Tavener and Salonen: reaching new audiences in unexpected ways

Martin CullingfordFri 18th July 2014

Gramophone's editor introduces the August issue of the magazine

This month I attended two entirely contrasting events, one steeped in tradition and symbolism, the other oozing contemporary chic, but both shared a common theme. On June 11 Westminster Abbey held a Service of Thanksgiving for Sir John Tavener, a composer whose music inspired listeners far beyond usual classical audiences, weaving itself even into the lives of many who might not have considered themselves classical listeners at all. The event encapsulated both the grandeur and intimacy which, paradoxically, lie at the heart of Tavener’s music – characteristics that co-exist not in tension but in dialogue, perhaps reflecting life itself. 

The artists who performed represented many of Tavener’s important musical partnerships: Stephen Layton, who had conducted The Veil of the Temple; Steven Isserlis, whose 1989 Proms premiere of The Protecting Veil (and subsequent Gramophone Award-winning recording) changed perceptions of cellist, composer and in many ways contemporary classical music alike; and Patricia Rozario, whose soprano voice had brought such passion to so much of Tavener’s work. The service was a moving, rewarding reminder of how listening to his music compels us to adjust our comprehension to a contemplative pace. 

From medieval magnificence to the cool of Berlin’s Apple Store – solid wood benches displaying stylish gadgets, surrounded by a buzz of on-trend youth and hip T-shirted staff. Built out of a former cinema, one of its auditoriums has been turned into a concert venue. I was there for a performance by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia (brought over specially!), of Sibelius, Lutosawski and Salonen’s own Violin Concerto, performed with intense physicality by Leila Josefowicz. Prior to the concert Salonen took part in a public conversation, and afterwards sat down to a Twitter Q&A. But his biggest outreach to audiences – both Apple’s and beyond – has been an iPad advertising campaign, in which he is seen contemplating, composing and then conducting his Violin Concerto. This vivid burst of classical music at its most contemporary has been airing in primetime programmes on mainstream TV, and served up by some of the highest-profile websites. 

Getting the message to the young and otherwise culturally engaged that classical music can be thrilling and fascinating is a constant battle. Here, Apple, which has an enviably powerful resonance among that very demographic, is not only channelling that message directly to them, but adding a veneer of Apple cool to it. 

What ties these two vastly different occasions together is simply that each represents the triumph of the belief that classical music can reach large and unexpected audiences, without having to dumb down. Viewers of Apple’s ad (or audiences in its store) aren’t given ‘crossover’: in Salonen they’re getting new music without compromise. Likewise, Tavener’s music was a strongly personal modern voice, one that was never alienating but could still challenge. 

Sometimes, it seems, music’s greatest opportunities for outreach are found where we least expect them. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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