In classical music, as in all the arts, 2022 was supposed to be a new dawn, a joyous surging back to life after the dismalness of two lockdown years. In the event, it was – but only up to a point.
Numerous events were curtailed or hampered because of illness, and the Proms lost two headline artists, Jonas Kaufmann and Freddie De Tommaso, to bouts of Covid. And the return of audiences to live events has been tentative. Only for the biggest names have venues been able to fill every seat, and most orchestras report audiences are still about 15 per cent down on pre-pandemic figures.
Brexit continues to exert a huge drag, imposing maddening bureaucratic delays and costs on anyone who wants to travel to the EU to perform – and vice versa. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was another blow, as organisations rushed to disinvite Russian soloists, give back tainted Russian money, and cancel concerts with Russian music (though there was also an upside, in the rush to programme fine Ukrainian composers we’d never heard of).
These headwinds were expected. What was not expected, and came as a nasty shock, was the sharp decline in listeners to the BBC’s classical music station, Radio 3, which lost one in six of its listeners in the third quarter of 2022. Commercial stations Classic FM and Scala Radio were also sharply down, by 6.5 per cent and 9.5 per cent respectively. There was much anxious speculation that just as listeners were losing the habit of going to concerts, they were also losing the habit of turning on the radio, as well.
Underneath the temporary choppy seas of rising costs and falling revenues run deeper, less visible currents of social and cultural change, to which musicians and organisations must adapt. Classic FM now offers playlists organised by “mood”. In a nod to younger listeners’ preference for spiritually “immersive” music, Radio 3, once the home of strenuous high-mindedness, has invited Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds to curate his own series, Ultimate Calm, which explores “how classical, contemporary and ambient music can soothe the soul”. The fact that some musicians still talk in terms of musical experience as a effortful “going on a journey”, whereas others now see it as a lucid, thoroughly wide-awake process of following the unfolding logic of a piece, shows that there are competing visions of what classical music is or should be.
Another factor that continued to grow in 2022 was “diversity”. Organisations that promote it, such as Black Lives in Music and the black-and-ethnic-majority orchestra Chineke!, were more handsomely rewarded in the recent round of Arts Council England funding than any other sort of client, which shows which way the wind is blowing. Another growing trend is composers turning to nature for inspiration. This is as old as Renaissance-era songs in praise of hunting, but these days it takes on an environmental twist. The most striking manifestation of this was the Recycling Concerto premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival, a piece for hundreds of bits of recycled rubbish, conceived by percussionist Vivi Vassileva and composer Gregor Mayrhofer.
It was one of 41 premieres at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, which was expanded from two weeks to three, one of many signs that the classical sector, despite the obstacles, has been determined to break out of the lockdown “stay small, stay safe” mentality. The Hallé Orchestra’s magnificent performance of Verdi’s immense Requiem, conducted by Mark Elder, and the Royal Philharmonic’s no less magnificent performance of Mahler’s even bigger Eighth Symphony, were eloquent evidence of that.
Another example of lavishness allied to superbly high standards was an occasion that, though not a “classical concert” in the conventional sense, was easily the most widely appreciated event containing classical music of the whole year – the funeral of the late Queen. The singing from the choirs of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey and the high quality of new pieces from Judith Weir and James MacMillan show that the art of sacred choral singing and composing – perhaps this country’s most distinctive contribution to the Western musical tradition – is alive and flourishing.
Oddly, it was another piece inspired by royalty – Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Your servant, Elizabeth – that was, for me, the standout in this year’s gratifyingly lavish Prom season. As I said in my review: “This intermingled the words of two Queen Elizabeths in music which moved from quiet intimacy to a radiant mystery, as if the two Queens were communing across the centuries.” Like all the best “classical music”, it was fresh and surprising, yet rooted in tradition, and gave hope that an embattled art form has plenty of life in it yet.