'Boring' pop fuels booming classical sales

The music world is being shaken by a new breed of young composers, producers and performers. And – to the surprise of many – they're all devotees of classical music.

Festival behemoth Glastonbury is now a muddy memory, and major rock events Reading and Leeds are still some way off, but there is another major date in the festival calendar. The world famous BBC Proms begin tomorrow, and the prestigious first night has its youngest ever soloist.

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, 19 years old, was a BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004 aged just 11. Since this year’s Glastonbury headliners had an average age of 40, this is big news.

Ben will be joined on the line-up for the eight-week musical event by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. The subject of a much feted 2008 BBC documentary, the youth orchestra is made up of some of Venezuela’s poorest children. Saved from a life of crime and drugs on the streets of Caracas, the group play classical music to crowds of thousands. Young and exuberant, the crowds love them because they’re making classical music look cool, and they’re not the only ones.

Composer of the moment is 30-year-old Nico Muhly. He mixes classical and electronic music, and his compositions vary from award-winning film scores, to choral music, to collaborations with indie bands. His opera Two Boys finished its run at the ENO last Friday to critical adulation. Its subject? Cybersex, chatrooms, a stabbing caught on CCTV.

Also blurring the boundaries between classical and popular music is upcoming dubstep act Nero. The duo’s singles might be hitting the top 10, but their biggest new project is last month’s collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic, where they reworked their music using a full traditional orchestra.

It seems this new wave of popularity isn’t just a niche phenomenon. Four million tuned in to watch X Factor winner Joe McElderry win ITV’s reality show Popstar to Operastar last Friday. It’s not the 14 million the X Factor final draws, but it’s surprisingly large for a programme celebrating opera music.

Classically cool

The small UK classical festival scene is outnumbered by the hundreds of huge rock and pop festivals, and popular music still dominates the charts. Critics say classical music has always defined itself as being ‘other than popular music’, and a small selection of trend-setters endorsing it will only make it seem more exclusive and inaccessible.

Yet the statistics tell another story. US music sales generally are up 1%, but classical music sales are up by a trend-busting 13%. In the age of the formulaic pop song, is it only classical music that has the breadth and sophistication to allow young musical minds to explore and create?

You Decide

  1. Do you like classical music? Why?
  2. Do you think it would matter if classical music were to die out? Why? Do you think it's likely to happen?

Activities

  1. Write down all the classical composers you can think of in two minutes. Do the same for songwriters (not singers!) of popular music. Why do you think the results are the way they are?
  2. Research and listen to a style of music you've never listened to before. Write down the answers to these questions: Do you like it? Why do you or don't you? Who do you think might like it more or less than you do?

Some People Say...

“Classical is real music. Pop is simplistic and manufactured.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this experimental modern stuff the only reason classical music is making a comeback?
Not entirely. It's having a big cultural impact, but in terms of record sales, young, beautiful artists playing classics are big sellers. Katherine Jenkins is an obvious example.
Who's she?
She's a Welsh, multi-platinum award winning mezzo-soprano (not high, not low) crossover singer.
What's crossover?
Crossover is the secret to why these artists are doing so well. They're singing a mixture of classical and popular songs, like hits from musicals, or covers of pop songs, and doing it in manner accessible to the popular music market, meaning they sell to more than one audience.

Word Watch

Caracas
The capital of Venezuela.
ENO
The English National Opera. Founded in 1889, it has a reputation for being slightly more accessible than rival opera houses the Royal Opera or Glyndebourne.

Subjects

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