Galas and damp squibs

Galas, jamborees, pageants, functions, ceremonies – can’t stand them, generally. Just not my cup of tea; certainly not my glass of champagne. However, I would never deny or underestimate the importance of those occasions: the social ritual to endorse an activity, the marking of beginnings and ends, the sense of celebration to make people feel things are worthwhile and, yes, to encourage them to donate money to keep the things going.

When it comes to classical music gala concerts, there are often reasons aplenty to share my dislike: over-familiar repertory, music packaged for easy-listening, and above all a formality of dress and behaviour that sends out completely the wrong message to people who enjoy classical music, but have the impression that concert hall “rituals” are intimidating or unfriendly – much hard work has been done to rectify the reception concert halls give to newcomers, yet one event can still destroy that goodwill overnight.

State funding of classical music in Europe, however scant, means in any case that lavish events for wealthy donors are not a commonplace philanthropic ritual across the season – at least compared to the U.S.A., where orchestras and opera companies rely heavily on fundraising events for a portion of their basic income.

But in London particularly, there seems a peculiar absence of celebration of classical music culture. Maybe not so peculiar, given the ignorance and laziness of mainstream media, and the philistine anti-intellectualism of most social and political leaders. Most other capital cities which had the combined talents of Salonen, Jurowski, Oramo, Rattle (soon), Wigglesworth, of the players in the five major symphony orchestras, of the opera company members, and of all the other resident ensembles and musicians, would have a little old-fashioned civic pride about the quality and range of culture within their domain – and would make some effort to tell people.

That London doesn’t, means that music seasons here generally slip in unnoticed. Not, obviously, by regular concert-goers keen to return to their favourite venues and players – but in any broader sense of public awareness. It’s partly complicated by the number of halls and ensembles: a rondo of gala opening nights across multiple venues, orchestras and companies would grow tiresome (and expensive), even though the cumulative effect could generate powerful publicity if it were coordinated.

We might look across the Atlantic at the New York Philharmonic opening gala concert this Thursday 24th September (Lang Lang in Greig, plus Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, all conducted by Alan Gilbert) and shake our heads at the ticket prices (£51 minimum up to £167, including a champagne reception with the performers) – but then consider that the concert is sold out, and being broadcast live and streamed on WQXR radio.

Then we look at the Southbank Centre’s classical music season opening concert this Wednesday 23rd September (Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler’s 7th Symphony), note with relief that the ticket prices are as normal for classical music concerts in London (from £4.50 for concessions, or £9, up to £65, ie cheaper as a range of prices than most other cultural, popular or sporting events) – and then, two days before the concert, wonder why less than half the seats in the Royal Festival Hall have been sold and the live concert on BBC Radio 3 that evening is from a rival concert hall with an orchestra that opened its season a week previously.

It’s obviously difficult and expensive to promote one-off events in a city as full of culture as London, and it’s never entirely clear why some concerts sell-out and others (even with top performers and repertory) fail to garner an audience. But an effort can still be made, and in this case it seems almost as if the Southbank Centre has lost interest in marketing, publicising and celebrating what used to be the principal activity at the premier concert hall (at least for the moment) in the capital.

A half-empty hall is always a depressing sight, dampening the atmosphere for audience members, and a poor reward for the performers. But worse, there’s a missed opportunity this Wednesday. The opening concert of a season should always be a celebration – an evening that is anticipated, discussed, and enjoyed, an event that sets the scene for all the concerts to follow, and an unambiguous reminder that classical music is of essential cultural value. It can’t be any of that without a little touch of the gala and a large amount of publicity, neither of which seem in evidence this week.