Frankly, it’s between rock and a hard piece

Classical music isn’t broken, but its public image in the United Kingdom needs fixing. Regard the token gestures during the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies: ‘Cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber playing Elgar’s Salut d’Amore, glamorous all girl string quartet Bond accompanying Russell Brand’s off key rendition of I am the Walrus, Rowan Atkinson and the London Symphony Orchestra miming and mumming to Chariots of Fire – just minutes of music that barely passed muster, even amid the hours of often tedious pop. Classical music did not fit in to Danny Boyle’s concept of multicultural Britain.

Elsewhere organisers of cultural events evidently decided that the only way to generate interest in classical music this year was if Olympic references could be forced into their conception, as in the PRS for New Music Foundation’s 20×12 minute series of new works, arbitrary in length and number. The implication is that classical music cannot speak for itself.

For the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee thirteen celebrated British composers were selected to write works performed during the pageant on the Thames – during five hours of BBC coverage how much of this music was televised? Not one note. The attention span of the man on the street is not perceived to be sufficient to withstand the rigours of classical music appreciation. Likewise, politicians are unwilling to associate with anything so elitist – they would rather be quoted as enjoying X-Factor.

The BBC Proms were a beacon of ambitious programming and defiance in the face of that supercilious fop, Jeremy Hunt, who admitted to looking with envy towards private arts organisations in the USA as a long term model for the UK – I have yet to meet an American musician or concertgoer who does not wish their music scene were half as vibrant and successful as ours.

But even the Proms stuttered at times. At the climax of a brilliant and challenging programme, what was the National Youth Orchestra’s idea of a musical lollipop? Anna Meredith’s Hands Free – incidentally, one of the 20×12 minute premieres – the kind of exercise in body percussion more suited to a talented group of kindergarteners than the World’s finest youth orchestra. I cringed as the clapping of the orchestra was drowned out by the deafening sound of people turning off in their thousands.

If the summer has taught us one thing about classical music in the UK it is that we are far too willing to underestimate the general public. This has lost us the opportunity of using events such as the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee to inspire not only a new generation of athletes, but also a new generation of performers and audiences.


In each of my weekly columns I aim to mention an accessible piece of modern classical music – listen to it on Spotify or YouTube and I can tell you what I think about it next time; today James MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood for ‘cello and piano. Or buy the CD and make everyone happy!

PHOTO / pfly