From Ibiza Proms to Tiny Tots concerts, classical music is trying to broaden its appeal. But does it risk losing what makes it special?by Suna Erdem / February 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
One drizzly evening last autumn, Ed Gardner and I were stomping our feet and slapping our thighs in a Croydon hall. We were doing body percussion with teenage refugees. At one point Gardner, one of Britain’s most eminent conductors, was tasked with counting in our group. “No pressure, eh?” he laughed, counting to four before we started to move.
We were being led by an 18-year-old Somali who had fled conflict in his homeland, and would not have looked out of place in an international dance troupe. During a break, a young Afghan man raved about the cello lessons he had been taking courtesy of Play and Progress, the same charity that had brought Gardner to this suburban corner of south London. He told us that the rich, calm sounds of the cello helped him cope with his chaotic life.
“We want more people to benefit from the world we’re in,” Gardner told me later. “The idea that we can be altruistic and help communities that don’t have that in their lives is a really wonderful thing.”
In his enthusiasm for bringing music out of its rarefied concert halls, Gardner is far from alone. Reaching out to young people who wouldn’t normally have access to classical music, or people who don’t fit the stereotype of its audience, has never been so prevalent. No self-respecting British music institution is without some sort of education project, mother-and-baby concert, virtual reality experience or “accessible” programming.
Outreach even features on the curriculum at the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music. Part of the incentive, of course, is money: Arts Council England, which describes its mission as “great arts and culture for everyone,” has put a great deal of energy into cajoling arts groups into finding new audiences, while philanthropists and businesses often use the arts to satisfy their corporate social responsibility obligations.
Between 2013 and 2016, the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) reported a striking 35 per cent increase in outreach and education projects by its members.
But what does such outreach actually achieve? Should underfunded institutions really be spending money on improving access rather than making great music? Are highly trained performers making the best use of their skills by taking time out to compensate for failings in social services or schools? And what about audiences for classical music, which everyone seems to agree are not as diverse as they should be? Do any of these schemes make a lasting difference to who attends concerts?
These, at any rate, were questions raised by the American critic Philip Kennicott in a blistering 2013 essay for the New Republic entitled “America’s Orchestras Are in Crisis.” It wasn’t just the financial woes of many US orchestras—cancelled tours, strikes, bankruptcies—that were on Kennicott’s mind.
He argued that ensembles had been “strong-armed” into abandoning “their traditional role as custodians of a musical tradition.” Instead, they were being forced to do Tiny Tots events and “special” concerts, playing ersatz pop and jazz, and doing fewer events featuring adventurous classical repertoire.
The classical world had, Kennicott argued, been going through its own protracted, painful version of the reforming second Vatican council. Reforms were creating a crisis of confidence without stemming the decline in audience numbers, or improving the bottom line.
At the time many dismissed Kennicott’s critique as reactionary bluster. But not everyone thinks he got it all wrong. Brad Cohen is a conductor, publisher and founder of classical music app Tido. A passionate moderniser, Cohen has often expressed frustration at the music establishment’s lack of imagination.
It was to his surprise, then, he found himself agreeing with Kennicott about the same “offensive trivialities”—superficial changes such as performing in colourful shirts or period costume, or making celebrities act as MCs.
Outreach projects are an important part of the classical music ecosystem: to dismiss then out of hand is wrong. But there is a lot of fuzzy thinking around. Cohen told me that the real issue was that these innovations were not exposing new people to classical music.
“What Kennicott fails to state clearly enough is the essential need to renew audiences,” Cohen said. “How is that going to happen? A lot of my colleagues are trying to keep the roof on, keep themselves in jobs, not let the genre die. That’s just not good enough. They need to think bigger—look at the concert format, the music itself.”
People in the industry have lamented their (mostly) greying and socially homogenous audiences so often that it’s a cliché. Assessing what is really going on is hard; statistics are confusing and conflicting. Many organisations distinguish between “audience development” and more straightforward outreach projects, though their aims are linked.
But there is broad agreement that audiences are not getting younger—research for Arts Council England found last year that 79 per cent of the core classical audience was over 40. They are mostly white and middle class, well educated and usually live in urban areas.
As for audience size, according to the most recent ABO research drawing on data provided by 51 orchestras, there had been a 7 per cent increase in the total number of performances in 2016 compared to 2013. But audience numbers rose more slowly—suggesting that increased effort wasn’t being rewarded by more bums on seats. Earned income, meanwhile, was down slightly, presumably because more tickets were discounted or free.
What makes the challenge starker is the backdrop of funding cuts. The Arts Council saw its funding slashed by 22 per cent between 2010 and 2014. Between 2013 and 2016 Arts Council and government funding fell by 7 per cent, while local authority funding—crucial for regional arts organisations in particular—fell by 11 per cent.
At one level, there is nothing new here. Worries that classical music is too exclusive have been around since the 19th century, if not long before.
The Proms, founded in 1895 by impresario Robert Newman and conductor Henry Wood to bring cheap classical concerts to the masses, have become justifiably famous. In the early days, eating, drinking and smoking were permitted during performances—though audiences were asked to refrain from striking matches during vocal numbers—and concert bills mixed the easy and familiar with the daring and new.
The BBC took over in 1927, and since then has masterminded a broadening range of concerts. In recent years, the Proms have included, among other similar projects, an Ibiza Prom and a Relaxed Prom, where those with autism, learning difficulties or disabilities can move about and join in. They have also expanded geographically, from their traditional base at the Royal Albert Hall in London to Hull, Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff. According to BBC figures, around 35,000 people who attended the Proms in 2015 were first-timers—over a tenth of the total audience.
Another institution with similar aims is English National Opera (ENO), founded by the pioneering theatre manager Lilian Baylis (1874-1937). Baylis’s myriad projects included founding the Old Vic theatre and what would become the Royal Ballet. She established the Sadler’s Wells opera company in 1931, forerunner to the ENO, with lower prices and English-language productions designed to attract mass audiences.
The modern-day incarnation of educational outreach began in the 1970s, when the London Philharmonic Orchestra flautist Richard McNicol persuaded orchestras to take part in creative music projects in schools.
But simply because some institutions have a venerable history doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to talk to new audiences now.
Sometimes it’s the opposite, says Katherine Zeserson, head of learning and participation at Sage Gateshead. According to Zeserson, “often the nonsensical work is led by organisations that are in other ways of the highest quality.”
While European institutions she has worked with study past projects rigorously, Zeserson told me that some British “bandwagon-jumpers” are surprisingly cavalier. None of the people I interviewed would name and shame individual organisations, but I heard some general examples: “hit and run” projects that offered participants a one-off chance to play with an orchestra; or the opportunity for a child to play a spare violin in the vague hope that this would provide a lifetime’s inspiration.
There was a direct link between motivation and quality, Zeserson argued. “If you are not interested or are too busy to do it properly, you should just say so and not do it at all.”
“Trying to inspire uninterested
teenagers is soul-destroying”
Oboist Alison Alty, who has worked and recorded with many top orchestras, regularly does outreach work. In her view, the worst kind of project involves people like her going into secondary schools to teach—well intentioned, but aimed at the wrong audience and often lacking the right support. “Trying to inspire uninterested teenagers is soul-destroying,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s the best use of my skills.”
On the other hand, when Alty has played to younger children who are autistic, she found it hugely rewarding. “We play high-quality music, as we would on stage,” she said. “Some of them are hyperactive or hysterical, and suddenly they’re lying on the floor, calmly listening. Some start to conduct. It’s probably the only time they feel power over anyone.”
For outreach to work well, it’s best to start young. One well-known example is Venezuela’s El Sistema, which now reaches over 700,000 children in its home country alone, some of whom go on to play for the world-renowned Simón Bolívar orchestra. Set up by the activist musician José Antonio Abreu in the mid-1970s, the project is aimed at children from poor backgrounds, and is billed as much as a social justice movement as a music programme.
Despite controversy over the extent of its social impact and efficacy of its traditional, top-down teaching methods, it has been extensively imitated worldwide. Sistema Scotland, which has been in operation since 2008, now involves some 2,000 children in Glasgow, Stirling and Aberdeen; in 2015, a report found evidence that the programme improved lives and represented a “good investment for society.”
Harriet Pickering, director of the London Russian Ballet School, whose students regularly perform in state primary schools, agrees that targeting younger children is crucial for success, and that despite their age their responses can be surprisingly grown-up.
“We don’t patronise them with dumbed-down versions of ballets,” she told me. “Sometimes they’re quiet with awe, sometimes they whoop and cheer. They’ve been watching our shows for so long that they’re now like a bunch of little critics.”
Because many operas feature adult content, ENO restricts its outreach projects to teenagers only. But long-term, immersive work can make up some of the difference, enabling students to come into close contact with singers, whether at school or backstage in the opera house itself. And not just singers: ENO involves carpenters, electricians, costume designers and hairdressers as well.
What matters above all, says Natasha Freedman, who leads ENO’s Baylis Programme for learning and participation, is that outreach is integral to the organisation, not an add-on by “those good people down the corridor doing extra stuff.”
But should arts organisations such as ENO—which has had well-publicised financial troubles in recent years, and in 2016 was engaged in a protracted dispute with its own chorus—be stepping in where the state system has failed? In recent years, music in schools has been hit by a combination of non-specialist teachers, budget cuts and the arrival of the arts-free English Baccalaureate.
In the last five years the number of schools where music was a compulsory subject for 13 to 14 year olds fell from 84 per cent to 62 per cent.
Despite numerous studies showing the benefits—neurological, social, intellectual and more—of playing music there seem to be few government efforts to reverse this trend, despite some of the Cabinet, including Michael Gove, being lovers of classical music.
Underlying all this is a bigger question. Even if ensembles manage to connect with younger audiences, are they doing much to disrupt the entrenched social issues surrounding classical music?
Asked to identify what she saw as the key problem, Sage Gateshead’s Zeserson offered two words: “class perception.”
The social codes that govern traditional concert-going are legion: from the cross looks and shushing encountered by those of us who dare to attend concerts with children, to anxiety about clapping in the right place. None of this helps newcomers feel welcome.
“The classical music industry is very good at making itself an inaccessible medium,” Susanna Eastburn, chief executive of the new music charity Sound and Music, told me.
For his part, Cohen recommended “taking a bomb” to the traditional concert format. Late-night gigs, nightclub performances and productions such as Julie Taymor’s stripped-down, 100-minute version of The Magic Flute were all great examples of kicking over the apple cart, he said.
Also good at bridging the gap is the work of groups such as Jules Buckley’s Heritage Orchestra, which plays unconventional repertoire and—in its own words—“rocks out arenas, messes with other people’s music, and keeps orchestral tradition in the cellar.”
The recent popularity of screening classic movies with live orchestral accompaniment reminds viewers that classical music is actually part of their lives on screen and in computer games. Chineke!, an orchestra with a majority of black and ethnic minority musicians, was a hit at the last Proms.
“We’re not watering down anything”
For the more traditionally minded, the example of Michael Barley and the City of London Sinfonia is worth looking at. In December they put on John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, a difficult piece of modern classical music. In the first half, Barley explained the piece with musical examples, before performing it in the second.
Few professional musicians I spoke to want to live in an ivory tower, and many have become enthusiastic advocates for improving access—for their own sake as much as for the communities they serve. In a recent interview, US soprano Joyce DiDonato said that her work with prison inmates was the “most significant” she had ever done, and that the emotions explored there improved her understanding of the operatic canon.
In today’s fragmented freelance world, skills acquired through access and outreach work can help musicians develop. Jules Buckley told me that it was a mistake to imagine professional musicians as a singular breed, unable to accommodate or respond to different approaches.
“Musicians who are ninjas on the violin and kick-ass on the tuba have an understanding of many musical sounds,” he said. “We’re not watering down anything.”
Gardner agreed. “People can be bound together by music-making,” he told me. “There are massive benefits on both sides.”