The Daily Telegraph
The first, thrilling stirrings of a classical music revolution
As we launch our four-part video series about the future of the art form, Ivan Hewett reveals the radically changing face of concert-going
We are often told classical music is in crisis. Audiences are getting older, and aren’t being replenished from below. The programmes of many orchestras are becoming more conservative, as hard-pressed orchestral managers seek to fill seats with sure-fire classical favourites. The core repertoire stays stubbornly fixed on a canon of accepted masterpieces, which actually seems to be shrinking. Added to which there’s a confusion about what classical music actually is. So-called “Classical Playlists” on Spotify are packed with film scores, while recently the director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, James Williams, told The Daily Telegraph that classical music should actually be rebranded as “orchestral music” so as not to seem old-fashioned – a very bad idea, because it cuts out song and chamber music at a stroke.
The doom and gloom around the art form is exaggerated, however – for in recent years, there have been the stirrings of a “new classical” revolution. It’s taking place in unexpected venues: club spaces, upstairs rooms in pubs, cavernous underground spaces that were once hydraulic pumping stations or which nestle underneath railway arches. It involves a generation of classical musicians in shoulders completely pop an or elite electronica, conservatoire, with who different may musicians or well backgrounds creative have but from often trained artists in rub from may pianos, well outside but play they’re music. violins equally These and clarinets musicians adept at and programming sounds. And it’s a PC attracting to make a interesting crowd of music lovers who are uncomfortable with the formalities of the concert hall but are curious about music, and look on concert-going as an adventure as well as a chance to meet up with like-minded friends.
Over the years, as The Telegraph’s classical critic, I’ve been going to these events, sometimes to review them, sometimes just out of a spirit of curiosity mixed with scepticism. Sometimes I’ve been excited, sometimes appalled, but rarely bored. Which is why when the invitation came to present some films on the topic for this newspaper, I seized it.
What I and the brilliant film-makers Alex Gatenby and Ju Zhang have come up with is four short films which, over the coming weeks, will be released on The Telegraph’s website, beginning today. They give a taste – but only a taste – of the bewildering variety of music being made and performed these days under the broad umbrella of classical. I’ve listened to a form of “symphonic techno” by dance music Dj/producer Carl Craig, and eavesdropped on rehearsals for a “classical club night”, which included the premiere of a concerto for drum machine and orchestra. I’ve talked to the creator of a new music-theatre piece for game show host and orchestra, and quizzed the director of the world’s best-known modern music orchestra on where the art form might be heading in the next 10 years. And in today’s opening film, I’ve talked to Ludovico Einaudi, the Italian pianist and composer whose particular cinematic, ethereal style of music has won him an audience of millions and made him the world’s most streamed classical artist, but whose claim to be part of the genre has made traditionalists see red.
What struck me on my adventures in “new classical” music is, regardless of sales, all these artists’ vehemently anti-commercial seriousness. But is that enough to qualify them as “classical”? It’s not an easy question to answer, because the art form has always been in a state of flux. The word “classical” suggests something stately, sober and firmly fixed in tradition. But even a cursory glance at the history of classical music reveals that its most salient characteristic is a colossal historical dynamism. Many of the great composers were revolutionaries, who transformed the tradition they inherited even while loving it: Monteverdi, Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Schoenberg. Classical music never stays in one place; no sooner has a particular style or genre taken shape, then it starts to dissolve.
Come the 20th century, indeed, the development of classical music became a blur of movement. Just as in the visual arts, there was a breathless hurry of new “isms”: impressionism, dodecaphonism, neoclassicism, serialism, minimalism, post-
‘Even a cursory glance at the history of classical music reveals that its most salient characteristic is dynamism’
minimalism… The list goes on. Do these belong to classical music, as traditionally conceived? Some say yes, but others say no, asserting the timeless verities of the old tonal ways of thinking, and traditional genres such as the symphony and sonata. More than 60 years after his death, that notorious revolutionary Arnold Schoenberg is still (mostly) unloved, and the avant-garde composers that emerged post-war still arouse puzzlement and disgust, even among many young listeners.
But what’s interesting in the 21st century is how “new classical” music, far from upending tradition, is actually more interested in mixing the old and the new: in my adventures, I’ve caught strong whiffs of old classical romanticism, mixed with brand-new sounds that are a million miles from anything that could be called romantic. And just as many things coexist within this new music, so the spaces in which it flourishes are also hospitable to many things. Visit one of these new classical club spaces, and you might encounter a solo sonata by Bach next to an interesting brand-new piece of electronica.
What has making the series taught me about the future of my art form? Well, certainly that this new form of classical is more than a “trend”: it’s here to stay. It also taught me that it’s no longer confined to the margins. The heartlands of classical music are being invaded by “new classical”. Venues such as the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall that were once devoted to symphonic concerts now give house room to these experimental forms of music and performance. It’s eloquent proof that as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida asserted, “the margins are now the centre”. It may be that the “new classical” and “old classical” are parallel developments, which will have little to do with each other. It may be that they find interesting ways to interact. One can never predict how culture will develop, but I think lovers of old classical, like me, needn’t see these developments as a threat. When culture is in flux, everyone has a need for touchstones of greatness, which is why the music of the great classical tradition will always be with us.