Saturday, March 6, 2010

Emanuel Ax And The State of Classical Music in Britain


Last night, I had the privilege of seeing Emanuel Ax in recital at the Barbican.  It was, suffice to say, the highlight of my week.  Although I grew up idolizing child prodigies closer to my age like Evgeny Kissin and Joshua Bell, I knew that Ax was one of the greatest authorities in terms of technique and interpretation of a piece and would always reach for a recording of his when working on a new piece, seeking his advice if only by ear.  

Hence my surprise when I saw that tickets were still available for his (mostly) Chopin-filled recital at the Barbican.  I booked two cheapish (£17) but relatively good circle seats for myself and John as soon as possible.  But nothing could have prepared me for the shock when I arrived at the hall ten minutes prior to the performance:


Empty seats all around.  Although some stragglers made their way in after the first piece (Chopin, Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61) it was absolutely shocking and indeed shameful, that an artist like Ax hadn't filled the seats - if it had been Carnegie Hall, tickets would have gone in an instant.  Even the Tacoma Symphony commands a full house, regardless of the presence of a celebrity musician such as Ax.  Growing up, I remember listening to Classic KING FM 98.1 and turning it up whenever a concert was announced at Benaroya Hall (home to the Seattle Symphony), wishing I could afford to go, as tickets almost always began at $60.  Here, you can almost always purchase tickets for less than a price of a pizza (around £10-£15) and yet hardly anyone takes advantage of this.  It makes me sad.  

I've spent a lot of time thinking about why this is and I still don't have an answer.  One hypothesis is the possible link between classical music and social class: it seems to me that in England, listening to or enjoying classical music is reserved for the middle to upper classes and that funding is difficult to come by because the government is unwilling to pour money into an "elitist" hobby.  Piano and violin lessons for your child is seen as "posh" whereas in the States, such an upbringing is considered to be the norm.  Social class may also explain the age group of the crowd last night and at most concerts I've attended - 50 and up.  I peered down from the balcony last night and could only see row after row of white-haired ladies and gentlemen, clearly season subscribers.  While this is wonderful, it disappoints me that such recitals and concerts don't attract a younger crowd as well.  And yet this doesn't make sense to me, because the tickets are perfectly affordable compared to the ones in the US.  Well, as long as the opportunities are made available to me, I know I won't take them for granted. 

(The recital was amazing, by the way).


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