The Times: Jess Gillam, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Shiva Feshareki Bring a Key Change to Classical Music

Brian Appleyard, 17 Mar 2019, The Times (Requires subscription)


Judging by its website, Gillam’s in Ulverston, Cumbria, is a pretty ritzy tearoom. It is a family business founded in 1892. If you went there circa 2009, you may have been served by the Gillams’ 10-year-old daughter Jess.

She wasn’t destined to be a waitress. Three years earlier, Jess had discovered her vocation at a carnival in Ulverston. “There were drums, stilts, dance and costume-making workshops. And I came to a saxophone and picked it up and made a sound. I suppose I haven’t really looked back since then. It was a really physical sensation. I could feel the vibrations of the instrument.”

Now 20, Gillam is a saxophone star, glitter-clad evidence that it is a respectable classical instrument. And that would be that, but for the time she spent waitressing. “I was there from quite a young age. I was communicating with people a lot, just speaking to them about why they were visiting the town, or speaking to the locals.”

Now, says her agent, Jasper Parrott, Gillam is “a phenomenal natural missionary”. Her mission is music and music education, and she is to present a show on BBC Radio 3, This Classical Life, on Saturdays at 12.30pm. Her first album, Rise, is out next month. On it, she takes the David Bowie song Where Are We Now?, a dreary number from his penultimate album, and, aided by her mentor and teacher (she is still at college), John Harle, turns the tune into something glorious and, yes, young.

Gillam is at the head of a new wave of youthful musicians that has emerged over the past five years. Something about them — their youth, originality, performance style, audience engagement, even, in cases like Gillam’s, their instruments — has convinced the music mandarins that classicism has at last risen from its deathbed.

“We are completely on a roll at the moment,” says the Barbican’s boss, Nicholas Kenyon. He’s not wrong: try getting a ticket at his venue for a Philip Glass concert, the modern composer whose work is finding new audiences both in concert halls and opera houses.

“It’s an exciting time,” says Jan Younghusband, head of BBC music, “because these young people are saying to the world, ‘I can be a classical musician, and I can play at the Baftas, and it doesn’t diminish the quality of what I did.’” Gillam played Love Story there this year. Also performing at the ceremony was the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, 20 in April, his profile raised by playing at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. He, too, is a prodigy, winner of BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. (Gillam was a runner-up.)

Then there’s Shiva Feshareki, a composer and turntablist who has taken hip-hop scratching into the classical repertoire. Or there are the multimedia performances of the pianist Alexandra Dariescu, the sellout concerts by Nils Frahm. I could go on.

A sign of these changing times is the launch of a new round-the-clock classical station, Scala Radio. Its most striking attraction is the 10am show hosted by the pop radio presenter Simon Mayo. The station is very much, as our critic Gillian Reynolds put it, “nice-tunes radio”.

For Alan Davey, head of Radio 3, it’s “Radio 2-leaning”. He sees Scala as one way of letting people “brush against” classical music, in turn a good thing for his station. “We can offer the depth — full concerts, musicians talking about their music. These are the resources we have. I’ve been on Twitter welcoming Scala, and that’s genuine.”

Are the mandarins getting over-excited? Radio stations come and go, and breakthrough classical-music stars have happened before. Younghusband points to the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, as much of a 1960s star as the Beatles or Vidal Sassoon. The Three Tenors performed at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma became a football anthem.

These are brief moments, usually restricted to one artist and/or one piece, such as Nessun Dorma or, in du Pré’s case, the Elgar Cello Concerto. In the intervening years, announcements of the impending death of classical music have been made with the usual grim regularity. In Britain, it routinely lapsed into a condition not unlike the Church of England: a well-meaning project that should somehow be kept going, but nothing more.

And, bizarrely, in Hollywood, it became the soundtrack to evil. An article two weeks ago in The American Scholar tracked multiple examples of classical music as the essential prop for the baddest of the bad: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in Psycho II, Madama Butterfly in Fatal Attraction, the Goldberg Variations in The Silence of the Lambs, Purcell and Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange. There seems to be something wrong with classical music, in this analysis. It’s too clever, too formal, too difficult, too condescending and, apparently, too sinister for your average listener.

