English Heritage faces fury over dumbed-down concerts

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The Independent Culture

For years they were the summer "easy listening" for London's highbrows. Stately-home concerts, at which "serious" music was enjoyed over avocado and prawns and a glass of Pimm's, were for some the only way to get through a July or August weekend in the capital.

For years they were the summer "easy listening" for London's highbrows. Stately-home concerts, at which "serious" music was enjoyed over avocado and prawns and a glass of Pimm's, were for some the only way to get through a July or August weekend in the capital.

But now the traditionally well-mannered events, formerly run by English Heritage, have been attacked for going downmarket and adopting the atmosphere of a rock concert.

Devotees of the concerts - held at Kenwood House in Highgate, north London, Audley End in Saffron Walden, Essex, and Marble Hill in Twickenham, west London - claim that this year's programme, which includes firework displays, jazz hits and film theme tunes, is another example of the "dumbing down" of British culture.

Local residents meanwhile have complained about the noise of the fireworks and of concert-goers making their way home.

Warren Mitchell, famous for playing Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part, owns a home near Kenwood and is one of the most vocal critics. He said last week: "I used to take my children and it was a wonderful introduction to classical music. It was full of people who were genuinely interested in the music and enjoying the lovely setting.

"Today, there has been a definite dumbing down. Like a rock concert, it has become purely a matter of making money by pulling in the biggest crowds.

"After the concerts there are always lots of drunken louts wandering around, and the noise from the music and fireworks means pets have to be tranquillised and we residents can't sit out in our own gardens."

The concerts began in 1951, when Frank Wright, a London County Council music adviser, said programmes should concentrate on music that was "robust, with apt-sounding titles for the open air". In the first concert, the London Symphony Orchestra played Handel's Water Music, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In recent years, however, the scope has broadened to include brass bands, jazz concerts, opera galas and nights of movie and film music, such as the themes from Star Wars and ET.

Brendan Nolan, editor of the Highgate Society's magazine, believes that, since the organisation of the concerts was given to the International Management Group, a commercial venture, standards have declined to the point where it is fireworks with everything.

"There are sometimes good reasons for using fireworks, such as in Beethoven's Battle Symphony, but they are putting on Vivaldi's Four Seasons and I don't know how they are going to put fireworks into that. A lot of people round here are fed up with it."

Jasper Hope, a manager at IMG, agreed that concerts were no longer necessarily aimed at the most serious classical-music lover. "These are large-scale open-air concerts that are not trying to appeal to the same sort of audience who would go to the Barbican or somewhere similar on a Saturday night.

"Our concerts are aimed at a wider audience, including people with families. Last week, all 8,000 tickets were sold for the Kiri te Kanawa concert and we regularly get close to that figure, so we must be doing something right."

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