Why is participatory music-making too often reduced to the role of classical music's worthy cousin?
If a great composer wrote a great symphony but there was no one there ever to play it, to conduct it, hear it, or even read the score – would it still be great music? This may sound like a metaphysical question, but for me there is a clear answer. The symphony would be an irrelevance: personally, I believe that music is all about people.
Next week the Royal Philharmonic Society announces the winners of its annual RPS Music Awards, which celebrate outstanding live music in the UK. What I love about the awards, quite separately from the handing out of the beautiful silver lyre-shaped trophies, is the bigger picture which the nominations paint about the current state of classical music in the UK, and how musicians, audiences and participants are all contributing to the finest live music.
So, alongside classical music's ‘big names’ – amongst them Gramophone regulars Igor Levit, Isabelle Faust, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Oliver Knussen, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Antonio Pappano and Vladimir Jurowski (all of whom acknowledge, incidentally, that they would not have careers without the talented musicians and audiences who participate in their performances) - sit a plethora of imaginative events which have engaged thousands of ordinary people in live music-making, often in parts of the UK where it is normally hard to come by. I say 'ordinary', but in reality, these events have proved their participants to be anything but; they are at the centre of exceptional music inspired by the lives they lead and the legends of their communities. This is music making for and with people of all ages – and I mean ALL – some experiencing the revelatory joys of live classical music for the very first time.
And while this kind of live music rarely makes the headlines, it truly has the capacity to change lives. It’s wonderfully inventive, and rich with ambition: Scottish Opera's BambinO, gives babies a first taste of opera, while Memory Spinners creates opera with people living with dementia. The first ever BBC Relaxed Prom, 10 years in the making, was an orchestral concert for people with sensory, learning and physical disabilities. 509 Arts' 'people’s opera' Calderland, with a cast of hundreds, played an important part in the regeneration of Yorkshire's Calder Valley following the devastating floods of 2015.
OperaSonic, again with a massive cast of all ages, explored and celebrated the Welsh legends of Newport, while Classically Yours, Orchestras Live’s partnership with East Riding of Yorkshire Council, brought professional orchestras and a vast array of music-making opportunities to remote rural and coastal communities - another part of Hull City of Culture's expansive legacy. There are many more.
To see and hear so many people engaged in classical music, as listeners, and as participants, is thrilling. So why are these dynamic projects so rarely reported? Why is participatory music-making too often reduced to the role of classical music's worthy cousin? To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand what lies at the heart of great music-making, in whatever form it might take. All the featured artists and organisations on the RPS Music Awards shortlists have musical excellence, creativity, understanding and inclusivity at their core. They all share a seriousness of purpose, and the willingness to listen and to spend time to get things exactly right. And they all make that lasting emotional impact, often so hard to define, that remains long after the last notes have faded.
That’s why, the RPS Music Awards chooses to celebrate them side by side. The fact that they deliver this in different ways is all to the good: it’s only by valuing the entirety of live classical music that you can actually see what’s really happening on the ground. Year on year, thank goodness, they give us increasing reasons to celebrate.
It takes years of patience, commitment and tenacity to get work of this quality, and for this many people, to take flight, and much of this work happens against the background of reduced funding. Winning an RPS Music Award, and the wider recognition it brings, can make a real difference. Last year, the UK’s first disabled-led youth orchestra, Bristol-based South-West Open Youth Orchestra, brought to life by Open Up Music, were award winners. The RPS Music Awards jury saluted the inclusive nature of the process, which develops bespoke instruments that can be played with any part of the body according to needs of individual musicians, and the orchestra’s, 'inspirational and vital role in bringing together the worlds of disabled and mainstream music-making'. One year on, and the orchestra has gone national.
Was there ever a more joyous, clearer demonstration that classical music is, and absolutely should be, for everyone?
The RPS Music Awards take place on Wednesday, May 9 in London, and are broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday, May 14 at 19.30hrs