Elitism for all
Last night I had one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life when the Feinstein Ensemble and the Bach Singers gave a one-off performance of Bach’s monumental St Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn said it was the finest of all Christian compositions, and my thought as I left Kings Place was a that he could have dropped the “Christian”.
Martin Feinstein and his Baroque players, with a cohort of eight singers – at one point I thought the tenor Charles Daniels was going to be transported heavenwards in his ecstasy – recarved the monument to add even more drama and excitement. It shouldn’t have been possible, but they did it. This was art at its apogee, from Bach’s “Great Passion” as his family called it to the gymnastics of the musicians and the mind of the arranger who could meet Bach’s to make this glorious thing. And the players know they didn’t have to dress up for this, it makes no difference, and apart from the lady singers who cannot sing with cold knees they were in their sombre casuals
The hall was perfect for it, but it seats only 420 and it wasn’t full. Tickets were mostly £50 - £60, not cheap by period music standards and, for me, worth every penny. But it’s within the range of increasingly few, and these were largely grey pounds being spent. The young deserve some of this joy.
So is this elitist art? Probably, in that it’s the best there is and not many people had the opportunity to experience it (and I’m not going into the great cost of putting on an event like this, from which the hall makes practically nothing). The Feinsteins, whose nit-picking attention to baroque detail even to moving the players around the stage during the performance to get exactly the right effect for a particular instant, haven’t recorded it so you can’t even get the thrill second hand.
For that, we need to revive sponsorship. There’s no kudos in business support for performances like this or potential recordings of it, Kings Place have the devil’s job getting corporate interest in what it does, but the notion of corporate responsibility is being raised again (see AI 340) and has to be encouraged by whatever fiscal inducements there might be to get private funding to de-elitise art like this.
The big arts organisations can do their bit too, as the Arts Council is telling them, and the Royal Opera House is one. It’s rolling out one of the most accessible of operas, The Magic Flute, to 1,500 cinemas for the first time ever – though why one-off live performance is followed by just one “encore” four days later I’m at a total loss to know – followed by Richard Jones new La Bohème, the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker, David McVicar’s Rigoletto and so on for an unprecedented 12 Covent Garden productions in Oliver Mears’s first season as opera director.
A hallmark of this first season is the co-productions and the off-site presentations for the art organisation perceived as the most elitist of all. Four premieres of ROH productions will happen outside Covent Garden to reach different non-elitist audiences - at the Barbican, The Roundhouse, Wilton’s Music Hall, Milton Court (all London, I know, but with the local funding crisis reaching ever new heights this is a Roman construction situation) – with new partners, co-commissions and co-productions.
I’m privileged in that I live in London where events like last night’s happen more than anywhere else, and I can go through the rest of my life pitying the millions who weren’t able to be at Hall 1 at Kings Place last night, even though it means I will have to explain what it meant to uncomprehending people who couldn’t possibly know. We have to find more ways of ensuring that elite art is accessible to the non-elite.