Splinter groups

30th March 2009 | Concerts, Musings | 0 comments

I went to the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House recently to hear a double bill of contemporary operas. Looking around the audience of several hundred, it struck me that I didn’t recognise a single person, even though I’ve been going to concerts and playing concerts in London for a long time. Over the years I have got to know lots of faces amongst our regular concert-goers, but in the Linbury Studio I felt I was seeing a completely different slice of the music-loving public. As I looked around, making a quick assessment of their style of dress, I also felt that this particular audience didn’t overlap much with the audience for traditional opera in the main theatre.

The same week I went to a lecture-recital at the Royal College of Music. There was a large enthusiastic audience of academics and researchers, none of whom I remembered seeing at concerts. A couple of nights later I went to a jazz gig at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. Again, packed out, and again I didn’t recognise a single person.

Sometimes it seems to me that with all the pressures on ‘serious music’, we can’t afford to have the audience splinter into so many special-interest groups. I’ve often noticed at, say, the Wigmore Hall in London that there seem to be completely different audiences for song recitals, chamber music, piano recitals and early music. The audience for contemporary music has virtually nothing in common with the audience for baroque. And there are nationalist audiences as well, who turn up to support a Russian artist, a French performer, a Japanese musician or an American one. I even think I’ve noticed that the audience for a string quartet has very little in common with the audience for a piano trio, and within the audience for piano trios there are certainly people who would go to hear this group, but not that one.

It strikes me as wasteful and sad that the small audience for classical music is subdivided further and further. Often it seems that people positively enjoy belonging to niche groups with an obsessive focus on one type of performance or performer. In defence of the music we love, we could accomplish much more if we all banded together and supported more kinds of concerts. It reminds me of that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where a newcomer attempts to join a secret meeting of an underground rebel group. As she sneaks into their meeting, she asks, ‘This is the People’s Front of Judea, isn’t it?’

‘People’s Front of Judea?????’ replies an incredulous John Cleese with a look of loathing. ‘This isn’t the People’s Front of Judea! This is the Judean People’s Front!’

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