Last week I was lucky enough to meet Errollyn Wallen, the Belize-born composer whose BBC Proms commission, This Frame is Part of the Painting, will be premiered next month at the Royal Albert Hall. We chatted about her career and the influence of artists like Howard Hodgkin on her work, before moving on to a more general discussion on the state of classical music today. Errollyn was the first black woman to have a work performed at the Proms – her Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, televised back in 1998 – and I wanted to know how far she thought classical culture has changed since. Her response was both encouraging and unsettling: 'Things have moved in some ways – people now accept that anyone can be a composer. But I worry about young people having access … it’s becoming way less democratic.'
And she’s right. A Musicians Union report published in April described UK music education as being in a 'perilous state', highlighting cuts to hubs and schools as well as massive inequality in instrumental provision. This, coupled with increasing pressure on students to take the Ebacc suite of subjects – none of which include creative subjects – has meant that music is increasingly viewed as a ‘nice to have’ amongst many school children. Growing up I benefited hugely from a local Music Hub. It was under their auspices that I played in my first classical gig and discovered the feeling of invincibility that comes with being amongst a full orchestra. It was also the first opportunity I had to write music for a large instrumental ensemble, igniting a compositional fire in me that still burns today.
So it stung when an old mentor told me how funding for the same hub had not increased year-on-year in line with with inflation, making it difficult to keep providing those same opportunities for local youngsters. As the general secretary of the Musician’s Union Horace Trubridge writes, 'only a very narrow social stream of young people will make up the musicians of tomorrow', and whatever ostensible progress is being made within the industry, without proper state-sponsored music education the progressive attitudes Errollyn describes count for very little.
In the UK there is, thankfully, a charitable vanguard doing its bit to prop up the state’s failings. Over the past six months I’ve met and interviewed passionate members of organisations whose mission is as much social as it is musical: fledgling ensembles like the Street Orchestra Live and the Multi Story Orchestra, who give concerts in places where music provision is sparse; outfits like the VCM Foundation and the Pimlico Music Foundation who work closely with schools and hubs to give young people the performance opportunities they so badly need. And of course the all-BME Chineke! Orchestra, who in their short life have done so much to alter common perceptions of what a classical musician should look like. As founder Chi-chi Nwanoku told me earlier this year: ‘I created Chineke! out of necessity, because there’s this gaping hole ... at our first concert at the Southbank Centre I had no idea how we’d be received, but as we walked onto the stage the audience for the first time in my career looked like the city I lived in, and I realised that with one hit we had addressed a big issue.’
The Proms is another such institution helping to plug the gaps. Not only is it a valuable platform for BME artists like those in Chineke!, its 70,000 standing tickets (available for the price of a sandwich and coffee – or perhaps a London pint), multiple fringe events and hugely diverse programming - not to mention the money raised by promenaders each year for music access charities - makes it a powerful agent for accessibility. As teenagers, both my brother and I benefited from the free tickets given to those who entered its young composer competition, Proms Inspire. I never won, but without a doubt it was those formative concert experiences that led to my decision to study music at university.
I was therefore puzzled to read a somewhat scathing editorial in the Guardian last week, which implied that the Proms – a 'magnet for conspicuous consumption' – is complicit in entrenching an elitism endemic within classical music. It went on to suggest the genre only harks back, and that Proms programming is the archetype of such reactionary attitudes. The Times’ chief music critic Richard Morrison dealt a swift rebuttal - backed heartily by classical Twitter - which pointed out the article’s failure to address the root cause of any existing elitism - ie access. I would also suggest that, whilst the writer may have felt they were shining a light on an insular, bourgeois industry, ironically, they may have made things worse by putting off parents who might otherwise have been tempted to take their child to a Prom (the very thing helping to dispel such attitudes).
For me, this episode has only strengthened my conviction that now, more than ever, we need to support those working to redress shortfalls in state education - not lampoon them in the press. If culture and the manifold benefits it reaps are to thrive, diversity is paramount. So keep a beady eye out for community projects, turn up for your local youth orchestra and dig deep at this year’s Proms. Otherwise Errollyn’s fears may well be realised.