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Underestimating the power of classical music

Senior management of Radio New Zealand seem clueless about RNZ Concert’s vital role in the economic, cultural and social life of the country, judging by their disparaging comments about its audience, writes Rod Oram

The managers of RNZ say Concert's audience is small, predominantly old and Pākehā, and likely to die out. So, they planned to redirect Concert’s resources to programming more appealing to people “aged 18 to 34, including Māori and Pasifika audiences.”

But there is far more to Concert and its listeners than this highly selective judgment suggests. Concert’s knowledgeable presenters, skilled technicians and engaged audience are vital contributors not just to music but also the wider arts community; and that community in turn plays an essential role in the life of the country. It helps us articulate who we are as a diverse nation, how we distinguish and differentiate ourselves in a crowded world, and how we attract people and investment to us.

The power of culture and the arts to help foster economic and social progress is understood by many countries, particularly by their cities.

“From one end of the globe to the other, a growing number of cities are emerging as creative forces thanks to burgeoning arts and culture sectors. Based on the collective strength of their creative industries, these cities are driving new business, spurring innovation, attracting talent and investment and, in the process, accelerating urban development and improving the overall quality of life for their residents,” says a report on creative cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

One of the world’s best known academic researchers on creative industries is Richard Florida of the US. Over the years he has amassed a wealth of research of his own and by others, such as this study of the beneficial role of performing arts organisations in US cities.

The World Cities Culture Forum is another source or research, such as its 2018 report on the impact of the arts on economies.

Berlin is one of the most articulate cities on the subject. One in 11 of its workforce are in the creative industries. Since 2009, that sector has created 30,000 new jobs; it accounted for 25 per cent of employment growth, double the national rate; and its revenues have grown by 29 percent. The city’s 2030 strategy seeks to accelerate those trends. Toronto is another city that’s got its act together.

By contrast, Auckland’s culture and arts strategy is vaguer, although there is real economic benefit and growth from the sector.

The city has a music vision, though: “Music in Auckland is thriving and is part of the everyday lives of Aucklanders, with a music scene that offers prime opportunities for success and that encompasses the unique sounds and character of the city.” That quote is from its webpage as one of some 50 cities around the world in the UNESCO Cities of Music alliance.

Here are some examples of our musical culture at work:

- More than 197,000 people from 122 countries tuned in to the Auckland Philharmonia’s livestreamed concerts in 2018 (2019 data will be released next month in the APO’s annual report).

“Hello from Ipswich, UK. So nice to be able to listen to such beautiful music. Loved our visit to Auckland on our world cruise six years ago,” one listener wrote to the APO.

The orchestra relies on RNZ Concert’s skilled technicians for the livestreams, and for the regular live radio broadcasts of many of its other concerts. Likewise, RNZ’s knowledgeable presenters add significantly to the radio audiences’ experience.

- The APO has a large outreach programme to school students in the city, particularly in lower decile areas. Its players offered more than 800 hours of in-school mentoring to some 6000 students in 2018, while also offering other programmes and concerts to them.

- The APO also works in low decile areas with Sistema Aotearoa, the local affiliate of the international programme which began teaching classical music playing in the slums of Venezuela in 1975. Gustavo Dudamel, current musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is just one of a large cohort of Sistema graduates who have become international stars.

- Porirua has its own home-grown version of such programmes. Virtuoso Strings, teaches some 200 students a year in 10 decile 1 and 2 schools, through orchestral rehearsals, some individual tuition, school holiday camps and junior and senior orchestra trips around the country.

In such endeavours, the outstanding quality of RNZ Concert is crucial, as a resource and inspiration for performers and audiences alike.

And here is an important story from New Zealand’s recent music history, as told by Karen Grylls, who has earned international acclaim as a director of young people’s choirs.

“My first ever recording experience with the New Zealand Youth Choir was in 1992. One of the finest sound engineers in classical radio at that time, David McCaw, encouraged me to enter the Youth Choir into the BBC Let the Peoples Sing competition. In a cold St. Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington we recorded the tracks that needed to be without edits and sent the entry to the international competition in the UK the next day.

“Months later the letter came; the New Zealand Youth Choir won the Youth section and the grand prize, the Silver Rose Bowl, and the recording also won accolades. Thanks to RNZ Concert my own career was launched internationally. The tours and the invitations that followed kept coming over the years and still do. I am forever grateful, and I know that today there is a long list of New Zealand artists who, similarly, owe the launching of their careers in quality sound to Radio NZ Concert.

“The support and sheer genius of these recording and production teams have been a lifeline to artists, composers and audiences in New Zealand and overseas. Working with young singers, I am reminded at every turn that we are artists in sound, we are not visual artists. We need to encourage our young artists to listen. The exploding number of digital platforms are simply not a substitute for quality audio. That is how we are known. That has not changed. And the research, interviews and programmes that the RNZ Concert team produce rely on knowledge, expertise and passion which we must continue to hear on a regular basis. These things inform our work and encourage our young artists.”

David McCaw still works for RNZ Concert, hopefully long term.

Classical music is alive, well and constantly innovating. It is far from moribund and irrelevant. Plenty of new music is being written and performed, giving expression to who we are, and to our world. That’s particularly true here in Aotearoa New Zealand where we have a thriving community of young composers earning international reputations, which is almost as diverse ethnically and culturally as we are as a nation. (Declaration of interest – my daughter is one.)

But just as importantly, some of the greatest classical music ever written is as vital today as ever. Here are two examples of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which uses the text of Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy).

On Christmas Day 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the symphony in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Wall shortly before. Under Bernstein’s direction, the chorus sang not of freude but of freiheit (freedom), the word Schiller wanted to use but feared he couldn’t because of the torrid politics of his era.

On July 2 last year, 29 British Members of the European Parliament turned their backs on their colleagues at their pan-European, post-election swearing in. They were from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. They were objecting to a saxophone quartet and a soprano performing the EU’s anthem – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Now more than ever, RNZ Concert is an invaluable resource and inspiration for people at home and abroad.

I’ll be saying more about Beethoven’s contemporary relevance on March 23, in the first of three concerts in the APO’s Ludwig Reflected series. Each concert will pair a new NZ composition commissioned by the APO with a Beethoven piece, with a speaker between them. The series celebrates the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

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