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Why The Guardian asked the wrong question about classical music

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.


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London stage, 2016: a year for the women

Best female performances: Jade Anouka, Adelayo Adedayo

It’s been a rich year for female roles. Denise Gough in People Places and Things (Wyndham, transferred from the National Theatre) as the lying, addicted anti-heroine deservedly got an Olivier, but even her performance was one of many great ones this year. After her Medea last year Helen McCrory is cornering the market in gruelling female roles; her Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea was all cut-glass desperation. Lia Williams and Juliet Stephenson were, of course, splendid in Mary Stuart at the Almeida. Kathryn Hunter played no fewer than ten parts in The Emperor (Young Vic), Anne-Marie Duff anchored The Almeida’s Oil, and Harriet Walter was morosely magisterial as Prospero in The Donmar’s The Tempest.


Jade Anouka

My two standouts, though, were the glorious Jade Anouka as Ariel in The Tempest, one of those actors you miss when they’re offstage, and Adelayo Adedayo in the Young Vic’s wrenching play on female genital mutilation, Cuttin’ It. Adedayo played Muna, a streetwise schoolgirl who has herself undergone FGM and is desperate to protect her younger sister from the same experience. Her realisation that she had failed had the audience in tears.


Best male performances: Gary Avis, Edward Watson

It wasn’t a year for the chaps. I liked Timothy Spall’s seedy, wheedly Davies in The Caretaker at the Old Vic, but compared to my favourite male performances of 2015 – the divine Rufus Sewell in Closer and Simon Russell Beale as the agonised cleric in The Temple (both Donmar in 2015), the star names didn’t quite deliver this year. Dominic West was a competent libertine in Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar, but shakiness on his lines made it a nervous experience. The most memorable turns were in supporting roles, notably Johnny Flynn’s unsettling outsider in Hangmen (Wyndham), Arinze Kene as Sam Cooke in One Night In Miami (Donmar) and Fisayo Akinade’s fey, cowardly Dauphin in Saint Joan (Donmar).


Gary Avis

But the two standout performances for me this year were at Covent Garden and actually made me rethink my prejudices against narrative dance. Edward Watson as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (Royal Ballet) buckled under his own jealousy, and Gary Avis in Macmillan’s The Invitation as the conflicted, predatory older man, who found extraordinary emotional complexity in a character in sexual crisis.

Best rewrite of a classic: Fagin’s Twist

Fagin’s Twist at The Place was a superb dance revision of Oliver Twist and reframed Fagin as the good guy and Oliver as a calculating disruptor. Having vowed never to sit through another fossilised Godot, I found Dave Hanson’s comic rewrite (two perpetual understudies in WFG bicker in the dressing room) a diverting corrective, though Waiting For Waiting For Godot (St James’ Theatre) doesn’t seem to have been popular with many critics.


Fagin’s Twist, The Place


Most uncomplicated evening: Once In a Lifetime, An American In Paris, Roundabout, How The Other Half Loves

It was wonderful to see some vintage Ayckbourn in How The Other Half Loves (Theatre Royal), while JB Priestley’s early and under-performed Roundabout was a great rediscovery by Park Theatre. The Young Vic’s revival of Hart and Kaufman’s Once In A Lifetime was one of those productions you just relax into – a perfect pre-Christmas outing and a must for every Singin’ In The Rain fan. I was lucky enough to see An American In Paris on a rare New York trip, and I’m booking again for its London transfer. The perfect Hollywood tale brought to the stage by Christopher Wheeldon with the swooniest Gershwin numbers. Bliss.

Best ensemble: The Tempest

How I loved Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (National Theatre), the comic and touching adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos, which traces the stories of six schoolgirls on a choir trip to Edinburgh. It’s not often you hear gorgeous versions of Mendelssohn and ELO in the same evening. The Boys In The Band was Park Theatre’s hugely successful revival of the 1968 play – Mark Gatiss was the big draw, but this was very much an ensemble piece. The Isango Ensemble’s Man of Good Hope at the Young Vic was a largely musical tracing of a young man’s journey from Somalia to South Africa, and which avoided all sentimentality about migrants. Saint Joan at the Donmar had one of the best casts I’ve seen all year, and managed to transform Shavian speechifying into urgent debate. But the most outstanding ensemble was at Donmar King’s Cross for Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female staging of The Tempest. Like her previous productions of Henry IV and Julius Caesar, Lloyd set this within a women’s prison. A-fizz with energy and beauty – and quite the clearest verse-speaking of the year (I’m looking at you, RSC).

Best play set in the Amazon: Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

Complicité’s The Encounter (Barbican) was no doubt the most aurally inventive and immersive play of the year. The audience dons headphones and watches Simon McBurney create extraordinary sounds to accompany his narration of a photographer’s trip into the jungle and encounter with a lost tribe. If only he’d trimmed it by 20 minutes it would have been astonishing. I actually preferred Don’t Sleep There are Snakes, at Park Theatre, which had a similar dramatic premise. A missionary-linguist lives among an obscure tribe not only to learn their language but also to impart the word of God. How does grammar shape concepts of time, and how do you translate religious metaphor? A great little production strangely overlooked.

