“I don’t know if you can hear the helicopters overhead,” guitarist Sean Shibe said as he introduced his encore. The helicopters were policing a Black Lives Matter demonstration just down the road from the Wigmore Hall. Shibe’s encore was a guitar arrangement of Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Farewell to Stromness,” a piece of protest music written in response to a uranium mining operation on Orkney. “Max was a very political composer,” Shibe explained. “I think he’d be in tune with the times now.”

Oboist Nicholas Daniel also performed in that Wigmore Hall concert series. His recital with Julius Drake ended with an arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which he dedicated to the memory of George Floyd. He announced from the stage that Bach’s spiralling phrases call for the specialized technique of circular breathing, in which continuous airflow produces an uninterrupted sound. He added that Floyd was not allowed to breathe for longer than the piece lasts. In that concert, he told me later, “I wanted to elegise.” He considered asking the audience to try and hold their breath for the duration of the encore.

I followed Daniel across the summer of 2020, as he planned and re-planned the Leicester International Music Festival for September, while circumstances continued to shift. It is a small festival, but one that punches well above its weight in terms of talent, attracting performers like Mahan Esfahani, Stephen Hough, Katya Apekisheva, and Rachel Podger.

Daniel and the organizing team decided to move the festival online, filming and recording concerts in advance in the beautiful Victorian New Walk Museum in Leicester—one of the first public museums in the country. A crowdfunding success—they raised £10,000 in just over a month—meant LIMF could record a season of lunchtime concerts for the autumn too.

Nevertheless, this has been a raw time for musicians. “I didn’t know how I was going to play without crying all the time,” Daniel told me in June. The simple act of making music comes with heightened feeling due to the confluence of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter this spring and summer.

Together they mean both crisis and reflection for classical music in the United Kingdom. This is more than the interruption of normal service. The sound of helicopters policing protest now intrudes on classical music’s most sacred spaces. Both the pandemic and the protests have revealed how deep inequalities run within the music industry, among audiences and performers. There is no going back to normal.

Part of me does not want to go back to how things were. It is an opportunity to do something,” Daniel said. “We have a cancer in the middle of the industry, which is the racist element of our society. [Classical music] is not dealing with the multicultural society we are living in—serious music has got to be on offer for everybody.”

A performance at the Leicester International Music Festival Photo Kevin Rush
A performance at the Leicester International Music Festival Photo Kevin Rush

Sean Shibe feels similarly. There is an opportunity for renewal, he told me, “but without really radical overhaul, from the bottom up, we are not going to see significant change.”

Lockdown has presented an opportunity, Daniel said, “to take away some of the elitist, classist, and racist ways music is reaching the people of this country. It’s like a reset.”

Daniel is a famously collegial musician, experienced and involved (former BBC Young Musician; a founder of the Britten Sinfonia), an advocate for new music, and someone challenged with steering a small organization through a period of exceptional challenge. “If Nick Daniel isn’t your model,” Mahan Esfahani said, “then you’ve got a lot to learn if you’re anyone who commissions new music, or wants to inspire young people.”

Daniel’s values and his experience make him an ideal interlocutor for the crisis in classical music in the UK. His Wigmore Hall program suggested someone open, generous, inclusive; someone who wanted to give pleasure to through music. (I recently heard him on BBC radio saying the final note of the Mozart Oboe Quartet “sounds like a kiss.”) A Beatles song sat beside miniatures by Madeleine Dring and new music from Huw Watkins; pieces by Liszt, Finzi and Schumann spoke of a Romantic sensibility, a soulful and sensitive commitment. In our conversations this would most often manifest in questions of access, racism, and inclusion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JoYG_7jVF0

This impulse is part of the programming ethos at the Leicester International Music Festival. Their lunchtime recital series, often providing a platform to top-flight young musicians making their way in the industry, stipulates that each program must contain a piece by a woman or a non-binary composer, or a person of color—ideally both. Daniel told me that musicians invited are unfazed by a challenge that might make others bristle, often turning up gems in the repertoire.

The Festival composer-in-association this year is Eleanor Alberga, a Jamaican-born musician who now lives in Herefordshire. Her music is a heady mix of styles and moods, pulling together Jamaican folk music, her experience working in dance, and the expressionistic intensity of Alban Berg and Béla Bartók, with flashes of the avant-garde tradition. These colliding musical influences sometimes dovetail and sometimes clash, but hers is always music of astounding rhythmic vitality as well as emotional immediacy and focus.

Classical music in the UK is suffocatingly white. Only one percent of the pieces on the ABRSM examination syllabi—the standard music exams taken by young people across the country—are by composers of color.

