Magazine article Musical Times

Bare Ruined Choirs

Magazine article Musical Times

Bare Ruined Choirs

Article excerpt

SOME OF the effects which proceed from the lack of public funding towards the more specialist classical music-making in this country, vocal and instrumental, were outlined in two previous articles (MT Autumn 2017, pp.3-4, and Winter 2017, pp.3-4). In the case of choral music it is my contention that the mandarins who control the purse-strings have noticed that the concertgoing public in the UK are happy with the choral singing they can hear both in the concert hall and in the cathedral, and have decided that what money there is should go to the more popular and more obviously expensive activities of opera and orchestral music. These are indeed expensive by any standards; but it is often overlooked that very few professional concerts of any kind can be paid for out of ticket receipts, which quickly forces those without independent financing back into playing safe or giving up.

I believe that the future health of classical music in the UK depends as much on the experimental small groups as on the established large ones. We have little idea which trends will be of interest to future generations, but without variety we shall surely be impoverished. The mindset in the UK is wrong, which can be shown by examining the two extremes of public funding found in the US and the Low Countries.

When it comes to lack of public spending on music, we are outclassed by the Americans. But, as is well known, their disinclination to spend taxes to public benefit is countered by their generosity in giving privately. Ironically this leaves the scene very much as it is here, in the hands of a conservative public. There is more money available there, but it tends to go to the same bigspectacle events, since the average concert-goer thinks no further. The result is that symphony orchestras from the US proliferate and are among the best in the world, internationally very visible, while American choirs are unknown outside their local area. Chanticleer is the only exception, though I would argue even they have not gone as far as they would have done with reliable funding. In the US, choral singing is still seen as an adjunct to worship and therefore an essentially amateur activity which anyone can do. Real singing is left to highly-trained opera stars, an entrenched point of view which means that the teaching of voice in US conservatoires is woefully, almost comically, behind the times. That there is such an imbalance in achievement will not bother most concert-goers, who will keep to what they know. In fact, there is a big public in the US for choral singing of the highest quality, but it tends not to be a wealthy public. My hope is that general knowledge of other repertoires, led by the European scene, will spread more evenly there in future years.

This general knowledge has long been a feature of musical life in Belgium and Holland. Perhaps it comes from their being small countries with outstanding musical legacies, surrounded by larger ones with colonising instincts. From the beginning the Utrecht Early Music Festival was a trailblazer, an achievement which can be matched in the contemporary music sphere. Both countries have been forward in promoting what might be called the smaller repertories, through helping ensembles to become established, through maintaining international festivals; and this has been possible because the public has supported it to the point of encouraging their politicians (presumably no more savoury than anywhere else) to spend their money in this way. …

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