Beyond Covid-199:32, 16th July 2020
Gillian Moore, director of music at Southbank Centre, explores how classical music can serve a changed world
It’s only when things are lost that we start to see their true worth. Art has always been the fabric of our society. It teaches us about where we’ve come from and it helps us make sense of the world.
Over the past few months the world has woken up. Through the Covid-19 crisis and the urgent energy of the Black Lives Matters movement, we have been reminded once again of the structural inequalities that continue to keep so many members of our communities down. It’s very easy for us to speak about equity in the arts, but another thing to truly live it. If this period of closure has given me anything, it’s a refreshed commitment to the belief that art is for all and an renewed desire to bring radical and sustained change.
It’s become increasingly clear how interconnected the global classical music world is. It’s a complex ecology, which has been refined over the years to deliver annual, international programming cycles, as well as educational, wellbeing and community programmes which, we know, make a real difference to people outside those who already know that they love classical music.
Indeed, when this crisis began, I don’t think any of us could have fully foreseen the grave financial, emotional and existential consequences that the pandemic would bring. As the UK braced itself for lockdown, we at Southbank Centre made preparations to close our doors. Open 10am-11pm, seven days a week, for every day of every year, it seemed unimaginable that we would go on to be shut off from our audiences so suddenly and for so long.
Anyone who knows and loves our site attests to its unique role in the cultural life of London, bringing in over 4.45million visitors every year who come for the Southbank Centre atmosphere as well as the music and art. As I wrote in The Spectator just last month: ‘It’s that rare example in London of a true civic space: a social and artistic hub; a place where people can spend time without having to spend money; where they can work, meet up, sing in choirs, dance, discover fledgling bands, visit the National Poetry Library, let their children play in a fountain designed by an artist.’
And that’s even before we get to the performers, the musicians, and the orchestras. Eight world-leading orchestras call us home and for generations now, have shown us year-in-year-out the truly transformative value of the live concert. They have delivered ground-breaking education programmes and have pushed our genre into the digital age. There was so much in store for the remainder of the Southbank Centre’s 19/20 classical season: welcoming Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as part of his European goodbye tour; seeing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting a weekend of the music of Varèse; marvelling as Anoushka Shankar played a tribute concert to her father Ravi Shankar in his centenary year; and witnessing Caroline Shaw light up the stage in supersonic electronic glory for ‘Unclassified Live’. And now we’re here: staring down the barrel of autumn – and concerningly even possibly spring – season cancellations; over 150 events in the classical music programme alone.
Let’s not forget the role of the creative industries in the global commercial picture. Not only did arts and entertainment contribute over £100 billion to the UK economy in 2018, but publicly-funded arts organisations continued their behind the scenes work to support the commercial cultural sector. Just as subsidised theatre develops the talent which feeds the West End, Broadway or Hollywood, give a thought when you sit down tonight to watch your favourite show on Netflix to the orchestral musicians behind that film or TV score that has become the soundtrack to your life in lockdown. Most have lost their livelihoods overnight. This is a vital, interconnected infrastructure that we take for granted – and we are on the brink of losing it for good.
Our world of classical music could be deemed irrelevant; or it could be part of a moment akin to the post-war settlement that created the South Bank, and the NHS and the Arts Council; a time where culture is deemed essential for healing and renewal.
So what does the future really hold for classical music? Nobody loves the experience of an electrifying concert in a great hall more than I do. I am aching to get to hear live music-making again and will do everything in my power to make that happen. But if the events of the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that the status quo is not an option. We can’t come out of this crisis doing things in the ways that we always have, and for the same people. Our world of classical music could be deemed irrelevant; or it could be part of a moment akin to the post-war settlement that created the South Bank – and the NHS and the Arts Council; a time where culture is deemed essential for healing and renewal. We need to be ready with ideas which will be fit for the times.
For one thing, we have to let go of our attachment to the idea of art for art’s sake. We know that music can change people’s lives in tangible ways, so let’s just admit it. Musicians in the UK have shown ingenuity in working in education, health, social and criminal justice settings, in brilliantly blending the amateur and the professional, disabled and able-bodied musicians, children and adult performers. But after decades in this business, I see that these areas of work are still at the edges.
We need to bring them into the centre. Are we doing enough schools and family concerts? Are we doing enough to reach people who don’t come? Are we supporting a diverse range of talent? Are we listening to what our society needs of its professional musicians? Our classical musical world is global but can we use this pause to deepen our relationship with the absolutely local? And, as we re-emerge from the COVID crisis, what are the alternatives to the reliance of the classical music industry on global air travel as we face the even bigger threat of the climate crisis?
As for the financials, we surely can’t hope to enjoy the kinds of bail-outs promised to our European counterparts over the past few months, so we will need to be reflective and take this unique opportunity now to think differently about our future. It’s already been inspiring to see the appetite from peers across the industry to throw the discussion wide open, being prepared to rethink everything.
As we at Southbank continue to navigate the challenges that closure has brought, we’ll keep producing work that challenges, provokes, and entertains even when we can’t welcome people to the venue; be it ‘Art By Post’ – a brand-new initiative steered by our Creative Learning Team – or our National Poetry Library anthology, ‘In the Beginning of Covid’ – featuring poems written by American poets since lockdown. Crucially, we know our orchestras and community of musicians will continue to help shape our recovery strategy, as we are working together to imagine how they might return to playing in our venues for an audience.
Benjamin Britten said in a 1964 lecture that he did not write for posterity but wanted his music to be of use to people in the here and now, in the community in which he lived and worked. Nobody could argue that Britten was not a globally significant artist. But I think that we can be emboldened by his example in recognising the true potential, the ‘usefulness’ of our musical culture to help rebuild our society right here, right now, in the wake of trauma.