is making strenuous and imaginative efforts to reinvent the experience of orchestral music. The evidence of innovation is already there, should The Guardian care to look for it.