Slipped disc: June 2009 Archives
Now the conductor Gary Brain, who lives in Paris, tells me that at a recent performance he was given a leflet with the results of a government survey showing that average attendance age at concerts and opera is 32 and the dress code overwhelmingly informal.
Classical audiences are up year on year by 30 percent.
So how do the French do it? Mostly, it's a question of top-down attitude.
Instead of politicians and media projecting an image of serious music as elitist and expensive, in France they present it as both aspirational and enjoyable - a good way to spend an evening and an environment where young people are likely to meet people they like.
In addition, there is a great pride and affinity in such homegrown artists as Natalie Dessay, Emmanuelle Haim and the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, household names who appear on mainstream media shows.
The Anglo-American style of talking up rock music as 'cool' and talking down the classics as archaic is alien to the French sense of proportion, and the foreignness of most rock music serves as a further incentive to embrace indigenous artists.
Patriotism can, of course, be self-limiting. When Michelle Obama takes the kids to London, they go see The Lion King, a slick Hollywood export that is not designed to broaden minds. When Carla Bruni-Sarkozy comes visiting, she wants to be challenged by the stylish and the unknown - modern dance, perhaps, or an opera - preferably but not necessarily involving French talent.
Curiosity, and a willingness to be pleased, is a vital ingredient in the French renaissance. Classical record sales in France amount, as I have reported elsewhere, to nine percent of the total market. In the US they are barely one percent. If there is to be a US arts revival, a much stronger signal is needed from the Obama White House.
The Today programme, a live breakfast serial of political hard talk and cultural whimsy, flirts daily with on-air disaster but rarely comes unstuck as it did this morning with an item about 80 young composers seeking inspiration from paintings at the National Gallery.
Two of the composers, Rachel Lockwood and Benjamin Vaughn, were in studio with artist Ganya Pelham, but the music we heard was by a different composer and, as the presenter politely covered up, the item unravelled at about twice the speed of Gordon Brown's Cabinet.
More than an hour after transmission, no-one on the Today team had dared to clear the item for podcast. See/hear for yourselves. Maybe they were cleaning it up before upload.
Normally at the BBC, someone in the production team gets carpeted after cock-ups. But this was such an entertaining island of fallibility in a sea of political and economic gloom, such a triumph for humanity over the gritted teeth inteviews of sinking politicians, that I would recommend instant promotion for the guilty parties. Up to Cabinet level.
I strolled down to the South Bank last night to witness a literary award which I had no chance of winning. The Orange Prize for Fiction is restricted to works by women.
Originated in 1996 by Kate Mosse, who has gone on to write epic best-sellers, the £30,000 prize has given a huge career boost to many gifted writers, among them Carol Shields (1998), Linda Grant (2000), Kate Grenville (2001), Ann Patchett (2002), Lionel Shriver (2005) and Chimamanda Ngozi Achede (2007).
It has also shortlisted but failed to reward such works of lasting value as Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Marina Lewicka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. No book prize is infallible, and the Orange is about average in its hit and miss rate.
Last night's winner, from a relatively pallid shortlist, was Marilynne Robinson for her third novel, Home, a sequel to Gilead, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize four years ago but was overlooked at the time by the Orange judges.
The question, then and now, is whether we need a separate prize for women. It is a publishing truism that most novels are bought and read by women. Most novelists will confirm that their heaviest response comes from women readers. My first novel, The Song of Names, contained no strong female characters yet has been enjoyed mostly by women, so far as I can judge from the email-bag. My forthcoming second novel, The Game of Opposites, has two strong women and may (I suspect) appeal more to men.
People who read novels do not discriminate on grounds of gender, so why should people who judge and reward them? I did not feel in any way excluded at the Orange bash and, indeed, saw several other male writers like myself revelling in the occasion. Novelists are novelists. We don't judge by gender and nor, on the whole, do our publishers. I would suggest to Kate Mosse that after 12 years the time has come for a rethink.
I am not suggesting she should scrap a prize which has made a place for itself in the literary calendar. But I wonder whether the definition should not be relaxed - in the first place, and quite urgently, to include novels from other languages, such as Julia Franck's extraordinary Mittagsfrau, and ultimately to make the award less gender exclusive.
Your thoughts, please.
A number of people walked out of Andras Schiff's lecture-recital on Haydn at the Wigmore Hall on Friday night, so I'm told.
The erudite Hungarian pianist is in the chrysallis stage of morphing from concert artist to public intellectual, a transition last successfully achieved by Alfred Brendel.
Schiff's 2006 Beethoven lecture recital was received with rapture by the editor of the Guardian newspaper, himself an avid pianist, and his residence at the Wigmore is one of the hall's outstanding trademarks.
So why did people walk out when Schiff was at full steam? Apparently, it had something to do with the language he used. One young person was heard asking an usher what was meant by 'tonic and dominant tonal relationships'. Others were visibly puzzled by such helpful advisories as 'moving to the minor chord with the altered 5th'.
Musicians in the hall knew exactly what he meant. These are terms they assimilated in first-year college and use among themselves as shorthand, in the way heart surgeons refer to capillaries by letters and numbers. In an academic lecture, these terms would have been perfectly in place. But in a public presentation they sundered those in the know from those without and alienated the curious beyond risk of return. What was intended by the hall as an educational venture achieved the very opposite function.
Musical terminology is often clumsy and seldom irreplaceable. Most things that are done in music can be expressed in words that an unprepared audience will understand. There are plenty of artists who welcome listeners pithily into their world and plenty of critics and writers who advance the process of communication by avoiding technical jargon.
I don't want to single out Andras Schiff as an antedeluvian elitist. He is pursuing an honourable path of enlightenment in the language he knows best. But Schiff should remember that if he invites the public through the door he should speak to them in expressions and metaphors they can readily understand. Using shorthand may be handy among friends, but it always makes strangers feel unwanted.