Richard Mor­ri­son

Are con­cert halls giv­ing mu­si­cians with dis­abil­i­ties a fair op­por­tu­nity?

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

Are mu­si­cians with dis­abil­i­ties get­ting a fair deal?

Not of­ten are six Bri­tish or­ches­tras si­mul­ta­ne­ously ac­cused of dis­crim­i­na­tion. So the pi­anist Nick van Bloss caused a stir when he an­nounced that he had writ­ten to the Hallé, Royal Phil­har­monic, Phil­har­mo­nia, Royal Liver­pool Phil­har­monic, Bournemouth Sym­phony and City of Birm­ing­ham Sym­phony de­mand­ing to know why they haven’t given him a con­certo date, after ap­par­ently hear­ing ru­mours that they were put off by his ‘back­story’.

His back­story is sim­ple. He has Tourette syn­drome. Since child­hood (he is now 50) he has been aff licted by 30,000 tics and spasms each day. He bat­tled his way through the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic in the 1980s and em­barked on a ca­reer that was cut short when, in the mid­dle of a pi­ano com­pe­ti­tion, se­vere tics stopped him from play­ing for the first time in his life.

After a 15-year hia­tus he re­turned to pub­lic per­for­mance in 2009, and has reg­u­larly pro­duced well-re­ceived record­ings since then. How­ever, apart from Wig­more Hall, con­cert dates at ma­jor venues in this coun­try have been hard to find. Hence his de­ci­sion, en­cour­aged by his out­spo­ken man­ager, to go pub­lic with his com­plaint.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, they have de­nied his ac­cu­sa­tion. No­body is reach­ing for a lawyer yet, and nor should they, but there is anger at his sug­ges­tion that he has been re­jected be­cause of his con­di­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the or­ches­tras, he was merely un­suc­cess­ful in a process that sees hun­dreds of top-class pi­anists vy­ing for the same con­certo dates.

In­deed, John Sum­mers, the Hallé’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, says that he was un­aware of Van Bloss’s dis­abil­ity when he lis­tened to record­ings of his play­ing. ‘To be blunt,’ Sum­mers con­cludes, ‘we didn’t feel he was at the level we were look­ing for, in com­par­i­son with the very many pi­anists we are of­fered.’

End of story? I’m not sure. Pre­sum­ably this very pub­lic dis­agree­ment has made Van Bloss more fa­mous, and there­fore more mar­ketable. He may well pick up con­cert dates on the back of it. But will those book­ings be made on the strength of his tal­ent, or be­cause some pro­mot­ers think his dis­abil­ity has made him a box­of­fice draw – a kind of nov­elty act?

The very ques­tion sounds cyn­i­cal, but I re­mem­ber re­view­ing con­certs by David Helf­gott after his men­tal break­down and by Derek Par­avicini, the autis­tic, blind Bri­tish pi­anist. Both events made me feel deeply un­com­fort­able. They seemed ex­ploita­tive. I would hate Van Bloss to be pa­raded in this way and then dis­carded when pub­lic cu­rios­ity faded.

How­ever, this episode raises broader ques­tions about the op­por­tu­ni­ties and ex­po­sure given to highly tal­ented mu­si­cians who suf­fer from men­tal ill­ness or phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity. We can all think of fa­mous in­stances which seem to dis­prove the hy­poth­e­sis that the dis­abled get a bad deal from the mu­sic pro­fes­sion – but there are ac­tu­ally very few of them. The pro­foundly deaf Dame Eve­lyn Glen­nie springs to mind, of course. So does Itzhak Perl­man who over­came child­hood po­lio to be­come one of the most ad­mired of 20th-cen­tury vi­o­lin­ists; and Ni­cholas Mccarthy, the Bri­tish one-handed pi­anist who has taken his in­spi­ra­tion from the great Paul Wittgen­stein, for whom many of the 20th cen­tury’s great­est com­posers wrote works after his arm was am­pu­tated in a First World War field hos­pi­tal.

And there’s the Bri­tish Paraorches­tra, founded for dis­abled mu­si­cians in 2012 by the con­duc­tor Charles Ha­zle­wood, whose own daugh­ter has cere­bral palsy. Over the past six years, that has pro­vided a show­case for such as­ton­ish­ing play­ers as the paral­ysed trum­peter Clarence Adoo and the cere­bral palsy suf­ferer Lyn Levett, who plays a kind of sonic force­field beau­ti­fully with her nose.

It’s good news that, from this month, the Paraorches­tra be­comes one of the Arts Coun­cil’s Na­tional Port­fo­lio Or­gan­i­sa­tions, mean­ing it gets reg­u­lar fund­ing. It’s not good news that the group’s mis­sion – ‘to re­de­fine what an orches­tra can be’, and par­tic­u­larly to work to­wards dis­abled peo­ple be­ing in­te­grated into ‘nor­mal’ mu­si­cal life – seems al­most as far from be­ing achieved now as when the en­sem­ble started.

All the or­ches­tras tar­geted by Van Bloss point out that they run ex­cel­lent out­reach pro­grammes in­volv­ing dis­abled, dis­ad­van­taged and men­tally ill peo­ple. That’s not quite the same thing as ac­cept­ing dis­abled mu­si­cians as or­ches­tral mem­bers and soloists. If Van Bloss achieves noth­ing else, he has pricked con­sciences about how rarely you see the dis­abled play­ing a reg­u­lar part in pro­fes­sional mu­si­cal life.

Richard Mor­ri­son is chief mu­sic critic and a colum­nist of The Times

There is anger at the sug­ges­tion that Nick van Bloss has been re­jected be­cause of his con­di­tion

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