By now, it’s no secret that these are hard economic times. It’s also no secret that hard artistic times follow hard economic times, because, at the end of the day, everybody needs to eat. The past few years have been marked with a slew of high-profile collapses on the classical music scene, ranging from long-established orchestras to smaller ensembles to budget cuts within arts societies, and it’s easy to get the uneasy sense that the Grim Reaper may be hovering somewhere in the background, just waiting for classical music to roll over and die. The Reaper may be waiting for some time, though, since classical music has borne the economic strain with remarkable resiliency, proving that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. As the big institutions have had their brushes with death, the themes of reinvention and relevance have become prominent ones in the community. Because audiences no longer have the disposable income they once did, it takes more of an effort to get concert-goers to, well, concert-go. The sink-or-swim tone of the times have brought out some of the grit in classical music organizations and in the classical scene, and the desire to continue producing music and art has elicited some big creative efforts from musicians around the world, which has in turn led to something of a quiet but powerful revolution on the classical scene. In the shadows of the weakening classical institutions, a whole new class of young, fresh, and self-starting projects has grown, and the current scene in the United Kingdom is a thriving example of how an economic downturn has produced a rich new flora of musical undergrowth.
In the past five to ten years, the classical scene in the United Kingdom has gradually turned away from big-name, long-standing institutions and has instead fostered a strong group of independent classical start-ups, many of which are centered in London. Groups such as the Aurora Ensemble and the London Contemporary Orchestra feature talented young players of the current generation playing challenging repertoire and doing it well. Similarly, and even somewhat more remarkably, London also plays host to a fairly strong grassroots opera scene, which features such companies as OperaUpClose, Go Opera, and the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre. These groups are just a representative handful of all of the various new, indie, grassroots, or crossover-type groups that are currently populating London’s classical music scene, and they have over the past decade or so gained a substantial foothold in the musical consciousness in the city. The foothold is so substantial that a critic from the New York Times has dubbed the new guard in London “alt-classical,” an epithet reflective of the new movement’s roots in both the traditional and the alternative.
This past weekend saw the opening of the Reverb Festival in Camden, UK. The Reverb Festival is essentially a culmination of the efforts on the alt-classical scene, and it features five concerts on the themes of truce and love, as presented by some of the star players of the self-made classical movement. This year marks the second year of the Reverb Festival, and its inaugural year in 2010 drew very healthy crowds of concert-goers. This year’s festival was expected to be as, if not more, popular than last year’s, due in part to the popularity of the groups featured and the interest level in the programming. An article in the UK’s “The Independent” wrote this in reflection on the Reverb Festival:
Reverb’s probable success, indeed its existence at all, signals a shift in the complexion of live classical music in London. Recognising that punters want to be challenged in the concert hall, as in the art gallery or the theatre, promoters have ditched safe educative programming in favour of innovation. The never-ending pursuit of young audiences now coalesces around cross art-form collaboration, informality and artistic boldness – characteristics that groups like Aurora, LCO and Nonclassical specialise in. The big beasts of classical music, meanwhile, can’t afford to stand still even though the market is strong. From the top symphony orchestras to the leading venues, live classical music (even the sonically challenging contemporary kind) is, by all accounts, doing pretty well. But senior artists and administrators will no doubt be watching the march of the Young Turks. Whether it’s being able to take a pint into a concert or the expectation that artists are going to present their set as well as perform it, young ensembles, classical club nights and pop-up opera companies are moving the goalposts for what is expected of live classical music.
While the current economic and social climate has created a time of uncertainty for classical organizations, it has arguably done much to bolster its chances for future success by forcing organizations to re-think, re-assess, and re-tool to survive. A recent article in “The Economist” noted that “After years of generous funding, many theatres and dance troupes are better placed to face adversity than before. The cuts will leave some groups crippled but most in fighting form, particularly those that are soundly run.” While the field is now a rapidly moving target with a rapidly changing face, it’s creating a theater in which we can watch the next stage of evolution come to fruition. In other words, the time has never been riper for new, fresh, and self-made classical ideas–and it’s never been a better time to make a mark in the classical world.