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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 7

Who's Afraid of Classical Concerts?

by Norman Lebrecht / April 9, 2005

Whenever someone predicts the demise of symphony concerts, reassurances come fluttering from every obvious quarter. The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) produces a wireless device that allows concertgoers to follow the music interactively. A record label pays a million pounds to a schoolgirl violinist. A big-name soloist announces that more people than ever are tuning into classics.

As in any death foretold, these final rites will not affect the sad outcome. The Co-Co (short for Concert Companion) that the ABO showed in February at its annual conference enables listeners to zoom in on the conductor's sweaty brow or the deep cleavage in the second desk of cellists, while receiving snippets of text information. It has novelty value but that will soon wear off once the menu options are exhausted.

Deutsche Grammophon's huge deal with Nicola Benedetti, winner of BBC's 2004 Young Musician of the Year, is equally flimsy. DG is in the market for physical assets. Benedetti, 17, an Ayrshire blonde of Italian blood, has been trailed in The Sun as 'Scotland's sexiest star'. Declining modelling jobs, Benedetti is keen to proselytise classical music among her own age group. But when her CDs are counted a year from now, DG will find that Nicola has sold overwhelmingly to middle-aged men in country towns and to grannies looking for an educative birthday gift just as every other teenage wonder has done over the past two decades.

New audience? What new audience? Classical managers clutch at straws when they look to Classic FM, with six million UK listeners, for hope of renewal. Classic's audience is chiefly passive: they may tune in, but they seldom buy concert tickets or extend their taste for Mozart to encompass a complete work. During the 12-year lifespan of Classic FM, concert attendances in Britain have steadily declined. Meanwhile, educational investments by many orchestras have failed to yield more than a smattering of children for whom classical music becomes a lifelong passion.

Why the world has gone off classical concerts is a conundrum in which almost every reasonable assertion is disputable. Take the attention-span thesis. Many in the concert world believe that its decline stems from the public's flickering tolerance for prolonged concentration. If politicians speak in soundbites, how can we expect voters to sit through a Bruckner symphony?

It is a persuasive argument but one that I have come to find both fatuous and patronising. Around me I see people of all ages who sit gripped through four hours of King Lear, Lord of the Rings or a grand-slam tennis final but who, ten minutes into a classical concert, are squirming in their seats and wondering what crime they have committed to be held captive, silent and legroom-restrained, in such Guantanamo conditions.

Their ennui will not be relieved for long by an electronic gizmo which gives them an illusion of mechanical control, nor for that matter, by a kid soloist who has yet to grow a musical personality. These are gimmicks bred of desperation, not a coherent approach to a cultural crisis.

If the shrunken attention span is not to blame for the classical turn-off, nor is price. Most concert tickets now cost less than cinema stubs. Last year, the London Symphony Orchestra adopted an impulse price of four or five pounds but failed to attract first-timers. Let's face it: in a busy metropolis with multiple counterattractions, most people won't be dragged to a symphony concert at any price. As the New York impresario Sol Hurok used to say: "When people don't want to come, nutting will stop them."

So what, precisely, scares them off? In a word, the atmosphere. The symphony concert has stultified for half a century. It starts in mid-evening and last two hours. The ritual cannot be altered without inconveniencing the musicians and alarming the subscription audience; so nothing changes.

A Chinese businessman, David Tang, believes busy people want shorter concerts. He is launching one-hour concerts at Cadogan Hall, Chelsea, next week, but his revolution has been disabled from the outset by a standard 7 pm start.

The only concerts that attract twenty-somethings are those which play to their rhythms. In Madrid and Barcelona, concerts begin at 10 pm and are thronged by youngsters. In Vienna, the standing room at the rear of the opera house and the Musikverein is a singles-scene enclosure, walled off from the stuffy interior and giving the standees a sense of ownership and empowerment.

Elsewhere, the concert hall is a gerontocracy, its decorum enforced more rigidly than in places of worship, its exclusiveness innate. Thirty years ago, in my mid-20s, I used to sit in the backless choir seats behind the orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, studying conductors' expressions. At the time, I was one of the older kids on the row. Today, at my present age, I'd practically be the youngest.

The greying of the audience is an admitted fact of concert life. Less acknowledged is the ageing of everyone else. One expects conductors to be in their seventies, but most soloists have been at it too long and there is barely an orchestral manager of any consequence under 50.

Small wonder that the concert hall atmosphere is about as lively as a cruise liner, its intellectual magnetism as potent as a pension plan. Why would any redblooded postmodern person want to spend an evening in God's waiting room, even with a Co-Co to sex up the da capo?

Other arts, too, have rigid traditions. Theatre, you might argue, has also failed to alter its timing or rituals since Olivier was in full cry. But theatre has continuously overhauled its repertoire, making Shakespeare and Schiller fight for stage time against Pinter and Osborne, Stoppard and Hare, and Jerry Springer: The Opera. Theatre has sharpened its capacity to surprise, while classical concerts rely on stupefying familiarity.

There are ways to change the atmosphere. Design 40-minute concerts for under-40s. Provide free child-care on weekends. Introduce standing room. Try the late-night route. If there was a genuine will to refresh the concert experience, it could be done.

But, as any good shrink will confirm, the classical business music must first want to change and I detect no such desire. The old gang won't give up its hegemony and the last one to leave will politely turn out the lights.

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on classical music and culture. His weekly column can be found at http://lebrecht.scena.org

(c) La Scena Musicale