Has Britain’s changing ethnic and cultural landscape affected classical music audiences?
One of the great joys of making the rounds in British musical life is the experience of the ‘music club circuit’. If you're a musician you know what I'm on about – small towns and cities across the United Kingdom with a music series in an old Victorian music hall, Friends Meetinghouse, or local church, featuring a wide range of performances subscribed to by a loyal group of followers. These are the bread-and-butter of young solo recitalists, who are promised enthusiastic and knowledgeable audiences and a chance to see every square mile between Land's End and Dunnet Head. It's kind of like joining the armed forces, except that no one tips their hat to you on a train.
Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of playing for one of these series. Following my afternoon rehearsal and general warm-up, I took a break in the rectory of the church and shared a cup of tea with one of the music club's volunteers, as one does. We made the usual chit-chat: who appears on this year's line-up? What were the recent memorable concerts? Who has visited with an unusual programme or dark horse composer in tow? Naturally, the conversation also turned to matters of audience. I heard in this exchange what I always hear in such places: ‘Well, the public has shrunk. The demographic in Town X has changed, and the young people don't go to concerts anymore.’
Right. About that. I can't say that I have a definitive knowledge of the history of modern concert-going but I have seen quite a few old photographs and some footage of concert-going audiences from, say, the early 20th century up to about the 1970s or so. That audience sitting in the celebrated National Gallery concerts or the Queen's Hall looked, from the point of view of age, pretty much like today's audience. Critics and music historians much better versed than myself in this subject have indeed observed that, for the most part, the majority of classical concert-goers start to attend in their late 40s and 50s; reasons of disposable income and the better-informed nature of, shall we say, a person of experience are often cited. Call me deluded, but somehow I don't think I would necessarily have gotten any more young people in Town X for a recital of d'Anglebert and Rameau in 1955 compared to 2013 (actually, chances are I might get a few more now).
So what's changed? Remember that offhand comment about demographic? That's a reserved way of saying that Britain's racial and ethnic make-up has changed. People from all over the world have come to Britain and have enlivened town and countryside alike with a remarkable array of cultures, languages, cuisines, and artistic traditions. Want to see world-class Persian calligraphers? A Japanese tea ceremony? Cantonese opera? A Gambian griot? Carnatic singing from Tamil Nadu? You can find them in Leeds, London, Leicester, Liverpool – probably even Leamington Spa.
There's something that makes these cultural traditions quite similar to each other in a very special way. It's said that it takes at least five years to be able to successfully perform a true Japanese tea ceremony. The recitation of Persian poetry is the study of a lifetime. The rich storytelling of Western Africa depends on complex mnemonic traditions handed down through generations. In short these arts require years of dedication and discipline. They require great attention to detail, a respect for history and its guardians, and, oftentimes, an ability to transmute ‘archaeology into art’ (Ralph Kirkpatrick's unforgettable phrase, not mine) by using tradition to speak to the present. Sounds to me a lot like classical music.
As I've written elsewhere, there's no reason to apologise for the fact that classical music requires time and attention. It's all well and good to widen the appeal of our music, but I don't think it requires us to be ‘down with the kids’ - they'd see us for our disingenuousness in a moment. Nor do we have to pretend like we're not totally obsessive geeks. Nor, dear friends, does it mean we should deflect the epithet of being ‘elitist’, by ceasing to teach and perform it with the same love handed down to us by those who inspired us to take this calling in the first place.
My issue with classical music audiences isn't one of age. It's one of origin. Forget the matter of grey heads. It's a matter of white faces. We go to all sorts of performances of non-Western music, here and abroad. Isn't it a bit arrogant to assume that non-Westerners can't appreciate our music? We've got new Britons here (by the way, I'm one of them). They come from richly complex cultures. They're disciplined and they know forms of art from their own countries that require a great deal of discipline. Many arrive highly educated, and in general they place emphasis on education for their offspring. They're curious. I dare say that we've got something special here: an audience just waiting to be invited.
Website: mahanesfahani.com / Twitter: @MahanEsfahani