The “Opera vs Youth” myth

James Rhodes’ latest blog on the Telegraph website entitled ‘Classical concerts are too sacred for their own good. Only the Proms always gets it right’, whilst arguably provocative, is certainly thought-provoking. When I started critiquing classical music and opera I had exactly the same views as Rhodes; however, being a music journalist and spending lots […]

New in Ceasefire, Paul Guest's Musical Notes - Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2011 20:09 - 1 Comment

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James Rhodes’ latest blog on the Telegraph website entitled ‘Classical concerts are too sacred for their own good. Only the Proms always gets it right’, whilst arguably provocative, is certainly thought-provoking.

When I started critiquing classical music and opera I had exactly the same views as Rhodes; however, being a music journalist and spending lots of time in London’s concert venues and opera houses I actually have come to realise that what I took for a fairly commonsensical attitude was, on closer inspection, an entirely naïve viewpoint.

Indeed, while I agree with Rhodes that the BBC Proms is a fantastic stage and platform reaching millions of people, it is by no means the only platform. I’ve seen so much youth and energy at some of these classical music concerts, it’s unreal and I learnt that I was very wrong.

Let us go back to the Rosenblatt recital with Juan Diego Florez at the Royal Festival Hall last year- what an atmosphere; an international audience full of eager classical music enthusiasts, whether they be young or old. There was a guy in a football shirt sitting in the third row; I looked behind me and there was a couple caked in goth make up, piercings and tattoos. Of course there were the usual grey hairs (it was a Rosenblatt recital after all) and yes I did take my grandmother as my plus one, but there was a wealth of young professionals and students- is Rhodes not looking hard enough?

I think the “aging, well-dressed audience” cliché, and the ‘death’ of classical music are just misconceptions, probably perpetuated because the art is no longer central to popular culture. But I have really discovered how wrong I was by simply attending more concerts.

The composer Nico Muhly attracts a very young audience both in the opera house and at his concert series at the King’s Place; as does the young 18-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor- I have been to many concerts this year with young, creative, new, different audiences with electrifying attitudes.

Youth is thriving in this art form as it is in other specialist art forms and we should be proud that things are changing for the better. As for the man in the bow tie and white hair who has come to enjoy some good old fashioned Mozart: good on you, sir! You’re the most fashionable here.

Rhodes is also correct in saying that this has something to do with the marketing, which is where Rhodes’ career has succeeded. The Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Barbican, Southbank Centre and indeed orchestras such as the London Symphony and OAE have all had great campaigns striving for newer audiences and I think they have achieved that somewhat.

Lastly, I just want to point out, that we cannot compare classical music and football. Football is a whole other ball game (excuse the pun, but it really is). It has everything to do with popular culture- Football is a billion pound industry targeting a far bigger audience and classical music doesn’t come anywhere close; the same goes for art or architecture or any other specialist art but, on the flip side, as Rhodes says “Talent is talent”.

“Trust me; nothing bad will happen if a few joints get smoked in the Wigmore Hall or someone’s seen at the Barbican with ripped jeans and a tattoo, tweeting mid-concert. I’m certainly expecting to see lots of this at the Proms this year (especially with Kennedy playing) and it’ll be all the better for it.”

I hope Rhodes won’t mind if I start tweeting mid-concert during his next performance (on the 3rd July at the HSBC Cheltenham Music Festival, where he is making his concerto debut). I wonder too what audience will turn up for this event, shall I go and prepare some ripped jeans?

Perhaps some of things I have said here sound wrong to some people but, in my experience over the past season, this is what I have seen and I think we should stop being so over-dramatic about it all and look at what is in front of us.

Paul Guest is Ceasefire‘s Opera critic. He also writes for Classical Music Magazine, Gramophone and is the resident interviewer at Opera Britannia.

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Ankh Entertainment
Jul 5, 2011 3:02

looking to find support for promoting the over 150 year old vault of music by the Dean of African-American composer, William Grant Still.

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