Classical music in a car park: a way of attracting new audiences or another hipster gimmick?

On a sunny if slightly windy evening this July, a group of young instrumentalists came together in southeast London for a performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The concert took place in an unexpected setting: a disused multi-story car park. Since 2011, the Multi-Story Orchestra have been faithful to their name, taking up residence at a garage in Peckham, originally constructed for a supermarket which was never built.

Read the full article on Van.

The Artist as Set Designer

On June 19, I saw the English National Opera’s production of Tristan und Isolde. Besides the cast, the house advertised its collaboration with the British-Indian artist Anish Kappoor, who doubled as the production’s set designer. Employing a famous artist as a set designer is an appealing double whammy for opera houses, promising both creative constructions onstage and a household name to attract audiences and coverage.

Kapoor is exactly the kind of artist to attract such audiences, as his large-scale public sculptures—such as Cloud Gate (2006) in Chicago’s Millennium Park (also nicknamed “the Bean”)—have largely been met with popular approval. Kapoor’s services have been utilized several times by opera companies in recent years: in 2012 he designed the set for the Dutch National Opera’s production of Parsifal, which is now being followed by this Tristan.

Read the full article on Van.

I’m a classical music fan and proud – but should I be?

There is sometimes a strange sense of smugness in these concerts of ‘out there’ classical music; an unsaid boast for having peeled yourself away from a night spent with Game of Thrones in favour of something ‘cultured’, or even ‘experimental’. The last time I had such an experience was at a Harrison Birtwistle concert in 2014 where I recall speaking to a woman who was proudly fanatic about the composer’s unfamiliar (and intimidating to many) sound world.

This time it was at the Steven Osborne’s concert of piano music by George Crumb and Morton Feldman, ‘The Music of Silence’. This similar mood may have had something to do with how both of these concerts were preceded by a Q&A session with the Guardian classical music Tom Service. As a contemporary music warrior, Service enjoys bringing the audience, composer and performer together to present a united front against the masses that refuse to understand the music that is about to be performed (or at least, would rather be at home watching TV). Osborne was a willing participant, too, who during the session asked outright for the audience not to applaud between movements. This was a concert in which the music had to be listened to. If an audience member felt compelled to clap, cough, or even shuffle their feet, then they may as well have stayed at home with Game of Thrones instead.

But of course, only those willing to adhere to these rules would have bought tickets in the first place to a concert that purports to be more about silence than the music. Audiences attending classical music concerts normally expect a piece that will take them on a journey, with various points of anticipation, climax and resolution. But Crumb and Feldman are not concerned with creating such a narrative in their music. It is what you hear in each individual moment that is important, not what has gone on before or what will happen next. Their music is concerned with the sonority of sound, not only with how the notes sound as they are played, but how the sound continues afterwards and gradually dies down to silence.

Osborne’s demand that the audience should be as silent was therefore something of a relief, given this was a concert where the softest of sounds were an integral part of the music. Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas, AD1979, for instance, is an exceptionally quiet work, inspired by the ‘childlike, innocent style’ of Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua. At Osborne’s concert, what made this piece so extraordinary was how as you strained to hear each note, all sounds became magnified. You not only heard the soft mechanical sound of the piano’s dampener lifting, but also the person in the row in front of you scratching their nose, and the quiet breathes of the person next to you. These human sounds were not a distraction, but instead created an incredible intimacy normally impossible with strangers.

Moreover, Osborne’s performance of Crumb’s Processional showed it as a thing of beauty. Crumb’s sonorities are luscious and how Osborne returned to the pulsating chords in the middle register after moments of randomness was wonderful. I was less convinced by Feldman, however. Piano Pieces 1952 constitutes single notes played one after another as the same pace seemingly randomly throughout. The idea of the piece is to erase memory and expectation so that we listen to each note as an individual entity. This worked for the first few minutes, but the novelty soon wore off.

