Are concert halls giving musicians with disabilities a fair opportunity?
Richard Morrison's April 2018 column following Nick van Bloss's accusations of discrimination
Pianist Nick van Bloss has responded to this column in the November issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale now.
Not often are six British orchestras simultaneously accused of discrimination. So the pianist Nick van Bloss caused a stir when he announced that he had written to the Hallé, Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Bournemouth Symphony and City of Birmingham Symphony demanding to know why they haven’t given him a concerto date, after apparently hearing rumours that they were put off by his ‘backstory’.
His backstory is simple. He has Tourette syndrome. Since childhood (he is now 50) he has been afflicted by 30,000 tics and spasms each day. He battled his way through the Royal College of Music in the 1980s and embarked on a career that was cut short when, in the middle of a piano competition, severe tics stopped him from playing for the first time in his life.
After a 15-year hiatus he returned to public performance in 2009, and has regularly produced well-received recordings since then. However, apart from Wigmore Hall, concert dates at major venues in this country have been hard to find. Hence his decision, encouraged by his outspoken manager, to go public with his complaint.
Unsurprisingly, they have denied his accusation. Nobody is reaching for a lawyer yet, and nor should they, but there is anger at his suggestion that he has been rejected because of his condition. According to the orchestras, he was merely unsuccessful in a process that sees hundreds of top-class pianists vying for the same concerto dates.
Indeed, John Summers, the Hallé’s chief executive, says that he was unaware of Van Bloss’s disability when he listened to recordings of his playing. ‘To be blunt,’ Summers concludes, ‘we didn’t feel he was at the level we were looking for, in comparison with the very many pianists we are offered.’
End of story? I’m not sure. Presumably this very public disagreement has made Van Bloss more famous, and therefore more marketable. He may well pick up concert dates on the back of it. But will those bookings be made on the strength of his talent, or because some promoters think his disability has made him a box-office draw – a kind of novelty act?
The very question sounds cynical, but I remember reviewing concerts by David Helfgott after his mental breakdown and by Derek Paravicini, the autistic, blind British pianist. Both events made me feel deeply uncomfortable. They seemed exploitative. I would hate Van Bloss to be paraded in this way and then discarded when public curiosity faded.
However, this episode raises broader questions about the opportunities and exposure given to highly talented musicians who suffer from mental illness or physical disability. We can all think of famous instances which seem to disprove the hypothesis that the disabled get a bad deal from the music profession – but there are actually very few of them. The profoundly deaf Dame Evelyn Glennie springs to mind, of course. So does Itzhak Perlman who overcame childhood polio to become one of the most admired of 20th-century violinists; and Nicholas McCarthy, the British one-handed pianist who has taken his inspiration from the great Paul Wittgenstein, for whom many of the 20th century’s greatest composers wrote works after his arm was amputated in a First World War field hospital.
And there’s the British Paraorchestra, founded for disabled musicians in 2012 by the conductor Charles Hazlewood, whose own daughter has cerebral palsy. Over the past six years, that has provided a showcase for such astonishing players as the paralysed trumpeter Clarence Adoo and the cerebral palsy sufferer Lyn Levett, who plays a kind of sonic force-field beautifully with her nose.
It’s good news that, from this month, the Paraorchestra becomes one of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisations, meaning it gets regular funding. It’s not good news that the group’s mission – ‘to redefine what an orchestra can be’, and particularly to work towards disabled people being integrated into ‘normal’ musical life – seems almost as far from being achieved now as when the ensemble started.
All the orchestras targeted by Van Bloss point out that they run excellent outreach programmes involving disabled, disadvantaged and mentally ill people. That’s not quite the same thing as accepting disabled musicians as orchestral members and soloists. If Van Bloss achieves nothing else, he has pricked consciences about how rarely you see the disabled playing a regular part in professional musical life.
Richard Morrison is chief music critic and a columnist of The Times. This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine.