Upping the Tempo
|Portrait of Rattle by Sheila Rock (licensed to Warner Classics)|
Say what you will about the PR drive surrounding Sir Simon Rattle’s return to London. We need classical musicians who can grab the headlines and capture the imagination of the public. Let’s just hope we ride the crest of this wave
Exhibitions of “photos and memorabilia covering Sir Simon Rattle’s musical life to date”. A “large-scale projected artwork” that reduces his form “to a series of animated dots”. And even a screening of Henry V, with the score performed by the maestro himself. If you were an alien landing in London today, you might wonder whether you were encountering the propaganda of some vast autocratic state, or perhaps be fooled into thinking that classical music had produced its own A-List Hollywood movie. But even with eyes that are so myopic they won’t allow me to see my feet from where I stand, I can see that the London Symphony Orchestra is making the most of its new Music Director. And why not?
Rarely has the classical music world seemed so feverishly excited in my 18 years on the planet. As a young teenager tentatively exploring classical music for myself, everything seemed just a tad sterile. Serious, even. Perhaps it would be going too far to say that everyone seemed bored, but to a ten-year-old the classical world appeared, well, indifferent. In reality, classical musicians and music-lovers are never indifferent, but appearances count for a lot when it comes to engaging new audiences. Despite numerous scandals and intriguing personalities, the public rarely hear of classical musicians from the mainstream news. This contributes to an image of sterility, of distance, even if it is far from true.
Whilst my friends would be hyper at the release of a new iPhone, ecstatic at the thought of a new Bond, and positively overwhelmed by the prospect of a wireless speaker, I looked at the classical world and found that its own most publicised stirrings consisted of an elderly female pianist pirating old records and the frequently acerbic response of audiences to the latest opera production that happened to show a nude singer. Whilst a 1920s silent movie would never have shown such exposure, it would be hard to avoid it in the latest Bond release; yet classical audiences seem consistently irritated by similar things.
Of course, the news hadn’t made me aware of Darmstadt, or of any of the other seismic revolutions that rocked classical music as a force for change. Old habits seemed to die hard, and with its penchant for tradition – constantly wearing dinner jackets and sure to hiss the latest opera production - the classical world on the surface seemed rather glued to routine.
But it is true that some constants have damaged classical music for too long. If horror at the pettiest of nude ‘outrages’ was regular, genuine excitement seemed equally regularly hard to come by at first glance. I would watch the latest BBC coverage of the Proms to find the presenter insisting that they were all having “a great party”, whilst looking more like they were at a wake. Dig deep and you find huge excitement in classical circles, but this was not regularly communicated on the surface level that any new audience would first see. To a newcomer, didn’t it all seem just a tad rigid? We seemed so busy insisting that we were excited by a new piece that we forgot to appear genuinely excited. To a young person surrounded by glaring digital billboards advertising the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster, the classical music world seemed – to judge by its sparse mainstream coverage alone – decidedly fixed in its ways.
Rattle could not have come at a better time. Not only can he change public perceptions of classical music, nor can he only change the way seasoned music-lovers view their art form, but he can also tackle political indifference. It is disturbing that the arts seem so often to be a mere feather in a national cap, and not the cap itself; for too long, we have been reading articles crying despair at British cuts to arts funding, seen images of the latest American orchestra to close, and (most likely didn’t) read how most UK political parties entirely overlooked the arts in their manifestos in the 2017 General Election. When so many public personalities – faces we see every day on the news, and who influence everything from arts funding to public perceptions – seem so adamantly against the arts, we need a cultural figurehead who can take a stand. If politics are indifferent to music, then music must never appear indifferent to itself. It must never just ‘accept’. Classical music needs a politician, but if it can’t have one in politics, why can’t it have one in music?
The problem is clear. The world of classical music seemed indifferent to itself when I first started exploring its treasures not because it genuinely was ambivalent, but because its public image was stuffy, traditional and old-fashioned. Of course it has its peculiarities, like an audience’s strange aversion to sniffing, sneezing and any other sign of human life at a concert. We should be willing to admit this. But the classical music world is not stuffy. It was only my subsequent experience of meeting musicians, going backstage and getting involved that showed me nothing could be further from the truth. But we need someone out there saying it.
With Simon Rattle, we have a fantastic opportunity to present a rejuvenated image of classical music to new audiences who, like I was as a young child, may be intrigued by the wonders of this genre but hesitant to go further simply because it seems so daunting. If politicians and the mainstream media seem indifferent to the arts, the arts world must redouble its efforts to demonstrate the passion that it undoubtedly has. Rattle should be a kick up not just our own classical derrières, encouraging us to spread our passion to all, but also up the political rear as a reminder that this genre does have its own powerful figureheads. Yes, Rattle’s return has been coupled with a strangely omnipresent and marketing-speak PR campaign, but if it gets people talking about classical music, then consider it a job well done.
Our passion and our determination to open the arts to all must never be restricted to purely musical circles, where we are at risk of preaching solely to the converted. Someone like Sir Simon Rattle can remind us all why we adore this genre, and bring our love of classical music to everyone. That’s worth a PR campaign.