Are classical musicians “stuffy”?

This article, an interview with pianist James Rhodes, which appeared in The Independent today, was flagged up on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme this morning: the lovely Sarah Mohr-Pietsch invited listeners to comment on whether or not they felt concert soloists were “stuffy” people. I texted the following: “It’s not so much the stuffiness of the soloists as the stuffiness of the venue and audience. Classical music presented in more informal settings (such as the Red Hedgehog in Highgate) makes for a far more relaxed, shared experience for everyone.” It chimes with an ongoing discussion thread which has been exercising myself and fellow Musbook users: “Is classical music elitist?”.

Many people, who are not “in the know” – and even some who are! – regard classical music as elitist and its practitioners as either stuffy fuddy-duddies, or pretentious so-and-so’s who have set themselves up as demi-gods, garnering praise and adulation wherever they go, and never stooping to acknowledge their adoring public who queue patiently at the green rooms of the concert halls of the world to meet them. Classical music has, until recently, not helped its cause: many of the “traditional” venues are frequented by mostly elderly, mostly uber-middle class people, who exude pomposity, who sit through the performance in hushed reverential silence, and who tut and purse their lips if anyone dares to applaud in the wrong place (harumph! Such ignorance!). Being surrounded by such people can be very off-putting for the classical music ingenue. Then there is the venue itself: the Wigmore is all Edwardian gilded curlicues and red-velvet plushness, with its Constance Spry flower displays and that gold rail along the edge of the stage which serves to set the performers apart from the audience and further promotes the “us and them” attitude.

In reality, most professional musicians are fairly ordinary people who, admittedly, can do extraordinary things with a mechanical contraption of wood and wires, scrape beautifully on a stringed wooden box, or blow down a metal pipe with valves, and create magical and wonderful sounds. We tend to forget that these people are just doing their job: the difference is they do not spend hours at a desk in an office. Instead, they spend hours and hours and hours, often entirely alone, with only dead composers for companions, honing their art (and I have blogged previously about the life of the musician: the low pay, the unsociable working hours, the travelling). I have been fortunate to meet a few professional musicians in my time: the pianist Peter Donohoe was a neighbour of the mother of a friend of mine (who famously and amusingly said once, “he can’t be that good if he has to practice so much!). My friend, not musical, a quantum physicist by training, often used to go down the pub with Peter, and reported that he was a perfectly ordinary bloke – who played the piano, extremely well. He did not live in an ivory tower, nor some silent cloister, but in a normal house on an estate outside Birmingham. Many professional musicians have families, just like the rest of us, they live in ordinary homes, in ordinary streets. Some may have a special room set aside for their activity, but many do not. (My teacher, who is a busy concert pianist, has her piano in the family sitting room, surrounded by books and prints, mementos from family holidays, magazines and DVDs.)

Meet the soloist in the green room after the performance, and you generally find someone who is pleased to share your experience of the concert, and who would prefer the adoring public to be a little less awestruck. Many people, going backstage to meet the performer, often say silly, nervous, or irrelevant things; or their anxiety about meeting the performer makes them tongue-tied (not so, when I met Ian Bostridge – two glasses of Sauvignon had loosened my tongue considerably!). Sometimes people ask, with a weird, admiring light in their eyes, what it is like, being a concert soloist. Most performers will reply truthfully, downplaying the pleasures of a musical career, while emphasising the less glamorous aspects of the job. But more often than not, people coming to the green room are fresh, honest and spontaneous, and, for the performer, it must be gratifying to have one’s efforts measured against people’s responses.

Many performers are making conscious efforts to break down the barriers, real or imagined, that exist between performer and audience. The traditional concert attire of white tie and tails for the men is seen less often now (though the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses) as many, understandably, prefer comfort over formality. Quite a few performers like to introduce the music they are playing in advance of the performance, explaining its provenance and its meaning, or its special or personal connection to them. This can be very engaging, arousing the audience’s interest before a single note is heard, and reminding us that this is to be a shared experience. At smaller venues I have attended, the performers often come to mingle with the audience afterwards, sharing a glass of wine and conversation.

While I am not wholly convinced by James Rhodes’ entirely casual approach (though his attitude to his music is by no means “casual”: he is committed and diligent), I do think he is doing good things to further reduce the stuffiness that surrounds classical music. If dressing like a student, in jeans and Converse trainers, gets students, more used to “moshing” at a rock concert, into the classical concert hall, then I am all for it. However, playing with an iPad propped up on the music rack strikes me as pure, crowd-pleasing gimmickry, and has no place at the piano, as far as I am concerned. I am posting a video clip of James Rhodes performing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival to allow readers to form their own opinions on this:

2 Comments

  1. True, but in the case of this encore, he played a Chopin Prelude which only occupied a two-page spread of music – so the stroking of the iPad to turn the page just looked like unnecessary posing to me!

  2. Two things to be said for the iPad on the music stand: (1) you can turn the page quicker by swiping one finger across the screen than by turning a real page in the real score and (2) no danger of the page flopping back & requiring hurried smoothing. I know it must look ultra-weird, but it’s not a bad idea, really.

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