I am here today because I wrote an article for The Guardian about a concert performed by The Bach Choir in May.
The Bach Choir is an amateur choir made up of enthusiasts who pay an annual subscription to rehearse each week and perform choral works approximately 7 times a year. Their concerts never sell enough tickets to cover the costs and they are subsidising their concerts by dipping into their financial reserves. At the current rate of expenditure, it won’t be long before the reserves run dry. They have started an ambitious scheme for raising support from private donors but, to be honest, they are struggling to find people who are enthusiastic about either their programming or the educational projects they have started within a handful of state schools in North West London, for which they receive a small amount of support from Arts Council England.
I was asked to become a member of their board of trustees and to join their planning committee in 2017 with a view to expanding their membership appeal and developing programme ideas. The choir is made up of a broad spectrum of Londoners, all of whom are motivated and artistically minded individuals. The make-up of the choir was the characteristic that attracted me to the challenge. Within its membership there lies an unequalled human resource of talent whose collective potential for creative thinking I want to mobilise.
Until now, choir members have been passive participants in the choir’s artistic output, acting solely as voices within a 250-strong ensemble who were told what they would sing, how and when they would sing it. After proposing my idea of asking the membership to contribute ideas for the augmentation of a performance of Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, a small group of volunteers stepped forward...
I’ll come back to what transpired in a minute but first I would like to present to you my motivation for the project and my understanding of the circumstantial challenges faced by what we call “Classical” music today.
For the past three years I have been part of a panel formed and funded by New York University whose purpose it is to consider and propose solutions for the contemporary malaise within Classical Music. It goes by the unwieldy name of “NYU Global Institute for Advanced Studies - Project On The Future of Classical Music”. The panel is made up of composers, conductors, performers, critics, music administrators, statisticians, economists and philosophers from around the world. There are about twenty-four of us and the bi-annual discussions range from stimulating to combative.
The project is drawing to a close and conclusions are beginning to be drawn which will be published within the next year. The body has many suggestions for sustaining and growing the classical music industry. Because we are bound by Chatham House rules I cannot share with you specifics of the discussion but I can share my own observations and thoughts.
The purpose of the panel was originally to consider the issues within a global context and to provide answers to problems that would resolve dwindling audience numbers everywhere. In achieving that we have failed - a one size fits all solution does not exist. However, the project has been far from fruitless.
What we have learned is that Classical Music does not have an audience, instead it has many audiences each specific to repertoire, location and venue. Intelligent programming initiatives and education programmes aimed at lifting the awareness of and enthusiasm for music only work within the limits of a promotion’s catchment. Thereafter the message falls on stony ground and fails to germinate into a wider consciousness.
Why? We all know why but we fail to organise ourselves into a militia which pushes back against the marginalisation of what Leonard Bernstein once called “Good” music. Classical Music carries a stigma that burdens it with negatives. Exclusive, snobbish, intellectual, difficult, old fashioned, nerdy, conservative, uncool, out of touch. However much we know these accusations not to be true, we fail to persuade most subsections of society otherwise. The one accusation I would make is that musicians are too polite in defending their art form.
Turning the negative perception around isn’t going to happen in the short term. The funds for embarking on an ambitious PR campaign on behalf of classical music don’t exist. The individual spokespersons through whom to send out the message don’t carry enough significance within the wider consciousness. When Simon Rattle speaks out for a new concert hall or music education in state schools he is, as they say, preaching to the converted. The conundrum of how Classical Music starts to stem the tide requires a commission of influential, resourceful, non-political individuals who have a presence in the corridors of power, have the ear of the likes of Lord Hall and the Prime Minister and who are tasked with lobbying for the cause of classical music, its benefits to the young in education, its place within our heritage and its unique ability to stimulate, inspire and do good - the people who can do this exist and some of them have a passion for music.
**Why does anyone need Classical Music? Do we keep doing it because it’s our heritage? Do we promote it to keep skilled musicians in gainful employment? Is its appreciation a challenge we invite to celebrate the complexity of human creative skill and endeavour? Is it an effective tool with which to amplify a child’s education? Is it a forum where like minded people can congregate and share something they enjoy? Or is it simply entertaining? It’s all of these things and resonates in a way that lifts the spirit to believe in our ability to break new ground within ourselves and pioneer frontiers of emotion, knowledge and understanding. Popular music that seldom ventures beyond the confines of the four bar phrase and strict diatonicism will never catalyse such aspirational qualities.
The out of date view is that classical music and all other types of music exist in opposition. If you like one then, depending on the extent to which it defines you, means you should reject the other. The millennial generation distances itself from a tendency to pigeonhole and defines itself through diversity. Radio stations like Resonance and Fip are ever more popular. Late Junction on Radio 3 has attracted a youthful aficionado listenership that sits somewhere between Radio 6 and Radio 3. Is it time to question the way we categorise our musics?
In terms of perception, considering the term “Classical” might be a good place to start. It’s neither accurate nor helpful. What would dance enthusiasts say if we lumped the work of Kenneth MacMillan, William Forsythe, Akram Khan and Matthew Bourne together under the banner of Classical Ballet? Or Caravaggio, JMW Turner and Jeff Koons under the banner of Classical Art? Why can’t it be simply Music? And when someone enquires whether it’s popular or otherwise, we say “precision annotated” or “composed” because that’s the essential detail that distinguishes the music I perform from other musical idioms.
