Showing posts with label Benjamin Britten. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Benjamin Britten. Show all posts

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Great Britten

Delighted to hand the floor today to our young correspondent Jack Pepper today for a look at why we need a new Britten in Britain for the 21st century, and what conditions might be necessary for one to emerge. And no, it's not just the mainstream media. Jack, 18, is a writer and composer. JD


Great Britten
Jack Pepper

A centenary stamp for Benjamin Britten, 2013

We need another Britten. Facing social and political divides, and frequent misperceptions of classical music, we need a musical polymath to become an ‘establishment’ figure who can excite the public and prove that all aspects of music can unite us. What happened to the classical musician as the public voice of justice and humanity?

In public and in private, Benjamin Britten was exactly what the 21st-century needs. The problems we face today were all in some ways addressed by the composer. Born in Lowestoft, Britten was never a representative of the highest born elite, and so was a perfect representative of the ideal of music for all. Today classical music faces criticism that it is the preserve of a wealthy minority. Composing for schoolchildren and amateur groups in works like Noye’s Fludde, Britten opened the genre to younger audiences, a passionate advocate of music education. 

Today we are surrounded by debates about how best to engage younger audiences with classical music. Determined to ensure the success and accessibility of Aldeburgh and later Snape Maltings, in 1953 Britten told Imogen Holst that “We’ll have a school here”. Today music festivals are fighting over Arts Council funding whilst trying hard to launch new schemes for young composers and performers. As a homosexual who neither flaunted nor suppressed his sexuality in public, Britten frequently used his music to express his personal viewpoints and comment on contemporary issues, be it conflict in the War Requiem or homosexuality in Death in Venice. In 2017, we commemorate 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, whilst also facing growing conflict in Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. Britten was a vital figure in a divisive century; he came to epitomise freedom, the rights of the individual, and the openness of music to all. He came to symbolise Britain.

But where is our Britten today? We have musicians who champion classical music amongst young people and amateur ensembles, likewise we enjoy high-profile conductors like Sir Simon Rattle championing the arts in the face of cuts and cultural cynicism. But do we have a figure entirely comparable to Benjamin Britten, both in the breadth of musical disciplines they represent and the public platform they occupy? In being equally capable and known as a composer, teacher, conductor, pianist, accompanist, writer, musical spokesperson and civil rights symbol, Britten was able to demonstrate the gamut of music’s potential to benefit society as a whole. Barenboim is probably the most notable and publicised musical polymath of today, known equally as a conductor, pianist, writer and political activist, but who in Britain can claim to combine such disciplines in an equal manner, and with similar publicity in the mainstream media?

Britten: a public voice?
Photo from allmusic.com
A musician of Britten’s versatility is more likely to encourage the public to adopt them as a figurehead, since they represent so much more than an interest in a certain repertoire or an area of music. To generalise, a top-class, frequently-televised conductor will likely appeal to an audience at least partially distinct from that which is attracted to a musical academic; it is reasonable to assume that a conductor of, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s stature, was attracting certain fans who may not have occupied the circles surrounding, say, Charles Rosen. Similarly, a song accompanist will likely have a very different main circle of admirers than a musician who is a political heavyweight. Britten, and Bernstein in America, stand out because they combined these diverse skills, and in doing so they came to represent all that was great about music, making them more likely to be adopted by the broader public as a representative of the arts. In uniting different musical disciplines, and combining this with a distinct personality and determined set of personal beliefs, Britten was able to symbolise all that was exciting, fair and engaging about classical music. A representative in its fullest sense.

But Britten was not only a great figurehead because of his own attributes. Society was receptive to his influence. Britten was commissioned to compose an opera – Gloriana - to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, whilst he also welcomed the Queen to the new Snape Maltings hall, just outside Aldeburgh, in 1967. He was given a platform that made him very much an establishment figure – one who the public recognised and thus one who was listened to – whilst also maintaining the freedom to express his own, often then-controversial, views. He was associated with his country and treasured by its public whilst also able to maintain his own viewpoints. Nowadays, composers continue to be commissioned to compose for royal events, with Paul Mealor writing for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; classical music continues to be at the heart of national occasions. Music itself has not lost its ability to unite people or to commemorate moments of national significance; likewise, music has not lost its share of high-profile figures who champion the arts. The problem is that the public platform for such views has diminished. The majority of these figures are still confined to musical circles. The debate about the importance of music in a volatile world is restricted to the musical world alone. What Britain lacks today is a figure that represents the arts to the wider public.

