Classical music should be about more than elite parties and private schools

Exclusion in the classical music world stretches far beyond race.

I was saddened to read last week that Candace Allen feels ostracised and belittled when trying to enjoy the music she loves – and simply because of the colour of her skin. Saddened, but not surprised. Allen told the London Evening Standard that she’s made to feel uncomfortable at classical concerts in London. But as shocking as that sounds, she’s only scraped the surface.

The truth is that prejudice in our concert halls and opera houses stretches far beyond race. I too have felt the isolation Allen describes, but the difference is I’m a white male who writes about classical music for a living. I’m frequently uncomfortable at the concerts and operas I attend in the UK, and I’m at an average of three per week. 

Despite the genuine efforts our orchestras and opera companies make to operate on a basis that’s welcoming to and inclusive of the societies they are funded to serve, there remains a gross disconnect between the nobility of those aspirations and the reality on the ground. And it starts before you’ve even got into the auditorium. The Proms will open on Friday, and if you turn up and buy a programme – which will cost marginally less than a £5 arena ticket – you’ll find it stuffed full with adverts for private schools. The subtext is as clear as it is nonsensical: we’ve all got money, that’s why we like this sort of music.

That concert and opera programmes seem to entertain such a bizarre obsession with private education – I don’t see football clubs whose ticket prices are far more exclusive carrying multiple adverts for private schools in their match-day programmes – is indicative of a sinister brand of class positioning that’s as common front-of-house in the classical music world as it is alien on the stage. Orchestras and opera companies can decide who advertises in their programmes, but they’ve got their work cut out when it comes to the arrogant and judgemental behaviour of large sections of their audience. 

At so many concerts and operas in the UK, if you don’t look and sound like you know what you’re talking about you may well be stared at, judged and made to feel uncomfortable by someone who thinks they do – an assessment usually based on how you’re dressed, how you talk and what you’re talking about (stay off popular culture/television/non-classical music) or even, as in Candace Allen’s case, what colour your skin is. People around you might well be keen to assert their knowledge by talking loudly and in confidently unchallengeable tones about the last time they saw such and such an conductor or heard such and such a piece. All of this is designed to create an atmosphere of intellectual superiority – far more important, of course, than allowing you to be moved by a great piece of art on your own terms (intellectual or otherwise).

I enjoy nothing more than live classical music, but too often I trudge home depressed by behaviour like this. It has made me so ashamed and fearful for my friends who have no "history" with the art form that I’ve considered stopping inviting them to concerts altogether.

You’d like to think the arrogant dinosaurs who create this derelict atmosphere are on the way out – and as classical concerts in London in particular are infiltrated ever more by open-minded (and yes, young) people, there’s every reason to believe they are. But the institutions themselves don’t help by inadvertently incubating the very hierarchical behaviour they’d like to see the back of. A good number of conductors still demonstrate clear displeasure if someone chooses to clap at an "inappropriate" break. Odd, when there’s so much strangely-positioned clapping all over the place at concerts: for the leader, for the anonymous chorus-master, and in the opera house for the entire production team (who would stay in their seats at the theatre). 

Stage-bound frippery is one thing, but these precious hierarchies are increasingly creeping front-of-house. As orchestras in particular look to consolidate their donor and sponsor bases in the face of public funding cuts, it’s all too easy to feel as though you’re not part of the club – no access to this roped-off area and that sign-posted "private reception".

At the Royal Festival Hall in London, kids practice their street-dancing down by the cloakroom where audiences for the concerts upstairs deposit and retrieve their coats. To any normal human being, no matter what their taste in music or dance, encountering these kids after a Mahler symphony is a snapshot London’s creative richness; a delicious meeting of two long-estranged but related cultural practises. The dancers don’t mind that their space is suddenly invaded by legions of chattering adults, but you should see the negative vibes that are rained-down on their own creative efforts.

It’s precisely this failure to connect our experience of classical music with the small strivings and failures of normal life that could sever its dialogue with society – a dialogue that spawned its greatest works. On 8 August last year I sat at the Proms and listened to Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony while rioting spread through London outside. It was a formidable performance, and completely pole-axing when you considered what was happening outside. Nielsen’s vivid musical vision of oppression, violence and the rise of dark forces seemed to me an obvious sonic manifestation of what was happening in our city: all the ugliness, violence, flawed hope and visceral passion of it.

When I gently asked some people sat on my row if they sensed anything of that parallel, they reacted almost angrily: this is classical music, they said – a civilised art form about order and beauty, it has nothing to do with ‘those people’. If our prissy concert-hall manners and blind snobbery can succeed in castrating one of the most irreverent and violent symphonies of the twentieth century, we’ve got some serious re-thinking to do.

Andrew Mellor was shortlisted for the New Statesman's Young Music Critic prize in 2011

All white on the night? The final concert of the 2011 BBC Proms. Photograph: Getty
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear