Modern concerts `boring' says Blair's arts adviser hits at composers

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Britain's most senior figures in both the arts and business and a friend and adviser to the Prime Minister has accused current composers of classical music of being "elitist and arrogant" and of sometimes "thinking the world owes them a living".

Sir Dennis Stevenson, himself the chairman of a contemporary music ensemble, says classical music concerts must change. They must be shorter and put on earlier in the evening, so that audiences can eat afterwards. "One of the biggest problems I have after a full day's work," he says, "is to stop myself falling asleep in a concert."

Many concerts play to tiny audiences. "I am fed up with going to concerts where the audience is made up of relatives of the orchestra."

Sir Dennis's remarks, made to The Independent, will be treated extremely seriously because of who he is. Last year, Sir Dennis, chairman of the media group Pearson and former chairman of BP, organised a seminar at Downing Street, hand-picking leading arts figures to discuss funding and other issues with Tony Blair. There, Sir Simon Rattle complained about the lack of music education in schools, something the Government has since addressed.

Sir Dennis, who chairs Sinfonia 21, a contemporary music ensemble in London, was chairman of the Tate for 10 years from 1988, a time during which it became extremely accessible to the general public.

"The contrast between the visual arts and the music scene is extraordinary," Sir Dennis says. "The cutting edge at the Tate has a mass audience. The cutting edge in music does not. At the Tate, the director Nicholas Serota got a lot of criticism for putting cards next to the works, explaining them. Now that is copied all over the world. But composers seem to think they have no need to explain. It is an arrogant and elitist attitude. Why should the world owe them a living?

"I go to a lot of contemporary music concerts, and once you've discounted the relatives of the orchestra I see the same eight faces in the audience. Hundreds of thousands of people go to art galleries. In contemporary music they are very specialist, elitist audiences. Very few living composers have taken the trouble to reach out and explain their music. At Sinfonia 21 we are trying to make changes. The conductor Martyn Brabbins does talk to the audience about the music.

"At our concert at Imperial College on Friday we will also have students from the Royal College of Art presenting supporting videos. Our main composer, Jonathan Harvey, isreaching out much more now.

"Thomas Addis is another modern composer who explains the music then plays it again after he has explained it. But most modern composers don't bother to explain." It is unrealistic, he says, to assume in the age of compact discs that people will continue going to concerts at the end of a long day.

"You have to find somewhere to park and the most pathetic thing is you have expensive tickets for the South Bank or somewhere and you have to stop yourself falling asleep. Do you actually want to go and sit between 7.30 and 10.15? Wouldn't it be better between 7 and 8.30?

"I prefer listening intensely for shorter periods. The Sunday morning concerts at the Wigmore Hall are a marvellous idea. I don't like having my supper interfered with."