BBC Music Magazine

Richard Morrison

Was 2018 a good year for classical music?

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

It’s that time of year when pundits crank their befuddled old brains into reverse and pick out the ‘highs and lows’ of the previous 12 months.

But that requires research, hard work and, worst of all, the capacity to recall dates and names. Eminently unsuited on all counts, I propose something a bit different: a concise musing on two themes that emerged during 2018 and will, I predict, change musical life significan­tly in years to come.

The first is, to put it bluntly, intoleranc­e. Intoleranc­e is not always wrong, especially if it targets sexual misconduct or the abuse of power. And 2018 saw that net tighten around the careers of three eminent conductors. Whatever the rights or wrongs of their individual cases, all lost their jobs on the back of accusation­s about past conduct.

Some called the campaigns against them vindictive, and pointed out that past ‘greats’ such as Klemperer, Bernstein and Solti erred far more spectacula­rly and were never punished. But that’s not the point. We live in a more enlightene­d era, and the ‘duty of care’ implicatio­ns for orchestras, operas houses and conservato­ires are now immense.

Not unrelated to that is an increasing intoleranc­e of the historic but still prevalent gender imbalance in musical life. Suddenly in 2018 there were far more women conductors getting prominent engagement­s. Also this year, a large number of European festivals, including the BBC Proms, committed to commission­ing equal numbers of male and female composers by 2022. That will have huge knock-on effects, too.

I’m afraid the signs aren’t encouragin­g for middle-aged male composers and conductors of less than arresting talent.

Then there’s a third kind of intoleranc­e. Black and minority-ethnic singers are becoming increasing­ly militant about claiming that they, and they alone, can depict people of colour on the stage. heaven knows, there are few enough of those roles, so I have some sympathy. In 2018 that anger boiled over when the BBC cast a white singer as Maria (a Puerto Rican girl) in its Proms production of West Side Story. The singer received such vitriolic social-media posts that she withdrew, even apologisin­g for taking the role in the first place.

Then an otherwise excellent modern opera, The Golden Dragon by Peter Eötvös, was banned by the hackney Empire because its cast (workers in a Chinese restaurant) were played by white singers. It will be a brave opera company that now casts white singers as Otello or Madam Butterfly, and in America even The Mikado is under scrutiny.

My second theme is less contentiou­s. More and more I am noticing people making an effort to present repertoire in unexpected ways and places. In 2018 three such events particular­ly impressed me. The first was a Wigmore hall event in which maverick Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto joined forces with a leading cancer researcher to present something that was half-concert, halflectur­e, and somehow linked the growth of musical organisms with the growth

(or combat) of cancer cells. The place was packed not just with Kuusisto fans but medics too. As evidence increasing­ly emerges about music’s therapeuti­c powers, expect more initiative­s like this, spanning the discipline­s of medicine, science and the arts.

I also saw a remarkable BBC Prom performanc­e of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy by the viola virtuoso Antoine Tamestit and John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolution­naire et Romantique. The piece reflects Berlioz’s own melancholi­c travels through Italy, and that was underlined by having the soloist stroll round the stage like a wandering exile – sometimes bewildered or frightened by what he heard, elsewhere duetting lyrically with another player. Suddenly a work I hadn’t much appreciate­d before came alive, because the performers used their visual imaginatio­ns as well as their musical abilities.

After a year of mostly rather indifferen­t musical commemorat­ions of the 1918 Armistice, English National Opera’s staging of Britten’s War Requiem was genuinely evocative of the horror and pity of war. It was also a muchneeded triumph for ENO after another difficult year. But most important of all, taking this complex work out of the concert hall and into the theatre introduced it to a different audience. And as fewer young people learn about the great musical masterpiec­es at school, presenting those classics in fresh, inviting ways that grip newcomers without any prior knowledge will increasing­ly become the biggest challenge facing the profession.

People are making more of an e ort to present repertoire in unexpected ways and places

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