Friday, May 31, 2019

How classical music became disingenuously elitist


'Just In: Kronos Loses Major Singer Due to Visa Delays' screams the capitalised Slipped Disc headline. The 'breaking news' refers to visa delays leading to the cancellation of a US concert by the Malian singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté who is seen above. Earlier this year another Slipped Disc screamer lamented how 'The Radio 3 boss has been cutting into bedrock broadcasting'. This referred to the cutting of airtime for BBC Radio 3's Late Junction, a programme devoted to the music of Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté and many others who inhabit the culturally rich margins of art music.

Such concern for art music's outliers is praiseworthy. But entering 'Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté' into the Slipped Disc search box returns just one story about the 'great' singer - the one highlighting her visa problem. Similarly, searching 'BBC Late Junction' returns just one story about this broadcasting 'bedrock' - the one lamenting its curtailment. It is fair to say that Slipped Disc has rarely, if at all, featured - yet alone championed - the eclectic music that is the staple fare of Late Junction. That is, until it became tasty click bait.

Let's depersonalise the debate at this point. Norman is simply reflecting the zeitgeist: his blog has many times more page hits than mine, and he receives the support of the entire classical industry. He is on the Christmas card list of classical's great and good, several of who signed a letter showcased by him lamenting the Late Junction cutbacks*.

I have been writing On An Overgrown Path for 15 years; over that time classical music has changed and my views have changed. In the past I have defended classical music against charges of elitism. But I believe it has become disingenuously elitist by showing concern about the rich margins of art music while failing to strive for any real engagement beyond tokenism. That one Slipped Disc search result for Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté compares with 65 pages for 'Mahler'. Of course Mahler et al will remain at the pinnacle of art music. But we are in the 21st century and Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté and her peers deserve better than to be treated as cannon fodder on social media.

The fine musicians at the fringes of art music will not put backsides on seats in the way that Mahler does. But beyond the classical music comfort zone there is an increasingly diverse society. And as that great visionary champion of new and marginal music William Glock explained, classical audiences should be offered what they will like tomorrow. Please could everyone in the classical music industry remember that.

* It is worth noting that Norman and I are almost exactly the same age. That the Little and Large of classical blogging are both at the threshold of their seventh decade probably goes a long way to explaining why classical music is failing to engage with young audiences.

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