‘World-class’… and other adjectives that should be banned from 2014

Andrew MellorThu 9th January 2014

Misleading and clumsy adjectives undermine the work of the global musical community – we should make them extinct

Gramophone’s new Victorian working environment – physical, that is, rather than operational – has brought some nifty new 21st-century accoutrement with it: smart new iMac computers, elegant desk lamps, and as of yesterday, a brand-spanking-new copy of the 12th edition of The Chambers Dictionary (our old one got lost when we moved from our erstwhile owners).

The lexicographers responsible for the Chambers tome – ‘the unrivalled dictionary for word lovers’ according to the dust jacket – haven’t quite caught-up with their chums in Oxford and listed the word ‘selfie’. Perhaps they’re on the case for the 13th edition. Still, when the very concept of a printed dictionary seems a little old-hat, it’s impressive how ready the guardians of these publications are to take note of linguistic trends by including new words and phrases and ditching derelict ones.

The arts world could learn a thing or two from that, and start by having a good look at those phrases it bandies around without any thought to actual meaning. The adjectival use of ‘classically-trained’ seems exclusively reserved for when it’s definitively irrelevant: when the artist in question is doing something other than playing or writing classical music. It’s become a cheap way to tout an artist as ‘more talented than you think’ because they pitched-up at a conservatoire for a stretch of time. Quite how that detail of personal biography ring-fences an individual’s capacity for artistic expression is questionable. But the real rub is that the phrase demeans just about every other musical genre by elevating classical music above it. Even if you’re misguided enough to believe that one genre is superior to all others, it's crass to say so in the current climate. We have a word to support that sentiment and you’ll find it under ‘D’ in Chambers (it ends with ‘iplomacy’).

The misleading and debasingly ubiquitous use of adjectives like ‘young’, ‘exciting’ and ‘dynamic’ probably has more to do with a chronic lack of imagination (and a good thesaurus) than deceit. But when it comes to the dubious description ‘world-class’, the intention and the result are rather more dangerous.

The phrase ‘world-class’ has become a convenient way of separating the perceived wheat from the presumed chaff of artistic endeavor, with the wholly undermining caveat that anybody with the ability to spell can award the accolade to anybody else. ‘World-class’ might be just about workable for global sports rankings when you can draw a definitive line above which certain teams or individuals are capable of certain feats and below which they generally aren’t. But artistic engagement – when you can be inspired and devastated by a corporate or individual ability to express something intangible – doesn’t work like that however much technical ability comes into play. In an artistic context you could say the phrase ‘world-class’ has been meaningless all along. But in 2014 – now that the internet has matured and anyone can express themselves through creativity to anyone else – the phrase has surely become culturally defunct.

The subtext behind its use, of course, is that an upper echelon of musicians and ensembles are ‘world-class’ because they’ve been invited for whatever reason onto the international touring circuit (only certain concert halls count, obviously). When you’ve sat through a perfectly-played but interminably boring concert from a ‘world-class’ orchestra at a landmark concert hall and a few days later experienced a scintillating, fresh, involving and accomplished musical offering from a not-so-famous ensemble at a smaller venue around the corner – as I have more than once recently – you can be left wondering if these hierarchies are pedaled by canny use of words rather than an honest reflection on an ensemble’s ability to affect people mentally and physiologically.

One of the great joys of the live music scene in 2014 is that you’re more likely to stumble upon a superb and involving performance from one of thousands of hard-working local ensembles in Europe, America, Australasia or elsewhere than ever before because generally musicians across the board are far better at what they do than they were 50 years ago. In the UK alone right now nearly all our symphony orchestras are playing within a high and relatively narrow slither of the technical quality-ometer. Most have got used to playing with a bit of oomph, emotion and gregariousness too.

The situation isn’t that different in the rest of the world. But if that’s not a reason to ditch the ‘world-class’ bracket, then perhaps we should fall back on good old linguistic common sense. I’m no lexicographer, but I simply don’t get how the phrase makes sense when we live in a globalised world of communications and entertainment – a world in which you can have an urge to hear the Auckland Philharmonia or the Lapland Chamber Orchestra and action that urge within seconds. Surely the definition of ‘world-class’ is tempered by anything and everything that exists in this world, so unless the orchestral scene on Mars is gathering significant pace in 2014 and we can create proper differentiation, we should cast the clumsy phrase into oblivion once and for all. Who knows, it might just serve to remind us that hundreds of ensembles and individuals throughout the world deliver inspiring musical miracles on a daily basis, whether or not they’ve played at the Barbican or the Lincoln Center.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014