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
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.