Other nations have this. Gustavo Dudamel opened up music for younger generations when he was appointed music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar – Venezuela’s national youth orchestra - in 1999. Daniel Barenboim has shown music’s capacity to unite opposing factions by conducting both Israeli and Palestinian musicians at a concert in 2014 to promote peace in Gaza. However, it’s not that Britain doesn’t have its own classical figureheads. Nicola Benedetti established the ‘Benedetti Sessions’ workshop programme that offers rehearsals, masterclasses and performances for young people. Classical music still enjoys a broad range of global and national ambassadors who, like Britten, champion the genre as a way of breaking down age, class and political barriers. But are they recognised in truly public spheres for doing so?

Adele
Photo from Wikipedia
We no longer see vast crowds of excited children attending the opening of a classical concert hall, as we did with Britten in 1967. Nor is the general public likely to identify a classical musician as a national and global figurehead for education, rights and freedom. Whilst Britten came to epitomise musical inclusiveness and the apogee of British musical achievement, today we lack a figure who an everyday Briton would immediately recognise as ‘ours’. Top musicians like Rattle, Benedetti and others are widely recognised for their championship of the arts, but this is still largely confined to musical circles. Think how many movie stars appear on The Graham Norton Show, The One Show or Top Gear, and then consider how many classical musicians we see in similar prime-time slots. Ask someone in the high street which musician best unites and epitomises this country, and they’d probably say Adele. But Adele does not combine the variety of disciplines that Britten did, a diversity that would provide the strongest possible evidence of the power and importance of music to all. Britten was a fantastic symbol of music’s potential to better humanity because he represented so many different aspects of this musical world. 

Yet without a platform, even a figure who did match Britten’s diversity would struggle to become a national icon. Whilst classical musicians are still trying their utmost to promote the accessibility, equality and openness of music in the manner of Britten, they seem to lack the public voice that gave such a platform to Benjamin Britten, and to Handel and Elgar before him.

What makes a Britten so necessary today is that he represented a time in which classical music occupied a central role in society. Whilst music, both then and now, tries to unite people in times of division – look at the ‘One Love’ concert in Manchester – classical musicians no longer seem to occupy a pivotal position in this. It is significant that, on that Manchester stage, not one classical musician appeared. This is at least in part a result of newspaper headlines that today favour a Britain’s Got Talent controversy rather than a Leonard Bernstein, and newspaper arts sections that diminish in size by the day. Whilst classical music used to feature heavily in newspaper columns and radio discussions, we must now travel ever more frequently to specialist music websites and journals to hear the same level of discussion about classical music. There are numerous individuals working tirelessly to promote classical music and to bridge divides, but they are not receiving the publicity they deserve. Their voices are confined to the musical circles that already support their beliefs.

However, it would be wrong to suggest classical music has diminished as an agent of change on the world stage solely because of a lack of mainstream media coverage. Alongside greater media support, classical composers must not be afraid to speak the language they find most truthful to them; with the growing recognition of film and game scores as legitimate forms of classical music, and the movement away from the hegemony of atonality and the accompanying belief that one must only write twelve-tone music to be taken seriously, I believe our musical integrity is improving. We must continue to pursue music as an honest reflection of what is within us, and not write what we feel we ought to. 

Once again, Britten perfectly captured this musical truthfulness; he wrote mostly tonal music at a time when the Darmstadt school was bringing dodecaphony and electronic music into the mainstream, a time when tonality was increasingly dismissed as backward. As Oliver Knussen argued, Britten, “rather than trying to do something new and different for its own sake, says something important with means that can communicate very directly. He deals with imponderables in a very commonsensical way.” 

And so, to be both artistically true to oneself as well as socially useful – is that not the purpose of music, after all? – composers must be strong enough to pursue their own individual goals, without fearing stigmatisation, whilst also trying to have some form of useful voice. Britten was strong enough to admit he was many things at a time when it was unconventional to be so: a pacifist in a time of war, a homosexual in a time of conservatism, a tonal composer in a time dominated by atonality. He was strong enough – and respected enough – to be himself.

As such, we need another Benjamin Britten - someone all people can identify with, and identify with classical music – as well as a mainstream media that gives greater attention to such figures. We need someone who can encapsulate both the freedom of music to say what one desires, as well the necessity of allowing such music to communicate something valuable to the broader public. British classical music needs a polymath public figurehead again.

