Attracting New Audiences to Classical Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Barber: Unbuttoned – Sinfonia Cymru at Chapter Arts Centre, Canton, Cardiff. 6.9.2013 (PCG)

 This concert was the first in a well-publicised series designed to introduce non-classical listeners to the joys of classical music. As such it was held in a small venue more associated with the arts in general rather than any of the more central halls in Cardiff; and it clearly succeeded in attracting an interested audience of over a hundred or so who were prepared to stand (or sit on the floor) in a darkened auditorium for an hour of non-stop performance.

This performances consisted of a series of movements from works for string quartet and sextet played by instrumentalists from the Sinfonia Cymru, seated on two rostra in the centre of the performance area and with members of the audience surrounding both platforms. At each end of the room two screens displayed projections, mainly abstract in nature; and between each of the individual classical movements electronic music was ‘piped in’ to fill the gaps.

The ‘classical’ part of the proceedings went well; after a rather uncertain start with the second movement of the Ravel String Quartet where the pizzicati in the unresonant acoustic did not sound comfortable or entirely together, the players proceeded to give enjoyable performances of the final two movements of the Ravel, movements from the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence and a movement from a Mendelssohn quartet. The fact that none of the works were being given in full deprived the audience of the chance to hear a complete piece; more seriously the inexperienced listeners were given no information at all about what they were hearing, so that if they wished to hear any of the pieces again they would not necessarily know what to look for. One understands the wish to avoid interruption during the concert sequence itself, but surely a simple programme listing could have been provided.

The visual elements which accompanied the performances suffered somewhat from the lighting that perforce had to be provided for the players to read their parts (possibly concealed lamps – as in operatic orchestra pits – might have helped) which bleached much of the colour from the projections, giving an unfortunate impression at times of fifty shades of grey. To begin with, too, these projections had an uncomfortable feel of the computer-generated patterns which accompany playbacks on Media Player; but they soon began to break free from this, and became quite lively towards the end with elements that seemed to recall Walt Disney’s abstract realisation of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in Fantasia. I was told that the programme was intended to evoke elements of nature, but only at one time did these break through into realism rather than abstraction, with filmed sequences of sea water rolling on a beach – which did not seem to have much in common with the Ravel slow movement which they accompanied.

The electronic music which preceded and filled in the gaps in the classical music also began with elements of ‘new age’ meditation music, but of course they could not be treated as such by the audience seated on the hard floor. Again they developed a momentum of their own, but unfortunately this culminated in a performance of a section of the Barber Adagio where the live strings (amplified to a sextet) played their music against a counterpoint of the electronics which continued throughout. This brought horrible overtones of the execrable William Orbit disco treatment of the same music which did Barber’s exquisitely delicate score no favours whatsoever. I was told after the event that the intention was to give the non-classical members of the audience something which they would recognise, and indeed many of them seemed to enjoy the treatment, dancing and jigging along to the music. I did not. There might be a case for blending the electronic and classical elements in these recitals – there are to be a number more of such experiments, which are regarded by the participants as ‘work in progress’ – but these need to be more carefully judged, even though the realisation here, underpinning Barber’s resonant harmonies with deep bass, avoided the worst excesses of ‘orbitisation.’

I was invited to return and visit the project as it continues to evolve, and will do so with interest. Those who are attracted by the concepts I describe may care to note that further recitals in the series are scheduled for Saturday 16 November and Friday 13 December.

Paul Corfield Godfrey