CMS discussion group 1: reflecting values

In February I began attending an online weekly discussion group organised by Chamber Music Scotland, concentrating on the development and future of chamber music. Invited contributors are chamber musicians currently or formerly based in Scotland, including members of the CMS residency scheme, performers at various CMS events, and attendees of recent workshops such as Uchenna Ngwe’s series on diversity and curation in classical music.

On 15 February 2021, the first session considered our values as musicians, how we reflect these in our practice, and how we keep our art form relevant to society. The group of around ten attendees were from different backgrounds and stages of our careers, but there were clearly some shared concerns and values. One theme was the issue of representation: classical music is centred around performing a canon of works, many of which were written hundreds of years ago, and entire sections of society are vastly underrepresented, including female composers, people of colour and other ethnic minorities. A closely related concern is how we reach different listeners outside our traditional audiences.

Whilst many musicians might share these concerns, the search for a solution is not always straightforward. As musicians seeking change, we also have to balance the expectations of other stakeholders: are promoters willing to take on programmes with contemporary works or concentrating on diverse composers? Will audiences turn up without a concentration on the classics or for performances in alternative venues?

There are many differences across classical music itself. For a start, chamber music offers a far more flexible and adaptable format than playing in an orchestra. Ensembles have far smaller infrastructure, and often some or even all of the management is undertaken by the musicians themselves. Additionally, well-established groups often have more power to take risks in programming than younger players or newly established ensembles.

There were differing ideas in the group on how best to approach audiences and promoters. An immediate question was whether we should be worried about audience reaction at all: is it enough to simply present music the way we want, and audiences can take or leave it? To some it seems that classical musicians have to worry much more about staying relevant than those working in pop music or other genres. On the other hand, I don’t think that any working artist is actually free from external pressures, and pop music has its own set of commercial and audience expectations. Classical music also has connotations of elitism to counter, with centuries of traditions and practices, some of which make it difficult to move beyond the stereotypes of being overly stuffy, intellectual, or classist. As musicians and other stakeholders in classical music we also have the duty to justify large amounts of public funding – which is sometimes viewed as being an indulgence for the affluent.

For some of the group, the ideal is to be able to present programmes which attract new listeners whilst both challenging and maintaining our core audience. Others were content with reaching out to entirely new audiences for some projects: the point was made that listeners will be always be able to access standard classical repertoire, and perhaps as artists we need to worry less about pleasing everyone. Nevertheless, making a living is always a concern for musicians, and chamber groups need to be able to fit existing funding platforms and promotion networks. It’s always more difficult to take creative risks when these are accompanied by financial risks. Chamber Music Scotland is attempting to bridge some of these gaps, for example through subsidising and showcasing more adventurous programming, enabling musicians to become promoters, and crucially by helping to blur the boundaries between musicians and other stakeholders in classical music.

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