Richard Mor­ri­son

Was 2018 a good year for clas­si­cal mu­sic?

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - 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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