Kristjan Järvi: Noises Off

Classical performers need to stop being stuffy and get in the groove

Sunday 13 July 2008 00:00 BST

Are classical musicians killing classical music? It's a big question. What is certain is that we classical musicians mustn't be so quick to snub our audiences.

It's difficult to generalise about centuries of music in the classical tradition, but it's undeniable that it has incredible class, tradition and style and its best performers are masters of it.

Audiences are thrilled to see it in its authentic form, as they will do over the summer at the Proms. So why is it that we performers have such stony faces? Classical music may be high art, but it is not exclusive and it should entertain.

Beethoven must be rolling in his grave. The great pieces should be performed as he and Haydn performed them. They thrilled their audiences and we must try to emulate their performances.

Classical music comes from a tradition of non-exclusive high art. So we must learn to be more welcoming, and we don't need to alter the music to make it more accessible – rather, it's the performers themselves who have the power to change how the audience feels about classical music.

We could start by looking outside classical music. I'm conducting a Duke Ellington piece in the Proms, for instance, and I've rarely, if ever, been to a boring jazz gig.

But even pop music has something to teach classical performers. Imagine Kylie Minogue or Robbie Williams going on stage and not greeting their audience once during the entire performance – but that's exactly what nearly all classical musicians do.

When I performed in Vienna recently, I spoke to the audience and was told afterwards that I should not do that, which is ridiculous – interacting with the audience puts them and the musicians at ease.

Absolute Ensemble, which I founded, pays close attention to the clothing and the lighting at our performances, even the way we come on stage – all to create a more complete experience for the audience.

If classical performers don't make an effort to connect with audiences I believe two things will begin to happen.

The first is that performers will over-popularise the music by doing more cross-over projects, which turn the repertoire into something cheesy with a beat – and nobody wants that. The second scenario is that classical music will become ever more exclusive, open only to an ever-diminishing club of high rollers and hyper-academics.

The Proms takes the right approach. I love the Proms because it embodies classical music with freedom. It has a structure behind it but there is no ambiguity about how the audience is meant to act. Many do not care what they are going to hear, they simply go for the experience. It combines the traditional with something hip – the best of both worlds.

Among other things, I will be performing three meditations by Bernstein which I think is one of the greatest pieces of all time.

My final piece will be Duke Ellington's Harlem, which is when we get to the real 'groove': groove is a feature of the music from Copland to Stravinsky and even the greatest master of all, Bach. In classical music you are not supposed to say 'groove', but groove is the rhythmic propulsion which is our spirit and soul – if you ask me, classical performers need to find their groove all over again.

Kristjan Järvi is chief conductor of the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra and founder of the Absolute Ensemble in New York. He will be conducting Prom 30 on Friday 8 August. The Proms season runs from 18 Jul to 13 Sept. Visit or call 0845-401 5040 for tickets

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