THE BLOG

Raising a Glass to Classical Music

04/03/2016 15:23 GMT | Updated 05/03/2017 10:12 GMT

A couple of years ago, I was having a drink with a friend at the Clapham Picturehouse bar when the time came to take our seats in the cinema. We asked the barman for plastic cups to pour our wine into, but he shook his head, saying they no longer offered this.

With a considerable amount of Sauvignon left to swig, we looked at him in disbelief. Then he smiled. 'No need to decant. We're happy for you to take your actual glasses in,' he said. How civilised, we thought. How trusting. How modern.

While other cinemas haven't gone quite this far, pretty much all of them still permit you taking plastic or paper cups of wine, beer, spirits, soft drinks, teas or coffee in with you, recognising the appeal to today's cinema-goers.

Theatres have been doing it even longer, with bars practically built into the old Victorian auditoria in the West End and all around the country. The same goes for pop and jazz venues, of course.

While it's never been particularly customary to glug your way round a gallery, museum or a zoo, such institutions are also following suit, presenting select nights with pop-up bars when you can enjoy their attractions with a drink in your hand. Society seems to like this. Small touches like this clearly seem to help entice those who might otherwise be less inclined to attend.

Why then do most classical concert halls forbid us taking any such drinks into their central vestibules? I've never fathomed it. Is there something annotated in the scores of classical masterworks stating beverages may not be consumed in proximity to the music? No. Did the composers themselves decree it? On the contrary.

It's well accounted that Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner all loved their reds, Schubert enjoyed Rosé, Stravinsky was partial to Scotch, Rossini favoured Madeira, and Verdi relished Champagne. Sibelius loved to drink so much that he even formed a club that he called 'the Symposium' ('sym' meaning together and 'po' meaning drink).

Meanwhile it's said that when Handel had guests over to his apartment in Mayfair he would serve them everyday plonk then, feigning a sudden burst of creative inspiration, would slip into his music room for a few sups of a superior Claret. And in his day, it was entirely common for the audience to drink their way through concerts and operas.

Yet, as I entered the Royal Festival Hall the other day, the steward told the guy in front of me, clutching a small coffee, 'no drinks, dear: this is a classical concert'.

I was equally bemused on a recent trip to the Barbican to see two signs affixed to the bar, one saying you could take drinks into the auditorium, one saying you couldn't. When I quizzed the attendant about this, she explained that you were allowed to take drinks into the theatre to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet, but you were forbidden to take drinks into the concert hall to see the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra play Don Juan. (This is doubly amusing when you consider that temperate, introverted Hamlet was probably quite abstemious around alcohol while Don Juan doubtless necked the stuff with utter abandon.)

It seems all the more peculiar given that the BBC Proms happily permit you to take a drink into their seventy-plus classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall every summer: so there you can enjoy the Leipzig orchestra with a drink, whereas across town you cannot.

At my own humble orchestra Southbank Sinfonia, we present free Rush Hour concerts most Thursdays at our base St John's Waterloo and offer all attendees a free glass (yes, an actual glass) of wine (or something soft, if they prefer) as they take their seats.

People seem to like it, and - remarkable as this may seem - it doesn't impair the musical performance one bit. Yes, classical music benefits from an attentive level of engagement from its audience, but I've not yet seen our audience become unruly thanks to this modest libation. The respect it shows to modern concertgoers, offering them this basic pleasure and making them feel more at home in concert halls, surely outweighs the occasional little spillage on the upholstery too.

I'm not proposing we incite a bacchanal, but nonetheless appeal to my colleagues in the classical music world: isn't it time we eased our prohibitive attitude here just a little? For centuries, classical music has kept pace with the times. Let's not needlessly get left behind.