Jack Pepper is an 18-year-old composer and writer from Surrey. Having written a fanfare for the Royal Opera House in 2016, he has since composed for Classic FM’S 25th birthday, in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic performed this commission in October 2017. His writing has appeared on the Gramophone and RPS blogs, and in Opera Today.


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Black magic #kaufmannresidency

Back on stage! 

The one problem with recitals by Jonas Kaufmann is the absolute scrum at the ladies' loos. The Barbican's facilities are confusing because there are two entrances, one at either end, and sometimes there is one queue, usually two and occasionally three. During last night's interval they brought in ushers to do a spot of crowd-control.

The fans were out in force and for good reason. This concert by Kaufmann and "his" glorious pianist Helmut Deutsch kicked off the Barbican's Kaufmann Residency, four events between last night and 13 February. It was also the charismatic German tenor's first recital in many months, marking his return to performance with Deutsch after his lengthy period of recovery from a haematoma on a vocal cord (his first return to the stage was as Lohengrin in Paris, just two weeks ago). It must have been a relief to many that he was there at all. A slight air of tension hung over the auditorium as the beginning was slightly delayed and an unspoken anxiety of the "er, is he OK?" variety seemed to shiver through the waiting rows.

He was. And he started by thanking everyone for coming along, which got a laugh - many people booked their tickets a year ago and Kaufmaniacs have flown in from all over the world. He then explained that the iPad on its stand was there because this was his first recital in a while and it was simply to make sure he didn't make any any any mistakes. This introduction was to be one of the few light moments of the evening: the artists had selected a programme of dark, disturbing repertoire, the type that excavates the soul and holds it up for forensic examination. Kaufmann's depth of tone and actorly intelligence suits this repertoire exceptionally well. He is, as ever, the ideal tenor for those who really prefer baritones.

Deutsch and Kaufmann: a peerless partnership
Let's hear it for Helmut Deutsch, whose long and distinguished career as pianist, Lieder specialist and teacher seems to have reached its apogee in his work with Kaufmann. This musical magic is utterly a joint effort - and what singer could be so lucky as to have a pianist partner (don't even think about calling him an "accompanist") whose tone is so radiant, whose dynamics are so ideally judged, whose creation of atmosphere is simply peerless and whose support is ideal at every turn. If Kaufmann is Margot Fonteyn, then Deutsch is Rudolf Nureyev, lifting him effortlessly, letting him shine, while remaining a dazzling artist in his own right - though Deutsch is probably a bit more self-effacing about it than Nureyev might have been. The two together become more than the sum of their parts, the partnership a living entity in its own right.

Schumann's Kerner Lieder Op.35 was perhaps the closest set he ever composed to Schubert's Schwanengesang. A sequence of songs rather than a cycle, they are united by the poet Justinus Kerner's undertow of threat and despair: often composer and poet fuse to a degree that it is impossible to be certain whether Schumann is delving into Kerner to craft the poet's essence in music, or whether he has perhaps found in Kerner the perfect means to capture his own. He was much under the influence of Schubert at the time and Schubertian hints surface occasionally in the music: a Rosamunde rhythm in 'Wanderlied', subtle switches between major and minor in 'Erstes Grün' - and not so subtle ones in the set's showstopper 'Stille Tränen'. The final three songs, beginning with that, are united, too, by the rhythm of the text; Schumann makes the last two essentially into one, reiterating a questioning, lost-sounding figure with a cumulative effect that can be deeply unsettling. "Why are you so ill?...Nature heals me, but man will not let me rest," says Kerner. Schumann's likely syphilis? Schubert's? (And can one help but reflect that the music business may have put rather a lot of pressure on our performer of late?) In the final song, 'Alte Laute', the poet says he is trapped in a bad dream from which only an angel can wake him; and right now so is the world, and for a few moments the musicians on stage and their audience were entirely as one.

