The Independent: Reverb Festival and the quiet evolution of live classical music

Wednesday 22 February 2012
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Tim Woodall
Wednesday 22 February 2012

London’s classical music scene is changing before our eyes. Over the last five to ten years a whole host of ambitious start-ups have emerged across the capital.

Ensembles like the Aurora Orchestra and the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) are stuffed with talented young players and perform challenging music. A grassroots opera community populated by OperaUpClose, Go Opera and the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre operates alongside alternative classical music promotions. This year the Yellow Lounge will be joining the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Night Shift, Nonclassical and Limelight. In a recent of review of music by Gabriel Prokofiev – composer, DJ and founder of Nonclassical – the New York Times referred to this scene, somewhat predictably, as ‘alt-classical’.

A festival conceived around the artistic activities of this new guard opens at the Roundhouse in Camden this weekend. Reverb Festival, a five-concert series exploring themes of love and truce, will be headlined by the leading lights of the ‘alt-classical’ (oh dear, I used it) movement, including the OAE Night Shift, Aurora, the LCO (pictured above with conductor Hugh Brunt) and Prokofiev. For its debut in 2010, Reverb drew in a decent crowd and, given the popularity of these groups and some interesting programming, this edition of the festival should do even better.

Reverb’s probable success, indeed its existence at all, signals a shift in the complexion of live classical music in London. Recognising that punters want to be challenged in the concert hall, as in the art gallery or the theatre, promoters have ditched safe educative programming in favour of innovation. The never-ending pursuit of young audiences now coalesces around cross art-form collaboration, informality and artistic boldness – characteristics that groups like Aurora, LCO and Nonclassical specialise in.

The big beasts of classical music, meanwhile, can’t afford to stand still even though the market is strong. From the top symphony orchestras to the leading venues, live classical music (even the sonically challenging contemporary kind) is, by all accounts, doing pretty well. But senior artists and administrators will no doubt be watching the march of the Young Turks. Whether it’s being able to take a pint into a concert or the expectation that artists are going to present their set as well as perform it, young ensembles, classical club nights and pop-up opera companies are moving the goalposts for what is expected of live classical music.

And in the main, they are doing so without much in the way of public money. In a report on arts funding in this week’s edition of The Economist, the magazine notes that: “After years of generous funding, many theatres and dance troupes are better placed to face adversity than before. The cuts will leave some groups crippled but most in fighting form, particularly those that are soundly run.” That environment should help small tightly-run organisations successfully apply for funding. After all, today’s classical music start-ups will soon become institutions that seem like they’ve been around forever. My money is on many of the Reverb generation to make that leap.

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