Mozart didn't have all the best tunes

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The Independent Culture
ACCORDING TO Sir Dennis Stevenson, voice of the arts to Tony Blair, contemporary classical music has failed to get a mass audience in the way that the visual arts have. Oh really? Just how up to date is his research? What about the mass popular appeal and chart success of John Tavener's exultant choral music, which graced the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales?

Even the avowedly middlebrow Classic FM has recognised that Mozart did not have all the good tunes. That station's almost non-stop air-play of the slow-moving, massed strings of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony turned an obscure composer - on a pretty obscure label - into a big sales success story.

Where was Stevenson last year when the Barbican was hosting sell-out concerts by the American composer John Adams? Clearly not in the lengthy queues for returns. Only a few months ago, the youthful London premiere of Adams's multiracial oratorio I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky had all the atmosphere (and vanishing tickets) of a warehouse party, complete with hastily decorated venue and queues down the street.

Fifteen years ago, he might have had a point. The 20th-century experiment, as characterised by Schoenberg, Webern and other disciples of the Second Viennese school, had led not just to a decline but to a virtual collapse in audiences. However, many composers have moved on.

Not that Philip Glass and Steve Reich, both of whom fill concert halls with ease, have opted for the polar opposite route: pandering to accepted taste. The musical landscape has fundamentally changed; the late 20th century now values the quality of audience responses. To argue that any of these major names - all of whom have been markedly influential across the arts - fail to reach out to audiences is, frankly, preposterous.

If all this were merely the ill-thought-through opinions of someone with access to the media, it could easily be brushed aside. Stevenson, however, is far more important. He, after all, has the ear of Tony Blair, who, for reasons best known to himself, takes Stevenson's opinions as read. Or, in this case, red.

When Blair wants to meet the arts great and the good, Stevenson is on hand to help sort out the guest list. In a government that talks endlessly about "access", while failing to grasp that this means coming up with sufficient subsidy to allow art to be experienced by those who otherwise could not afford it, his is a highly significant position.

Stevenson's home is decorated with paintings and he spends time playing Dvorak sonatas on the violin but these, I'm afraid, are amateur enthusiasms, not a professional understanding. His skill at leading the Pearson Group is unquestionable, but relying on him for pointers towards arts policy is dangerous.

Transferable skills became one of the buzz-phrases of the Nineties but not all skills are transferable, as anyone who has worked in the health service will tell you. Their problems stem from the model of industrial practice being visited on the NHS, an argument that runs: if you've upped sales at a supermarket chain, you're perfect casting to run a hospital. It's the same, alas, in the arts.

Stevenson argues that classical music has lagged behind the visual arts in attracting audiences. Well they would, wouldn't they? The trendiest visual art courts controversy and media attention through its subject matter alone. But there is little subject matter in classical music. Sorry, but the music has to speak for itself - and that makes for rather dull copy.

There is, of course, no reason why people in pinstriped suits shouldn't have in-depth knowledge of, or definite opinions about, the arts; but why their industry skills should equip them to analyse and make recommendations for the survival and future of, say, orchestral concerts remains a mystery.

Let us not forget that Stevenson is the man who chaired the 1995 Lyric Theatre Review. The hotly contested findings of this mercifully forgotten document were the reason why Chris Smith so foolishly announced the possible closure of English National Opera, despite its accessibility and cheap ticket policy - because Stevenson's team thought it should merge with the Royal Opera House. That suggestion was quietly thrown out after the altogether more considered findings of the Richard Eyre report.

That time, in a truly shocking change of heart, ministers decided to listen to the experts rather than regard the artists themselves as having vested interests. Long may it continue. Businessmen don't take kindly to artists telling them how to run their lives. Sorry, Sir Dennis, but the reverse also applies.