Kaufmann's core strengths are many, but two were of special value here. One is his quietness: reserving the big, open notes for special moments alone, his eloquence is as soft and dark as mink. It combines with that other magic ingredient, expert storytelling, to the effect that instead of going out to the audience by projecting at full tilt, he makes us go to him, creating an atmosphere of mesmerising intimacy that seems to shrink the hall. Every word and phrase has character and meaning, each song a base shade of voice colour specific to its needs; such is Kaufmann's ability to inhabit the music's secret spaces that you would understand the poet and composer's message even if you couldn't hear the words, though you always can. Control is vital, and the pacing that goes with it: the long build-up from near-whisper to full-on belt-out beauty in 'Stille Tränen' hit home. Kaufmann is a supremely controlled singer; in the partnership of head and heart, it's the head in the driving seat all the way, with the perfect understanding of how to prompt our hearts.

It's difficult to understand why Henri Duparc's mélodies are not performed in every song recital everywhere in the world, or why he might ever be considered obscure or somehow difficult. The French composer, a friend and contemporary of Fauré's, offers a heady synthesis of sensuality and seamless poise, the music bathed in luminous colour. Deutsch found the light within the richly written textures and Kaufmann the subtle lines and shaping: 'Phidylé' is allowed to sleep undisturbed in a radiant dream until the poet anticipates her kiss with a renewed power, 'Le manoir de Rosamonde' is terse, frightening and verging on the tragic as the poet flees the dog-bite of love and leaves its land undiscovered, and the set is framed with two Baudelaire poems about distant dwellings - 'L'invitation au voyage' and 'La vie antérieure', each evoking an idyllic landscape that is simultaneously within the soul.

A fan presents Kaufmann with a bouquet at the end
Finally to Britten, and if you don't know the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, it's time you did. Britten's settings in Italian, written in America during WW2, prove as expert as his English operas, and while this was a chance for Kaufmann to show his stylish Italian alter-ego, he also showed us how Britten's sensitivity was in its element in those moments of self-discovery, rising from the subconscious to catch the artist off guard, faced with the pain of his own passions. Britten's style occasionally can almost resemble Prokofiev here, especially in the third song, 'Veggio co'bei vostri occhi un dolce lume', which could have stepped out of a slow-motion dream-vision ballet; and Kaufmann again excelled in mezzo voce reflection, narrative and revelation, with heroics saved for when they were most needed, such as the final song, 'Spirto ben nato' - noble soul. Yes, exactly: this singing, this partnership, is noble soul incarnate, in its finest sense - happily, undimmed despite all.

One encore - Strauss's 'Nichts' - but there's plenty more to look forward to in the week ahead, which culminates in that composer's Four Last Songs.

And a good interview with Kaufmann in the Sunday Times, by Lynn Barber, here.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Debussy for Nice

It's impossible to offer adequate musical responses for the atrocities we're seeing around the world - from Syria to Dallas to, today, Nice.

So this doesn't pretend to be adequate, but I hope it offers a moment of meditation and solidarity: Debussy's Violin Sonata in G minor - the composer's final work, written during World War I and signed simply 'Claude Debussy, musicien français'. Here it is played by Yehudi Menuhin - an artist who devoted a lion's share of his time and energy to bringing music to those in suffering and training young musicians to do so too; and Benjamin Britten - whose superb pianism remained much underrated beside his compositions - a pacifist and conscientious objector, with whom Yehudi played to survivors of Bergen-Belsen after its liberation.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Benjamin Britten: "My Fairy-Tale Uncle"

My Yorkshire sister-in-law has drawn my attention to this wonderful memoir from a member of the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, which is performing the Britten War Requiem tonight at Sheffield City Hall with the CBSO under Michael Seal.

Steve Terry is supporting the performance through the Friends of Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus Scheme "in celebration of my late wife and of Benjamin Britten's genius". He knew Britten well as a youngster and has written about their friendship on the website. He remembers BB as "a fairy-tale uncle, living in a beautiful house full of treasures (Constable paintings, Rodin and Henry Moore sculptures, a gorgeous parrot) and creating the most remarkable music, which I found both accessible and intellectually and emotionally challenging."  Read it all here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A soapbox and an orange tree

A weekend full of anniversaries kicks off with a new weekly "soapbox" slot, which the stringed instrument dealers Amati.com have asked me to write. They've even drawn me standing on one!


You can read my first Soapbox tract here. It's about Great Britten, of course.

And so tomorrow it is the world premiere, as rehearsed reading, of my new play Sins of the Fathers, about Wagner, Liszt and Cosima, at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Info here. Call the box office for returns.

