Why is classical music selling itself short?
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows shows that the number of cases of depression among adults in Britain has doubled over the last twelve months. This means one in five people are exhibiting depressive symptoms compared with one in ten before the pandemic. Obviously an effective vaccine is needed. But, equally obviously, therapies are needed to counteract this alarming and overlooked increase in depression. In recent years authoritative neurological research has identified that classical music is medicine for the brain. Yet the classical music community is singularly failing to exploit these therapeutic powers, instead choosing to compete in the entertainment market. Why is classical music selling itself short in this way?
In a booklet interview for the recording by the Boulanger Trio of the piano trio Canto Perpetuo by Peteris Vasks the composer proposes that:
"...people go to the concert hall because they are looking for answers. Above all for a way out of their difficult, unhappy lives... We have gigantic technological developments, but the souls of people are neglected. I always ask myself how I can compose so as to bring more light into this world. That is the purpose of music".In the eight years that have passed since that interview took place the world has become an even more difficult and unhappy place. Which means the opportunity for classical music to play an important role in people's lives by supplying reassurance, if not answers, has increased. But, as a perceptive review of Naxos' superlative new recording of Valentin Silvestrov's Seventh Symphony pointed out, "What used to be utterly essential to the soul has become now merely a veneer of entertainment, a momentary diversion from more 'pressing' matters".
New research on neural plasticity and synaptic pruning has important implications for classical music. Classical music is in crisis, and more than ever needs to justify its expensive existence. However musicians are putting a lot of effort into positioning themselves as a special case requiring financial support; but they are doing a very poor job of explaining why they are a special case.
As Peteris Vasks tells us, we have gigantic technological developments, but the souls of people are neglected. Classical masterworks may not be able provide the complete answers that socially distanced audiences are looking for. But they can provide what conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee describes in the note for that priceless premiere recording of Silvestrov's Symphony* as "...the richness and beauty and depth of that which is never finally lost".
In the same note Christopher Lyndon-Gee writes that "The Seventh Symphony is at the core of everything that is memorable and deeply affecting in Silvestrov's lament for what we are still in the midst of losing. Personal loss; civilisation's loss". So why is talking-up the therapeutic power of music seen as a New Age dalliance? Why are we allowing classical music to be reprocessed as digital fast food? Isn't classical music something more than an aural Netflix? Why is classical music selling itself short?
* The words 'listen or forever remain in darkness' truly apply to this new Naxos recording of Silvestrov's Seventh Symphony and tp the coupled works including the Concertino for Piano and Small Orchestra with its moving resonances of the composer's Requiem for Larissa. This is a disc of transcendental music given transcendental interpretations by Christopher Lyndon-Gee who conducts the refreshingly celebrity-free Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and local soloists. A specific shout-out is required for the Lithuanian production team working in the Lithuanian National Cultural Centre Recording Studio who create a sound picture of text book transparency and airiness that allows Silvestrov's shimmering textures to breathe seductively. This new Naxos release puts the recent efforts of our celebrity musicians and 'big music' labels to shame. If every recent City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performance deserves five stars, Silvestrov's Seventh Symphony deserves ten.
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