Classical: Sight Readings: Bullets over Brondesbury

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The Independent Culture
WHY IS classical music - alone among the arts - so resolutely unpoliticised? And why, when it tries to be political, are the results so pathetic? Consider Tan Dun's symphony for the Hong Kong handover, or Simon Rattle's "banned music" love-in with Islingtonian New Labour. On second thoughts, don't consider them at all. The opera director Peter Sellars may effectively politicise Handel and Mozart, but his new-minted collaborations with the composer John Adams don't hit the button. Tippett and Britten dipped a fastidious toe in political waters, and drew it out again; Hans Werner Henze dived in boldly, then found he wasn't in his element. Hindemith, Zimmermann, Shostakovich? No, for a satisfyingly full-blooded engagement between music and politics you have to go back to Verdi, the Romantics and Beethoven.

But opera composers still can't resist the challenge. Nigel Osborne returns to it year after year; one of his key works is an opera called Sarajevo. On Sunday, the Staatsoper in Hanover will host the premiere of London Under Siege, which carries on where Sarajevo left off. It is significant that its composer, David Wilde, is a colleague of Osborne's. Wilde's opera adopts the time-honoured formula of standing history on its head: while the citizens of Westminster starve in their basements - and get picked off by snipers whenever they make a foray for water - the comfortably affluent Bosnians block all political attempts to lift the siege.

What brought this British-trained pianist-composer into the game? Pure accident, replies Wilde. He had been inspired by the heroism of Sarajevo's musicians to compose a cello tribute (which Yo-Yo Ma now performs). While visiting the city he got caught in Karadzic's blockade, and fell in with Goran Simic, a local poet, who both proposed the idea for an opera and, in three frenetic days, bashed out its libretto. The plot portrayed cruel domestic predicaments; the fuelling anger was directed both at the genocidal Serbs and at what Wilde terms "the smothering blanket of spurious neutralist terminology" with which the European media cloaked the ugly truth. Putting snipers on London's Monument was a necessary shock-tactic.

Wilde's compositions are theoretically atonal but in fact quite easy on the ear. "The great god who stands behind this new work is Alban Berg," he says. "But his archangel is George Gershwin." The staging will be symbolist. The Staatsoper agreed to host the show on condition that it didn't inflate its budget: the orchestra and two of the soloists are studying at the music academy where Wilde teaches, and are performing for free.

Among the guests on Sunday will be the president of the canton of Sarajevo, though Wilde accepts that there's no chance of putting it on in that city for the time being. Getting the orchestra in, he says, would be immensely difficult. But he would love to have the opera staged in London. Where? "Oh, by anyone who showed an interest." Any London critics coming? "Not as yet." So listen up: the last performance is on St Valentine's Day.


THIS WEEK, John Kieffer leaves Artangel to become the British Council's music officer. What will be his aim? "To update the image of Britain. To reflect a musical culture which is much more broad-based than the commercial pop and commercial classical industries." Meaning? "Folk, jazz, new forms of pop and rock. Electronic and dance music, and all the new fusions, hybrids, and crossovers." He's keen to export music in "club-type formats"; he's excited by cutting-edge manifestations of DJ culture.

"A key aspect of British Council policy is to attract the younger generation abroad - to catch the opinion-formers of the future." Asked to name his favourite musical phenomena he throws in Mark Anthony Turnage alongside Asian dub music, and he thinks the world of the pianist Joanna MacGregor. He points to the Nikki Yeoh jazz trio's current Indian tour - interspersing their concerts with workshops for local musicians - as the ideal initiative.

But the British Council has for years been feeling the pinch; its tiny budget must be cleverly spent. Will he impose a policy change? "There will be some tweaking, in favour of non-classical forms," he replies.

So there we have it. You can see what he means, and it certainly chimes with Blairism, but somehow I can't get excited about exporting DJs. Moving with the times is a far subtler business than simply spotting what's hot, when you're dealing with societies out of sync with your own. In unfamiliar climes, the cosy old string quartet can sound like the gods at play, rather than yesterday's news - as metropolitan trend-chasers like to think.