What does a playwright do all day once the thing is written and delivered? Well, I've been hunting for candle glue, preparing some labels for the bottle of magic wine and sourcing Wagner's dressing gown. Social media proved worth its weight in gold where the latter was concerned: an appeal on Facebook ("Urgent: need a silk dressing gown for Wagner, must fit John Sessions") has produced a friend - the real sort, not only the Facebooky sort - who inherited an antique silk red paisley number from her great-uncle that fits the bill to perfection. Now we just have to find the right something for Liszt to wear. A cravat should do the trick.

From this anniversary line-up, Verdi is missing. Only one thing for it: over to Jonas...






Friday, November 22, 2013

Cheers for BB

It's you-know-who's birthday today. I wanted to find something to post that is out of the ordinary, but close to my heart. So I've hunted down some video - from the Teatro Real, Madrid - of The Little Sweep, the children's opera that involves major audience participation in some wonderful mass songs. I had a recording of this when I was about 8 and it's one of the things that first turned me on to music. I think I wore out the LP. I still think it's a masterpiece, though the emotional content - the story of a Victorian chimney sweep boy - is even more upsetting now than it seemed then.

It is, as far as I can tell, hardly ever performed today - at least, not in the UK. Talk about BB going international. The dialogue here is in Spanish, and the singing in English, without much sense of diction, but if you don't know the music, these two videos - the very beginning and the very end - will give you a taste of it.

Have a good Britten Weekend, wherever you are. I am missing the fun as I'm a little preoccupied right now with the world premiere of my new play on Sunday afternoon at the Orange Tree Theatre. It's about Wagner.










Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More precious than rubies

Who can find a virtuous woman? And what does "virtue" mean? I had a fascinating talk with Fiona Shaw, who is directing Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The first night is on Saturday and the cast includes Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton/Andrew Dickinson as the Choruses, Claudia Huckle as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius, among others. Part of the interview appeared in The Independent the other day, and here is the director's cut...




Fiona Shaw is worried about our view of “virtuous” women of stage, page and history. Earlier this year, the renowned Irish actress and director took the role of the Virgin Mary on Broadway; but the production, Colm Tóibín’s play The Testament of Mary, sparked protests outside the theatre by members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“Who is the Virgin Mary? We discovered her to be a mother very angry about her son being crucified,” Shaw says. “But apparently it is sacrilege to suggest that a ‘virtuous’ woman is more interesting than the bland version that’s been handed down to us.”

This is a concept more than pertinent to Shaw’s latest project: she is staging Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Its storyline is outwardly simple, but the emotions behind it are anything but; and its final attempt to extrapolate meaning from tragedy heightens its ambiguities. 

The story is based on a Roman legend that has been reinterpreted in many forms over the centuries. The army officers have tested their wives’ fidelity in their absence; only Lucretia, wife of the general Collatinus, has emerged untainted. This provokes jealousy among the soldiers whose spouses have strayed. To test her virtue, or indeed to prove it, the prince Tarquinius visits Lucretia’s house by night and eventually rapes her. When Collatinus returns he places no blame on his devastated wife; but rather than live under such a shadow, she takes her own life. 

“What is virtue?” Shaw demands. “It’s interesting that we meet Lucretia when she is at her most frustrated and fed up, with her husband away. ‘Virtue’ is nothing to do with not being frustrated, or with not having another glass of wine because you want to stay up; after all, it’s also virtuous to want to be awake because you can’t bear to go to bed without your husband. That doesn’t come in any guise of prudery. Lucretia’s an immediate person, not a saint.” The central role is sung by the mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who will, Shaw says, give a “feisty” interpretation.

The opera, which was premiered at Glyndebourne itself in 1946, must have been shocking in its day, when rape was very much a taboo subject. “I find it quite shocking still,” Shaw remarks. “It’s painful, what is being exposed, and the music is so brilliantly constructed that you feel pierced by it. It leaves Mozart standing, some of it.”

Nevertheless, the composer – famously homosexual in an era when this was still illegal – was not always at his best when creating female characters. His finest are often motherly figures, like the Governess in The Turn of the Screw; but his Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana never becomes as real as the eponymous heroes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, outsiders amid hostile societies that reject their troubled or non-conforming visions of life. Lucretia is often regarded as his one truly convincing heroine; and Britten and his librettist, the poet Ronald Duncan, provide her with a wealth of concealed or unconscious depths, desires and conflicts. 