Feldman’s Palais de Mari also had a promising start. Feldman instructs for the pedal to be used constantly, which produced a gorgeous, shimmering sound. This had an exquisite effect during quiet moments when you could still hear the remnants of previous chords from some time ago. But the problem with Palais de Mari is that without any sense of narrative, it is difficult to remain engaged. Although I tried to listen to each of the individual sonorities, it is hard to pay attention to every single moment in a piece that is 25 minutes long – the longest work on the evening’s programme.

Crumb and Feldman’s compositional methods, though curious, are not faultless. As Palais de Mari illustrated, without any sense of forward progression there is a limit to how long they can be before listener’s stop paying attention. So is the smugness surrounding attending such concerts deserved, given that the music was not always engaging?

I would mostly argue yes. The 50 or so people in the audience had just shared an experience that no one outside of the concert hall will ever have, so we certainly had something to feel smug about. But this smugness has less to do with the actual music being performed than our attitude towards the music. The reason we felt smug after Osborne’s concert is because we gave Crumb and Feldman’s music our full attention and in return received a rather special experience.

This smugness can be perceived as snobby a boast that I can understand this music when others cannot. But I do not believe that it makes classical music off-putting. Quite the reverse in fact, as this smugness is a wonderful and empowering feeling. Sadly, such occasions, when the audience comes together and is determined to listen, are rare. So all I can do is ask that for the next concert you attend that you really try to listen, and I mean really. Listen to every single moment for what it is, because you will not be able to experience it again. It’s not easy, but for that satisfying feeling of smugness, it’s certainly worth it.




Musicircus by John Cage: The Beauty Of Chance

The concept behind Musicircus is a simple one: groups of performers are invited to perform simultaneously anything they wish, resulting in a performance that lasts several hours. The number, type and size of the groups can be anything, ranging from solo harpists to string quarters, and from brass bands to bell ringers. There is no score, nothing except the idea.

Except Musicircus is not really as straightforward as that, considering the piece was conceived by perhaps the most influential American composer of the 20th century, John Cage. Cage is most renowned for his provocative piece 4 ‘ 33” (1952): a three movement work for any number and combination of players in which Cage instructs the performers not to play their instrument for the duration of four and a half minutes. It is not a work of silence, however. The ‘music’ comes from the unintentional sounds – the cough, the fidgeting of feet, the quiet hum of air conditioning.

Musicircus is in a similar vein to 4 ‘33”. Although in this work the players perform something far more familiar as ‘music’, Cage similarly leaves it up to chance what sounds will be heard. The performers are given free reign on what, when and how they perform, meaning the way all the different music combines is random. Meanwhile, spectators are encouraged to wonder freely between the different performers. They may choose to single out a particular performer to listen to, but may equally take in the general buzz of the different groups playing simultaneously.

Both Musicircus and 4 ‘33” are manifestations of Cage’s interest in what he called “chance operations”. By relying on chance rather than giving specific instructions, Cage aimed to negate the composer’s will and write works “free of individual taste and memory”. Unsurprisingly, not all composers took to Cage’s aim to curtail the composer’s authority over their own work, with the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis describing Cage’s chance music as “an abuse of language and […] an abrogation of a composer’s function.

Xenakis and critics like him made the assumption that Cage had in his chance operations given up all prerogatives as a composer. Yet Cage still sets up specific boundaries: 4 ‘33” must last four and a half minutes with no intentional sounds played; and Musicircus must involve a variety of performers who should play whatever and however they want. In setting up these frameworks, Cage provided an outlet for chance to create interesting and fresh sounds, which would be impossible for a composer to produce on their own. Cage may not have explicitly composed the sounds heard in such random compositions, but he did at least provide the conditions for them to happen.

Musicircus has remained popular since its premiere in 1967 and, while performances of it have been frequent, they have had a mixed reception. At the UK premiere in 1972 at the University of Birmingham, Dominic Gill of The Financial Times described the work as ‘a good, clean, unpredictable bore’, whereas John Falding at The Birmingham Post was more sympathetic, characterising it as ‘occasionally exciting, frequently interesting, and always fun.’

