I was heartened by an article in The Guardian a couple of years ago, which proclaimed that ‘difficult’ concert programmes are attracting audiences in their droves, and that contemporary music audiences are actually in robust health. Alex Needham`s article painted a portrait of people turning out in their droves to a plethora of modern works being programmed over the ensuing months, from a festival of Minimalism in Scotland to political opera in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO and to the Glass/Wilson libretto-less marathon, Einstein on the Beach.
People have been proclaiming the decline of contemporary classical music ever since the avant-garde were thought to have lost touch with their audiences in the twentieth century. The image of the high-minded composer writing difficult works, deliberately antagonistic to audiences, and uncaring as to whether people came to listen to them or not, is an enduring one, trotted out whenever pundits want to paint a depressing picture of an art-form increasingly in decline. Or so they would have us believe.
But contemporary composers aren`t like that anymore. It may have been desirable, in the middle of the last century, to write music in Darmstadt that sought to alienate listeners, and, as Needham mentions, if your concert attracted more than thirty people in the audience, it had to be immediately rejected as populist and therefore deplorable; but these days, composers are striking a balance between pursuing their own inner vision which may indeed involve a challenging musical language, with finding ways actually to draw audiences in, instead of turning them away.
Turnage in particular has managed to combine a musical vocabulary rich in wild textures and shrieking harmonies with a self-confessed love of James Brown, Tower of Power, jazz-funk and pop tunes to create pieces which audiences notice; Blood on the Floor, with its improvising jazz trio at the heart of a modern ensemble; the piece Hammered Out at the Proms in 2012 wrong-footed a few critics, who failed to notice its roots in Beyoncé when younger audiences got it immediately. Fair enough, his choice of salacious, head-line generating subject matter in the opera Anna Nicole (set to return to Covent Garden next week) may have been in part a shrewd move, but within the brash music he wrote for the piece, there lurk some affecting melodies, deft jazz writing, and even a moving aria or two in his exploration of celebrity and the destructive power of fame.
Festival programmers are responding to this desire for new music. The ravishing orchestra-meets-electronics vision of Jonathan Harvey was celebrated in a `Total Immersion` weekend at the Barbican; one was also devoted to Australian composer Brett Dean, and another on the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, whilst recent events have celebrated Unsuk Chin and Thea Musgrave.
As the composer John Adams observes in his autobiography, there was a time when nineteenth-century concert-going audiences expected to hear new works at concerts, and were actually disappointed when they didn’t (Faber, 2008:48). Some shrewd programming by Simon Rattle, when at the helm of the CBSO, would see him sandwiching challenging modern works between classical staples of the repertoire, such that he was able to champion composers such as Turnage, keeping this tradition alive and cannily using programmes of better-known works to introduce audiences to contemporary pieces at the same time.
People will always proclaim the ‘death of classical music’ or harp on about its dwindling appeal and declining audience numbers. But a closer look at what’s happening across the UK suggests that the truth may be a lot healthier than you think.