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?