How we could talk about classical music differently

I’ve been thinking a lot about the infuriating survey Town Hall Symphony Hall, City of Birmingham commissioned from You Gov.

I don’t disagree entirely with it. Music education is vital, of course. And yes, the archaic language some use to elevate themselves and the genre doesn’t help at all.

You know what I think the problem might be?

Yes, the language probably needs to change in a lot of cases, but there’s a broader issue that needs addressing. I think we lean too heavily on the works. We talk more about the composers and the compositions, explaining the context of the music you’re about to hear (or have heard – if you’re reading it in a programme note), heralding the composer’s triumph.

To a newcomer that makes classical music as understandable as the offside rule does to me. Prior knowledge is assumed as a requirement. People who don’t have it are immediately put off.

The latest criminal acts I’ve noticed recently is telling people how long a piece lasts before it’s performed. What’s the thinking there? Are we worried they might be distracted by something on their phones? Telling people how long a piece lasts effectively says to the audience, “Piece A is basically shit. But don’t worry. It only lasts 5 minutes. The next piece is much much better.”

Or if we’re not doing that – justifying why the music is ‘so fantastic’ or reassuring them that the shit piece will soon be over – then we’re apologetic about the complexities of the art form. We end up persuading the audience to ‘give classical music a try’, cajole them into ‘dipping their toe in the water’. We promise them they’ll have transformative experiences if they only give it a try.

OK, fair enough. We don’t explicitly say that. But that is in effect the underlying narrative. And it’s totally destructive. Because justifying a work, apologising for it, or promising a newcomer the world is only – really – going to end in disappointment.

What’s the alternative then?

Well, what follows is a hunch. A theory based on no real tangible evidence, apart from my own experience this evening at a concert in Verbier.

What if we were to lead on the artists? What if we were to talk primarily about their musicianship, how they perform with one another. What if we were to talk about the magic in a space that is created when extraordinary musicianship brings a work to life?

I’d never heard Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet Op.57 until this evening at the Salle des Combins in Verbier. It would never have dawned on me to even listen to a recording of it. I didn’t even Shostakovich had even written a piano quintet.

But I listened to a completely unknown thing and was transported by the effect all five musicians on stage created and the way in which the audience sat completely in awe.

As each movement ended nobody moved. Nobody coughed. Nobody fidgeted.  The atmosphere was maintained. The tension was ramped up as a result, meaning that the audience felt the release in the music (even if they weren’t able to pinpoint exactly where in the music that was).

If we were trust ourselves and trust the audience that they’ll be uplifted by the emotional impact of live performance, then we could explore bolder ways of discussing the music.

That, of course, is a collective effort and a mid-long term strategy.

No reason not to dream a little though, ey?

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