The hostility of this cultural environment was encapsulated in the summer’s surprisingly vicious skirmish over the Last Night of the Proms. It started with Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder of Chineke!, the UK’s first ensemble for predominantly Black players. In a discussion on BBC radio she suggested that in light of BLM protests sharpening our sense of historic racist injustices (particularly around slavery), some of the Last Night’s more jingoistic elements might be dropped. This included Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia”—a patriotic anthem from an 18th-century masque that utters the line “Britons never shall be slaves!”—written, of course, in an era where the slave trade was central to British economic and imperial expansion. The same sentiments were also echoed in a piece by Times critic Richard Morrison, hardly known as a street-fighting radical.

In August, when conductor of the Last Night Dalia Staveska expressed her support for BLM and wanted, the Sunday Times reported, “to modernise the evening’s repertoire and reduce the patriotic elements,” she was met with abuse and death threats. The Proms and BBC became the site of a proxy culture war for bewildered racists otherwise completely disinterested in classical music.

Two prominent Black British musicians, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist sister Isata, performed at the Proms. Their musical family has shot to fame over the last few years, and their mother Kadiata has just published a book about their lives, House of Music.

It’s an uplifting book charged with constructive energy, but, inevitably, it can’t ignore the structural racism part and parcel of classical music culture. Kadiata recalls the awkwardness of being the only Black family taking part in the Royal Academy’s Saturday school; meeting middle-class parents who “understood the world we were stumbling into” and fumbling to respond when asked which exclusive private music school their children attended. Money is a constant worry, whether for instruments, music lessons, or subscriptions to the youth orchestra programs vital to a serious musical education.

I spoke to Alya Al-Sultani, a British-Iraqi dramatic soprano and composer who also runs the grime label South London Space Agency; her Arabic opera “Two Sisters,” set on the Turkish-Syrian border, is currently being revised for performance later this year. “What has happened over the last two months is inevitable,” she said. “After a certain point for Black and brown musicians in classical music it isn’t a question of patience but fatigue…we’ve been having the same conversations for quite some time.”

There have been incremental changes and some positive noises from flagship organizations. The Southbank Centre will put BLM at the center of the programming for their forthcoming, if reduced, season. English National Opera’s roster of casts last season saw Black singers taking leading roles in recent and major productions. During lockdown, they responded to BLM’s calls for justice by offering a week of recorded performances of music by Black singers and composers like Errollyn Wallen, Ronald Samm, and Roderick Williams (singing the words of Langston Hughes). A 25-minute film, “What Do You Hope For?,” directed by Simone Ibbett-Brown, explores how skin color and opera come together for singers.

But for Al-Sultani a greater shift in attitude and consciousness is needed: “I understand why people are so protective of this music, because my goodness it can be done badly. But there is an implicit prejudice—it must be protected from outsiders.” Musicians face particular challenges coming to terms with racism and exclusion, she said, because they’ve “mastered their art form through learning, and think therefore that they can understand anything through learning. But lived experience can’t be learned.” And there is an urgent need to move beyond tokenism, Al-Sultani says, a source for her “of shame and a degree of trauma.” She continued, “As an artist, I actually prefer exclusion to tokenism. In exclusion I can carve out my own work.”

Classical music can only be reborn by those who make it. Young musicians in particular, Daniel told me, need more support from those established in the industry, giving them opportunities to play alongside great musicians. This is a core principle of the Festival.

“I see my main responsibility now,” Daniel said, “as supporting young artists—but especially young Black artists.” He has joined with many leading artists in backing Barbara Hannigan’s new organization Momentum, whose central idea is that emerging musicians can share concert platforms and recognition with those who already have professional clout. As I was completing this article Daniel texted me from the Barbican, where he was preparing a concert with the Britten Sinfonia: It was a picture of his Momentum partner Myfanwy Price playing the oboe with superstar bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

Myfanwy Price and Bryn Terfel • Photo © Mark Allan/Barbican
Myfanwy Price and Bryn Terfel • Photo © Mark Allan/Barbican

Finding and making opportunities for Black and brown musicians presents a huge challenge. Alison Buchanan runs Pegasus Opera, a 30-year-old company set up for singers from diverse backgrounds; it also has an extensive outreach and education program, bringing opera to the traditionally underserved. Buchanan’s extensive experience of the opera world as a Black singer was perhaps encapsulated by the comments from a former casting director she relayed to me: “What have I got for you, Alison? You’re black and fat.”

