Opinion

Classical music is in danger of functioning as a thing apart

- 7 August 2014

Pushing boundaries: the Red Note Ensemble Photo: Wattie Cheung

Pushing boundaries: the Red Note Ensemble
Photo: Wattie Cheung

I recently visited the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. Like many such small arts centres it combines a lively restaurant and bar with a cinema and two performance spaces.

When I visited, the centre’s programme included drama, dance and Royal Shakespeare Company high-definition screenings, along with comedy and music.

What was noticeable was that there was no classical music and little that might even approach it. There was no Philip Glass, John Adams or Nico Muhly, contemporary composers whose intersection with more popular art forms might be expected to appeal to a wider audience. I am not saying there is no classical music in Kendal: far from it. If you look on Making Music’s website the listings include groups as varied as the Lakeland Sinfonia, the Cumbria Choral Initiative and the Kendal Concert Band. But at first sight there seems to be little intersection between the classical music scene and the arts centre, and this is not just confined to smaller places like Kendal.

Last year I visited the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, another lively arts centre this time a brisk walk from the centre of Cardiff. I was there for the first of Sinfonia Cymru’s Unbuttoned events, where the orchestra combined classical music with a DJ and visuals. Sinfonia Cymru had chosen the venue for its new venture into cross-over/open access specifically because Chapter Arts had no classical music programme. Like the Brewery Arts Centre, the Chapter Arts Centre proved to be an exciting venue combining visual arts, bar, restaurant, cinema and theatre, but without a sense of classical music. The audience for the Unbuttoned events proved highly interested, it was just that classical concerts just never came their way.

Not all arts centres are like this. There are plenty of venues like the Macclesfield Heritage Centre, which has a resident orchestra (the Northern Chamber Orchestra) plus a concert series put on by Macclesfield Music Society.

But this lack of music at the centre of the arts is more general. I subscribe to the Arts Council’s news service, where arts organisations post ads, news or notices. What is fascinating is that there is so little classical music news. Clearly the UK’s lively classical music scene gets its news elsewhere. It seems that classical music is in danger of functioning as a thing apart. We have a tendency to talk about music and the arts, and it seems that the current concept of an arts centre does not have to include regular performances of classical music.

It does not have to be so. The Barbican Centre runs an interesting musical strand which explores the intersection between contemporary classical music and popular genres. It recently had Jonny Greenwood, the composer and Radiohead guitarist, performing Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. This model could surely be emulated. The excellent Scottish group Red Note puts on formal concerts but it also presents its wonderfully titled Noisy Nights, which combine brand new music with having a beer. And the Bristol Proms (at the Bristol Old Vic) encourage concertgoers to take in a drink, take pictures and tweet.

So integrated programming is possible, preferably avoiding any feeling of tokenism. When classical music is lacking in institutions’ programmes, often what we have is a failure of imagination arising from a lack of confidence in exploring the musical arts and pushing boundaries. One of the issues might be money ‒ many classical music events can be expensive to put on. But I would suggest the main problem comes back to the patchiness of general music education.

Interesting initiatives, such as those mentioned above, often arise through people well versed in classical music trying to expand audiences and encourage others. But what is lacking is the sense that those highly educated in visual and theatre arts have learned even the basic classical musical language which would enable them to experiment with classical music, in the way they might in other art forms. Only then could we get the sort of integrated programming that we might expect: not music and the arts, just the arts.

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