“Britten is so good at dealing with the most complex issue: what is it to have secret desires and be punished for it?” Shaw says. She has no doubt that in the opera the rape is precisely that: Lucretia refuses Tarquinius at every turn, is ultimately forced, and the act drives her to suicide. Yet there is still a suggestion of an attraction to him, upon which she refuses to let herself act. “What a hell to be put through: to be forced to do something that your moral sense would make you not do, but your instinct would desire you to do. In that way, with that double twist, the opera is nearer to a Greek tragedy than anything else. At the end she tells us the she knows the consequences of living now, admitting to desire – not to acting on desire, but to having desire – would be a blemish on her marriage. So she’s the most honourable person – and the opera throws a little light on a very dark part of our psyches.

“Britten is looking under the stone and seeing the muddy waters that lie beneath us all, maybe beneath morality itself,” she continues. “The Greeks were very good at this – but the notion of Christianity is that Jesus looked with compassion at us, but our sin is to be human, is to be flawed, is to have these contradictory feelings and try to deal with them. Lucretia is the most upright person. She is at home, passive, she made no action – but somewhere her secret desire came to her in the night. And she resisted. And yet it ruined her marriage. That’s the tragedy of it.” 

Britten adds a male and female ‘chorus’, who watch and comment on the action throughout; Shaw says that in the new production they are a present-day couple whose marriage is suffering and who work through their own issues by observing Lucretia’s story. The opera’s Christian element is articulated in their bleak yet compassionate postlude: “Is it all?” they ask.

She has introduced a further twist still: “I want it to be about the destruction of a family, not only a couple.” Lucretia and Collatinus therefore have a small daughter, an eight-year-old who witnesses the horror of her mother’s death: “It’s to do with the continuity of children; the consequences for the next generation are worth showing.” 

Lucretia, in Shaw’s opinion, is “up there with the classics,” as she declares. “It’s explores that terribly deep psychic schism that’s in us and it’s a brave and beautiful opera. Humans in it are not all terrible; Tarquinius is not a baddy and Lucretia is not a goody. That’s the beauty of opera: it allows you to meditate on the complexity of our choices. I think it’s fantastic that Britten writes so much about that. The chilly unease that he brings to most of his work is to do with the fact that the major chord of society’s vision of itself is not his experience.” 

Is Britten, then, his own outsider, that “different” figure at the heart of most of his operas? “Yes,” says Shaw. “But we all are.”

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, from 19 October. Tour dates and booking online: http://glyndebourne.com/production/rape-of-lucretia-tour-2013

Fiona has also written a 'director's diary' which is out in The Guardian today.





Monday, September 30, 2013

Why THE REST IS NOISE festival will change concert-going forever

The second part of the Southbank Centre's year-long celebration of the music of the 20th century kicked off on Saturday. And as it did so, the venue released figures that prove beyond reasonable doubt that this extraordinary festival, The Rest is Noise, has not only been succeeding in attracting new audiences, but doing so as if there is a tomorrow after all. 

In short, three-quarters of people booking for these concerts  had not bought tickets for a contemporary classical event at the Southbank before. The place has sold more than three times as many tickets for contemporary classical music during the festival than they did in 2012. About 39 per cent [update] of those booking for concerts had not been to any classical concert at the centre before, and one in three people booking the whole-weekend tickets had never been to the Southbank Centre before at all.

The wake-up call is so loud that The Rest is Noise amounts to a virtual thump on the head for the musical world - or, indeed, a kick on the backside. We can't afford to ignore such numbers. And that's why programming may never be the same again. 

There's been a buzz around The Rest is Noise unlike anything I've encountered within these hallowed (?) portals in 40 years. The RFH was bursting at the seams for Britten's Peter Grimes on Saturday night, but the ferment of activity in the surrounding weekends of events - like this one devoted to the Britten centenary, including films, talks, more concerts (Noye's Fludde notably), 'bite' events (15-min talks on different yet related topics) - also feels more like the Edinburgh Fringe or Hay-on-Wye than a stuffy old arts centre. Hopefully those last four words are ones we'll never have to see together henceforth.

I had a chat with Jude Kelly (artistic director of Southbank Centre) and Gillian Moore (head of music) about what they've been trying to do with The Rest is Noise, and why. You may remember that a few years ago Daniel Barenboim did the complete Beethoven sonatas cycle at the RFH in two weeks. At the time, I wrote this article, declaring that the runaway success of the series proved that what really draws audiences in is anything but dumbing down: instead, we long for the big, immersive, profound experience, where you give a lot and reap more than you sow. It turns out that this wasn't a coincidence.

