SI­MON HEFFER HIN­TER­LAND

Will we ever have an­other crop of Bri­tish mu­si­cians this good? I fear not…

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FILM -

Last month I at­tended the most re­mark­able con­cert per­for­mance of one of the world’s great­est op­eras: the Saf­fron Opera Group’s ac­count of Wag­ner’s Par­si­fal. The pre­vi­ous time I’d heard it, Daniel Baren­boim was con­duct­ing it in Ber­lin; the

Saf­fron Opera Group’s per­for­mance, con­ducted by Michael Thorne, was not no­tice­ably in­fe­rior. It cer­tainly had the ad­van­tage of not be­ing hand­i­capped by an atro­cious pro­duc­tion, as was the one at the Staat­soper, at the end of which a third of the au­di­ence ap­plauded, a third booed and a third laughed.

Saf­fron Opera has, since 2013, per­formed one opera a year, on a Sun­day af­ter­noon – a Ring cy­cle, Par­si­fal and, next year, Tris­tan und Isolde – in a state-of-the-art school con­cert hall in Saf­fron Walden, the gift of a lo­cal phi­lan­thropist. It has a su­perb acous­tic, al­low­ing no hid­ing place for a bad ensem­ble or poor soloists, nei­ther of which ap­peared dur­ing Par­si­fal. But that brings me to the re­ally re­mark­able point, that the “semi-pro­fes­sional” orches­tra was 80 per cent ama­teur.

I would never have known. Nor was the Saf­fron Opera Cho­rus de­fi­cient. How won­der­ful that such an event could be staged in a mar­ket town in Es­sex, largely by lo­cal peo­ple of a cer­tain age who have at­tained such high pro­fi­ciency as in­stru­men­tal­ists or singers, yet earn their liv­ings by other means: and use their con­sid­er­able gift as a means of self-ful­fil­ment and, in­ci­den­tally, as a way of bring­ing plea­sure to oth­ers.

One needs to ask, how­ever, where these tal­ented peo­ple came from. Most chil­dren lucky enough to at­tend pri­vate schools have some sort of mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion, even if only be­ing told who Bach and Beethoven were. The ma­jor­ity of such schools have vis­it­ing mu­sic teach­ers who, al­beit with a some­times hefty ad­di­tion to the end-of-term bill, give spe­cialised in­struc­tion in learn­ing an in­stru­ment or in de­vel­op­ing a fine singing voice. The Church of Eng­land does its bit in cathe­drals around the coun­try in train­ing chil­dren to sing in choirs, as do some of the col­leges of Ox­ford and Cam­bridge. Out­side that elite world, how­ever, things do not look so good.

I, also be­ing of a cer­tain age, had a proper mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion at the state schools I at­tended be­tween the ages of five and 18. At my tiny vil­lage pri­mary school, ev­ery child learnt to play the recorder and, as a re­sult, to read mu­sic. Ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing, at 11am on the Home Ser­vice, as part of the BBC’s schools ser­vice, there was a won­der­ful pro­gramme called Singing To­gether, along with which we’d sing English folk songs, an ac­tiv­ity that sank so deep into my psy­che that it has ac­counted for my life­long ob­ses­sion with English mu­sic. The school had a choir, as did my gram­mar school, which pro­duced sev­eral mu­si­cians of in­ter­na­tional renown. They were helped by the ex­cel­lent peri­patetic mu­sic teach­ers who turned up each week to give spe­cial­ist tu­ition. The re­sult is that thou­sands of chil­dren of my gen­er­a­tion had an op­por­tu­nity to learn mu­sic to a high stan­dard, and to de­velop it as an ac­com­plish­ment for life – ul­ti­mately in or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Saf­fron Opera, or for their own plea­sure at home.

Un­for­tu­nately, the chances of breed­ing fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of fine ama­teur mu­si­cians are de­creas­ing. In 2012, mu­sic was com­pul­sory in 84 per cent of state schools; four years later it had fallen to 62 per cent. Peri­patetic mu­sic teach­ers have vir­tu­ally van­ished. Suc­ces­sive ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­taries of both par­ties have sim­ply shrugged their shoul­ders. It is ironic that, at a time when semi-pro­fes­sional groups are flour­ish­ing all over the coun­try be­cause of the sen­si­ble poli­cies of the past, those po­lices have been aban­doned to en­sure, it seems, we never have it so good again. In the 19th cen­tury, the Ger­mans used to call us the land with­out mu­sic. Is it re­ally a po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion to make us that again?

For de­tails, see: saf­fron­opera.org.uk

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