...that’s the simple and intriguing idea behind Encounters, as the Southbank Centre's Music Director explains
Ask the question ‘how did you first get into classical music?’ and the answers will be many and various. I was lucky in many respects - music was embedded into the working class Glasgow community I grew up in. I had aunts and uncles who sang in the legendary Glasgow Orpheus Choir and we continued their legacy of music making; we were all expected, when the moment came (which it did regularly) to do a ‘turn’ round the piano. My Mum used to take me to Glasgow to hear Tchaikovsky nights played the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I was surrounded by people who loved music and encouraged me to listen and try things simply because they wanted me to love it as much as they did.
When it comes to live music, most people go to their first concert for a very straightforward reason: someone who enjoys music asks them to come along. But what of the people who don’t know anyone who goes to concerts, or don’t have friends, family or a community that regularly participate in cultural activity?
This question of opportunity lies at the heart of ‘Encounters’ a new Southbank Centre project which will see leading musicians accompany people to their first classical concert, sitting alongside them as a fellow audience member and hopefully, having a great night out. And that’s it. There is nothing didactic here; this is about new audiences having the best possible first experience of classical music in the company of someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about their art. Marin Alsop, Nicola Benedetti, Colin Currie, Chi-chi Nwanoku, Sean Shibe, singers Susan Bickley, James Gilchrist and Roderick Williams, and composers Nico Muhly, Mark Simpson and Mark-Anthony Turnage, who feature in Southbank Centre’s 2019/20 season announced today, are amongst the outstanding international musicians who have eagerly agreed to be part of ‘Encounters’. Each will pick a Southbank Centre concert that they’d like to hear during the season, and we will introduce them to a small group of concert newcomers. How each ‘encounter’ plays out is completely down to the musician and their guests. We won’t be putting out an open call for participants; instead we will be working with local community groups, those who live and work nearby, prioritising those for whom opportunities such as this are especially hard to come by. And we won’t have to look too far from home to identify these groups. In the last five years, Southbank Centre has sold over 1 million tickets to classical concerts, but 26 million visits are made to our riverside site annually and of these, sadly, not as many people as we would like make it through the doors of our three concert halls. It is a priority for us to demystify what we do and show that everyone is welcome.
We’d like to give newcomers a truly memorable experience. What better way than to spend time with the very musicians who make Southbank Centre come alive? Of course, the hope is that the new concert goers enjoy the experience so much that they will want to come back; with this in mind Southbank Centre is making hundreds of free concert tickets available so that they can return for a second visit with a friend who hasn’t been to a concert before, and in turn, that friend can also come again with another friend, family member of colleague who is also new to classical music. If they decide a live concert isn’t for them, then that’s OK. Pianist Stephen Hough, who is also taking part in ‘Encounters’ put it nicely in a speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards in 2017, ‘in the end some people will just not respond to this art form we love - and that's just fine. There's nothing wrong with them, and, more importantly, there's nothing wrong with the music.‘ In the same speech, Hough also made an important point about active listening and not undervaluing audiences. ‘When we invite someone to come with us to a concert’, he said, ‘it's more like asking them to play a game of tennis rather than to watch a match. I do think we sometimes undersell classical music, especially to young people. We invite them to climb Primrose Hill when they are ready for Ben Nevis.’ I learnt this forcefully working in schools with the London Sinfonietta; people lapped up music by composers such as Stockhausen and Varėse.
If musicians, such as Stephen Hough, see the invigorating possibilities of an engaging ‘Encounter’ for audiences then coming to a concert with newcomers also gives musicians a rare chance to hear first hand what people think of the live concert experience: how they respond to what they hear; what they like; what moves them; what engages them - and crucially, what doesn’t. By breaking down barriers between artists and audiences - reducing the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that can permeate cultural life and let’s face it, some find off-putting - my hope is that we all learn something and that some myths (on both sides) will be debunked and a few surprises thrown up along the way.
At Southbank Centre we’ve always felt that musicians, those at the very heart of music making, are the most powerful advocates for their art and as such we’re particularly keen to investigate ways of bringing artists and audiences closer together. We believe very strongly that across the industry we need to involve more diverse audiences in classical music - people from all backgrounds. There's a huge amount that we at Southbank Centre are doing, often out of view, to make this happen but we also believe there's a lot more that we can do. And if ‘Encounters’ turns on even one person to live classical music, and if audiences and musicians come to understand each other better, then we should all celebrate.
Southbank Centre’s 2019/20 classical music season goes on sale to Southbank Centre Members at 10am on Monday February 25, and then on sale to the general public at 10am on Wednesday February 27.