Orchestra's chief laments British audiences as dumbed down and unwilling to listen

The world of classical music is said to be "shrinking by the day" because popular culture has overwhelmed a generation. David Whelton, the managing director of the Philharmonia Orchestra, says that amid garage, rap and house music, classical works are becoming a forgotten language in Britain.

The world of classical music is said to be "shrinking by the day" because popular culture has overwhelmed a generation. David Whelton, the managing director of the Philharmonia Orchestra, says that amid garage, rap and house music, classical works are becoming a forgotten language in Britain.

In an interview with Prospect magazine, Mr Whelton, says: "The broad population of the country is totally unfamiliar with orchestral music and reluctant to enjoy anything that requires some investment of time and thought. Our world is shrinking by the day because of the overwhelming impact of popular culture".

While previous generations acquired a basic awareness of classical music as children, this was no longer the case. He says: "The musical language you grew up with was the basic harmonic tonality that underpins music from the Renaissance until the present day. Now that language is almost entirely foreign because rap music and garage and house have no harmonic references at all."

Mr Whelton said it was impossible to avoid artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent and The Streets just through the experience of everyday life. "And they are terrific," he said.

"But there's a huge job to be done in making sure that people don't lose sight of the real great canon of Western classical music. It's a question of life-long learning so that as people go through life there is a moment when great music - just like great theatre - really begins to mean something for them and they can make the transmission from the latest pop culture to something deeper and long-lasting."

Today audiences often knew orchestral music only through films or, increasingly, from computer games, Mr Whelton said. But the classics only made real sense with repeated listening, he said, which not everyone was prepared to do.

Marshall Marcus, chief executive of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, agreed a major problem of the last quarter century was the brevity of audience's attention spans. "The ability of people to concentrate on something for any period of time seems to be diminishing. There's an argument that we live in a three-minute culture, but it's more like a three-second culture - the length of a television advert. Classical music is one of those genres where you need to be able to concentrate to get a lot out of it."

Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3, was, however, less pessimistic. "If you look at the Proms and see the broader demographic, they're a big success. At the concerts of James MacMillan's music we've just held at the Barbican, the audience was cheering contemporary classical music to the rafters. I think you'd be hard-pushed to say that this country is reluctant to make the effort in time and thought."

Jonathan Reekie, the chief executive of the Aldeburgh festival, said his experience in recent years was of growing audiences that were willing to be challenged by intelligent programming. "Orchestral music is quite marginalised but I don't think that all pop music is evil or that pop equals cultural ignorance and orchestral doesn't," he said.

"The pigeonholes of old are beginning to dissolve and musicians are working with other artists and barriers are breaking down. But it doesn't mean that everything has to be crossover; there's also a place for what you might call pure classical music."

Indeed, Steven Isserlis, the cellist, warned against too many barriers being broken down. "Softened-down relaxing classics just gives the wrong impression. It makes people think they don't have to do any work so when they come to a concert that is challenging they don't like it," he said.

And Ty, a Mercury Music Prize-nominated rapper, said David Whelton was right about audience's listening skills but condescending in the way he expressed it. "There's a huge demographic of people who listen to music but don't really pay it that much attention," Ty said.

The best rappers or house musicians were often more aware of a wide range of musical influences than were the consumers of their music. He said: "I don't think that classical music has tried to contact or be involved with what the youth are doing so [classical musicians] shouldn't complain if they are not what the youth is listening to."

Julian Lloyd Webber, the cellist, returned to the issue of education. "If people are not taught music in schools they grow up without it. I believe this government is trying to do something because they have realised there is a problem, but we have lost a generation."

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