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

Exclusion in the classical music world stretches far beyond race.

All white on the night? The final concert of the 2011 BBC Proms. Photograph: Getty

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