Pegasus will be producing an opera based on the experiences of the Windrush Generation this year, in collaboration with Shirley Thompson and Winsome Pinnock, incorporating community workshops, education projects, and exhibitions. Commissioning new works  and providing a platform for Black composers is an important complement to Pegasus’ established tradition of re-staging standard works from the repertory. There is plenty of repertoire out there for companies to pick up. Buchanan told me that after a friend asked for examples she compiled a list of 50 works in under an hour.

This autumn, Pegasus will launch an agency to provide representation for artists of color. “A lot of black singers might leave college on an equal footing [with their peers],” Buchanan said, “but because of a lack of opportunity they are not getting the experience they need, and not getting into the top companies, and slipping.” An agency will help promote singers who too often aren’t on the radar of concert promoters and bookers, who are asking more and more for Black singers but often don’t know who to approach.

Buchanan is unimpressed by many of the initiatives undertaken so far by the biggest organizations in the opera business. The Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House in London make statements about BLM—“I’m not sure that they really know what ‘taking a knee’ means,” Buchanan said—as forms of brand management and grant-seeking. “For a long time it has been quota-ism and box ticking, and a little bit of optics,” she continued. “I don’t think that large organizations have always seen that we should change because we need to include everybody.”

All of my conversations prompted by lockdown about what needs to happen in classical music pivoted back to education. Many classical music organizations are already doing fantastic work, Daniel insisted: “Look at the Britten Sinfonia or the Royal Opera House…but they hardly ever shout about it.” Publicity rarely makes much fuss of various projects going on across the industry, working with prisoners, in care homes, in schools, or with other vulnerable and hard-to-reach people.

The Festival reflects Daniel’s educational and inclusive ethos. It opened with a family concert, featuring Alan Ridout’s piece for violin and narrator ”Ferdinand the Bull.” On the second day, new works by young composers from Leicester, who have benefitted from the tutelage of composer and clarinetist Mark Simpson, were performed. The Festival has also partnered with the Cavatina Music Trust to offer free tickets to audience members under 25, as well as extending their partnerships with local schools and universities, as trustee Kevin Rush told me, to more accurately reflect the diversity of Leicester.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_Xi2HipNK8

James Hardie, manager of early music group the Marian Consort, told me that the problem with educational initiatives is often the way they are conceived. “It’s rarely a sustained effort,” he said, “you work with a festival and find a couple of workshops bolted on.” Initiatives tend to lack deeper roots in the communities musicians are keen to serve and reach.  

Hardie continued, “We want to have longer-lasting and more local relationships with the communities we work with, for environmental reasons too.” If COVID-19 enforces an end to the tour-based model of ensemble life it may allow musicians’ educational work to set down its roots closer to home.

Mainstream musical education—classical and otherwise—is increasingly a marginal pursuit in UK schools. When I studied A level music in the early 2000s, there were three of us doing it that year at my comprehensive school. Now it would be unlikely an arts course with such a small cohort would be allowed to run. For this reason independent and private schools boast not only better resources—crack teams of peripatetic teachers, practice rooms, beginner orchestras—but also come to dominate the profession. As Sean Shibe pointed out to me, class is almost as much a barrier to the profession as race.

Daniel told me that it would cost £350 million to provide every child of school age in this country with a musical education for four years: A slight investment in terms of government spending. He was previously involved in the Every Child a Musician campaign. In the London borough of Newham, among the capital’s poorest, the initiative ran from 2013 until it was axed in 2019, for budgetary reasons; it had provided over 10,000 children in primary schools with free music lessons and instruments. The link to the council’s webpage about it now shows a Page Not Found notice.  

There are some signs of hope. In August, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust found a building in Birmingham to house a new school that will put music at the center of its educational program. It will be the first school in the United Kingdom to be founded by an orchestra, and represents a radical and unequivocal effort to put the arts back into the curriculum. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will also be partnering with a comprehensive school in London’s borough of Camden.

One of the first concerts I saw as live music returned was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, played by the Aurora Orchestra outside a supermarket. That Monday night the orchestra, performed customarily from memory, delivered a unique spontaneity, as if conductor Nicholas Collon was summoning the music straight from his musicians’ sinews.

The opening movement of the work is unusual for lacking a second subject. Its episodes are bound together by an incessant rhythm launched by a single flute, which then engulfs the orchestra. It proceeds, without the reflection on itself that would be implied in a contrasting theme in a different key and mood. It moves without equivocation; it has a kind of terrified, giddy urgency; the harmonies modulate through thirds, giving the Symphony a lightheaded feeling of unsettled exhilaration and potential. ¶