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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Bums on seats, and heads in nooses,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Bizarre news from Judith Dobrzynski, writing in the Wall Street Journal.

Apparently the well-known John S and James L Knight Foundation's report (based on thirteen million-dollar orchestral outreach projects) has just been published. The report was an effort to find out which of the following led to the generating of more orchestra-going public:

  1. Free concert
  2. educational programmes for untouched-by-classical-music masses
  3. playing more contemporary works, despite the possibility that this might alienate aging core audiences
  4. exposing school-children to the joys of classical concerts

Tragically, not one of these things worked. Even of the 60% of adults who claimed to have an interest in classical music, fewer than 5% patronized their local symphony. (The question of whether said local symphonies were lousy, and these were discriminating audiences who preferred the Berlin Philharmonic, was not addressed.)

The grand finale of the report's conclusions, as imbibed by Ms Dobrzynski, was that 'the problems of orchestras on the "delivery systems" -- it's clear that people do not want to pay hefty sums for a long concert in a large concert hall ... There are plenty of people interested in classical music -- just not the way that music is being served up.'

In other words, we're back to the plight of my local society, the worthy if overly grandly-entitled Petts Wood Operatic Society (whose last few shows included Oklahoma, Sweet Charity and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, so we're not talking Die Valkyrie here). Despite marvellous direction, some extremely talented local stars and a really good atmosphere, they are in trouble. And my theory is quite simple why. (I really should sell this to the John S and James L Knight foundation, to sort out its befuddlement, but I'm in a good mood, so I won't.)

Their trouble is this:
It's not that lots of local people wouldn't enjoy a rousing musical, exceptionally well put-on, at a local venue, without sky-high London West End prices. It's just that they'd rather be at home. Their homes are comfy, suburban, edge-of-London homes. They have nice gardens in them. They can get in a superb Indian takeaway, rent a professional Oklahoma from a DVD rental place, and pause it when they want to answer the telephone without any of the hassles of (a) parking (b) driving (c) needing the loo in the middle of the last act or (d) getting rained on while traversing the poorly-lit car-park on their way home.

And here's another reason (John S and James L, take note). People are busy. It is one of those irritating truisms that people are busier than ever before, but there is a lot of evidence to support this. (Take universities. They used to have all sorts of interesting if idiotic societies about saving the whales but now the students are keeping their heads down in libraries, because they're worried about getting a Good Job in order to one day pay off All Their Debts.) Even kiddies are busier. At my daughter's age (just gone nine) I was busy dreaming and playing with dolls. She, in sharp contradistinction, is practising her French horn, learning her words for Annie Get Your Gun (you have not lived until you've heard my daughter's rendition of Annie Get Your Gun), and polishing her fourteenth mystery story. Most of my friends haven't got an evening free to go to a concert, even were they given free tickets. There's bridge nights and chess nights and squash nights and mixed doubles nights and parents' evenings at schools and friends' parties and even work (my husband frequently has to attend musicological seminars at night, and I have to play my cello at night, but I don't think that this is nearly as common as all the other kinds of events for most couples).

So what would it take to get your average, exhausted, middle-class couple to stuff down an early meal, get the kid to the childminders, and rush off to a show?

Bribery, is what. You have to know someone in the Petts Wood Operatic (I do) and feel you'd be letting them down by not showing up. Or you have to simply adore a solo performer (cellists all over the country used to descend on London to hear Rostropovich in his prime). Or an occasion. (Half the people in every London show are there to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or similar. If you removed them, and the tourists, there'd be ten people there to support a cast member, and the theatre cat).

And here's another thing to chew on. Classical music in the abstract is a bit like motherhood and apple pie. One would feel churlish telling an eager interviewer, pen poised, that one had no (none, zip, zero, nil, rien) interest in something of which one enjoyed vague but glowy memories, such as Christmas visits to The Nutcracker or the school orchestra murdering Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory umpteen times at one's graduation ceremony or Bernstein's music chats on TV (back when everyone watched the same things on TV, also known as A Long Time Ago). However, my feeling is (though I can't of course prove it) that a good half of this putative 60% wouldn't cross the road to hear a free Mozart string quartet.

Anyway, hope that's helpful, John S and James L. My fee is 90000 (add as many Os as you fancy, Keithie baby; these guys are loaded.)

Cordially, Alice

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Which brings us on to Saddam Hussein. As some of you know, I am by way of being an Iraq expert due to having last year ghostwritten a really marvellous book called Out of Iraq, with Mahmoud Albayati (see Amazon). Mahmoud is that rare and beautiful thing: a tolerant and liberal-minded Muslim. Yet in the course of this project, last year, I had to read some things (in several Saddam biographies) so revolting that I can't bring myself to write them down.

But, believe me, Saddam was no ordinary criminal. The Iraq war has been such a disaster -- in almost every respect -- that this fact is routinely forgotten.

I am constitutionally opposed to capital punishment, but in his case I am willing to make an exception. It is reported that the poor baby doesn't want to be hanged (as this is a demeaning form of death in his society). Right, then, I am willing to oblige him. In common with many of his victims (and there were over a million of these) he should instead be slowly tortured, especially (using electrical implements) in certain tender parts of the body, then cut up (gradually, gradually) in very small pieces, and then thrown to wild dogs. (Dogs are meant to be the pits in Muslim culture, which is why, if you're wise, you won't call any Muslim a dog. This is yet another reason why this so-called religion is so revolting, she writes, with a not-exactly-wild dachshund on her lap.)

This would still not satisfy any of the hundreds of thousands of Kurds on whom he employed chemical weapons, the Shias he oppressed and attacked, the normal Sunnis he forced into watching insane executions, the numberless women he and his sons raped and then shot, or the thousands of children horribly deformed by his 'experiments', but I am extremely open to suggestions, if anyone can think of anything worse.


Copyright © 10 November 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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