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Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti has criticised the classical music industry’s tendency to dismiss current audiences as ageing or old. In Canada to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the 29 year old gave an interview to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about the misconceptions attached to classical music, and how it can attract new audiences.
“I think one thing to get wrong is to criticise the audience for being old, as if that’s negative. I can’t believe how terrible that is and how offensive it is to categorise a group in that way and to encourage a generation gap in that way”, Benedetti responded when broadcaster Tom Power asked what the public gets wrong when discussing classical music.
Critical of the idea that “we have to ‘do’ something” about ageing audiences, Benedetti added “I think it’s a beautiful thing if people get to a stage in their life where they are maybe retired and have worked hard and brought up their family… It’s a really nice thing to do on an evening – to go and see a symphony, to discover new music. That type of silence and focus that exists within a concert hall is something sacred”.
In a 2013 think piece for Limelight, Australian violinist Kristian Winther agreed, highlighting the pleasure he gets playing for 'older' audiences. "My jazz muso friends sometimes ask me what it’s like to perform looking out into a sea of people twice or thrice my age; to live a life surrounded by the elderly," he said. "I tell them it’s incredibly rewarding to play music that is 200 years old, on a 200-year-old instrument for 50-year-olds who are finding something completely new to them that enriches their lives, or for 70-plus-year-olds who’ve seen it all yet who, in these twilight years, still can’t get enough of Beethoven and Mozart. When performer and audience share the experience of a Brahms slow movement in a concert hall, we’re all older and wiser for it, just as a Mendelssohn scherzo makes us all giddy children again, whether we’re Boomers, Beliebers or Gen-Y. When we play and listen to classical music, age is no boundary."
Pianist Stephen Hough expressed similar feelings in an article for The Telegraph (UK) in 2015. After playing Beethoven for an audience comprised of senior citizens, he wrote “with old age comes wisdom, patience, subtlety and contemplation – all qualities needed to appreciate great and complex music”.
Benedetti, who shot to fame after being made BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004, also spoke about the disconnect between how she and her colleagues feel about classical music and how it is more generally received. “The perception of classical music being something that you fall asleep to or is sort of bland and distant, there’s no escaping that, it is something a lot of people feel, like it’s peaceful, it’s unobtrusive. But for most classical musicians, we see and feel the most extreme drama in this music, and extreme colours and expressions and human emotion. And that’s always a little alien to us, how can this not translate?”
When asked what it takes to get more people interested in the genre, Benedetti said, “when the exposure of the music is right, the environment is right and is welcoming enough. It’s not so much for me about what people wear [but] I’m not necessarily a huge fan of making everything about the concert hall as casual as possible, because there’s an intensity to the music itself and the fact that it’s not amplified means it’s of a certain volume that requires this collective focus and I think that’s an amazing thing”.
“But to encourage people into that space in their mind where they’re with you, on the stage, they’re really participating as listeners: lots of little things can be done to help that process, but I think expose everybody to it from a young age, expose it as from the perspective of a listener. Get kids to make up some story to The Firebird. It’s not that hard. My experience is never kids being bored by classical music, never, and I do these types of things all the time”.
On why classical music should have a stronger presence in schools, Benedetti said “music allows you to deal with the more invisible parts of yourselves, thoughts and feelings, and communication with others. Those things end up being some of the most important to us when all’s said and done”.
Listen to Nicola Benedetti's interview here.