Edinburgh audiences can be reserved, but this afternoon there was a sense of anticipation as if everyone knew in advance what terrific performances they were about to hear.
Turning to us, the manager swiftly found us seats next – although we did not initially know it – to the composer. Not Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky, but Anna Thorvaldsdottir (45), whose haunting Metacosmos was the opening piece.
It was played by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under the guiding hand of conductor Eva Ollikainen, who commanded the rostrum with the energy and elegance of a prima ballerina. This was followed by Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, of Brief Encounter fame, with Sir Stephen Hough at the keyboard. At its conclusion heels were drumming as he was applauded to the rafters.
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It seemed things could not get more thrilling, but the vivacity and charm with which the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony proved us wrong. By the time we spilled out into a chilly Edinburgh evening, it was as if we had fleetingly been allowed into another world.
No wonder that Nicola Benedetti, when launching the Edinburgh International Festival Programme earlier this week, spoke of the power of live music. Announcing that the festival’s digital programme would be cut back, she explained: “All the conversations we’re having, all the data we’re looking at, is that people want to reconnect to the sacred value of the live experience.”
Sacred is a good word, because there really is nothing to compare with the effect it has on your spirits. Listening at home is pleasure enough, but the frisson of being in the company of musicians as they play adds another dimension.
No recording, for instance, could show the Icelandic double-bass player who, after a particularly strenuous passage, puffed out his cheeks in relief. Psychiatrists might be able to explain the alchemy between audience and performers that creates an emotional rapport, but for most of us it is enough simply to be part of it.
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None of this is new, of course. What is different, and worryingly so, is a sense that live classical music is under threat as never before.
In a recent interview, the conductor Sir Simon Rattle railed against funding cutbacks in his industry, even though some of the most swingeing have been put on hold.
Obviously enraged, he said: “The BBC and Arts Council England [ACE], the two largest funders of musicians, seem to be operating a pincer movement against our art form.”
Orchestras, opera companies and those like the BBC Singers are on a knife’s-edge, wondering what will happen next.
Even worse, he said, musicians are expected to accept their reduced funding because of the present economic climate. “But actually, these are political choices.”
He remembers when politicians attended concerts and operas as a matter of course: “Even Margaret Thatcher came to Glyndebourne when we did Porgy and Bess.”
Today, he said, in his most damning statement of all, politicians going to the opera or to an orchestral concert “would be frightened of being seen. It seems that more and more people are starting to believe the argument that classical music is only for the elite.”
What is it about this sort of music that puts up hackles?
For as long as I’ve been listening it has been considered bourgeois and snobby. Why choose Bach when you could have the Beatles? went the unspoken criticism. When, it goes without saying, you can have both.
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After all, those who love classical music often have eclectic taste, embracing virtually all forms of music. They don’t see barriers between the genres, if you can call them that. The only one that draws knee-jerk judgements, however, is that which is assumed to carry overtones of middle-class pretension.
It’s as if its detractors imagine folk start listening to Beethoven to enhance their image rather than because they enjoy him. It’s okay to spend millions on a house or splurge a year’s salary on a wedding, but show an interest in Tallis or Debussy and it’s status signalling.
So just how do you define elitist? Those who can afford a season ticket to a football club or who go to West End shows are spending no less, and probably a great deal more, than most concert goers fork out in a year. Some, indeed, spend no more than their BBC licence fee, for access to Radio 3.
The problem, it would seem, is numbers. Classical music (in common with theatre and dance) does not attract mass audiences like other forms of entertainment. For some reason this leads to the notion that, by definition, devotees of symphonies, concertos or oratorios are show-offs who wish to keep the hordes at bay.
I can understand why people might mock the glamour and swagger of some opera-goers. Arm-length gloves, opera glasses and private boxes or champagne picnics exude a whiff of pre-revolutionary France.
Yet for those who enjoy opera rather than enjoy being seen at the opera, there is nothing to compare with its musical and emotional charge. I revised for my finals listening to Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte, the tapes played so often they were worn to Rizla paper by the time the exams came round. I didn’t care what people thought. This was – and is – music I adore.
Rattle’s predictions are truly alarming since they come from someone at the heart of the music business. If he is right, it means that, perhaps for the first time, the bureaucrats in charge of public funding have succumbed to this dismissive and unfair view.
When it was only those who were not fans of classical who dismissed it as posh, it was possible to shrug off their prejudice.
It’s quite another matter for the people responsible for this art form’s fate to join forces with them. Even though millions enjoy Mozart, Bruckner or Copland every day, their passion is being labelled a minority interest out of tune with the times.
I’d have been interested to see how the apparatchiks explained that idea to the Usher Hall crowd last weekend.
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