"When I first came in as artistic director, the first thing that happened in classical music was that an agent said Barenboim was going to do the Beethoven sonatas over a year," Kelly says. "I said: no, let’s do it over a fortnight. They thought that was too much to offer; I said no, that’s what we want to do. And it was a huge success. That gave me the courage to think that these big ideas are what we should be championing." 

Gillian Moore adds: "The idea of programming 20th-century music boldly and constantly is for me so strong – I’ve always tried to do that. But this is a very big idea that really can help us achieve it. Linking with Alex Ross’s book, we’re not slavishly following it, but using its atmosphere as a stimulus. It’s all about putting music in its cultural context of history, science, what was happening, what people were thinking, at the time."

She continues: "Music is not isolated from the world of ideas. Sometimes in classical music we can behave as if it’s its own thing, going along on tram tracks without relating to intellectual ideas. But talk to any composer about politics or life sciences and it absolutely does. So to appeal to people who are culturally curious, but who might think classical music is not for them, especially 20th-century classical music, we are talking about more of our music being linked to broader cultural questions." 

(This relates to another of my own old bug-bears - about the isolation of musical biographies in bookshops, tucked far away from the general biography section which might feature writers, artists, philosophers and actors, among others. That's where musical creators and performers belong, too. Nowadays, of course, you're lucky if you can even find a bookshop.)

Kelly, who has been artistic director of the centre since 2006, says she is often struck by how many extremely well-educated people, interested in theatre, politics, economics, history, science and more, tell her that they never attend concerts of classical music. "But all of that makes up music - so let’s contextualise the whole thing," she says. If you only want to listen to the music, that's fine, of course; but now there has to be a further option as well. 

"I can't speak for other places, but for Southbank it provokes the question that doing a single concert with no other information around it other than programme notes isn’t a proper offer," she says, when I ask what the implications are for future programming. "If any of the orchestras want to do that, it means their assumption is that the audience is already familiar with the repertoire or are certainly very comfortable with classical music. 

"My passion is about how you reach lots of other people who aren’t familiar and aren't comfortable. Obviously just playing the concert in itself hasn’t been doing that. I’m very committed to extending this idea of the wide open school, the offer to do music studies and history studies and science studies all in one go - and making the live performance of music and contemporary dance and contemporary art a central way of understanding  how our societies work."

Having had no thorough academic musical education at college level, she adds that when she wanted to fill in the gaps, the solution she was looking for simply didn't seem to exist: "a course on how you learn and understand the history of classical music". This education is what's been lacking; this is why so many people, when you tell them you're involved with classical music, look afraid and say at once, "I don't know much about classical music". That absence of knowledge intimidates them and, instead of proving an attraction to learn something, it keeps them away. 

"I’m interested in the fact that people are excited by the complexity of science and the complexity of ecosystems, but classical music, which is a version of all of that, stays away from them," Kelly says. "We’ve partly got ourselves to blame - the art industry has often spoken in language that suggests this is for people with fine feelings or that you have to go on some sort of escalator before you can get there and people don’t know what the starting point is." 

"I think we’ve got to be much more welcoming and much less judgemental," Kelly adds. "I think we can seem judgemental about people who don’t know much about classical music. We should say, 'Great, if you don’t know anything about it then you won’t have any prejudices...'" The Rest is Noise website is a huge bonus where this is concerned, preserving many of the talks, "bites", etc, on demand. Visit the Explore section here.

The bonanza of this festival, which includes study evenings, "breakfast with..." sessions exploring the technical workings of music, screenings of films, events for children, and countless other elements, may not be easy to replicate elsewhere - though I'm sure that this is just the beginning for the Southbank. Still, the thinking, and the resulting sales, carry a few big, strong simple messages for all. It's about having courage to think big and to lead from the front. "The big lesson for me is about the scale of an idea," says Moore. "Sometimes you have to do something really big and bold for it to cut through." 

The full programme for the rest of the Rest is here. And now we've reached the point where many of the composers are alive and some of them are kicking. We can certainly expect to see Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Sofia Gubaidulina in London in person for good chunks of the next part. 

What of the future? Don't dismiss this event as a one-off. What's become clear is that the rest is just not noisy enough.