On Music

From disaster to opportunity

London’s orchestral rat-race will have fewer runners when musical life returns, says Norman Lebrecht

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


There are two ways of looking back on the Covid year. It was either an unmitigated catastrophe for music and musicians, or the greatest opportunity in history. Ever an optimist, I take the latter view. Let’s not belittle the damage, though. A large chunk of the classical audience has vanished, never to reappear. When scattered concerts resumed in late summer, the over-seventies were gone. They used to be the biggest demographic and the wealthiest, but survival came first.

Many donors quit the city for country homes. New York subscribers fled. Music will be silent in America until September 2021. When it returns, there will be empty rows. Institutions have lost a year’s revenue. Musicians will spend the rest of their careers paying off loans.

Bitterness has broken out in orchestras between unwaged players and highly-paid bosses. Music directors abandoned ship. Some pretend that things will go back to how they were, which would be the worst of all scenarios. Classical music currently resembles a 1990s rustbelt: Ohio when auto sales crashed, or the West Midlands after Margaret Thatcher, lands without hope or glory.

Bitterness has broken out in orchestras between unwaged players and highly-paid bosses

Orchestras will struggle to export their product on tours. In an age of stream-all people won’t pay to see the flying Philadelphians when they can watch the Vienna Philharmonic from home. Without touring there won’t be enough work to go around.

London’s orchestral rat-race will have fewer runners, and fewer still when the Arts Council cuts grants. The BBC, a morale raiser in the Second World War, has failed the arts during Covid. Through even the rosiest of glasses, we are looking at a much-diminished future.

In America, musical behemoths are behaving badly. As soon as Covid landed, the Metropolitan Opera stopped paying its musicians with the aim of forcing them to accept a 30 per cent wage cut. The stagehands have been locked out.

Concert orchestras, instead of making music, are playing gesture politics with minority composers and newly installed Chief Diversity Officers. Live music is fading to a sepia-tinted memory, as seen on YouTube.

So why am I now so upbeat about the future? Because Covid-19 offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse practices and conceits that have pushed the artform into near-irrelevance, and to revive its mass audience. If you want to know how low it has sunk in public waters, ask your next cab driver to name a classical star. Lang Lang is all you’ll get.

Thirty years ago you could have had Pavarotti, Kiri, Kennedy, Solti, Menuhin, Jessye Norman, a dozen more. In terms of fame, we lost the game. The system failed to deliver talent that could command a Saturday-night television slot. The Three Tenors will never happen again. Rock bottom, however, is not a bad place to start rebuilding.

When I got the concert habit in my twenties everyone around me in the Royal Festival Hall was roughly my age, many of us clutching miniature scores to make sure the conductor was getting it right.

True, we sat in the cheap seats behind the orchestra but so did the junior doctors and nurses who cadged free tickets off a one-legged hospital porter called Frank who made sure the hall stayed full. Classical music was a great place to impress a date. Whatever happened to us?

Simple. We got married and had kids. Music lost interest in us. Where churches and synagogues provided childcare, concert halls couldn’t care less. Our seats were sold to silver hairdos with disposable incomes and students grew uncomfortable among the dominant gerontocracy. Nobody gave an actuarial thought to the
death of the audience.

Now’s the chance to reclaim that future. Offer young couples sensibly-priced tickets and an hour away from the kids and they’ll come rushing back. Concerts will anyway be shorter than before. The 90-minute limit imposed in Covid will become the new normal. Audiences also like the lack of a drinks interval with £5 ice-creams and a long queue at the bar.

Offer young couples sensibly-priced tickets and an hour away from the kids and they’ll come rushing back

Shorter concerts save rehearsal time and allow an orchestra to play the same music twice in an evening, selling twice as many tickets. Variable concert times reflect new working habits. Nine to five office life is over. Most people got used to working from home during Covid and at hours when their Far Eastern partners were awake.

Two concerts a night will suit a broader working audience. As for the short form, how often have you sat through two works you don’t like in order to hear the one that you do? No reason ever to do that again.

Music directors are maxed out. Orchestras have a new position of Resident Conductor, a local stick who can drop in at an hour’s notice and won’t be blighted by quarantine. Local is the new global. Pop-up concerts, announced a day or two before as Covid rules ease, are proving popular.

The Kanneh-Masons are proof of localisation. An East Midlands household who caught the eye when cellist Sheku played at the Harry-Meghan wedding, the family has turned into a factory of chamber musicians whose enthusiasm attracts young audiences of varied backgrounds.

Sheku now tops the bill of half the British orchestras and is making inroads in America. Birmingham Opera has found a music director in Alpesh Chauhan, a British-Asian who lives a bus-ride away and is extravagantly gifted. The pianist Martin James Bartlett, 24, used his lockdown time to learn music by composers his own age. Are you getting the picture? We’re talking grassroots revolution here.

Old music businesses have gone bust and more will follow. Boutique agencies are springing up with new talents. The Royal Opera House is pitching to youth-culture Scala Radio. The stage is set for new rules of engagement. What was it Marx said about losing our chains?

I can’t promise that all or any of the above will sweep away the dinosaurs and make a thousand flowers bloom, but 2021 presents the best chance for change in living memory. If we don’t grasp it, classical music is truly dead.

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