Best history lecture: Patriotic Traitor

A mixed bag here: modern history plays are a little bit too much exposition and not enough theatre. The Trial of Jane Fonda (Park Theatre) fell into this trap; the presentation of Fonda’s confrontation with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s was entirely unconvincing, but it was an efficient enough primer on US foreign policy. Patriotic Traitor, also at Park Theatre, was the story of the relationship between Petain (Tom Conti) and de Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and condensed fifty years of French history into the relationship between two men. The Emperor (Young Vic) dramatised the last days of Haile Selassie through ten characters all played by Kathryn Hunter, bringing to life multiple viewpoints based on original testimonies.

Worth leaving at the interval: The Alchemist, Painkiller

The Alchemist (Barbican) was the very worst of the RSC on show: frenetic, shouty, the actors careening through their lines as if comedy was all about pace rather than timing. The same mirthlessness was evident in the Branagh vehicle Painkiller (Garrick), which established top volume in the first scene and stayed there. Leaden.

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French dystopias: Soumission, Houellebecq /2084, Sansal /Gratis, Herzog

To judge by the publishers’ lists, dystopias are big literary business in France right now. Three 2015 releases propose different views of a political future and the role of memory. Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (Flammarion) is set in the present and near future and is narrated by François, a middle-aged academic who observes a growing political crisis in France. The only effective opposition to the National Front is an Islamic party led by a Mohammed Ben Abbes, backed by the Socialists. As the novel continues, a sharia state is imposed, women are banned from working, and in a sour parody of Gaullism, France returns to global influence through its alliances with Arab and North African states.

It’s slightly regrettable that the jacket to the English translation positions it as thriller, since it’s a considerably more unsettling and sophisticated novel than the rumpus around it might lead you to believe. François is your classic Houellebecq character, a jaundiced loner trapped in what Northrop Frye memorably called the squirrel cage of the ego. That stasis is both physical and emotional. He can’t follow his Jewish girlfriend to Israel, and cannot mirror his literary hero Huysmans in submission to Catholicism. soumission

References to unfashionable Catholic writers such as Péguy and the decision to make François a specialist in Huysmans, who publicly rejected the Zola school of Naturalism, is a riposte to the received notion of the left-leaning politically programmed writer. It also underpins Houellebecq’s challenge to the entire French intellectual class, whose apparent political engagement is here revealed to be feather-light. In Soumission, the establishment’s capitulation to the new regime is total. The exclusion of women from public life is barely protested, and as Saudi and Qatari money pour in to the institutions the academics accept the new dispensation entirely.

Soumission is not, I don’t think, a black-and-white neocon fantasy. It is instead a parable of occupation and collaboration, which unearths uncomfortable memories of France under Vichy, a past so often airbrushed in in the nation’s self-image. There’s a stunning bit of writing in the last chapter, where Houellebecq sets out a future for François that includes conversion – but the entire chapter is written in the conditional tense. It’s a classic bit of narrative misdirection; there we are, expecting François to submit like Winston Smith, but even that is not assured. He’s certainly a collaborator, but belief is beyond him.2084

Orwell’s 1984 is absolutely the source text for 2084: La Fin Du Monde (Gallimard). It’s written by Boualem Sansal, an Algerian novelist who like Kamel Daoud, writes in French (see a previous blogpost). 2084 is set in the state of Abistan, a future theocracy of indeterminate geography (it could be North Africa, or even France) in which the people worship Yolah, whose representative on earth is Abi. The Winston Smith character is Ati, who meets Nas, a civil servant working for the archives department who has just come back from an archaeological dig in which a site was discovered that contradicts the ‘truths’ as expressed in the holy book of Gkabul– that there was a world before Abistan. It isn’t the seamless read of Soumission; the four sections don’t have quite the same coherence of voice or pace – but its merit lies not in the plot but in an imaginative scope that borders on the best science fiction.

Felicité Herzog’s Gratis (Gallimard) is a rather slighter offering. It begins at the height of the dotcom boom in London, telling the story of Ali Tarac, an arrogant outsider setting up a telecoms service. It reads rather as your standard corporate thriller at this point (Herzog used to work at Lazard and JP Morgan). After the crash, Ali Tarac disappears from view but it emerges that he is behind a fabulously successful company called New Birth, which allows people to escape their lives and assume different identities in a form of human recycling. In retrospect, I’d have liked Herzog to junk the earlier dotcom section and fashion the whole novel around the socially disruptive implications of New Birth. That could have taken it into seriously challenging

This year I finally caught up with HHhH (Grasset) by Laurent Binet, which was originally published in 2010. HHhH refers to the Nazi quip ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) and tells the story of the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi head of security, acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the architects of the Holocaust. But it’s also a painstaking account of other treatments of the story; what it means to record events, and the ethical limits of fiction in retelling history, and in doing so positions itself as a literary rebuke to Jonathan Littell’s hallucinatory Les Bienveillantes (Gallimard, 2006).

