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
Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496