When I was about 16, I played in a youth orchestra. We spent two weeks in the beautiful city of Durham rehearsing, and proceeded to the cathedral for a powerful programme of In the South, Lutoslawski 4, and the Alpine Symphony.
During the Lutoslawski’s heart-stopping violin solo, a teeth-grinding noise of somebody scraping their pew on the stone floor as they fidgeted in their seat crunched through the air. As one, the orchestra flinched as if they had been shot. How, in heaven or earth, could anybody not be as transported as we were? How could anybody not know this music was the most important thing in the whole world?
Ah, we were young, in love with our new, exciting music; free to do nothing but practice and rehearse; surrounded by like-minded people; and led by a charismatic conductor we all wanted to go to bed with, boys and girls alike. Young we were, but it was not so much youth that fired us as our situation.
We had all the elements Peter Maxwell Davies recently identified as vital to classical music’s survival: education, resources, and (to us) new music. Working on the music from scratch to known-backwards revealed hitherto-undreamt vistas stretching out before us.
Classical music labours under the idea that music should speak for itself, without explanations in clumsy words or vulgar accompanying visual spectacle. Perhaps it does so because those professionally involved in it are highly trained, and when you are educated, it is easy to believe things more obvious than they are. If somebody mutters to me “Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht”, I am immediately moved, gripped by the poetry of a language I understand and the beautiful Schumann I know it refers to. If you recite an equally beautiful song in Chinese, you could be telling me to pick up your dry-cleaning.
Perhaps this seems a windy way of making the familiar point that audiences benefit from explanations and education. But I have eulogised at some length because I want you fully to realise how enchanting it is to learn to appreciate something, how empowering, how exciting to better oneself, move forward and explore such brave new worlds; and how important it is to know this feeling, if you are to stick at learning anything. The best teachers are the ones who make you believe a) that something is wonderful, and b) you too are good enough to know it.
This is the broad foundation on which to take a friend to the orchestra: blazing enthusiasm, passionate care, for the music, and for them, jointly. You need both, and with both, you have real education, not patronising guides to the orchestra or impenetrable notes about subdominant modulations.
At the moment, classical concerts are often polarised either into high-minded affairs for existing aficionados, or “accessible” drivel where the musicians and audience alike are funereally bored. It’s
mistakenly assumed, with children or with adults, that if you know a lot you must be clever and if you don’t know much you are very stupid. Many people are put off classical concerts because the air of knowing refinement makes them feel small. Humiliation is not education. To learn about great music should leave you feeling ten feet tall.
Think of the most inspiring teacher you ever had, and be like that for your friend: affectionate, sociable, off to discover a programme that should appeal to your particular friend (contrary to popular belief, inspired and passionately performed programmes are being performed, every day, so seek one out). Enjoy animated conversation in the bar about the music, tactfully judged, like all the best lessons. Be interested in what they have to say; respect their opinions and, when you plan your own concerts, consider changes or innovations they suggest. Performers, too, should delightedly welcome the audience there to hear them.
Genuine education brings awareness, passion and demand. Demand incites the vital budgets and resources, which allow better education, in a virtuous circle. There is no reason for classical music to be any less popular than film or the theatre, but we have to reassess how we spread the word. Professional music-making involves a lot of self-analysis. It is essential to remember how other people feel.
– Helen Radice