Classical music has lost the art of dumbing sideways
A tribute to André Previn affirmed that "He probably did more to popularise great music on his Saturday night show for BBC1 than anybody else before or since" and acknowledgement of his role as a populariser was a common thread running through all the rich appreciations. In recent years classical music has been subject to many varieties of dumbing down; from Ibiza anthems at the BBC Proms to Paganini with a hula hoop. But dumbing down has singularly failed to even approach the success achieved by André Previn and other popularisers of the past.
My classical epiphany predated André Previn by some years. It was Jacques Loussier and Modern Jazz Quartet founder John Lewis who led me to appreciate the infinite riches of J.S. Bach's music. Jacques Loussier (b.1934) and John Lewis (1920-2010) were masters of the art of dumbing sideways - using jazz to make classical music more accessible without devaluing it in the process. Unlike today's dumbing down movement which is fixated on boosting audience numbers, their motivation was simply to share a love of jazz and Bach - just as André Previn's was to share his love of classical music. Another masterly example of dumbing sideways was rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer which introduced Aaron Copland to a young audience: their adaptation of Fanfare for a Common Man was released as a three minute single in 1977 and reached No. 2 in the UK singles chart.
Today's classical industry subscribes to the dogma that popularising means nothing more than maximising social media likes and followers. This is a false dogma. Social networks are the media, not the message. André Previn had access to a powerful medium in the form of prime time TV. But it was his skillful dumbing sideways message that was the key to his success. Today's publicists are spoiled for media choice. But the media, social or otherwise, is not the message. If classical music really wants to reach a wider audience without throwing out the baby with the bath water, it needs to learn from the dumbing sideways masters of the past and come up with a much smarter message. Where are today's digitally-literate equivalents of André Previn, Jacques Lousier, John Lewis and ELP?
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