Musical soapboxes

In the height of summer, with the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival in full swing and thousands of people attending music events (classical and otherwise) all over the UK, it seems boring in the extreme to have to write about recent ‘death of the concert audience’ remarks. But a couple of things have crossed my radar in the last week which compel me to say something, because we seem have been doing the same tedious dance around this issue for decades now.

The two articles are as follows: Stephen Hough suggesting that orchestral concerts should be shorter to encourage new audiences who might be daunted by the length of a standard evening event; and Emma Johnson complaining that contemporary composers need to ‘embrace melody, harmony and pulse again before the audience is alienated altogether.’

I’m not sure my eyebrows can shoot any higher up my forehead than they did when I read Johnson’s blog. Apparently ‘most of the great classical composers of the more distant past don’t seem to have felt pressure to innovate’, Debussy and Stravinsky are the cutting-edge, and there is a ‘vanity in today’s ‘serious’ composers seeking always to be groundbreakers’. As an indication of the woeful, mistrusting attitude of the audience when faced with evil contemporary music and all its nasty non-tunes, we are told that most concert promoters want Johnson to play Mozart. Since the tiny biography printed at the foot of the article makes a point of highlighting her popular success, her album sales and her busy career, one can only assume that her outrage has not in fact prevented her from doing just that, and for many years.

I don’t even know where to start with this. We could talk about aesthetic shifts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We could talk about evolving concepts of originality. Something goes here about cutting-edge compositions rather ceasing to be cutting edge when they’ve been around for 100 years, and how that applies as equally to Beethoven and Brahms as it does to Debussy and Stravinsky. Maybe I could put together a list of composers born after 1925 who, astonishingly, do embrace melody, harmony and pulse, although that wouldn’t leave me room to write about anything else. I could suggest that when someone as successful as Emma Johnson is confronted with a snippy agent demanding Mozart, she could say no, hire her own chamber venue and play some Carter, Bolcom, Lutosławski and MacMillan, or commission some new works, or find clarinet music by some of the many other living composers active all over the world.

But what upsets me the most about Johnson’s ridiculous assertion that no one write nice tunes any more – and even Stephen Hough’s perfectly reasonable idea that we might hold shorter orchestral concerts (although I see no reason why we can’t go on holding longer ones as well and let people choose), is that no one seems to have bothered to ask the would-be audience. I’m delighted to hear that Montreal’s Virée Classique, a packed programme of short concerts, is such a success. The reviewer of the event, not a classical music specialist, gives it a big thumbs-up, not least because he can take his kids and know they’ll cope with the length of the concerts. But he is our voice of authority here, our reporter, critic and personal experience story rolled into one. We’re supposed to know we can trust him because his children ‘like classical music well enough, but like a lot of ordinary people, they used to find a regular-length symphony concert a bit of a chore to endure.’


Thank goodness they’re ordinary, eh? I mean, we pompous weirdos over here are impossible to relate to. ‘Ordinary’ is one of the first words I will be banning from the OED when I rule the world. Along with ‘normal’, for anything except scientific and mathematical purposes. They have become terms of division, a way of mistrusting everything else. Although, to be fair, we the non-normal classical music lovers make it that much harder to relate to ‘us’ by dictating what is and isn’t a good idea, and then bickering so comprehensively amongst ourselves about the validity of such things that we almost never get as far as asking the people who might be swayed, one way or the other, by performance innovations such as shorter concerts. (And yes, I know, I’m doing it myself.) What on earth is the point of telling the readers of Gramophone that you think contemporary music doesn’t have enough good tunes in it? Why isn’t Johnson expounding that view in her local paper and then inviting people to write in and respond? Stephen Hough, by contrast, has already tried giving the shorter concerts he proposes, and wrote his piece for the broader audience of the Radio Times. Though whether he spoke to his audience afterwards to canvas their opinions is unclear.

Now and then, I give myself up to a lovely dream. It involves a version of the UK where school music education is well-funded and varied, kids are given narrative strategies to help them with longer pieces of music just as they might watch a film, or seek to discover a story in a work of art, and they all get to have a go on an acoustic musical instrument. They grow up to like a huge range of different genres, which a robust digital music market makes widely available whilst properly reimbursing artists. They are well-paid enough to have a bit of disposable income whilst still in their thirties and forties to be able to go to the cinema, the theatre, football matches and chamber concerts, and venues also run outreach schemes to engage their own children. Some of the concerts they go to are long, some are short. Some have crazy electronics, and some are mostly Bach or Sibelius. They tell their mates about the good ones, and ask them to come along next time. Politicians attend classical music events and are totally uninterested as to whether this will lead the press to brand them ‘elitist’, because a sufficient percentage of the population have made it past this ridiculous musical ‘us’ and ‘them’. Some people don’t like classical music at all, and that’s just fine. Crucially, there’s a conversation between everyone – audience members who loved it, loathed it, didn’t go or are curious to try, as well as artists and venues. So please: enough grand rhetorical statements about What Is Wrong or How All Things Must Change. Do some research (I’m looking at Johnson here), talk to the people who your ideas might affect, and then try it out. Find a way to make it work, if you really believe in it. Because all the ranting in the world is not going to change classical concert audiences in any more substantial way than pleasing some of the people who already go, and making the rest of us cross.

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