I’ve just finished reading James Rhodes’s book Instrumental. Nobody can put down the book without feeling intense sympathy for him and admiration for the way he’s turned his traumatic experiences into positive motivation for life as a concert pianist. No-one can doubt his love for the music he plays, or his skill in communicating his feelings about it.
All the same, I couldn’t help feeling stung by his many comments about the failure of classical music to reach out to new audiences. James writes extensively about how he blames classical musicians, promoters and agents for the fact that classical music remains a niche interest. He castigates them for not trying to do things differently, for being stuffy and stuck in patterns of the past, for not realising that today’s audiences need a new approach.
If it were as simple as that, I would have to put my hand up and say ‘Mea culpa’. But the fact is that I, and all my classical colleagues, have tried very hard to reach out to new audiences, and have been trying for years. I and my colleagues in Domus devoted several years of our lives during the 1980s to taking classical music in a tent to new audiences in unlikely places. Although our standard of performance was very high, we had almost no money, no grants, no opportunity for the modern exposure of mass media, no agent eager to exploit the possibilities we presented. Many classical musicians in the years since have played in schools, in universities, in community centres, art galleries, train station concourses, prisons, old people’s homes. We’ve experimented with different clothing styles. We’ve tried different seating plans and concerts of different lengths.
We’ve done crossover collaborations, pre-concert events, late night concerts. We have commissioned new music. We have talked to our audiences. We have collaborated with young musicians. We have played for free. Every classical performer I know devotes time to ‘outreach work’, and we all know that it’s important.
It’s hard to analyse the situation. Today’s audiences for popular music, particularly young audiences, are highly attuned to image, personality, ‘human interest’ stories and the cult of celebrity as expressed on social media. James is a master of all this. If all classical musicians were to become skilled in these ways, would a mass audience for classical music miraculously appear? I doubt if it’s as simple as that.