Guest post: A Classical Revolution – or just in the head?

by Gavin Dixon

Is classical music in need of a revolution? The industry probably is, but classical events themselves seem to tick over quite nicely in my view. But then, I’m the kind of person who is happy to sit in silence for hours on end and take my medicine. That usually involves besuited, unspeaking and unsmiling performers presenting the music in socially stifling environments, on the shared assumption that the elevating sounds that result make it all worthwhile.

It is easy to see why many people disagree that this is a healthy way for an artform to function, and Classical Revolution is out to do things differently. The core goal here is to get more people listening to classical music by taking it out of the concert hall and presenting somewhere more friendly, on this occasion a gay(ish) bar in Soho. There are other innovations too, sofas for example – a couple of those in the Purcell Room would certainly be welcome. And spoken introductions, which I’m certainly in favour of. Despite the rhetoric of revolution (that’s a metaphor right, these guys aren’t actually planning to shoot anybody?), the classical soirée format is hardly new. But Classical Revolution has a specific format that’s fresh and interesting. It is an American thing that has only just reached the UK, but on the strength of this first outing, I think it might have legs.

The Busch Trio (photo by Tristan Jakob-Hoff)

There is still a bit of an identity crisis going on though. ‘Informality’ is applied to what is essentially a mixed classical recital. Talking, drinking and background noise all play a part in the ambience. But nobody here this evening was prepared to treat the performances as background music, and nor should they, as the quality of the playing was very high and deserved close attention. So there was a definite change in atmosphere when the first act began. The programme opened with Bach’s First Cello Suite, played by Richard Harwood. His account was compelling, but with a lightness that was ideal for the occasion. But as soon as he started, everyone stopped talking and started listening. That came as a surprise to me, given the spirit of informality that the event promotes. I had an idea to spark up a conversation or something, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. It reminded me of the story about Eric Satie conducting one of his ‘furniture music’ pieces to a Paris audience stunned into silence by the bizarre sounds. Satie’s solution was to turn round and demand that everyone keep talking.

Cellist Richard Harwood (photo by Tristan Jakob-Hoff)

None of that here though. It turned out we didn’t actually have to talk during the music, listening is fine too. And there was plenty here worth listening to. I understand that the programme had been drawn up late in the day, so the diversity of the performers and repertoire was down to chance as much as anything. Nevertheless, I was impressed at the diversity of the music, and also at the fact that there was no pandering to populist tastes. One approach to this sort of thing could be to ensure that all the music on the programme is familiar and friendly, but extended works by Judith Weir and Schnittke demonstrated that the organisers had more faith in their audience. That said, the concept of ‘classical’ music was ring-fenced to a certain extent. I spoke to a singer in the audience (you know who you are) are asked if she would be performing. It turned out that she wasn’t allowed because she does rock and roll. Apparently she’s looking into an Elvis Costello/Brodsky Quartet type collaboration for a future event, but for the time being classical is classical as far as the revolution is concerned. The only exception was The Frolick, a singer and ensemble act (ensemble of one on this occasion) specialising in bawdy 18th century songs. Apparently this counts as ‘classical’ on account of the music’s vintage, and sure enough, you’re unlikely to meet it in most non-classical club nights.

I attended the event as a guest of the organiser, Simon Hewitt-Jones. It’s not usually my policy to own up to the freebies that get me into classical events, but when I told Simon I’d be writing about the evening, he insisted I make a full disclosure. I suggested that I could just write a bad review to compensate for any possible bias, but apparently that is missing the point. There is too much nepotism and insider trading in the classical music world, at least in Simon’s view, and that is part of the problem that Classical Revolution seeks to address. After all, how are you going to get new people involved in an event like this when everybody knows everybody else? And even worse, pretends not to?

The Frolick (photo by Tristan Jakob-Hoff)

Professional musicians are an important ingredient for this concept, just simply to perform the music to the standard required to show off classical music at its best. But non-specialists (‘newbies’ was the evening’s buzzword) are the target audience, and I wasn’t convinced that many people here were not musos of one sort or another. That said, the relaxed format did allow the listeners and performers to interact socially, and I appreciated the opportunity to have a chat with some of the players later on. That’s something that this format could promote much more, and for me it was considerably more valuable than the introductions from the stage.

The evening concluded with a chamber music jam, which was wonderful, but the fact that the punters were now on the stage playing Schubert at a professional level only further underlined the fact that a large proportion of the audience were professional musicians. Still, the drinks were flowing by then and the relaxed atmosphere was certainly convivial. I had to leave them to it to catch the last train – the gig running into the night is another notable distinction between a chamber concert and a classical club night. But I left with the pleasurable sensation of Schubert’s C Major Quintet still ringing in my ears and the feeling that the evening had been a success. A few minutes earlier, the bar takings had reached the level required to guarantee a repeat of the event next month. I’d certainly recommend it – especially if you’re a newbie.

Gavin Dixon is a writer, journalist and editor specialising in classical music. He tweets as @saquabote and blogs at Orpheus Complex

More photos from the event here

Classical Revolution London

1 Comment

  1. I like the idea of this sort of initiative in principle, though I do think it’s very hard to pull off in a way that is genuinely engaging for newcomers and yet high enough in performance quality not to attract sneers from established classical music lovers. I think you need to attract both crowds to get the idea flowing in people’s social circles and build an audience.

    Personally I have always longed for the opportunity to dance to classical music, as opposed to just listen in a stylish informal setting. I know there have also been attempts to make that work too – right back Steve Martland at the Hacienda in the late 80s – but I think it’s an even harder concept to get right.

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