So, apparently, the classical music industry is in dire straits. Or it isn’t, depending on who you read. In 1997, Norman Lebrecht said it was all over bar the shouting (I’m paraphrasing), and classical’s share of total music industry sales has been stuck at around 3-4% for the past 20 years. But it’s still there, bumping along, whilst the labels that hang on in the niche have evolved – less Warner, more Naxos. And as for live performance, the story is similarly mixed. One meta-study suggested that classical music attendances had decreased in 8 out of the 13 reports between 1990-2005. But ballet and opera are up, and new venues in London such as Kings Place are thriving. Cross-over artists and projects (love them or hate them) have brought new audiences. It’s easy to find and rehearse previously obscure works thanks to the ‘long tail’ effect that allows low demand items to find a marketplace in internet retailing. And bodies like the San Francisco Symphony and Glyndebourne have launched their own labels.
It’s that sort of in-between uncertainty that also characterises the way most people feel about classical music. Let’s try this:
How much do you like classical music?
(a) Honestly, I find it boring, though I know you’re not supposed to say that in polite company
(b) A bit of ‘Relaxing Classics’ creates a nice backdrop to a dinner party or work deadline
(c) There are things I know I like, though I’m not, you know, an expert, or anything
(d) I like nothing better than to discuss Bartok’s exploration of complex form in the early 20th century
How often do you go to classical music concerts?
(a) Why would I do that, fool? (as BA Baracus once said)
(b) I went once and quite enjoyed it – it was all the ones I knew, with actual tunes, so that helped
(c) I’ve been to a few concerts but it can sometimes feel a bit like hard work, much as I like the idea
(d) When you say ‘classical’, do you mean just the period before Romantic and after Baroque, or do you mean classical in the more general sense of the term, to mean everything from Early Music onwards… hey, come back…
I would guess, given the demographics of the people reading this, that your answers probably hovered around (c) above. Yet most classical music performed in London is aimed at (b) or (d) audiences. It’s either unashamedly populist – OK, if not Relaxing Classics, then certainly the same old warhorses – or it’s fairly hard-core. The Royal Festival Hall before its refurbishment was a (d); after blowing the budget, it drifted towards (b). And I don’t begrudge them that decision – there’s only so much one can make from selling small brass plaques to display people’s names on seat backs and the new public spaces outside were worth at least some of the overspend. But it’s interesting to see the South Bank Centre thinking creatively about what to do next with classical music.
The Night Shift is their answer, for now. It’s aimed at a (c) audience, with a sprinkling of (b) – it assumes you don’t know a ton about classical music but that you’re open to learning and enjoying more. It’s also thinking hard about the fact that most of the people in this kind of audience have jobs which mean that going to a concert at 7.30pm on a school night is tricky. It’s also noticing that the genres that have taken off (opera and ballet) have more narrative and characterisation than straight classical music, and is looking for ways to have the audience feel more engaged with the musicians.
So, what’s different? The concert starts at 10pm and finishes an hour later. The conductor (Roy Goodman) is chatty and likeable; like a clownish don or TV scientist, he uses colourful language to explain to the audience how the piece works and what to listen for. Like Classic FM, they don’t always play whole pieces. The orchestra (the renowned Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) looks visibly more relaxed than in other concerts. Being OAE, they play period instruments – this gives the sound a more vivid, messy, analogue feel. There is some demystification of the process leading up to the concert – the piano soloist points out that he has only got his hands on the fortepiano that week and he hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet. The programme assumes no prior knowledge and defines some key musical terms. It also breathlessly suggests that it’s OK to clap before the end of a piece. (“In a classical concert, the audience are usually asked not to clap between movements of a piece. However this evening, this rule doesn’t apply!!”). There is an after-party in the lobby with DJs spinning classical tunes, which is a better idea than it sounds.
I think this all works pretty well. The music is beautifully performed and I loved the crunchiness of the period sound – I took pleasure in being able to hear a flute trill that you would never be able to hear with a more mellifluous modern instrument, or hearing the slight mistune of the first attack on a catgut string. The style of the documentation and narration is a bit self-conscious, a bit ‘teacher trying to be cool with the teenagers’ (if I were being unkind, I’d say a bit like Dad in Modern Family or David Brent in The Office). But it does all contribute to a more relaxed feeling than you would experience at any other classical music concert, especially one with a full orchestra in a grown-up venue like the QEH.
The only thing I would say that is that it’s still serious classical music – there are no surprising techno interludes (until they decide to do an evening of Steve Reich, I suppose), no wacky mash-ups. The performers are fully clothed. It still matters whether you like the composer and the composition – any amount of relaxed staging will not save you if you just don’t really like Handel. So if you’re in category (a), you will still be sitting there counting the number of violin players in order to stay awake. Mind you, nothing necessarily wrong with that – as we know, listening to classical music makes us better at maths, right?