What's wrong with the classical concert experience?
Ahead of his immersive production of Handel's Messiah, conductor Gregory Batsleer explains why he wants to change the way we present classical music
If you picture a classical music concert, the average person will come up with an image of instrumentalists in old-fashioned evening wear, badly lit concert halls, and older audiences politely clapping at the end of their favourite Brahms or Haydn symphonies.
For some, this might be the perfect night out. Audiences still turn up to concerts (well, some do), and many of history’s greatest composers still have their music heard in concert halls and now car parks across the world. And we can’t forget that this is truly great music. We wouldn’t be listening to Handel’s Messiah 300 years after it was written if it wasn’t.
But for the vast majority of the population in 2022, classical music is regarded as dull and stuffy. It is not a form of entertainment that most people can relate to, let alone spend money on. Nor is the traditional live concert experience an environment that will inspire them.
Attending even the most exhilarating performances of classical music in the usual live concert setting makes me wonder if this beloved art from – this wonderfully odd, old-sounding music written predominantly by dead white men, quite often about a Christian God – does actually have any meaning in today’s society. Are we in ‘the industry’ fibbing when we all proclaim that classical music is for everyone?
Whether we like it or not, we are in a social media- and image-driven age. The pace of the world is faster than ever and entertainment, which is what classical music was originally there to be, needs to match this speed. We are, more than ever, in need of entertaining; we are seeking ways to escape and find ways to collectively work through this most unsettling moment in our history. Classical music could, and should, be at the centre of this.
I became hooked on ‘classical music’ at the age of nine, when I joined my school choir. I have remained obsessed ever since, and it has shaped who I am today. It is classical music that has provided a soundtrack to my life. I think this is fundamentally because classical music, when put within a space in which we feel secure with it, can enable those who dare, to change your life.
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My own experiences give me confidence to stand up for the belief that this so-called ‘classical music’ does in fact have some magical powers. Therefore, it must be something about the way it is experienced that is causing such lack of interest and engagement from people outside our own echo-chamber.
There is nothing wrong with classical music. This is about how we present it. The job of those involved in classical music is very clear: look at the world outside – and respond to it.
We can’t continue to make the performance of this music a precious museum piece. We need to put this life-changing music into settings and environments with the visual and sensual enhancements that a culturally thirsty and inquisitive population expects.
This isn’t about dumbing down the music or neglecting the composer’s intention. It’s about responding to the times in which we live, which is what all the great composers were doing when they wrote their pieces in the first place. I have no doubt that most of those composers would have approved of any exciting new approaches to performing their music, and to making it as appealing as possible for wider audiences.
It is for this very reason that we have formed Classical Everywhere, a new classical music company dedicated to thinking about things and doing things differently. We create classical music experiences – not concerts. We present gigs and we present events.
We put some of the greatest music and greatest musicians at the very centre of what we do: then we add lighting, projection, dance and more to create something totally new which will awaken all the senses, and will entertain and captivate everyone everywhere in today’s world.
Gregory Batsleer conducts Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 6 December 2022. Performers include Danielle de Niese, Nicky Spence, English Chamber Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus.
Information and tickets at immersivehandelsmessiah.com
Find out more about Classical Everywhere at classicaleverywhere.com
Pictured top: a snapshot render of one of the animated projections that will form the backdrop of Handel's Messiah: The Live Experience. Pic: Flora Fauna Vision
PLUS: In the Christmas issue of BBC Music Magazine, clarinettist and conductor Martin Fröst discusses his adventures on four exhilarating programmes combining music, live visuals and light shows – and how he hopes to challenge the ‘long grey line’ of traditional programming.
Our Christmas issue goes on sale on 29 November
Gregory Batsleer is a choral conductor, who currently serves as chorus director of both the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus. He has also served as director of the Hallé Youth Choir (2008–11) and director of choirs at Manchester University (2009–13). Beyond classical music, Gregory has worked with acts including Elbow, New Order, James, Clean Bandit, and Damon Albarn.