Music must reinvent itself, says Radio 3 boss

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The Independent Culture

Britain's classical music venues must create a Tate Modern-style buzz and recapture their artistic vision if they are to survive, the head of Radio 3 warned on Thursday.

With millions of people pouring into Tate Modern and plaudits this week for the Victoria and Albert's new £31m British Galleries, the controller of the BBC's classical station, Roger Wright, said the world of music had to reinvent itself, too.

Faced with orchestras going bust, an ever more select roster of guaranteed box-office stars and reliance on a core audience of older affluent men, Mr Wright said an "urgent action plan" was needed.

And he highlighted the plight of the troubled South Bank Centre in London – hit by years of failed regeneration proposals and the recent surprise departure of its chief executive – as evidence of where music was going wrong. The artistic vision had been lost, he said. "The South Bank Centre should be at the heart of our cultural life and yet the talk for the last decade, it seems, has been about what sort of roof it should have and how many Sock Shop and Tie Rack outlets it needs to balance its books," Mr Wright told the annual lunch of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund at the Banqueting House in London.

"There has been not enough celebration of what is going on inside the halls [the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room]. It's hardly surprising therefore that the public and press have lost faith in the possibilities of its renovation."

The visual arts were sending out a "message of confidence about the buoyancy and success of the current scene," he said. The brand of the Tate had been "magnificently exploited and reinvented" in its satellite galleries in Liverpool and St Ives and its new gallery at Bankside. But, he said: "Crucially, they are all projects driven by artistic vision. It is the art which is the priority."

His cri de coeur comes at a time of growing concern for classical music and particular fears for the Arts Council- funded South Bank Centre.

The centre, home to the listed Royal Festival Hall, should be the capital's premier music venue, but it has been bogged down by redevelopment plans and was further shaken this month when Karsten Witt, its chief executive, left earlier than originally announced and with no successor in place.

Last week the conductor Sir Simon Rattle added his voice to the debate on the future of music in this country. A new biography quoted his amazement at how British orchestral musicians, who are poorly paid by comparison with their continental counterparts in orchestras similarly under-funded, managed to survive at all.

He blamed the Arts Council for letting down classical music, saying it was full of amateurs with no knowledge of history and who did not care.

Mr Wright, too, questioned whether the Arts Council's "plethora of strategy papers, policy reviews and organisational psychologists" were actually helping. But he said there was much still to celebrate if music could copy the visual arts and move with the times.

The South Bank was "struggling to rise above its image as a run-down concrete jungle," yet the Barbican in London had managed to overcome similar qualms to become a thriving venue.

The capital had just seen the opening of Handel House, a museum dedicated to Handel that will host its inaugural concert today, while halls in Manchester and Birmingham were adding to the artistic life of those cities.

Mr Wright, who was formerly artistic administrator of the Cleveland Orchestra in Ohio and vice-president of the Deutsche Grammophon record company in Germany, also suggested there was an inflexibility in the music world that had to be challenged – although he refused to name the institutions he had in mind.

"Standing still is not an option. Simply because organisations... have existed for a number of years does not mean that they have a right to continue as they have since they were founded, their work unchallenged," he said.

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