Thomas Carroll, conductor of Orpheus Sinfonia and presenter of their new series Beneath The Score, discusses the importance of audience interaction
Classical music IS for everyone. At least, that's what I try to believe when going out on stage. There are few so satisfying comments to receive after a concert than hearing how relevant the music felt, or that never before had it seemed possible to understand what it was all about! There does, for whatever reasons, seem to be an ongoing feeling with those who I talk to on the subject - taxi drivers, hairdressers or even in the bank! – that classical music is either far too cerebral to understand or that it is just some (rather boring) music to be relaxed to, ideally after work with a glass of sherry. Carrying a cello certainly seems to invite conversation, and I can't help then but to ask people's opinions about classical music. I have always wondered why classical music is so often viewed in this way and whether there is anything that can be done to try to change this.
I firmly believe that our appreciation of music is strengthened when we understand better what led the composers to write it. I believe that this holds true for both the seasoned musician as much as it does for someone hearing music for the first time. For many years, my tours of America, under the auspices of Young Concert Artists, also involved workshops for children and university students. Whether simply playing Saint-Saëns' 'The Swan' or a movement from a late Beethoven sonata, by revealing a little about the background to the music - the composers personality and what they were going through in their lives at the time. This always succeeded in bringing the music to life in a way that just playing it alone wouldn't have done. Sharing an excerpt from their letters or diaries in particular, seemed always to have the most profound effect.
I love concerts where I leave uplifted and in a world of peaceful and solitary inspiration, but I also believe that there is a place for a more interactive concert. I wish that I would have been lucky enough to attend one of Bernstein's iconic Young People's Concerts in the 1960s that he put on together with the New York Philharmonic. I don't think that there has ever been a more convincing or passionate advocate for classical music than him. For years I have been inspired by his curious mind and in turn have been drawn more and more to find out what lies behind these great masterpieces that we have.
As long as the music always takes centre stage, taking the audience on a journey which also includes readings from letters, narrative and visual images, can be extremely powerful. Only two weeks ago someone said 'I didn't think that I would be able to relate to all that clever music and I didn't think that I had anything in common with it.' As much as I would wish to take credit for this comment, given after the premiere of a new series with the Orpheus Sinfonia, called Beneath the Score, I believe that it actually reveals a far more fundamental point. Classical music has the power to connect with far more people than it currently does.
Two weeks ago we explored Beethoven's life in a concert that combined excerpts from his symphonies, his letters, visual images and a narrative that looked at his life and the person he was and became. His music is so clearly influenced both by his struggle with deafness and by the times in which he grew up. There is so much great music that links itself so naturally together and so many wonderful letters and stories by and about the composers.
On January 22, Orpheus Sinfonia and I will explore music inspired by Shakespeare, such as the fantastic Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream and February 19 will see us explore the famous love triangle between Robert and Clara Schumann and Brahms. Nearer the time of the General Election, we will take a look at composers who were heavily influenced by the regime under which they worked, most notably of course, Shostakovich.
I hope that those in our audience who enter perhaps feeling that classical music is not really for them will leave that bit more enchanted by its powers. As great as programme notes are I am hopeful that by engaging with the audience directly, in programmes specially designed to make their contents more accessible, that we will win new friends. I firmly believe that there are those not yet involved with classical music, simply because it hasn't revealed its magical powers to them yet and possibly, as the modest lady said to me, because there are thoughts in the air that the 'clever music is too complex to understand.'
There is no doubt that the very depths of Bach's genius will forever remain a mystery to us mere mortals, or that the most personal and intimate moments in Beethoven, created out of his extraordinary loneliness and suffering, will forever overwhelm us by its intensity. Even though we may never penetrate to the very bottom, the endless search, with all its rewards along the way, is what makes classical music so fascinating and exciting. I firmly believe that we all have it in us to open ourselves to these riches and infinite worlds of expression. Perhaps there is no better piece to jump right into than Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, which we will play on January 22! I'm sure we all remember our youthful romantic feelings, so beautifully and touchingly portrayed in Tchaikovsky's epic score.