Pause before you judge the Classic Brits
Journalist Paul Morley didn’t like the Classic Brits awards, that much is obvious from the extend rant he penned for new classical music blog (run by the former editor of Classic FM Magazine) Sinifini Music.
Morley’s blog is a tough read if you’re not already a member of the choir and unfamiliar with the chintzy, saccharin awards ceremony, but the post does have its supporters including the reliably adorable Jessica Duchen and pianist James Rhodes whose straight-from-the-heart blog contained more expletives than I’ve seen in a long time on the Telegraph website. Go him.
Events like the Classic Brits, artists like wizard-like violinist Andre Rieu and composer Anthony Hopkins (yes, really) are easy pickings for critics. We all of us need something look down our noses at (cue the Cleese-Barker-Corbett sketch about class) and for those of us with an addiction to self-publishing or editors desperate for link-bait, such opportunities are too good to miss.
Despite worthy gongs awarded to violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Ben Grosvenor, the Classic Brits is still at the fringes of the classical music awards circuit, maintaining its dominance over the crossover market whilst flirting pitifully with the more ‘serious’ and considerably more respected affairs such as Gramophone Magazine.
But what value are awards exactly? They either reflect popular opinion based in a telephone vote (always a flakey way of measuring quality) or its the selection of an elite group of ‘experts’ for whom passing judgment on recordings is as much fun as it is pouring scorn over the mainstream.
Two brief anecdotes spring to mind. A couple of years ago I attended a Christmas party arranged by a neighbour. It was the first time we’d set in his house and the first time all the neighbours had got together. The playlist for the evening was fairly straightforward – a selection of albums featuring Katherine Jenkins singing a broad range of repertoire. Not my cup of tea especially – ‘best ofs’ of opera highlights for example never are. What surprised me more was that he was quick to defend Jenkins, her recordings and what he saw as his classical music world. I left the party having learnt a salutary lesson: just because I like the chamber operas of Britten say and relish the challenge of sitting through works by Stockhausen, not everyone will.
Similarly, my own parents who revealed a bombshell of a confession at my 40th birthday meal. As a teenager I really grew with emotionally and musically when I joined my coin youth orchestra. I was playing technically demanding repertoire which was new to me even if it was part of the standard ‘entry point’ works. Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade and Elgar’s Enigma. Choral works like Brahms Requiem and Puccini’s exquisite Messa Di Gloria. These works were my musical foundations and I had made the assumption that my parents had enjoyed listening to them as much as all of us in the band had playing them. Twenty-two years later my mother whispered in my ear, “We found em just a little heavy at times.”
I don’t think less of my parents nor of my neighbour. Their musical preferences are different from my own. To pass judgment on either of them is to overlook them as individuals and all the qualities they possess.
The Classic Brits was a glitzy affair lacking style, panache or the appropriate reverence most in the ‘proper’ classical music world are accustomed to. It was also an event staged for a TV broadcast late on a Sunday night on ITV and covered by an equally popular (and populist) radio station, Classic FM. Andre Rieu and his merry band of pretty violinists dressed in multi-coloured ballgowns are not my choice. Indeed, watching a performance of theirs on Sky Arts is something akin to driving slowly past a car crash: horror, fascination and guilt all rolled into one. But Rieu’s brand of entertainment is popular and – presumably – he brings pleasure to a great many. His record sales are surely not a massive conspiracy mounted by a warped record executive looking to eradicate hundreds of years of musical culture? No, they’re cashing in serving up exactly what the audience they’ve identified wants.
Some might see the likes of the Classic Brits as evidence we’re are applauding the banal. If we think that, we’re not judging the event, nor the artist but ultimately those who enjoy the music in a bid to make ourselves feel a whole lot better about ourselves. In my experience, it’s exactly that kind of snobbery which keeps newcomers out of the concert hall and leads to arts organisations bemoaning dwindling ticket sales.