CLASSICAL MUSIC / Where there's a will: From Somerset to central London, concert programmes have opened up to fresh ideas. Robert Maycock reports

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They wouldn't bat an eyelid in Birmingham. Whisper it in central London, though, and brows will furrow. The news is this: your concerts are changing. It isn't just fiddling with the contents, taking out an overplayed Dvorak symphony to push in a bit of Berio, or dressing up the players in fancy shirts. It's questioning the whole make-up of a venue's programmes - whether to go on churning out the same fare in the same way to a dwindling, ageing audience when there is a vibrant musical life out there that hasn't been getting a look-in. And, as usual, the rest of the country is on to it first.

Over two decades, attendances at orchestral concerts on the South Bank have dropped from 80 per cent to 60 per cent. More people go to more events, but less often. In the United States, the awareness is growing that in a few years' time the majority of young people in many cities will be black or Hispanic. There have been conferences to face up to the implications for white middle-class cultural institutions and what they put on. And what America does today . . .

Anybody who has sat regularly in a half-empty hall knows the malaise goes much deeper than crude worries about the box-office. It lay behind last year's much-misunderstood, and spectacularly mishandled, efforts to reform the London orchestral scene. The temporary kowtowing to the orchestral lobby that resulted will not solve problems that touch on long- term cultural changes. In essence, for anybody whose task is to make music happen there is a choice: seek out what is alive and growing, or watch the world as you have known it slowly wither away. But how?

Away from the metropolitan gaze, answers are springing up all over the country. The small Somerset town of Chard has found one that, almost unintended, could stand as a model for many. London's press have not exactly flocked to cover the Chard Festival of Women in Music - its title alone is enough to send the critical fraternity into a misogynistic rage. So they missed, this May, a fine example of how much can be done, without huge resources, when there's the will.

Since it started four years ago, the Chard Festival has avoided turning into a biennial invasion by condescending sophisticates who otherwise have nothing to do with the place. Rather, it has put down strong local roots, winning the confidence of enough of the public to come across as an event that belongs there, and just happens to have women musicians as a theme. The audiences that pack the Guildhall include men and women, grandparents and children, closet followers who come out hesitantly and are still a bit bashful when their drinking mates catch them at it. People will turn out in good numbers for contemporary orchestral pieces or South African township bands, classical Indian recitals or jazz groups, folk-song or schools performances. And they enjoy what they hear.

If there is a secret, it's that artistic direction is in the hands of an enthusiastic resident - Angela Willes, the town clerk - rather than a non-resident luminary. She has been able to develop a balance of programming that people can live with, and not feel they are being fed something supposed to be good for them. As a result, the festival has already run into the classic problem of growth - too much to do on a small budget. To a visitor, it seems to have reached with amazing speed that tricky moment of decision about whether to go really big.

That is a long way from the gloom about decline that you hear in other parts. Other, more famous festivals are starting down the same road away from the old- fashioned idea of the spare-time visiting director. Bath has appointed Tim Joss, until recently the pioneering programmer of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, to a permanent position - a clear sign of the will for change. Brighton, currently recruiting an artistic director, insists that the job is now full-time, and applicants were expected to live close by.

The same answers do not work in cities. Here, with competing attractions constantly within range, the buzz-word is diversity. Take Symphony Hall, Birmingham: last night's date was not the CBSO but Bonnie Raitt. Elsewhere the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group shares an award-winning series with Birmingham Jazz. The Midlands Arts Centre, over the road from Edgbaston cricket ground, has a flourishing mix of theatrical and multicultural strands alongside classical ones.

In London the off-centre venues have so far been the most adventurous. Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, which used to struggle to bring anybody in for visiting chamber groups, has developed a mixed range of styles and timings geared to the surrounding residential areas. Last week, new jazz at 9.30; tomorrow, Indian vocal music at 7.30; next Friday a 10.30 start for Abdullah Ibrahim, complete with late bar and food. There's not a Western classic in sight, but the funding bodies have been watching closely and next season's follow-up to a successful fusion series has just brought Watermans an extra London Arts Board grant.

And things are starting to move on the South Bank. Watchers have seen a more culturally mixed approach for some time. But on 29 May, when the Cocteau Twins went to the Royal Festival Hall, drinks were allowed in the auditorium for the first time (and the bars took pounds 18,000 - six times the income on an orchestral night). A week later a packed house was dancing on the seats for Cheb Khaled, and the stewards actually let them. Whatever next?

The answers are in the hands of Graham Sheffield, the well-established director of music projects, and his new second-in-command David Sefton. 'I was brought in to make things more funky,' says Sefton, a fast-talking former fringe promoter from Liverpool who has risen through the South Bank staff. Sheffield, listening in, giggles. Between them they intend to balance a programme of fewer, but better, Western classical concerts with a greater variety of events. Alongside and responsible to them, the venue programmers for the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room are doing the same thing. As they plan, the buildings themselves are being developed: a short list of 10 schemes is being boiled down to three this summer before the final choice is made.

'The days of sitting with a diary waiting for people to phone are gone,' says Sheffield. Sefton will be looking for high-profiled events, 'stuff that has passed us by' - often US-originated, like the Tom Waites / Robert Wilson Black Rider project (which they missed) or the tour of the Philip Glass Ensemble with music for Jean Cocteau's film La Belle et la Bete (which they caught in time for this summer's Meltdown festival). The difference is made by a six-figure budget for underwriting projects that have been too expensive for London promoters to risk.

Beyond that, says Sheffield, there is a whole series of minority audiences that have to be tapped. The challenge is to deliver the highest quality of work across the board. Strands are likely to run through the year rather than be programmed in batches, so that any one week shows a fair degree of diversity. This, in theory, presents co-promotion opportunities, although so far it has been the biggest events that have benefited. Among the South Bank's outside promoters there are signs of impatience, and the centre may need to move quickly to preserve its reputation for openness in programming - several have reported dissatisfaction with the dates and the general help they are being offered.

It's a fine line for anybody to tread, with the lure of rampant commercialism never quite out of sight. But with old inhibitions fading away, the incentive to get it right has never been stronger. These days, if one venue can't, there's another all too glad to show it how.