Crossover artists: taking a leaf our of their book

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The Royal Albert Hall has revealed that a solo recital by classical pianist Lang Lang sold out within 48 hours. Considering that the hall can seat up to 8,000 it is remarkable that a single performer, playing a standard programme of Mozart and Chopin, which is not even scheduled until November 2013, could set such a record. According to the Hall’s press release ‘Lang Lang’s influence is firmly establishing the crossover appeal classical music can have in popular modern culture and is taking the genre to new heights.’

Yet in other news, the English National Opera (ENO) has reported losses of £2.2m during 2011-2012. The company blames cuts to its Arts Council funding and inadequate ticket sales. During the last season, the ENO’s audience capacity was at 71 per cent, nine per cent less than the previous year.

The contrast between the two stories is striking, especially since both of them concern ‘classical music’ in one form or another. Nevertheless, it can be easily explained by the fact that Lang Lang, alongside other crossover artists like Katherine Jenkins and the Kings Singers, is simply not afraid of a little commercialism. Pianistic ability aside, Lang Lang knows what sells, and I doubt very much that he has ever had to rely on government funding.

The commercial success of crossover artists should definitely not be ignored, especially since cuts in government funding mean that arts organizations need as many paying audiences that they can get. But the problem is the snobbishness that surrounds artists like Lang Lang and Katherine Jenkins. Classical music is a ‘high’ art, one that should not be tainted by their very polished but purposeful marketing. Classical music should have higher aims than making money.

But perhaps it is really that we cannot bear the idea of classical music entering popular culture. Part of the genre’s appeal is its exclusivity: that only a select few can understand and enjoy it. To try and maintain this is not only selfish, but damaging. While Arts Council will do its best to prop up institutions like the ENO, they still need a paying audience, and it is difficult to deny that crossover artists have helped classical music audiences grow. If there is not an audience, what is the incentive behind propping it up at all?  Perhaps it is time for the ENO and other struggling arts organisation to take a leaf out of Lang Lang’s book.


Originally published by the Oxford Student, January 2013.

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