What is a music festival?
Iraqi visual artist Riyadh Neam supplies the three accompanying graphics which are used in the booklet for Rahim AlHaj's new CD Letters from Iraq. Riyadh Neam explains that in his paintings depicting the children of post-invasion Iraq in the streets of devastated Baghdad “I’m always trying to show the relationship between stasis and movement, between a still life and a moving life.” He uses color to symbolise the dynamics of his war-torn country, with the dominant grey, black and white symbolising destruction, bright green indicating grief, and red signifying inextinguishable hope. This use of colours to symbolise emotions is a form of the cross-talk between different sensory channels known as synesthesia . Music appreciation involves cross-talk between hearing and emotion, and many celebrated musicians have experienced synesthesia in various forms, including Alexander Scriabin, Amy Beach, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, while the word raga from the Indian classical tradition translates from Sanskrit as 'tone' or 'colour'.
Synesthesia is an example of how key creative building blocks are shared across global cultures. We live in an age of globalisation and multi-culturalism, yet classical music festivals are retreating further and further into retrospective mono-culturalism. For instance the 2017 BBC Proms season is programmatically themed around two anniversaries - the Russian Revolution which took place 100 years ago and the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago. The Russian Revolution strand conveniently allows three Shostakovich symphonies to be programmed including the warhorse Fifth, which will be its ninth Proms outing in seventeen years. Elsewhere in London the SouthBank Centre has been celebrating Belief and Beyond Belief with a festival that does not include even a single piece of non-Western music, but which managed to squeeze in a Shostakovich symphony. Nowhere at the two festivals is there the searing relevance of Rahim AlHaj music and Riyadh Neam's graphics.
Classical music festivals should be wide-ranging, joyous and relevant celebrations of the rich variety of the great music traditions. Instead they have become po-faced rituals which plough their way laboriously through the output of Mahler, Shostakovich and a few other favoured composers. Mixing music traditions in a single concert is a notoriously difficult and sensitive task; the Western masterpieces must never be neglected, and fusion projects such as sitar and oud concertos have, rightly in most cases, been greeted with derision. But mixing traditions within a festival - kudos to this year's Aldeburgh Festival for its ragas in Orford Church - or between the two halves of a concert is a realistic proposition.
The Salzburg Summer Festival's Ouverture Spirituelle was an outstanding example of the broadening of the festival vision, and Salzburg bravely commissioned programme essays from me for their forays into Sufi and Hindustani music. However this year's Ouverture Spirituelle has drifted back towards the tokenism of the other major festivals and includes the obligatory Mahler symphony. If the reason for this drift is commercial pressures - which I suspect it is - that reason needs examining. Defendants of the classical status quo - and they are many and vocal - will plead that programming is unadventurous because adventurous programming is not commercially viable. Which I do not disagree with; but I do disagree with the view that we have to accept the current stifling business model which dictates that status quo.
Classical music festivals are dictated to and dominated by touring celebrity orchestras. The infamous Mahler One at this year's Proms is part of a Pittsburgh Symphony touring programme, and the Shostakovich Five comes from a peripatetic Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. And financial reality means you can't pay the Pittsburgh Symphony to play Mahler in the second half of a concert with musicians from a non-Western tradition in the first half. Celebrity touring orchestras may fill halls, but they have forced classical music into a repetitive holding pattern whereby festivals have become commercially viable but increasingly irrelevant museums of sound. The stranglehold of the 'London today Edinburgh' celebrity bands - Gergiev and the Mariinsky also play the 2017 Edinburgh Festival - needs to be broken to inject freshness and relevance to the major festivals. Ironically the BBC is perfectly placed to do this with their roster of house orchestras. The BBC orchestras should be differentiating themselves by pioneering adventurous and diverse programming both by widening the repertoire within the Western tradition and by partnering in split programmes with ensembles from diverse backgrounds. But instead all the BBC orchestras aspire to is lucrative overseas tours, preferably to the Gulf States or China.
Steve Jobs told us that "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them". There is a surprising appetite for music from outside the Western tradition. On An Overgrown Path may not represent a statistically significant measure, but it does provide a useful guide. Recent posts here about music from outside the Western tradition and from the Islamicate world in particular - e.g. Bab Assalam from Syria, Rahim AlHaj from Iraq, and the culturally-diverse Haz'art Trio - have attracted very large audiences. Broadening the repertoire at festivals is almost certainly not financially viable within the current top heavy financial structure. But if classical music itself wants to defend its position as an important cultural institution it needs to become more relevant and diverse, and that means changing the current highly restrictive business model.
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