Reviewing Musicircus is redundant, however, given that the nature of the work means that each performance is vastly, even unrecognisably, different. It depends upon the kind of performers that assemble, what they decide to play and when, as well as numerous other variables that Cage does not specify. Even spectators at the same performance will have considerably different experiences, depending on what they choose to listen to or what their ear (intentionally or not) picks up.

Nevertheless, there are certainly better and worse performances of Musicircus. Would it work as well if only three groups turned up, or if all of performers were string players? When a performance was planned in London in 1972, Cage advised using the greatest possible variety of performers. Whether it is successful is down to the spectator, too. While it may be tempting to concentrate on a performer you particularly enjoy, it may be more beneficial to wander freely between groups, to hear the mix of different music and marvel at how you – and you alone – are hearing a combination of sounds that have never been put together before and never will be again.

Yet to instruct someone on how they should listen to Musicircus is not really in keeping with Cage’s aim. The beauty of Musicircus comes from the power Cage gives to its participants to do whatever they want. According to Cage, the piece “should be fun”, and he is well aware that it is impossible for him to dictate how this should be achieved for each individual. But at least it gives us one clue to how Musicircus should be done properly: whether you participate as a performer or as a spectator, do at least make sure you enjoy yourself.


Originally published on The Cusp.

Where are all the women conductors?

As the expressive heart of the orchestra, it is the conductor who quite literally takes center stage at every orchestral performance. The conductor shapes the music, making important musical decisions on dynamic, tempo and balance. Not only are they great leaders, the best conductors are also able to interpret the same musical work performed countless times before in new and enlightening ways. The role of the conductor is integral to classical music; however, a 2014 survey found that in a list of the 150 top conductors in the world, only five were women. So why is a female presence on the conductor’s podium still rare, even in the 21st century?

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla | Courtesy Rebecca Driver Media Relations LLP

Read the full article here.

An Introduction To The Voice Of The Countertenor

For those of us not well versed in church music or 17th-century opera, hearing a countertenor sing for the first time may come as something of a surprise. Instead of the bold richness of a tenor or the booming tones of a bass, the range of a countertenor rivals that of a female mezzo-soprano. Countertenors are male singers who specifically train their upper-register ‘head voice’ (also known as falsetto). What is their appeal then, when there are plenty of female mezzo-sopranos around who can more than adequately cover this vocal range? But as the following arias will show, the countertenor’s distinctive sound is not something that can be replicated by women.

Read the full article here.

What’s the deal with the Last Night of the Proms?

There is one day every year when the classical music world is allowed to go crazy. At the Last Night of the Proms, the more uptight aspects of classical music – the judging of those silly enough to clap between movements, or the frowning at those unable to stifle their cough/sneeze/other-necessary-bodily-sound – are kept firmly outside the concert hall. If there is such a thing as a classical music party, then the Last Night of the Proms is it.

BBC Proms

This year’s Last Night will fall on 12 September, closing the annual eight-week BBC Proms classical music festival hosted at the Royal Albert Hall. With concerts on every night, the festival is one of the world’s largest. Alongside symphonic staples by the likes of Beethoven and Mahler, this year’s festival has also celebrated the 150th anniversaries of Finnish composer Jan Sibelius and Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Its star performers indicate the festival’s prestige, from conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, violinist Nicola Benedetti, to the world’s top orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic.

But despite its size, the BBC Proms is eclipsed by its final night. Its audience is huge and the demand for tickets is high. Though the Royal Albert Hall can seat up to 6,000, most tickets are only available through a highly competitive ballot. Its audience is further enlarged not only by live coverage on the BBC, but through its large international audience too. The Last Night is broadcasted to approximately 20 countries, including Australia, Germany, South Africa and China.