Can classical music really break out into the light of general acceptance this time? Surprisingly, it might, as the changes it is undergoing are not just star-based, but structural. But we need to take key steps.

The first of them, for Gillam (and for me), is to ditch the word “classical”. In the literary and visual arts, it refers to a specific style and specific periods. Only in music is it used as a universal class distinction. So baroque, Romantic and modernist music is all flattened into the meaningless term “classical”.

The second step is to rethink performance. The basic form of the classical concert has remained unchanged for about 140 years. This includes the clothes of the orchestra and conductor — Kenyon is particularly keen on getting away from this — and the convention of not clapping between movements. Gillam is in favour of ditching this, and Davey regards the applause as a good thing. “At the Proms,” he says, “it’s clear when audiences are new to this, because they applaud between movements.” Do not, however, try this at that great chamber-music venue, Wigmore Hall: violence may ensue.

More fundamental changes are spreading through the highest reaches of the business. Ivan Fischer, for example, set up the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983 specifically to escape the life of conventional music-making. “I had this clear vision,” he told me, “that every concert must be a festive occasion. I felt there was something jaded in the conventional orchestra life all over the world.” For Fischer, this meant startling innovations such as the orchestra standing to sing choruses and a production of Verdi’s Falstaff in which he interacted with the singers and argued with Falstaff himself.

The Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who takes over the San Francisco Symphony next year, says something similar. “The infrastructure of what we call classical music is going to evolve into something else,” he told The New York Times. “We don’t quite know what it is... Obviously, it’s in no one’s interest to blow up the existing structure and start all over. It would be counterproductive.”

One result of this new thinking is that orchestras have started escaping from the concert halls. At the Barbican, short concerts are now being staged all over the building. The Manchester Collective plays the classic repertoire anywhere and everywhere across the north. Davey also recommends the Victoria pub, in Dalston, which has live music, including classical, all the time. And the good news is that people listen. “When the music is on,” Davey says, “there is silence and attention. It’s respect for the music and engagement. Then, when it stops, everybody talks and buys pints.”

Then there are house concerts and shows where audiences are encouraged to read notes on their mobile phones about the pieces being played. This may sound like heresy to loyal concertgoers steeped in the ways of the 19th century, but, as Gillam observes, what’s really happening is that music is going further into its past. “If you look at how music existed in the time it was written, it’s not necessarily how we present it now. So I think we’re almost, in a way, coming full circle, presenting the music how it was originally.”

Music once happened in the midst of life, and perhaps that is a key change now. Ever since the advent of iPods, streaming, Spotify and technology in general, all music has been available to everybody all the time. This has not until recently done anything for classical music, simply because it was drowned out by the noise. But classical sales jumped last year: maybe a blip, maybe not.

And the point about these 20- and 30-year-old prodigies is that they grew up in the midst of that musical ubiquity and take it seriously. They know how to use it — even gaming soundtracks are becoming a classical form in their own right, with recordings and live concerts — and they know how to reach people.

There remains one obstacle. Music education is a shrunken shadow of its former self. In an anguished letter to The Guardian, Gillam wrote: “I am 20 years old and began playing saxophone, aged seven, at the Barracudas Carnival Band in Barrow-in-Furness. The funding for the centre has now been cut. I took part in the primary tuition scheme, aged 11. The funding for the scheme has now been cut. It is a running theme across the country.”

She tells me why it all matters. “It’s very, very rare to come across somebody who doesn’t like music. I can only think of one person I’ve met in my life so far who doesn’t. I think it’s just such an indescribable entity that’s been with us since the beginning of human existence. It’s something that accompanies or informs every experience. At so many important moments of people’s lives, music is often the thing they remember.

“Until music becomes central to education, where it’s important from the beginning, maybe people won’t quite realise the importance it holds — until they become more involved with it on a practical level.”

As her agent says, she’s “a phenomenal natural missionary”.