The Thrill of Shining New Light on Classical Music

Article excerpt

Byline: Jude Kelly

FEW of the thousands of conversations about cultural events every day -- at parties, on the web, in pubs and restaurants -- mention contemporary classical music. Rarely is a composer or conductor asked for their views on politics or current affairs. They're simply not seen as a relevant voice.

And yet music is subject to the same social forces and political upheavals as other art forms. It has had to bend under dictators, fire up its weapons against tyranny and join forces with social movements to reflect voices for change. Yet it has found itself out in the cold, on the margins of cultural awareness. Why have small or niche audiences been accepted as the norm, so becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? Much contemporary music is difficult; to the ear steeped in classical harmony it can even be painful. With so little help offered to audiences to come to terms with it, who can blame them for staying away? And without curious audiences, it's hard for young composers to be bold.

To some extent, those of us who stage classical music must take some of the blame for keeping the concert hall a place of 19th-century ritual: the formal dress of the orchestras, the reverential atmosphere, the mystique of the maestro. Apart from programme notes, often academic and dense, there has never been a consistent, open-hearted commitment to support understanding not just what you're about to hear but why it sounds the way it does.

In art appreciation, context is critical. The visual arts, through analysis of their social and cultural background by education, commentary and wonderful mass media events such asRobert Hughes's Shock of the New, have regularly had their context explained. …