Today there’s a very important link on ArtsJournal — or actually links, because the piece shows up both under Music and Theater. (And it was linked yesterday, too, which makes three links!)
Seriously, though, this is something everyone who cares about classical music should read. It’s by Nicholas Kenyon, a former critic who now (to his everlasting credit, considering what he’s done) runs the BBC Proms; it ran in the Guardian in Britain yesterday.
What Kenyon says is very simple. Classical music ought to be in fabulous shape, because the repertoire has never been more interesting. In fact, there isn’t any standard repertoire any more, because so much of the potential audience (and even of the actual audience) has never heard the standard masterworks before. And that means a new audience is perfectly open to new (and very old) music:
What has happened at the BBC Proms as audience taste develops, is not only that the boundaries expand, but also that the centre of gravity shifts. The 20th century is far from being a turn-off: Shostakovich is now a bigger pull for our audiences than Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev is up there with Brahms, and Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony is as much of a thrilling classic as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 are now a keystone of the repertory, as is Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony of 1953. John Tavener’s 1991 Proms commission The Protecting Veil has reached huge audiences around the world.
This is not special pleading, it is the popular verdict on the power of great music
There’s a lot more like this in Kenyon’s piece, which in fact is hard to summarize because the whole is more compelling than any of its parts. It gets more convincing, the more of it you read.
Very likely Kenyon is optimistic. He might overstate, for instance, the amount of new music on his Proms events. Certainly when I’ve looked at them, standard repertoire was hardly absent. But when he talks about London audiences flocking to new stuff, I’m willing to believe him.
He’s not wholly practical; he doesn’t tell us how we can go from here to the future he sees with such passion and clarity — from (in America) orchestral concerts dominated by familiar classics to a new paradigm where anything goes, and the repertoire gets really interesting. I suspect we’re in limbo right now; the orchestras can’t afford to give up their old audience, which wants to hear the old works, and doesn’t know how to find the new audience that perhaps can guarantee an orchestral future.
Kenyon does say this:
What the whole classical music world now needs is the confidence, and the money, to experiment and pursue its innovations. Funding for most ensembles is currently so tight that the first thing to suffer is bold risk-taking that may muddy the balance sheet.
That’s crucial. Without taking risks, we’ll never get anywhere. And we need some encouragement before we’ll take them. I don’t know how the future Kenyon pictures can actually come into being. But I’d love to see it!