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Daniel Barenboim: Classical music for all

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Will Gompertz | 12:41 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

Daniel Barenboim started our phone interview by taking the mickey. It was my accent that caught his ear; a tad plummy I suspect: "Hello my dear fellow" said the great maestro in response to my BBC welcome. Which was quickly followed by "I'm ready old fellow". Then something along the lines of "do ask a question, be a good chap".

Daniel Barenboim

I was relieved. I'm the youngest child of four, I can handle teasing, what I don't like are telephone interviews. Unaided by physical cues, they can go terribly wrong, extremely quickly. The last person I interviewed over the phone was Steve Martin and that went slightly worse than very badly.

Arts reporting is the decathlon of journalism; there is a lot of disciplines to cover and you're going to be weaker in some more than others: Daley Thompson wasn't strongest at the 1,500m; my 1,500m is cantatas and capriccios. So when the man thought by some to be the greatest pianist and conductor of his generation chooses to play the (interviewing) game in good humour, I'm delighted.

Admittedly he had something to plug - a one-off free concert on Friday night to launch three CDs - so it was in his interest to keep things friendly. But as it turned out, his warmth was genuine as was his evident frustration with classical music. Not the art form, but the narrowness of its fan-base.

He thinks classical music is intimidating, too aloof and disconnected from the masses; existing in not so splendid intellectual isolation enjoyed mainly by the aficionados who attend the world's great concert halls. "Music today has been put more and more into an ivory tower," he said. Those responsible for it had failed to keep up with technological developments - records, CDs, iTunes - which had "democratized" the western classics; while Schoenberg and Stravinsky became widely and cheaply available, "there was not the necessary accompanying actions taken in efforts of education for all these [new listeners]".

Daniel Barenboim

He says there should be a "radical change of the education system", so that "children don't just learn literature, biology, geography and history at school, but you also learn music". Because, he thinks, "through music you get over many obstacles you have in daily, normal daily life outside music".

And, he added, if people are to get something out of classical music they need to put something in:

"There's no point in telling people just go there it's so simple it will happen. That's also not true, it's not a good way. I think that people need to know that to get something out of classical music they have to really want to go there and open their ears. And really concentrate and listen and then they will really get a lot out of it."

But he's going to do his bit too: starting with the gig, in the cavernous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, which will be filled with Chopin. Barenboim on piano and five other players. He says his doing it to:

"[F]ind a new public and wanted to find the people that are curious. The people that maybe feel they don't know enough about music and don't dare to come into contact with it. And maybe through this kind of actions they will. Maybe they will come. In the end curiosity is the most important because if you are curious you will acquire the knowledge that you might not have presently."

The choice of location is deliberate. Modern art was once unpopular, looked upon with suspicion by the general public. Now they come in their millions, with open, enquiring minds: just the sort of punters Barenboim is after. It's a tactic that might work. In fact if he looks to the rise in popularity of modern art as an exemplar, it might prove more effective than formal education.

The public's change in attitude to modern art (not all of course) has not come about because of education, but because of fashion: it became hip. A mixture of some charismatic artists (from Warhol to Hirst), beguiling new spaces (Pompidou Centre, Guggenheim Bilbao, Tate Modern) and media-savvy dealers (Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch, Jay Jopling) has led to modern art forcing its way into the public consciousness. And once there, the public decided they wanted to know more.

Which led to more people visiting galleries, which led to more media coverage, which led more new buildings, which led to more public interest and so on. The success of a gallery such as Nottingham Contemporary is remarkable; in their inaugural year of 2010, they welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors to take a look at the most avant of the avant-garde.

Once at a gallery visitors can teach themselves (and in some cases their children). The knock-on effect has been more interest in all genres of art, from the Renaissance masters to the cave paintings of France. There's no reason why classical music shouldn't enjoy similar success. It's not as if there is a shortage of young talent with something interesting to say - the British composers Thomas Ades and Mark Anthony Turnage being just two examples of interesting and adventurous exponents of the art form.

Daniel Barenboim will not give up the fight on the education front, but I suspect he will have more success in achieving his aims of making his music more widely heard and understood by taking a more innovative approach. As he says:

"I'm sure that 100 years ago people who knew their Schoenberg knew their Kandinsky and the people who knew their Picasso knew their Stravinsky and that's not the case any more now. There are many people who are interested in painting who don't know and don't care anything about music and vice versa. And it's time really that we make that connection again."

I'll be there; listening and learning.


  • Comment number 1.

    Not going to name names or products but you can't be an 80s yuppy without that tell tale classical ringtone on your portable dog & bone. Oi Mars, your are looking rather fetching tonight under that pale moonlight sonata, over here rover!

  • Comment number 2.

    Barenboim is right that you have to put something in to get something out of 'classical' music. And that is even more the case with music composed in recent decades. The greatest effort in music education must be made in the very earliest school years, and perhaps should focus on 18th and 19th century classical music. But where are the teachers with an interest to do this?

    Once a childhood interest has germinated into a passion for music, young people are more likely to start listening to contemporary 'classical' music.

    But I fear that without an early exposure to music, attempts to inculcate this interest are likely to fall mostly on deaf ears - even in the temple of art at Bankside.


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