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The Bach Choir is giving its newest recruit Toby Spence, the international tenor, free range in his role as trustee, to explore new ways of exciting and building audiences for classical music.
The Bach Choir, one of the world’s leading choruses, has sung in prestigious venues around the UK, collaborated with the Rolling Stones, and worked on blockbuster films including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Forthcoming concerts take place on 6th March (Nelson Mass) and the18th March (St Matthew) at the Royal Festival Hall.
Toby Spence explains what he has in mind:
“For the past two years I have been a member of a panel organised and funded by New York University (NYU). Its purpose is to consider the issues facing classical music in the contemporary world and project ways in which classical music can reach wider and younger audiences.
The panel is made up of about 20 people comprising composers, musicians, critics, academics and arts administrators from around the world. The discussion, being made in confidence, can become emotional and combative. It is a subject matter of deep concern to all panel members and passions can run high.
During the meetings I have observed patterns in the discourse that raise questions for me. The panel can be divided into professional musicians and non-professional musicians or, more practically, those who make a living from classical music and those who make a living elsewhere. Most concerning for me is that when a non-professional musician asks a question or puts forward an idea, a response comes from the musical professionals akin to “You just don’t understand” or “We tried that but it’s just not that simple”.
At the end of a recent meeting during which the discussion had all but stalled, one of the research academics who provide support for the meetings asked the panel to each submit a piece of blue-sky thinking of what a future performance space might look like, albeit fantastical or improbable. I saw excitement and enthusiasm for her idea in the faces of the non-musicians but I was dispirited by the stony-faced groan that emitted from the music professionals.
I’m sympathetic to the jaded response because I know classical music administrators spend their lives making bricks with precious little straw and don’t have the luxury of the seemingly limitless resources enjoyed by American universities to take on bold experiments that run the risk of failure. That aside, I’m interested in what non-professional musicians and enthusiasts have to contribute to the way we perform and appreciate classical music. Broadly speaking, audiences are wasting away while musicians and the institutions that support them fail to stem the tide of attrition.
The Bach Choir approached me a year ago to enquire whether I might be interested in joining their board of trustees. Before accepting the invitation, I wanted to be sure that I could carve a niche for myself whereby I could be of use to them and not simply a member who shows up to meetings occasionally and raises a finger to carry a motion.
The c250 members of The Bach Choir each pay a relatively small annual membership fee to present prestigious concerts in and around London for which they rehearse in Central London every week. A small group of knowledgeable members, including the conductor David Hill and the choir’s general manager, meet occasionally to consider future repertoire and venue ideas.
I elected to join the programming group and at my first meeting put forward an idea that the members of the choir should be given the opportunity to contribute additional content to the concerts in the form of spoken word or anything that can augment the audience’s understanding of the music being performed. To my delight, the members of the planning group leapt at the idea and 30 minutes later I found myself addressing the choir at a rehearsal. I invited volunteers to join me in a discussion about what could be added to a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s brilliant score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky.
The response was better than I could have hoped. Sixteen volunteers stepped forward, among them a barrister-turned-playwright, a television producer, historians, archivists and presenters. In our first meeting ideas poured forth and a possible shape quickly began to emerge. The group was divided into researchers, writers and presenters. A game soprano who had recently joined the choir and happens to be a budding theatre director was elected leader.
This experiment is my attempt to see what amateur enthusiasts can do to bring classical music closer to its audience. For the time being I have given the group carte blanche to script and present their ideas and there is a buzz of excitement around the work in hand. The first rehearsals for their extra content will begin soon and the concert will be presented at the Royal Festival Hall in conjunction with the Philharmonia Orchestra on 3rd May 2018.”