Music in crisis? Not at the Albert Hall

Overweening stars, falling sales of CDs, funding cuts ... but at least the Proms strike the right note
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The best antidote to Norman Lebrecht's recent pessimistic book about the future of classical music, When the Music Stops, is to go to the Proms. On many nights during the eight-week season, which runs from late July to the middle of September, the Albert Hall in London is full to the rafters, which means an audience of 5,400. This year I have been to three and each packed out.

Elsewhere, concert attendances are declining and sales of classical music CDs are down. Partly this because the boost given to sales of recorded music by the switch to compact discs has run its course. Music lovers are now inundated by an over-supply of good versions of popular classics and rarities alike. It is also argued that because the traditional form of the concert in the traditional concert hall is stuffy, concert goers have become middle-aged. Meanwhile non-commercial funding is harder to find. Governments are cutting back and corporate sponsors can think of other things to do.

To these adverse trends, Mr Lebrecht adds a serious charge: the classical music business is being ruined by greed. His book's subtitle is "Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Cla$$ical Music". There are many causes for the crunch, he writes, but at the core is a star system "that has been allowed to run amok".

The Three Tenors earn millions of pounds singing in amplified arenas while opera houses carry through redundancy programmes. Good artists undertake so many engagements, ceaselessly travelling the world, that their performances lose their lustre - until finally the public begins to notice and deserts. Even worse, certain bookings reflect complex deals between agents and promoters rather than sheer merit - in the package with the star soprano, for instance, comes a mediocre tenor.

Mr Lebrecht's evidence is more convincing than his thesis. When he says that greed and fear have become the leading motives of an art in crisis he is describing the two emotions that permeate all business activities. When he asks whether agents would be needed if merit alone were rewarded, he fails to recognise that business can only be conducted by business people. The gifted singer is not different from the gifted engineer - both need the entrepreneur to create the market. Doubtless there is corruption and anti-competitive practices in parts of the music industry, but no business sector is completely clean. However the music industry appears sufficiently open to new entrants - whether artists or composers, venues, recording companies or entrepreneurs - to keep it more or less healthy and thus in equilibrium. The present downturn is an adjustment, nothing worse. As a consumer, I am delighted by the richness of what is on offer and constantly impressed by how minority tastes are served by live and recorded music-making.

The Proms show one way forward. The most important reason for the Prom's success is the promenading principle itself. The fact that there is room for 200 people who pay pounds 3 to stand (or sit on the floor!) in the space immediately in front of the platform, where the best seats would normally be, completely changes the experience. When the orchestra arrives on the stage, it confronts a crowd of enthusiasts so close to the conductor that the maestro and the prommers often exchange a few words. Contrast this with the normal arrangement in which the musicians look across to seats full of businessmen and their wives, guests of the companies sponsoring the event. William Christie, who brought his French orchestra and singers, Les Arts Florissants, to do Handel's Semele last Monday evening, remarked how unusual it was to be greeted by smiles as he walked to the podium.

The audience at the Proms is conscious of itself as being special. Perhaps this is because three venerable institutions are involved: the Albert Hall in its Victorian self-confidence; the Proms themselves in their 102nd season; and the BBC as beneficent and enlightened organiser. The audience is 10 years younger than average. There are little things you notice, too. The hall is not darkened during performances and the place is so informal - except on the platform - that a friend who had put a tie on one evening because it was opera looked a bit overdressed. The audience is at once unusually still during performance, listening with rapt attention, and noisily generous in its applause.

The result is that the best musicians in the world will come to perform without being paid a fortune. You sense the Proms audience drawing the best out of them. The Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado, for instance, will play the end of this month when it would normally be at the Salzburg Festival earning much higher fees.

Mr Lebrecht writes that "the moral foundations of music - the inherent democracy of a lovely noise that can be admired by all, regardless of status or education - has been thoughtlessly abandoned". Not in London, not at the Albert Hall, not when the Proms are being run so brilliantly by the BBC.