Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Bristol Music... A Rant?

I live in Bristol, in fact I was born in Bristol, and while I’ve visited plenty of other places – considered ‘the move to London’ – there really is no place like home. The city has a rich cultural heritage, a colourful history and its streets, with their era-straddling, ever changing facades, could tell a thousand stories I have no doubt. There’s also music to be discovered in the ‘capital’ of the West of England...

The Hazlewood Affair...

People have questioned Bristol’s musicality of late, thanks in no small part to comments by Charles Hazlewood. His article, which came about in the lead up to the first concert of a new residency at St George’s Bristol with his orchestra The Army of Generals, alludes to the fact – and it is a fact – that Bristol is without a major ‘full time’ orchestra. He also began his spiel by stating that in his opinion the city is ‘desperately in need’ of ‘musical protein’.

While we’re hardly desperate, a city of our size should probably have an ensemble in the league of those based in Bimingham, Bournemouth, Liverpool, Scotland and London, not to mention the great BBC Orchestras. Bournemouth’s Symphony Orchestra has become the orchestral representative of the South and West and so we get to share them... Sure they’re a fine ensemble – they were in fact the first live orchestra I saw when I was a child – but I’m not sure I want to share them...

Of course we do have Bristolian orchestras, several in fact, and the likes of the Bristol Ensemble and the Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra (both re-branded in an attempt to be taken more seriously perhaps), not to forget the Bristol Concert Orchestra, Brandon Hill Chamber Orchestra and Bristol Classical Players, each perform very regularly across the city and do great things. The Bristol Ensemble is itself somewhat omniscient of late, striving to set out its stall as Bristol’s first orchestra. Concerts aside they do marvellous outreach work, which is brilliant and essential.

There’s more to musical protein than a name, or a budget though... it’s what you play that matters, how well you play it and how you package it. I think If you want to get people in off the street to hear Classical music, particularly in this city, then you can’t be in the least bit pretentious. Will Mr and Mrs Bloggs in the suburbs of Horfield or Hartcliffe actually give two hoots about ‘Abstractions and Refractions’ – the title of Charles’ concert series – the answer is no frankly. Charles wanted, nay wants, to break down the boundaries of the classical concert experience, ‘concert etiquette’ if you will, and get people in through the door and listening who wouldn’t normally... It’s a great idea which I’m all for, but a glance around the room at the first concert in the series revealed the usual suspects in a venue steeped, historically, in the very Classical etiquette he’s striving to avoid. I absolutely love St George’s dearly, but the whole arrangement seemed at odds with its initial aim I’m afraid.

Bristol audiences are famously fickle though... Gergiev appeared at Colston Hall last year and nobody came. That’s an exaggeration obviously, but it illuminated the fact that if people haven’t got an appetite for Classical music they just won’t bother, no matter how big the name on the poster.

What might have worked better for Charles’ general idea? Get an orchestra in the amphitheatre on the harbourside, or in Queen Square and belt out some tunes that the Bloggs’ might know, something for the Classic FM crowd and the casual listener who likes the theme from Star Wars. That would do it, then when you’ve got them try them with something different, something they don’t know. Don’t try and play them music they don’t care about in the first place and then add insult to injury by showing them how amusing and clever some composer they’ve never even heard of was so many years later... It just doesn’t wash.

In, something, we trust...

Colston Hall likes to think of itself as the city’s premier music venue. The shiny makeover has worked wonders, not to mention some name changes behind the scenes... The council is in the process of offloading their responsibility of the venue, instead creating The Bristol Music Trust to run its affairs. Interesting times then for the hall, which will continue to be financed by the council in the initial years of the Trust’s life, but then it’ll have to fend for itself in a time when money for the arts is hardly abundant. The eventual aim is for this trust to be ‘entrusted’ with the all the musical goings on in the city, acting perhaps as a central hub for not just the Colston Hall, but other venues and events too... It’s an interesting idea certainly, but with a community of venues very much with their own established identities, clientele and modus operandi, I doubt whether shoving it all under one umbrella will work. The meetings and feasibility studies continue (endlessly knowing Bristol City Council, until they’ve spent a fortune and decide to leave things just the way they are) so the jury’s out on the future of Bristol’s music making.

One thing’s for sure there are those is this city who love music, who make great music and who enjoy music... and I’m not just talking Classical. So as long as that continues, we can’t go very far wrong can we?

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