Lastly, it’s been fun discovering Maurice Druon this year. I’d never heard of him until George R.R Martin cited him as an influence, and reading Le Roi de Fer, the first volume of Les Rois Maudits (Livre de Poche) you can certainly see why. Full of intrigue, violence and political struggle set in the early 1300s during the time of Philippe Le Bel, whose daughter Isabelle, wife of Edward II , also features. There’s no ethical meditation on the fictionalisation of history here; it’s a spanking read. There’s even a French miniseries with Gérard Depardieu and Jeanne Moreau , which is available on YouTube. If you’ve got withdrawal symptoms for Game of Thrones and don’t mind the inferior production values, it might be worth checking out.





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Highbury book group/Anthony Quinn, Half Of The Human Race


Anthony Quinn’s Half Of The Human Race is the story of the relationship between Will Maitland and Connie Callaway, set just before the First World War in an upper-middle class London. The two meet by chance; Will is a professional cricketer, Constance a would-be doctor whose father’s death has removed any possibility of medical training. As her activism in the suffrage movement begins to move from quiet dissent to outright law-breaking, Connie’s political views appear to make the relationship a non-starter.

Call it the Mantel effect, but historical fiction has suddenly become a reputable genre. I doubt Tony Quinn considers himself a historical novelist – indeed, it’s odd that Hilary Mantel has been put in that category on the strength of two books about the Tudors and one on the French revolution – but it is a proper literary challenge to evoke a sense of pre-war Britain without it lapsing into sub-Downton nostalgia. Half Of The Human Race pulls it off. I recommend it strongly to anyone partial to Arnold Bennett and to anyone who enjoys writing with a good sense of place – this is set largely around the streets and squares of Mornington Crescent and the Caledonian Road. It’s just as well I loved it, because I’ve known Tony for a long time. And since we were discussing it for book club, we invited him along to talk.

Having the author in the room is a slightly odd experience. We were on our best behaviour, so the collective dynamic changed entirely; there was no chat about our children, no moaning about the week’s domestic catastrophes. Questions to Tony largely centred on character, motivation and why he was attracted to the early women’s movement as a topic. One of the characters, Tam, is a cricketer who knowing his prowess is failing at the end of his career, eventually commits suicide. This, said Tony, is more common than many realise – cricket has one of the highest suicide rates of any sport. Cricket doesn’t function here as a literary filter of masculinity (thank goodness – Don Delillo’s baseball setpiece in Underworld left me cold) but as wide-angled social framing. Before the First World War it truly was a game for the masses and cricketers were celebrities on cigarette cards.

“While I was writing Half Of The Human Race I agonised now and then about whether the cricket might alienate women readers, or whether suffrage might turn the blokes off,” Tony told me afterwards. “But in the end you just have to write the book you want to write.”

Even if writers pretend otherwise, he says, they all love to have their work assessed. “To have those characters you dreamed up, the situations you put them in, sometimes the very phrases they speak, quoted back at you is validating, sometimes even invigorating. I’m occasionally surprised when some detail I’ve forgotten is picked up.”

To a large extent, writing makes you lose a layer of skin. “I used to write newspaper reviews in which I’d casually dismiss this or that novel, and doubtless hurt the writer in doing so,” he reflects. “I hardly review books anymore, partly because I’m writing myself but also because I know from the inside the painful slog a writer goes through.”

At the end of every book group evening we write our thoughts about the text under discussion and score it out of ten. This makes it sound very earnest when in fact we’re pretty wine-based. (Actually, the reviews log would be a social historian’s dream in a few decades; it ramblingly records not just what we think about books but reactions to current events, London culture, food, fashion and everything in between. I wish I could come across the seventeenth-century equivalent for my academic research; all I’ve got to go on in terms of reader response is Dorothy Osborne’s letters. But I digress.) We’ve done everything from Trollope to Toynbee and have taken in graphic novels and poetry. In case you’re wondering, the top-scoring book ever was Brideshead Revisited and the lowest was the execrable nonsense that was Fifty Shades, but the latter actually prompted one of our best debates, which was duly recorded. We didn’t score Half Of The Human Race with Tony present, but our reviews, even read in the sober light of day, were effusive.

There was only one criticism. The design of the hardback (below left) is beautiful; it’s taken from an original poster and is in the suffragette colours of white, green and purple. However, the paperback cover  – not Tony’s decision – pictures a couple in silhouette in romantic pose and is, well, a bit sappy.  It’s also a shockingly bad visual spoiler (oops – I just gave away the ending). Do yourself an aesthetic favour and fork out for the hardback.



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Don’t expect much full-bodied writing; this blog is for musings, fragments and rants on early modern culture plus forays into current theatre, dance and choral music. 

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