Hopping channels last night, I stumbled across BBC2’s Artsnight, a 30 minute show dumped in the gaping hole in the schedule left by the Beeb’s bizarre decision a few years ago to jettison Newsnight Review in favour of a monthly arts roundup. Satirist Armando Iannucci took an intriguing look at the role and value of the arts in contemporary society, alighting at classical music, one of his own personal passions. He spoke to pianist James Rhodes about the allure of classical music and about the state of the art today. Unsurprisingly, Rhodes continued the narrative of alarm he’s been peddling for a while. Not without good reason, of course, as we should all be concerned about falling audiences and funding opportunities. But Rhodes seems to have defined himself in direct opposition to the orthodox, to the “scowling pianist” stuffed in a white shirt and tails, and he seemingly needs to attack and caricature the “opposition” in order to justify his own approach.
There is, of course, room for many approaches, and I’m as proud a wearer of jeans to the opera as anyone else who doesn’t believe your attire helps you hear any better. But when speaking, in the short interview in last night’s programme, about the business of classical music, he’s just plain wrong. Despite Rhodes’s claim a new multi-million pound concert hall “seems to be a condition” of Simon Rattle’s arrival at the head of the London Symphony Orchestra, Rattle and the LSO have said that no such condition is in place. He went on:
“Take that £400 million – that’s 4 [or] 5 years of the entire music education budget! We don’t need another hall, and everyone who bleats about “oh well, the acoustics at the barbican aren’t...” Come on! Really? You really care that much? It’s like... Stop it!”
He’s certainly right that this is an enormous amount of money in the face of a culture of underinvestment in music education, but yes, the acoustics at the Barbican are insufficient to showcase the brilliance of an orchestra like the LSO, and no, we are not wrong or somehow elitist for caring that much. Neither is Rattle wrong to care, on two fronts: he is used to getting the best from some of the most miraculously brilliant ensembles in the world and is quite right to ask for the best conditions in which to make music. Secondly, his track record in Birmingham shows how reinvigorating such a project can be: the building of Symphony Hall was a milestone in the city’s cultural history and is a multi-purpose venue, as any in London would surely be.
Anyone who’s ever sat in the cheap seats, at the back of the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican or in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall can confirm that our precious, wonderful art-form can seem pretty remote and uninvolving from up there. A concern for how our music sounds is not incompatible with a desire to see more switched on to its wondrous brilliance. There are many valid arguments for and against the project, which I’ve no intention of further rehearsing here, but when it comes to the tedious ad hominem attacks on those of us who value slightly different things, please, James, stop it.