Spare us an electric light orchestra

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The Independent Online
LUCKY old Miss Schlegel. The heroine of E M Forster's Howards End was able to let her imagination roam when listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. She closed her eyes and 'the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for a second time.'

No such artistic freedom will be allowed a young girl in the concert of the future. The goblins will be animated on a giant screen above the orchestra, and the elephants conveyed in bright green bursts of light from a laser gun at the back of the auditorium. Should Miss Schlegel still not get the point, she can plug into her hired headset during the interval and listen to an expert informing her about the sexual relevance of goblin imagery in Beethoven's music.

Concert-going is about to change. The Royal Philharmonic has big plans, which include training a camera on individual musicians and the conductor's face to magnify their images on to a screen; taking the orchestra out of evening dress for some concerts; holding concerts in the round, and as a spokesman says, 'have drama, lasers and maybe a camera right down the clarinet'.

The London Philharmonic, although not planning anything quite so extreme, is to hold family concerts on Sunday mornings, and will widen its repertoire to include jazz.

And last week Graham Sheffield, music director of the South Bank Centre, where audiences for classical music concerts have slumped, said he is going to introduce 'Talking Notes'. The equivalent of a mini radio station at the Royal Festival Hall will broadcast live programme notes to the audience through headphones. Mr Sheffield, a former Radio 3 man, will speak a number of these commentaries himself, and they will, he says, 'create a more friendly, accessible environment'. But is it an environment in which Miss Schlegel could dream?

Certainly change has been a long time coming. The artistic experience, not just at classical concerts, but at opera, theatre, ballet and art galleries, remains remarkably similar in 1994 to the Edwardian era, when Forster wrote. People with crystal clear throats still cough between movements to show they know that this is the correct place to cough and are thus classical aficianados; there is still nowhere in a theatre foyer to dispose of a used ice-cream tub.

But I have mixed feelings about the innovations. Mr Sheffield's talking notes might be a good idea, but not so much for the talking. The notes could, after all, be in the programme. Most concertgoers can read; and reading still enables you to chat to your neighbour intermittently at the same time. Wearing a headset is equivalent to lingering in the kitchen at parties. It shouts from the rooftops that you're not a natural mixer.

Even more irritatingly, as every train traveller knows, wearers of Walkman-style sets yell on the few occasions they do want to make conversation, in the belief that they can't be heard; and the sets drive anybody nearby crazy with the unintelligible buzz that filters out between headset and ears.

No, it is not the cassette notes that are needed so much as comprehensible programmes. With the honourable exceptions of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, programmes for virtually every play, concert, or opera I go to are expensive, crammed with adverts and uninformative, or, even worse, full of articles which one needs expert knowledge to understand.

What those of us without either a music degree or even a grade 1 pass at piano need to know at half time are things such as what is the conductor doing that's special; how does it differ from other interpretations of the piece; what distinctive qualities has he or she brought out of the piece and the orchestra.

If Mr Sheffield doesn't answer these and similar questions then I'd rather be in the foyer looking for somewhere to dump my ice- cream tub. And please, Mr Sheffield, no fear or favour in your commentaries: I want to know about inappropriate interpretations, wrong pace, bum notes and whether the soloist demanded a rise on his fee just before coming on stage.

Indeed, why don't we have interactive talking notes? You tell us what we ought to think and then we'll tell you what we do think. It would be the best market testing the South Bank has ever done.

As for the London Philharmonic plan to put on the odd Sunday morning concert, who could not be in favour of it, getting in the kids and the grandparents? But do we really need the big screen and the lasers? These are the paraphernalia of rock concerts simply because those concerts make a point of continued melodrama, effects and showbiz posturings. At a classical concert the bulk of audience time should be spent either concentrating, or, like Miss Schlegel, dreaming.

Recently I saw Itzhak Perlman perform Brahms' and Beethoven's violin concertos with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall. It was an unforgettable evening, and lacking any new technology gimmicks. The polio-stricken Perlman struggled from his wheelchair and hobbled up a wooden ramp on crutches, twisted himself into his chair, looked whimsically at the audience until it was his moment to pick up his instrument, then contorted his face into an expression of intense concentration, almost pain, and produced sounds so tender and expressive that many people near me gasped with emotion.

Nothing could have added to the thrill, sense of occasion and sheer magic of that evening, just as all the gimmicks in the world cannot make a mediocre performance great.

It's true that classical music, like other art forms, is experiencing a slump in audiences; and there is a complex set of reasons for this, ranging from competing demands on people's time, to the quality of classical music on CDs, to high ticket prices. It may also be that the old-fashioned nature of a classical concert puts off elements of the audience, but frankly I doubt it, just as I doubt that a uniform of slacks and sneakers will make a concert more accessible than evening dress.

The reason for the slump in audiences might be something even more taboo than ticket prices; namely that there is a shortage of conductors and soloists with blazing talent and stage presence. Solti, Tennstedt and Simon Rattle can sell out a hall without the need for lasers. And Perlman does not need a giant screen; he has giant charisma.

James Fenton is on holiday.