The Wish list


9 things I'd like to see happening in Classical muSIC in 2018


Here in Spain, the gifts arrive on the 6th of January. I wasn't really sure what to put on my wish list, so I wrote down a few things I hope the Reyes Magos would consider for 2018. Lets see if I was a good boy and they listen to some of this.



In his 2018 budget, Donald Trump finally delivered on an old republican proposal and cut the the funding for the US public broadcasters NPR and PBS to 0. Over the last years there has been an ongoing debate at the role of public broadcasting in many countries and many western countries have severely cut down or eliminated the role of public broadcasting. Many of them closed their orchestras and reduced their cultural programming. And in March 2018, the Swiss will hold a referendum about the "No Billag" bill, eliminating all public funding for broadcasting.

Apart from news and journalism, public broadcasting is also an important tool in making culture (and knowledge about culture) more democratically available. Let's  get it straight: Journalism and culture are public goods. Their benefit is not just for the people who pay for them, but for anybody. Balanced media coverage and culture help to understand the world around us. They allow people to take part in the democratic process and to think critically and freely. Let's keep it that way.



Today we live amongst the most talented generation of young musicians that was ever around. They have not just become technically much better, but musically and aesthetically much more open and multi-faceted. many of them grew up with great orchestral and other musical experiences and many of them have a natural approach to contemporary music, historic performance practice and other musical styles.

Young musicians form excellent ensembles, groups, orchestras and often combine different musical activities like composing, playing, improvising or cross-genre experimentation. They make the music scene so much wider and diverse than just a few years ago. But they work often in bad conditions, with ultra-low (or no) fees and no security to continue and develop their ideas. In the music scene (and the performing arts scene in general), there is a massive difference between the job security and financial conditions in big institutions and the absolute insecurity and lack of funding in the free music scene. 

We should give these young people at least enough back-up to make life as a performer without a big full-time position possible. There are many young musicians who want to combine different musical activities and it is  important that we can first of all support them and second offer them flexible contracts . We need their talent, their free spirit and their open-mindedness in the classical music scene just as much as they need the security to develop their own artistic ideas. 



We have more documentation than ever about the performance history of the classical repertoire. There are more recordings and documents available than ever. But what does this do to the way we perform music? It narrows down the range of what is seen as acceptable more than ever before. The interpretations of the great repertoire of the past become ever more similar. In fact, the most unusual developments in classical music performance over the last decades were driven by recordings and non-institutional groups that had time to research, experiment and rehearse.

When one looks back in music history reading the letters of travelling composers and performers, one gets an idea about the enormous difference between interpretations, be it the length of performance, orchestral sizes and layouts, locals customs of style and phrasing, or just simply individual differences in reading a work.

While i also believe in  musical Darwinism up to a certain point (as in the survival of the fittest interpretations of a work),  I think there is not enough risk (or opportunity for risk) in nowadays performances (and I am talking about myself just as much, here). In the 19th and 18th century there was less performance history available, so there was a bigger reliance on contemporary habits and individual opinions. Nowadays, it's the other way around. There is endless recorded evidence that sometimes gets in the way of radically individual approaches. But we owe our public something unique when they enter a concert hall, so let's not shy away from doing something radical and unique just because we're getting some bad reactions or crap reviews. Classical music needs more raised eyebrows.



Recently, I heard a school orchestra play and the kids were all pure energy and commitment. But the repertoire they played was such rubbish!! The same goes for many children's and family concerts where the Pokemon Theme Tune is being played alongside some other dumb arrangements.

This is a call for composers just as much as for educators, conductors and musicians: Kids are small - that doesn't mean they are stupid. Give them some good stuff and they will respond.



I've talked about this before, but in terms of research, I think we can learn a lot from museums who have to show their collections in ever more creative ways in order for their public to make sense and to interact with them.

In my work as a conductor I am still part of programming conversations like: "We haven't played this Beethoven symphony for two years, so it's time we do it again." While I think it's important that orchestras cultivate the big historic repertoire and keep it alive for their audiences, I think this kind of thinking doesn't dig the hole quite deep enough. What about: Why do we play a piece, what does it have to say to the audience and how we can get the public to engage with it in a more direct way?

It is no good just to rely on historic significance or habit - if music doesn't speak to us any more, it's time to close the concert halls and move to other forms of artistic expression. But in fact, it has more to say than ever. And our time needs all the music it can get.



There are many more composers underrepresented in the concert programs, so these are just five. The reasons why these composers show up too rarely are all different. Claude Vivier didn't write much for orchestra, as did Janacek. And Haydn is nowadays mostly left to period-instrument groups and chamber orchestras (as a lot of other music before 1800). In fact, most orchestras nowadays play more Shostakovich than Haydn. I think this is madness and we have to reclaim this amazing repertoire. 



There are still some people around in the classical music who come out with all sorts of ridiculous prejudice and misogyny. There is no place for this, and it does a lot of damage to Classical Music. When I was a tutor in Conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music we had every year more than a hundred applications for the Conducting course, but never more than a few young women applied. Maybe around 10%.

Fact is, no guy conducts with his penis. The big majority of us don't share these views, but we all still suffer the consequences of the dinosaur attitudes: Classical Music being perceived as backwards, conservative, narrow-minded and just generally a thing of the past.



Modern concert halls have optimised the way to listen to music. But they have also standardised it. The same goes for orchestral layouts. Every piece is played in the same setup which makes it easier for an orchestra to play together, but it sometimes takes away from the  way in which it was conceived .

In the twentieth century, composers have tried to use different spatial configurations for their works, sometimes even directly related to the buildings they were played in (Nono- Prometeo, Boulez - Répons, Stockhausen - Gruppen etc.). But there are many spatial considerations in older repertoire too, and, in fact, there was never a standard orchestral setup.

An example,  is the last movement of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, where the beginning is first played in some dialogue between first and second violins (and violas and celli) and, when it comes back at letter G, in a straighter, more linear version. If the first and second violins sit behind each other, this difference is completely lost. In practice though, unfortunately, it is often impossible to play different pieces in different layouts, or to play around with the spatial aspects of a performance.

A few years ago, we played Nielsen's 5th symphony with the doom-bringing drummer (Peter Kates)  walking right up in front of the orchestra, with his drum strapped around the neck. There are many more examples, like Vladimir Ashkenazi's dispersed cowbells in the "Alpine Symphony" or Simon Rattle's staging of the Bach Passions with Peter Sellars and the Berlin Phil. Our way of listening evolves and there is no reason why we shouldn't try and make the three-dimensional aspects of a composer's thinking part of our interpretations.



I think we are quite good at programming what the public wants to hear. But everybody can listen  to what they want all the time - on YouTube, or Spotify or many other places. Or you can read anything you want, all the news, the tweets and the Facebook posts. And you know what? People end up reading just what they like and ignoring all the rest. We get the world through our own filter, and don't even know about what else is there.

So, let's hear it for the unusual, for the weird, the thoughtful, the deep, the  impenetrable, the different or the strange. Maybe for something really beautiful that nobody has ever heard of. Or for a different way of seeing something familiar. If we make a convincing case for the music we believe in and the interpretation we think is right, then music can become a tool for critical thinking and engaged listening. 

There is enough populism around these days, so let's keep it at least out of the concert halls.