Considering our presence within the media, it wasn’t so long ago when the whole of the Last Night of The Proms was broadcast on BBC1 television. For some years now, only the populist second half of the concert has received prime TV airtime. Other Proms are relegated to the echo chamber of Radio 3 and highlight Proms might be broadcast on BBC4 if they’re lucky. The ever-decreasing representation in the media and wider consciousness has opened up a gulf between music professionals and their audience. We want to start closing that gap again.
How do I propose we close the gap? First, let’s be honest with ourselves about the audience’s musical knowledge - minimal. Having acknowledged that, we have to own the necessity to help the audience get comfortable with what they’re listening to. Music is a language and as musicians we have to translate it as well as perform it. Only musicians can reveal to audiences the depth of meaning within. Most people overestimate music’s complexity and underestimate its substance. By substance, I mean music’s concrete ability to spark emotions and carry listeners on a searching ride through, for example: light, darkness, despair, hope or triumph.
As a performer, from the stage I observe how audiences react to different musics. Sometimes it will be “delight”, sometimes “bafflement” but the look I see most often is “waiting”. For what? Why do we keep our audiences in a state of expectation when we could share why we are performing a work, why we love it, what’s been our journey with the work and how the work chimes with our own life story. In short, we need to speak to audiences.
The structures of the concert experience are old hat captivating audiences and forcing them to sit still and accord a respectful silence. The formal concert halls, the gloomy black uniforms, no phones, no photographs, expensive programme booklets, expensive drinks, champagne bars... it all speaks of rules and practice codes that are anathema to the gregarious, young audience we hope to reach.
Looking around a concert or opera audience we are reminded of the narrow demographic to which our music appeals. I make no apology for repeating the trope - we have to continue to build a plural and youthful appeal. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Alexis Ffrench and the orchestra Chineke! are working hard to break new ground with social groups otherwise difficult to reach. We also need to promote repertoire in which more people feel represented and we need to achieve that without alienating the audience we already have.
I wonder if we cram too much music into our concerts. You may be aware of the orchestra Aurora conducted by Nicholas Collon who, in their Symphonies from Memory series, cleverly dissect a symphonic score in the first half of a concert and then play it from memory, all standing and playing like they mean it in the second half. This format works and goes a long way to demystifying the music.
The crusade to demystify brings me back to the initiative I started with The Bach Choir: the motivation was to show the audience why a work sits so firmly within the repertory. My theory is that in doing so the effect will be two-fold: it will expand the audience’s appreciation of the choral works we perform and it will instill a sense of ownership among the choir members, on whom the onus to research, write and present the extra material rests.
As I was saying, I started my initiative by asking volunteers to step forward from the choir who would be able to research, then devise, then write and present material which augmented Prokofiev’s score to Alexander Nevsky. Sixteen choristers volunteered, among them a playwright, historians, teachers, a TV presenter and a theatre director. Their combined talents enabled us to cost effectively put together a concise and brilliantly dramatised set of sequences which we inserted into the movements of the work. The actor David Bamber was engaged to characterise Prokofiev and the performance took place in early May at the Royal Festival Hall. It worked.
The result reinforced my conviction that Prokofiev’s music required expansion and explanation in order for it to benefit the audience. The score deserves to be performed more often and we found an entertaining way to share the anecdotal intrigue surrounding its composition without requiring the audience to read the programme notes or arrive having done their own background reading.
The members of the choir were sufficiently inspired by the performance to commit to presenting future concerts in a similar way. We have a War Requiem in Westminster Cathedral on 3rd October, planned to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, 1918. This time we are going to present the work along with contemporary experiences of conflict. We are talking to the surgeon David Nott, the journalist Rageh Omar, Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry, a recipient of the Victoria Cross and a 17-yr-old refugee to speak at strategic moments within the work about the realities of conflict.
**Future ideas include relating Handel’s Messiah to its charitable roots at Coram’s Foundling Hospital. We’re also looking at the pained creative process Beethoven endured in order to write his Missa Solemnis, drawing on the composer’s deafness and using that as a springboard from which to explore how the hard of hearing experience and enjoy music.
In the model pioneered by Gerald McBurney with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I am hoping to build an archive of works we can not only perform in an expanded format but also sell on to other choirs and orchestras to present to their own audience. **If an orchestra is interested in booking The Bach Choir with the extra material lock-stock-and-barrel, we are open for business.
**There are many people trying similar methods through which to find new audiences. I don’t claim to be a disruptor. However, asking passionate, amateur musicians to bring their professional skills to the table might be a new avenue for developing music’s broader appeal and, I can tell you from first hand experience, they are very willing to help and have much to say.
And so, I refer to the title of this address - A Call To Arms. Now is the time to form a cohesive battle plan with the help of a well connected and on-message commission; to staff the front line with the brilliant musicians at our disposal and arm them with intelligent programmes that are persuasive; and to call up reserves in the form of passionate amateurs; appeal to volunteers in the form of gregarious cultured enthusiasts to contribute in whatever way they can and start fighting back against the trend of marginalisation and bring the greatest music ever written back into the mainstream.