Licence to thrill
With the current emphasis on "sexing up" classical music to seduce a new and youthful audience, the
The blurring of the distinctions between classical and pop music is a sickening spectacle. It's not so much the content but the packaging that muddies and obfuscates. For too long, doom merchants have been declaring that classical music, if not entirely losing its audience, has certainly lost out to the young, trendy wannabes. Managers of concert halls, managers of artists, managers of record labels, managers of radio and TV - it's all managers. They set the climate, but are they to blame? Classical music has lost audience confidence, we are told, because audiences are led to believe that classical music is losing audience. In the hands of managers, lamentably laughable attempts have been made to "sex up" classical music. Take the 2003 Classical Brit Awards: "Four scantily clad fiddlers with attitude can only mean one thing: Bond . . . Show business rather than a traditional show, that's what we are about . . . Anything goes: we reckon if you do it well and do it melodically, that's what really matters." These are remarks from the all-girl quartet - not to be confused with Bond of the Aston Martin, although "feisty, fun and licensed to thrill" is clever copy. And then there's the presenter - the violinist Vanessa Mae, first of the wet T-shirt nymphets: "[My] next album's going to be a really show-based kind of disc - really dynamic. There's going to be much more classical in there than my previous album, but it's also going to be daring." The breathlessness is palpable. But where does this leave audiences that know and love classical music, and newcomers bewildered, if not deceived, by all the hype?
Enter the Barbican, for which attracting new audiences is essential. In London, it is currently classical music's heavyweight venue - doubtless recognised for its gravitas by audiences lost to the South Bank. (John Tusa, managing director of the Barbican, runs rings around Michael Lynch and his mob at the South Bank Centre.) But the art of attracting the new without alienating the old is very delicate. So what more dependable commodity to rely on than Mozart? The Barbican's Mostly Mozart is a copy, if not an amicable rip-off, of New York's Mostly Mozart, an annual summertime festival honouring the master which began in 1966. Robert van Leer, the Barbican's head of music programming, worked on this festival in the US, and launched a sister festival in London last year. The first London season was a great success, 60 per cent of the audiences being newcomers to the Barbican's music spaces.
The formula is straightforward: four weekends (from 10 July to 2 August) of concerts, free foyer events, talks, films, fireworks and a family festival centred around The Magic Flute. The ingredients are familiar, but the planning is canny. Mozart is popular. Ever since the film Amadeus, his music has been consciously or subliminally in the public arena: he is the callow youth who never grew up but gave the world art at its most profound. If "youth" is a main aim in the programming, a better vehicle than Mozart would be hard to find. Youth on stage equals youth in the audience, the thinking goes (even if the somewhat un-youthful David Mellor does crop up as a pundit). Despite a louche young blonde on the cover, the glossy concert brochure sports no scantily dressed nubiles, but instead a scattering of mostly mundane mugshots. The prose is preposterous, full of adjectival extremes: "exhilarating", "sensational", "roller-coaster", "long-awaited", "spellbinding", "dashingly", "ravishing" and "mouth-watering".
But the hype here is for good reason: the economics are tough. The Barbican's concert hall seats 2,000, and youth on its own in singly promoted concerts spells box-office blues. But isn't the Mozart umbrella robust enough to eschew the supersell, particularly with such company as the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (the Amadeus orchestra), the prize-gatherers Jonathan Lemalu and Paul Lewis, and the heavyweights Jane Glover and Richard Hickox, in intriguingly planned concerts where two solo spots per programme (a player or a singer) quicken the pulse? Enter the marketing managers: "Welcome to the Mostly Mozart Festival - a celebration of the world's most popular composer". Does this remind you of something?
"Classic", as Classic FM is endearingly called, is behind more than you might think. Is this public service broadcasting or self-serving business sense? The Barbican needs audiences; so does Classic, if its advertising rates are to climb and the company is to prosper. Or continue to prosper, as its listening figures are staggering: since 1998, weekly figures have soared from 5.1 million per week to 6.9 million, while in the same period listeners to BBC Radio 3 have declined from 2.5 million to 2 million. Only in the over-65 age group does the BBC clearly score above Classic. But then Classic's task is far simpler: it does not own a substantial proportion of the country's symphonic superstructure; it has no commitment to commissioning and performing new work; and it has no overall investment in a summer festival of concerts, such as the world-class Proms. Yet Classic is behind much music-making today, providing invaluable free publicity - on-air trails, talks, repertoire highlights and promotion - for its 12 "Classic FM partners".
You may be surprised to find some of our most august organisations among these 12, including the Wales Millennium Centre, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra. "Ticket sales for our Missa Solemnis with Roger Norrington at Symphony Hall [Birmingham] in March leapt by 50 per cent during the week of Classic FM's advertising," noted the Philharmonia Orchestra. The London Symphony Orchestra's £5 sampler concert in April sold out in three weeks: 81 per cent of the audience had never attended an LSO concert before, and 90 per cent of the tickets were sold via Classic.
Classic's support is in kind: live concerts are not broadcast - the cost to the station would be prohibitive - but recordings, discussions and directions are. Everyone benefits. The profile of classical music is raised; more punters attend events; cash-strapped arts organisations raise more income; the government's "Youth and Accessibility" requirements are satisfied.
With the gradual disappearance of music education from our schools and "serious" music from our screens, Classic appears a saviour, especially since the arrival of Classic FM TV, the first 24-hour classical video channel in the world. But the monthly reach of 1.2 million viewers is dramatically small.
Wet T-shirts and sexually seductive "come-ons" are likely to work only for the very young at heart and in limb. Is this the future - where performers of a certain age, unable to sustain visual scrutiny, are banished to an ignoble background for ever? Will audiences for "the real thing" stand "the old and the ugly"? Or will it turn out that the golden egg has produced a terrifying monster?
Mostly Mozart is at the Barbican, Silk Street, London EC2 until 2 August. For tickets and information, phone 0845 120 7594 or visit: www.barbican.org.uk/mostlymozart
Annette Morreau is a music critic for the Independent