Change the world
Classical Music, 16/6/2012
When Gillian Moore and Jane Beese were put in charge of classical and contemporary music at the Southbank Centre, they came with high ambitions. Six months on, they see no reason to dampen them down. Simon Tait reports
Their mission is simple: “To do no less than change the world through art and music,” says Gillian Moore. “We’re here to create a breathing space for artists,” adds Jane Beese, perhaps slightly less ambitiously. They are the new musical leadership of the Southbank Centre, tasked with changing perceptions of music and introducing audiences to its unsuspected delights.
Their appointments six months ago as respectively head of classical music and head of contemporary music is the fruition of a process that really began when Jude Kelly became artistic director of the Southbank in 2005, followed by the remaking of the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years later. It was to bring performance to the public through festival.
When Marshall Marcus, Southbank’s head of music, decided to pursue a dream of working with Venezuela’s La Sistema programme of using music to make social change – which resulted in the world famous Simòn Bolivar youth orchestra – he was replaced by a restructured music management at the arts centre, with Moore and Beese, both old Southbank hands, given new posts at the head, but with equal status.
With a classical music degree from Glasgow, Moore had had a long association with the Southbank starting in 1993 as head of education, then working with the London Sinfonietta, a resident ensemble, and since 2006 head of contemporary culture. Beese came to London to read government and history at the London School of Economics, but chiefly, she says, to see rock and roll bands. After ten years working for booking agencies she joined the Southbank’s programming team in 2001. In particular she has been concerned with Meltdown, in many ways the microcosm of this festivalisation. She has masterminded nine of the 18 so far, working with the likes of David Bowie, Patti Smith, Morrissey and last year Ray Davies.
Once the Festival Hall was a hire venue with producers bringing the likes of Ella Fitzgelad, Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd, but now all programming is internal, though with partners. Moore’s role is officially to be responsible for the development and programming of classical music, while Beese’s is to do the same for rock, electronica, world and folk music. But it’s more complicated than that, they say. “Gillian thought this new prescriptive description meant wouldn’t be able to listen to rock music any more, a terrible thought for her,” Beese says with a smile and a glance at her friend. “Actually, we’ve worked so closely together for so long that this is a confirmation of what we were already doing”. Beese herself is to lace in.
For Moore, it’s a deliberate turning back to the ethic of what the Festival Hall was built for, the Festival of Britain in 1951, and to spread the programming all over the 21-acre site.
They are the spearhead of a campaign to do two things: dispel the perception of contemporary classical composition as “squeaky gate” music, and to break down the barriers between musics. They must also keep faith with the classical repertoire for which the Festival Hall was built and with its principal residents, the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia orchestras, which remain major draws. “We must make sure that the likes of Daniel Barenboim still see this as their natural home,” Moore says.
Jude Kelly sees festival as the means of engagement, but the festivals they do now spring from different sources, Beese says, and the partnerships vary depending on the event. “So Alchemy, British and South Asian arts, came from a congregation of a lot of partners that had already worked here in different ways, but WOW (Women of the World) three years ago came from an open call, a shout out to anyone who wanted to be involved in the think-ins we put together in advance of programming,” Beese explains. The constraints of budget cuts also means they have to be increasingly creative and entrepreneurial about how theyu work.
All this is manifested in a dizzying array of events, particularly this summer – most of it components of what the Southank is billing as the Festival of the World. How intimately composers know other musical genres is graphically illustrated by the American contemporary classical composer Steve Reich who has been commissioned by the London Sinfonietta to compose a new work based on songs by Radiohead, following a meeting he had with the group’s composer Jonny Greenwood, who was himself inspired by classical composers like Penderecki and Messaien. That will have its world premiere this summer.
In homage to the Olympics, 20 contemporary composers have been commissioned to write a 12-minute piece each with vaguely athletic themes, all of which will be performed over the weekend of July 13-15, mostly at free performances, and they will be available for composing workshops, all delivered by the PRS Foundation in partnership with BBC Radio 3 and with funding from arts philanthropists, the Cohens. Another feature showing the happy cross-overs that have always been there and often with the most unlikely commissioners – in this case Royal Mail – is to be a screening of the 1936 film Nightmail, with a live performance of Benjamin Britten’s score and a recitation of W H Auden’s poetry.
With so much of their own programming to do – “I used to think I worked hard, but this is different,” Moore says – the extra layer of the Olympics this summer might be seen as a quotient too far, but the two music chiefs see it as another opportunity for partnerships and new offerings to their ever-changing audiences. They have a part in the Festival 2012 River of Music, a weekend sound blast along the Thames that BT is sponsoring, and they are programming into the Southbank’s Africa Utopia month-long festival of drama, film, literature, dance fashion and music which is part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Meltdown in August is being programmed by the singer Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons) who has coaxed out of retirement the singer Elizabeth Fraser, once of The Cocteau Twins. His programme includes Marc Almond, and goes on to explore New York’s artrock scene and the experimental music of William Basinski.
The Meltdown phenomenon has been the Southbank giving musicians the opportunity to give audiences a glimpse into their minds. It works by the chosen curator negotiating a workable theme with Jane Beese and then giving her their list of artists for her to try to book – this time she has had an 85% success rate, “a measure of how respected he is in the industry”. Last year it was Ray Davies’s Meltdown, which included Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell-Davies as well a recreation of Ready, Steady, Go! “That has become the ethos of the place,” she says. “We didn’t change everything last December when we were given these titles, we’ve been doing it together for five years.”
Bryn Terfel’s own music festival used to take place each summer in a field in North Wales but lost its funding and in 2007 ceased to be. It was called Faenol but popularly known as Brynfest, and for four days in July the festival is being brought back on the Southbank, with Terfel bringing his favourites, including Welsh National Opera’s orchstra and Welsh male voice choirs from around the world to London.
Moore says that what they are there for is to reach as many people as possible “and really engage them”, to do programming to the highest possible artistic standards, and to take risks which you couldn’t do in a commercial situation”. You would hardly expect her to say anything else, but the biggest gamble of them all is the year long The Rest is Noise festival, and exposition of the 20th century’s classical music and the world it inhabited, to which the LPO is committing its entire 2013 programming.
In 2007 the New York music critic Alex Ross published a book of the same title that exploded the mystique of classical music and related it to the world beyond; it sold 250,000 copies worldwide in 15 languages. “It was the luckiest thing,” Moore says. “When we were thinking about how we present work with a narrative that has a social and philosophical context, this book arrived”. The year will include concerts, talks, films, performances and participation events, and will leave no aspect of a century untold through its music.
“We’re trying to pull out of it not only longer engagement with artists but a deeper engagement of audiences,” Beese says. “It’s aimed at a far wider group of people who might be thinking they know a bit about classical music but not how it relates to the rest of the world”. For instance, adds Moore, you cannot really get Stockhausen’s music unless you are aware of the terrible war he experienced as a conscripted teenage stretcher bearer in 1944 and 1945. BBC 4, Radio 3 and online connections will be participating, and the whole thing is to cost unspecified hundreds of thousands.
“We’re getting the place back to its roots of 1951, making a rhythm of festivals through which we can make sense of the great international work that we present here,” Gillian Moore sums up. “This is and has to be the most inspiring arts centre in the world.”