I was at Abbey Road studios last night. I didn’t play a note. It wasn’t one of those tedious sessions where you sit for hours waiting to play a note which they never get around to, I was there to talk. People who know me, know that the only time I stop talking is when my flute is on my face, but on this occasion, I was there to talk about the history of Abbey Road Studios and the LSO’s part in it. Such is the aura of the place, a place that isn’t usually open to the general public, that I really didn’t need to say anything at all. When you have a group of people who love music inside those walls, and they are surrounded by photos of the legends who have recorded there, in the corner is the old mixing desk from Sargeant Pepper and a piano used in A Day in the Life, and the Hammond organ from Dark Side of the Moon - well, most people just sit with a grin on their face and soak it up. A man who walks in as a CEO, once through the door is transported back to being the teenager in his bedroom dreaming of stardom once again. Any words or light shows or virtual reality are unnecessary. The zebra crossing, the studio, the history and the instruments speak for themselves and oh how I wish the walls of studio 2 could talk! As producer/engineer Jonathan Allan, who records us regularly in studio 1 said last night, “We record anything here...as long as it’s good.” With a long list of names that span time and genre, Elgar, Menuhin, Bartok, Prokofiev, Glen Miller, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellars, Star Wars, Harry Potter...the list is endless and proves his point.
If music speaks for itself and needs little embellishment, then why is it that the classical music ‘business’ seems intent on continually reinventing itself?
When I say reinventing, I use the term loosely. There seems very little invention and much more repackaging. I remember when I was a student in the 90’s, the fashion was to ditch the concert attire and for men to wear… ground breaking (drum roll please) brightly coloured waistcoats. I don’t think a waistcoat has ever knowingly encouraged anyone to go anywhere. Similarly, standing up instead of sitting down made a brief game changing appearance. That’s the players not the audience unless you count the proms. Don’t get me started on fancy lighting. Why on earth anyone thinks that the holy grail of audiences for classical music - young people - who have been brought up on YouTube, video games, 3D films, iPhones and on demand content, are going to be impressed by subtly changing mood lighting during a symphony which never asked for it in the first place, is beyond me. As I watched the BBC news this week where Katie Derham talked about the new Proms season, the montage they used was exclusively clips of the headline grabbing acts involving DJs, jazz, urban and the like. Let me make this clear, I think it’s a good thing that the Proms embraces other forms of music, but as a percentage of the goodies on offer, it’s tiny. It’s frustrating then that these are the only bits a viewer that morning would have seen on TV. It was of course swiftly followed by the accusations of elitism. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It’s not the prices that’s for sure, it’s cheaper to go to the proms than it is to - insert expensive popular culture event of your choice. It’s not the repertoire or choice of acts, they’ve already shown the diversity, and the big name proms sold out within hours but still that (in my opinion) unfair elitism tag remains. Is it the concert experience? We have experimented with changes, different venues as have others, venturing into railway arches, jazz clubs and other more edgy venues. But although this attracts a different audience, it often appears even more select than regular concert audiences. I can’t help thinking that this can sometimes seem just as elitist, just as uncomfortable for some people as an experience. So what do we do? We can’t play in hundreds of different venues to please everyone. If you want to welcome everyone, be inclusive (which we should), do we have to water the art down so much it becomes a classical lite with relaxing/uplifting/inspiring hashtags attached? I don’t have the answer, but last week in Trafalgar Square I saw a glimpse of something exciting.
We had our 4th annual BMW sponsored outdoor concert in Trafalgar Square. Outdoor concerts are usually referred to by musicians as muddy field dates for obvious reasons. In the summer months, despite the unreliabity of the British weather, country houses and parks around the country open their fields, erect a stage and invite orchestras to perform to the huddled, normally slightly damp masses. The majority of these concerts have a variation on the same repertoire, 1812 overture, Nutcracker excerpts, that bit from the Apprentice, the Archers, the Hovis ad and other favourite classical pieces. All these concerts finish with Land of Hope and Glory. It’s the law. They are great fun and very popular and I’ve done more than my fair share of them come rain or shine. The thing is, if you have 5000 people who are willing to sit on a rug, in the rain and eat a picnic until the freezer packs have begun to refreeze, why do we always provide them with the same overused pieces? Yes, play some of them, but why not do something else as well, something they might not know, something really good. It’s not too much to ask is it?
The thing I love about the LSO Trafalgar Square concert is that it is exactly the opposite of this approach. It helps that there is no mud and through the generous sponsorship, it is a free event for the public. Over 10,000 people came to watch and were hanging off trees and sitting across the road on the steps of St Martins. Let me just say that again. There were 10,000 people watching the LSO, outside in central London, for free. During our concert last year, there was an EDL march that went past on its way to Downing Street. It was estimated that there were about 1500 people on the march and our audience drowned them out by cheering. It was a great moment, but the headlines the next day were of the 1500 marchers whereas the 10,000 strong audience was relegated to a short piece somewhere after page 14- where elitism gets reported presumably. Is it the music that needs changing, the way it’s produced or the narrative? A bit of everything probably.
What did we play you ask? 1812? No. A couple of years ago it was The Rite of Spring, this year we played Shostakovitch 1 and the violin concerto with Nicola Benedetti. Shos 1? Which advert is that in then? Theme tune? No, not as far as I know anyway. To top it all, it was conducted by our principal conductor Valery Gergiev and it was the LSO, the same players who had been performing in the Barbican and Florence earlier in the week. There were cameras which beamed close ups onto screens for people at the back, there were no fancy lights other than the changing colour of the sky...and there were no waistcoats. What we presented was great music performed at the top level conducted by the best. It was a statement - You may think this is elitist, you may have been told it’s elitist but why not listen yourself. This is what we do and we do it well, apart from the fact that we’re outside in the square, this is what we do. What do you think?
If you were there, it was extraordinary how so many people can sit on the stone floor for a couple of hours and listen to challenging, probably unfamiliar repertoire. But they did. I watched some teenagers who stood at the front in my eyeline. As the melody whipped around the orchestra from firsts to seconds, to the trumpets and piano, their faces turned to where the sound had moved like the crowd at a tennis match. When the orchestra punched out the rhythmic accents in the symphony, the notes punched out from the stage and the two girls in front of me turned to each other and grinned. At the end, they cheered and whistled. On my way home, all I could hear was people talking about about how much they enjoyed it, how they’d never heard an orchestra and how they didn’t realise how loud it could be and how exciting.I hope they come again next year and better still, I hope they come to the Barbican this weekend - why wait? If we’d played the old classics, of course people would have loved it, but they loved the Stravinsky and they loved the Shostakovich. Instead of apologising for what we do in the classical music, lets show exactly what we can do, not some watered down version deemed inoffensive. Let the music speak for itself.
No waistcoats were worn during the writing of this blog.
More pictures of the Trafalgar Square concert here
UPDATE: You can watch a film of the Trafalgar Square concert below including the London students joining in and Paul Rissman explaining the pieces to the audience. And people enjoying themselves.
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.