The Last Night may be popular, but to those who switch accidentally to the BBC’s coverage to find a barrage of Union Jacks and patriotic singing, it remains something of an oddity. Instead of listening quietly, the Last Night’s audience are invited to celebrate with klaxon calls, popping confetti and screaming balloons. Many take it as an occasion to dress up in their finest dinner jackets and ball gowns. The more eccentric plaster themselves in Union Jack bow ties, hats and jackets (a previous favourite of mine was a gentleman from the BBC Symphony Chorus decked in a Union Jack turban).


The abundance of Union Jacks and the culmination in a sing-a-long to Britain’s favourite patriotic tunes (including Rule, Britannia!, Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem) means that it is easy to dismiss the Last Night as mere jingoism. But the Last Night is not only for Brits nostalgic for an imperialistic past. Though Union Jacks dominate, amongst them you’ll find flags from Sweden, Australia and Japan to name a few. Attending last year, I sat next to a lady in a sparkly Union Jack dress who sang along to Rule, Britannia! just as loudly as any Brit. She was in fact from Germany.

Classical music snobs might think that the Last Night of the Proms is pompous rubbish. It’s true that it doesn’t offer the most profound of musical experiences. Nevertheless, its party atmosphere and welcoming attitude means it is a concentrated version of exactly what the BBC Proms aims to be: an all-encompassing celebration of classical music.

Berlin’s Latest Cultural Import

The building of the Humboldt Forum on the grounds of the former Berlin City Palace on Unter den Linden should be an exciting prospect. Scheduled to open in 2019, its organisers – the Humboldt Forum Foundation – have described it as the century’s most important cultural project in Germany. The Humboldt Forum aims to become a unique centre of art, culture and science that will inspire debate and analysis on issues of global significance. But this €590 million project is ambitiously far-reaching, prompting criticisms that its underlying concept is vague and confused.

Photo: Jason Bell

Yet the appointment of Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director of London’s British Museum, as foundational artistic director of the Humboldt Forum has encouraged critics to rethink their stance. From October 2015, the 68-year-old museum director will chair its Advisory Board, making recommendations on how to shape the new cultural institution. MacGregor’s appointment has been unanimously met with enthusiasm. State broadcaster ARD has described MacGregor as a “polyglot world spirit” who will make the Humboldt Forum “a stage on which the cultures of the world will present themselves”. For art expert and chairman of the Society of Friends of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Peter Raube, MacGregor was “born for this role” and choosing him was “a stroke of genius”.

Why, then, has MacGregor’s appointment provoked such excitement? For a start, he has an excellent track record of leading big cultural institutions, having been director of both London’s National Gallery and the British Museum. His tenure at the British Museum was particularly successful. When MacGregor was appointed in 2002, the museum had a deficit of £5 million. Not only did he wipe out its debt, but the number of visitors rose from 4.6 to 6.7 million per year, making it second only to the Louvre as the world’s most visited museum.

MacGregor’s achievements should not only be measured in numbers, however. The museum director is desperately academic. He studied French and German at Oxford, Law at Edinburgh University, Philosophy and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and he specialised in Renaissance art at London’s Courtauld Institute. But most impressive is his ability to maintain intellectual rigour whilst still attracting large audiences. His forays into broadcast media particularly illustrate this. His two BBC radio series, “A History of the World in 100 Objects” and “Germany: Memories of a Nation” were popular for being incredibly informative but also comprehendible to the non-expert.

There will be little doubts surrounding the appointment of a foreigner either. MacGregor has an acute understanding of German culture and history. Horst Bredekamp, art historian of Humboldt University believes MacGregor “knows, in a certain sense, Germany sometimes better than Germans.” Indeed, his 2014 BBC radio series and exhibition at the British Museum that ran alongside it, “Germany: Memories of a Nation” gave a considered and highly knowledgeable presentation of the country’s history.

MacGregor is enthused by the new possibilities that the Humboldt Forum’s rich collection offers. He wants to use its objects “to address the big questions of human existence and culture” and engage not just the Berlin public but the whole world. The aims of this ambitious cultural institution have not become any less vague or far-reaching with MacGregor’s appointment. But given his unrivalled expertise in museum curation, Berliners have much to be excited about.

