There’s a moment from my orientation week at Rice University that will be burned into my brain forever. Rice has a residential college system which essentially operates like the Harry Potter house system (that should clear things up for most people). Faculty members from across the university were all given affiliations with these colleges, often hosting dinners and attending functions to get to know students. This is how a group of freshmen came to be at a dinner table with one of the members of the Shepherd School of Music’s composition faculty. One freshman–not a music student–turned and politely asked the (very well-known and well-respected) composer next to her what he did. When he answered that he was a composer, the student exclaimed, “Oh, I love Andrew Lloyd-Webber!” The look on the the composer’s face was priceless–the total dismay I saw on his face will be filed away in my “awkward moments” memory bank for all time.
This snapshot at a dinner part many years ago is a handy synecdoche for a loud and heated internet debate that has been brewing over the past week regarding the 2012 Classic Brit Awards in–where else?–Great Britain. The Brit Awards, often shortened to the Brits, are essentially Britain’s analogue to the Grammys. Like the Grammys, the Brits focus on pop music in their main show–the one with the paparazzi, the flashy red carpet, and the big stars. Also like the Grammys, the classical awards are siphoned off into their own awards ceremony, the better to free up time for what the viewing public would rather see (read as: not classical artists). There, though, the parallels come to a sort of end. The Brit Awards have chosen to make the Classic Brit Awards a television event in the mold of the regular Brit Awards, whereas the Classical Grammys…well. There’s an awards ceremony, that’s for sure. I think I once saw footage of it many years ago. Or that may have been the technical Academy Awards.
The Classic Brit Awards have come under fire this year for what many consider to be a cheapening of classical music–the selling out of the awards to pander to a broader audience. Rock journalist Paul Morley got the ball rolling with his review of this year’s Classic Brit Awards, a no-holds-barred condemnation of what he calls the “pimped end of the pier.” The ceremony, which featured crossover/classical-pop artists such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Andrea Bocelli, and Andre Rieu, was rife with dance numbers, shiny lighting design, and television-friendly moments that relegated any resemblance to real classical music to ” an icing sugary whisper.” Says Morley, “The ceremony was the bewildered, if sparkly love child, of the Eurovision song contest and the Last Night of the Proms, with somehow a dash of the 1970s Miss World, Brucie’s Strictly Come Dancing, and William and Kate’s wedding.” On a whole, the review is not flattering. It’s not even vaguely positive. Morley writes that the CBA’s are indicative of show-biz’s takeover of classical music and the general lowering of the bar to the, well, lowest common denominator.
Morley’s remarks sparked an enthusiastic barrage of comments, many of them blog posts and reviews that thanked him for finally, in the words of the Telegraph‘s James Rhodes (also a pianist), exposing “the Classic Brit Awards as a sickening crime against classical music.” Highlight reels abound on various blogs around the internet, and the reels do seem to show us an awards show that is heavy on pageantry and very, very–really, very–light on real music. The end result, according to Morley (and those who share his viewpoint) is that “end result was that the music and its spectacular history would be used only as a back drop to showbiz shenanigans, the baking of cup-cakes, the running of Dulux dogs, the special effect hurling of film fantasy, the knighting of Barlow, the winning of medals, the mummifying of Katherine Jenkins and the deification of Lloyd-Webber.”
Others, like the Huffington Posts’s Paul Kilbey, take a slightly different view. In his tellingly-titlted article, “The Classic Brits Are Not What’s Wrong with Classical Music,” Kilbey agrees that “to be sure, [there is] plenty which is completely deplorable about the Classic Brits and the dim, platitudinous light in which they cast music. It’s obvious that any music ceremony which involves Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Titchmarsh and Gary Barlow is pretty low on cred,” but he takes issue with Rhodes’s and Moley’s vitriol, arguing that, really no one takes them seriously anyway. Instead, he argues that “classical music is obsessed with the past to the point that it believes in its own death – or at least it’s sufficiently concerned about its health to feel threatened by an event as irrelevant as the Classic Brits. The best way – the only way, in fact – to promote classical music for the future is to actively celebrate the huge amounts of brilliant, original and worthwhile music which is still being written. This is why I believe in the future of classical music, and it’s why I couldn’t care much less about the Classic Brits.”
From the outbreak of posts about this year’s awards, it seems that the Classic Brits have caused quite a bit of a stink. Regardless of which side you come down on (I’m more of a Morley/Rhodes type of stickler for the no-frills and no-drama tradition), there still lies a pretty important question to be answered on our side of the pond: is it better to have a pageant than no show at all? Many of us still remember Greg Sandow’s February article about “Why the classical Grammys don’t matter,” and few of us even see or hear about them in a meaningful way. So the question is this: do we deplore the selling out of a classical awards show or do we applaud its intention and desire to bring classical music to the masses?
Or perhaps the better question is this: why don’t we have a classical awards show and ceremony done right? It’s hard to even imagine what that would look like or how it would work, but the Brit controversy shows us two things very clearly. The first is that we all want a way to recognize the excellence in our community and to share it with those outside of it in a way that will be meaningful to everyone. The second is that we have no real idea of how to do it…yet.