Take a look at your local classical concert scene, and ask yourself if anything has changed in recent memory. Your nearest orchestra is addicted to Beethoven. Visiting string quartets play Haydn and Mozart. Musicians in concert halls are dressed in the same bow ties and tails as 50 years ago.

Even the BBC Proms, renowned for keeping classical music up to date, start with three programmes that would not have looked out of place 30 years ago. The first night of the 2010 season next Friday is devoted to a big Mahler symphony, followed by concert performances of operas by Wagner and Verdi: not a note of music composed in the past 100 years.

But beneath the veneer of continuity, the style and content of classical music is changing. Consider three recent events that are increasingly typical of what is happening.

Case one: the Brighton Festival in southern England invites Brian Eno to curate its 2010 edition. He sets up 77 Million Paintings, an art exhibition in a converted church, in which shifting visuals are matched by a morphing soundscape. Random, original and constantly mutating, it gives visitors a musical experience that opens their ears to the new in a way the traditional concert format could never do.

Case two: London’s Spitalfields Festival chooses Village Underground, a club setting, for a Concerto Grosso by Alfred Schnittke, an equally arresting piece by Claude Vivier, and a film by the Quay Brothers with live accompaniment using a Lech Jankowski score. The package makes musical sense. It makes sense of the location. It is lapped up by a capacity audience.

Case three: the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, long regarded as one of the world’s most conservative music institutions, presents three sell-out performances of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Ligeti’s music is alien to many New Yorkers but the marketing, led by an eye-like motif that dominates Lincoln Center Plaza, is targeted at all ages and tastes. The orchestra’s young music director, Alan Gilbert, makes the project his personal mission and the interval buzzes with reactions to Ligeti’s parping klaxons and clangourous saucepans.

New music is getting a better hearing today than it has done at any time since the 1960s. Composers have emerged from the ivory tower and want to communicate. Audiences, less knowledgeable about classical tradition than previous generations, have fewer preconceptions and are more open to new sounds. Instead of apologising for new music, performers are finding new ways to present it – ways that encourage audiences to engage with it.

“The boundaries have expanded to the point where it’s very hard to categorise what is classical concert music any more,” says Jessica Lustig of 21C Media Group, the New York-based arts consultancy. “If you have electronica with a string quartet and a drum machine – is that classical music? More venues are willing to present programmes that go beyond the traditional boundaries than did so in the past.”

The US has emerged as the most fertile territory, with groups such as eighth blackbird, an instrumental ensemble, and Brooklyn Rider, a classically trained string quartet, leading the way. Brooklyn Rider took part in the latest South by Southwest rock festival at Austin, Texas, playing a new work by Colin Jacobsen, the group’s violinist-composer, alongside an Osvaldo Golijov arrangement of a Mexican rock group song.

“It was one of the most open-minded audiences we’ve had,” Jacobsen recalls. “The idea that we can play in a setting where rock groups play and new music is part of the scene – people there are open to contemporary classical music, but aren’t necessarily going to show up at a classical concert hall. It’s an exciting world to be in.”

The problem with new music from the late 1960s to the early 2000s was that it failed to communicate beyond the confines of the new music fraternity. The way it was presented was as intimidating as the sounds it made. It was often scored for unconventional groups of instruments, raising the cost of rehearsal and performance. Orchestras continued to commission new work, but more from a sense of duty than a belief in the music. If it was played at all, it was tacked on to the start of a programme, to get it out of the way before the Beethoven or Brahms that everyone had come to hear. The context was wrong.

So was the attitude of composers. US composer Milton Babbitt’s now notorious claim in 1958 that the audience didn’t matter was proudly echoed by Europe’s state-subsidised composers. The high priests of modernism cultivated a creed of conformity. New music began to sound the same, emphasising dissonance and complexity. It turned into a ghetto, while the temples of classical music became museums.

“We can’t afford to work that way any more,” says Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, whose two-year residency with the New York Philharmonic has given birth to its “Contact” new music series – a venture that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. “Music is about communication between human beings, and in that sense the audience really matters. I’m not saying we should prostitute ourselves and think ‘What do they want?’. But we can’t pretend to be making music for another planet, as Stockhausen did.”

The problem for promoters is that it takes more than a switched-on composer to allay the suspicion of new music that the late 20th century fostered. Many orchestras are reluctant to programme unfamiliar music because it results in a drop in box-office takings – something they can ill afford in the current economic climate.

That makes the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s 2010-11 programme all the more noteworthy. For the past 20 years the Glasgow-based orchestra has shied away from any commitment to the new. But its French conductor Stéphane Denève has built such a popular following in his five years as music director that the orchestra feels ready to change its tune. Ten of next season’s concerts will include a work composed in the past decade, ranging from Kaija Saariaho’s glistening Orion to Peter Lieberson’s poignant Neruda Songs.

“It’s not enough just to play the pieces,” says RSNO chief executive Simon Woods, who devised the Ten out of Ten series. “You have to capture people’s imagination and help them find a way into the music, giving them clues so that they can relate it to their lives and the world around them.”

The Proms brand is so strong that, with the BBC behind it, it can try to appeal to different audience segments at the same time. The idea of Henry Wood, the Proms’ founder, was that if people knew there was something on the programme they could enjoy, they would be willing to risk 15 or 20 minutes on something they did not know.

One such programme this summer places a new work by George Benjamin alongside composers with whom he has an affinity, such as Ravel and Mozart. Another is an intriguing concert of three parts, putting Ligeti in the context of Tchaikovsky, Langgaard and Sibelius.

“Audiences today can absorb a lot more than promoters think they can,” says composer Julian Anderson, who curates the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series. “I see it as part of a wider change in society brought about by the internet, which has de-provincialised people and stimulated curiosity in things that were previously exotic. Young people don’t expect music to be written in a key any more – as long as it communicates.”

BBC Proms, July 16-September 11, www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article