If I confessed I was spending Saturday next week at the Rubber Fetish Ball, I suspect it would have earned me fewer quizzical glances than my actual choice of activity.
Truthfully, I am attending a Mozart Requiem at St Martin’s in the Fields. Voluntarily rather than under obligation.
It’s apparent that a large part of the population regards any interest in classical music as just weird, a practice best confined to those who wear shiny-buttoned blazers, deride all change as political correctness gone mad and habitually vote UKIP. Alternatively, it’s seen as a closed experience for all but over-educated anal retentives.
I can’t read music, sing or play an instrument, my knowledge of musical terminology is next to nil and I have no musicians in any immediate generations of my family. I didn’t grow up on classical and my taste in the contemporary leans resolutely away from orchestrally-inclined pomp rock.
Yet it’s a mystery that people who can open their minds to theatre and the visual arts remain so immune to the classical repertoire – and most of all, to its more modern variants. And I think this ought to matter to us because this process didn’t happen overnight and there is perhaps a warning for theatre here.
Of course there is one overriding reason why classical fights so much more for acceptance than other artforms and that must be the relatively recent emergence of a much larger and dominant contemporary music sector.
Theatre and fine art can exist alongside it, feed it and feed off it. Classical has to make do with the unhappy hybrid of classical pops or providing sufficiently attractive young (usually female) backing musicians to lend Robbie Williams a veneer of sophistication.
It’s not all one way. Only the other day Nicola Benedetti took centre stage on Andrew Neil’s BBC1 This Week programme to extol the virtues of classical training. Undoubtedly she’s a useful advertisement for the cause, being a genuine talent but also possessing the benefits of youth and looks.
While she may stand from the crowd, Benedetti is within an age demographic that isn’t by any means uncommon in orchestras. It’s altogether rarer among many audiences as Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s 2011 research found.
We should not be surprised, given that classical music battles for attention outside niche media such as the estimable Sky Arts and BBC4. Then again, I’m not sure it was hugely different several decades ago when you could count the number of channels on one hand with fingers to spare. What has reduced is the exposure provided in schools.
Success of course isn’t guaranteed; to this day I still can’t abide Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – once force-fed to all primary school children like musical castor oil. In my case though, the conversion to classical was a slow, subliminal process only completed well into adulthood. By and large it’s not an investment for which one reaps the benefits overnight.
Now that theatre too fights for space in the mainstream, it remains the schools that are best placed to expose young minds to its challenges. This doesn’t have to undermine Michael Gove’s efforts to build a more academically rigorous curriculum. Appreciation of things artistic is a necessary component of education, even when it doesn’t result in a certificate.
For that reason I’m as delighted as the Theatres Trust with the Department for Education’s new building guidelines that enshrine drama and performance activities in the very bricks and mortar of schools. As the Trust’s Mhora Samuel puts it in this week’s Stage, “it’s about placing theatre experiences at the heart of every child in school”. Nicely said.
• Anyone prepared to take a punt on classical music can do worse than catch back episodes of Simon Russell Beale’s Symphony series for BBC4:
and Sky Arts’ Music Room with Howard Goodall:
(featuring among others Benedetti, Julian Lloyd Webber, Alison Balsom, Lang Lang and Natalie Clein). For those brave enough to try the hard stuff, read/download Alex Ross’ peerless The Rest is Noise.