Uneasy Listening

My article on Friday night’s concert of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

How to put on a classical concert for newbies

On Monday 25 August the Ulster Orchestra and conductor Jac van Steen presented this BBC Proms season’s Free Prom. Aimed at new audiences, it had a purposefully relaxed atmosphere that even embraced clapping between movements. Nevertheless, when I came to reviewing, it I lamented that its efforts to be welcoming resulted in a mediocre performance. It missed an opportunity to show new audiences what classical music is capable of. So it got me thinking, what are the best ways of attracting new audiences? What kind of music should programmed for those who have never been to a classical concert before?

Conductor Jac van Steen

Jac van Steen conducted the Ulster Orchestra in a concert aimed a newcomers to classical music

Putting on a concert for first-timers is fraught with difficulties. There is no getting away from the fact that, generally speaking, classical pieces are longer than those from other genres. Attending a classical concert involves sitting for a prolonged period and listening without distractions. This kind of listening is foreign to most new audiences; hence concerts aimed at newbies will tend to play shorter works. Famous tunes from films and TV might make an appearance too, with an assumption that familiarity results in accessibility.

Yet this risks patronising new audiences. If they have already made the decision to attend a concert, then they should get a full taste of what classical music is – including its length and its exploration of the new. Perhaps some minds will find concentrating for longer than the length of a three-minuet pop song impossible. But other newcomers could gain the satisfaction of having sat through an hour-long symphony and enjoying it. Regular concertgoers know the elation felt after hearing something new and discovering something amazing. Why rob new audiences of this experience? Exploring the unfamiliar is a fundamental part of appreciating classical music, making it dishonest to present only the most well known works from the repertoire.

Nevertheless, the benefits of classical music can be difficult to access for new listeners. I can recall my mind getting distracted a few years ago when I listened to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony for the first time. But I found the same work absolutely thrilling at a concert last week. The first time I was simply not used to sitting down and listening to a 45 minute-long symphony. Perhaps there is something to be said for first listening to shorter works first, before building up to lengthier symphonies.

Classical concerts aimed at new audiences need to find a balance between being accommodating and challenging. Failing to do so results in the biggest deterrent to new audiences: a boring concert. It will be boring if the music is too easy or familiar, and could become offensively patronising. But it will also be boring if the music is inaccessible. Their minds will wonder and fail to become engaged.

The programmers for the Free Prom obviously tried to find this balance. Dvorak’s populist Slavonic Dances, lasting merely minutes, are hardly the most rewarding works. Arnold Bax’s symphonic poem Roscatha might have been to compensate. Though written in 1910, this was its first performance at the BBC Proms, and it might have been an attempt to show new audiences the exploratory side of classical music. But it was an odd decision to include a work that had never received a test run. As it turned out, Roscatha is not a work that the Proms have been sorely missing for the past 100 years. For newcomers, if this was the unexplored terrain that classical music has to offer, then the Roscatha did not give them an incentive to delve further.

The Free Prom’s programme had its faults. Yet I wonder whether concerts aimed at new audiences ever really work. There is something inherently patronising about them, the implication being that new audience are incapable of enjoying a full classical music concert. Instead they must start with ‘easier’ works, even if these can hardly compare with the great staples of the repertoire. The fact that classical music is often anything but easy is what distinguishes it, making one question whether an ‘easy’ classical concert can really claim to be a ‘classical’ concert at all.

If a new audience member is brave enough to try something new, then they should not be patronised by mere titbits from the classical repertoire but be given the best that classical music has to offer. Concerts aimed at newcomers should be up to the same standards as those populated by regular concertgoers, as why should new audiences deserve anything less? Forget classical concerts for newbies, if you want to experience classical music in all its glory, face up to its difficulties and lengthiness. Go to the real thing.

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