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Young People and Classical Music

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There will be people who get up in the cold this morning to race after dreams. Spring and a turn to warmer weather may look like a cruel joke right now, but on they will go - fortified by memories of the Olympic games. What a brief and entrancing interlude that last summer of outrageous British successes now seems, the paeans of praise at all the joyous farrago, as a normally morose media extolled the triumph of the human spirit. The whole thing was as wonderful as a lumbering soap bubble, drifting its heady way skywards and dancing with rainbow light. It had to pop, but in so doing it helped to "Inspire a Generation" with sport. At the Olympic opening ceremony the sporting baton was vividly passed on to us young 'uns. But is anyone young inspired by the conductor's baton?

I love classical music. To say this in my generation can feel somewhat confessional, like admitting to a predilection for cat-themed furnishings or authoritarian memorabilia. Of course young people are involved with classical music. Can I be the only one to feel faintly intimidated by the talents of the National Youth orchestra? Involved perhaps, but it makes virtually no imprint on broader youth culture. Normally the reactions are not so much cruel as wide-eyed uncomprehending. I was once asked by a friend whether Frank Sinatra came within the classical pantheon. I wonder what Beethoven would make of ol' blue eyes' credentials. Those who do know more will broach a Für Elise or a Nessun Dorma before exhausting their resources. Yet how much more there is than that. Unlike the Olympics, those triumphs of the human spirit an orchestra conjures are available somewhere every evening.

Let no one tell you that concerts need be a staid affair. As a grumpy adolescent I moseyed into Leeds Town Hall for Mahler's first symphony. The ranks of the orchestra were swollen by the scale of the composer's score. The finale was very long and very loud. We staggered out from the immensity, hair singed and steaming from all that fire power. I was nigh on physically shaking. Reader, Stendhal syndrome is more than a pansy's malady. If that is what number one does to you - anyone up for the symphony of a thousand?

Of course the 'we' at concerts is invariably my parents. To be a youth is to sample rather a different sound world. Alcohol enables the delicate to forgive even the most egregious, the most scandalising artistic shortcomings of nightclub beats. Yet when I've maundered home, ears ringing in deadened trauma, I nurse them with Brahms.

I do like popular music. Can you imagine if the Olympic opening ceremony had culminated with a bit of jingoistic Elgar or, God forbid, - Delius? Hey Jude gets a stadium singing, but it is only one moment in time. The classical lives on a far grander canvas. A canvas perfect for teenagers. All that grief and joy amidst those immoderate swells of sound. When no one understands you it can be quite thrilling when one hundred musicians suddenly do. Those thumping timpani really express your totally unique existential cum apocalyptic emotions, dude.

So why is concert going so rare for the young? Complexity perhaps, but classical music is replete with catchy hooks and melodies later filched by the populists. Familiarity is more pertinent here. People don't say "after several times listening to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony my discerning aesthetic sensibilities compel me to reject it." Rather you hear, "oh it would be boring" or more likely, "what's Beethoven 3?" The music is hidden underneath a bushel.

Adolescents are sheep, especially in rebellion. The reason they don't listen to classical music or go to concerts is because other adolescents do not listen to classical music or go to concerts. The concert environment is certainly not easy for a self-conscious youth either. Sometimes you hear the blame for the stuffiness laid at the dress code's innocent and upstanding door. "If only we let the youth in in ripped jeans to mosh to Stravinsky" goes the thought. Nonsense, (though the Rite of Spring could certainly temp for rave culture). As anyone who has witnessed a high school prom can tell you, my generation adores dressing up in cocktail gowns and tuxedos, they would put many a concert-goer to shame indeed. But there is a great deal of grey hair at concerts. I am all for helping old ladies across the road, but you can have too much of a good thing.

This is where the worry begins. When all the oldies go over the Styx then what future remains for the classical? Some will be sanguine. As they age, accumulate property and develop right-wing habits so too will my generation look upon the classical with a more long-sighted eye (in both senses). Doubtless some will, but, as with our parent's generation, many will remain fundamentally attached to their youthful music tastes. Our grandparents' may have had popular ballads in the 30s, but they were also the last generation for whom classical music was remotely in the mainstream of youthful taste. The classical will not die, but rather wither with each more apathetic age. And orchestras were hardly hale and hearty to begin with.

So getting more of the young into concert halls shores up the future. There is also a multiplier effect as the whole experience becomes less alienating for a young person, thereby pulling in even more. In London another sort of prom, the type at the Royal Albert Hall, can at its best foster a more age-inclusive atmosphere. This is rarer in provincial music making. When it does happen it is usually by grace of some big event performance, such as Opera North's four year long Ring Cycle project. That's one opera of the cycle each year, not an especially adagio interpretation of Wagner's commodious masterwork. At Die Walküre I even encountered another sixth former (also with parent).

Spark a buzz and the young will come. Think of all those little hearts and faces turned towards obscure (and frequently expensive) sports by the games. The Olympics have achieved on a lavish national scale what classical music seldom accomplishes in one lonely concert hall. Of course, a buzz is no panacea. Most youth will remain profoundly detached from the classical universe. Such is the level of ignorance that even a muscular arts policy would still leave most liable to identify Debussy as a brand of cheese. And let's not get started on the hackneyed claims and counter-claims of the elitism quarrel, the issue of class. The buzz of the proms might better cut across age distinctions, but the accents stick with the drawl and meaty vowel.

Then again, shod of its social clothes Venezuela's El Sistema shows that the music can enthuse poor kids just as much as anything else. The serious dedication it inspires is the apotheosis of the buzz we are after. As charity cannot cure underlying social problems but only mitigate them, so too will a greater emphasis on excitement and daring by no means effect a cultural shift in Britain. For all that, exciting projects are the best start we can make if classical music is to appeal beyond those of us who don't mind the dust of the arcane. And surely the music is something worth sharing.