The Nordic countries triumphed over British musical life. Let’s celebrate their new dominance – and learn from it.
Hooray, the “proper” Proms are back: 6,000 spectators, international orchestras, two concerts a day, that sort of thing. The BBC’s continued obsession with Nordic music and musicians is also back, as they navigate another season of the Proms with a distinctly Nordic flavor.
The Finnish conductor and principal guest conductors from the BBC Symphony Orchestra will open and close the season while Finnish, Danish and Swedish conductors from the BBC Philharmonic, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers will appear in between ( alongside many other Nordic conductors). ). The most popular “new music” tickets are for works by Icelandic composers Hildur Guðnadóttir and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra will perform, as will the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra with the violinist that the festival had at heart a few years ago, Pekka Kuusisto. Nordic superstars Leif Ove Andsnes and Johan Dalene are also among the soloists and all, as they say, to name a few.
I can very well understand society’s enthusiasm for Nordic music and musicians – obviously because I share it. my new book The Silence of the North is an attempt to understand how we got here: how the orchestras of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Ottawa, Toronto, Bogotá, Tokyo, Seoul, Paris, Montpellier, Lyon, Rome, Prague, Saarbrücken, Cologne, Detmold, Leipzig, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Glasgow, Cardiff, Wellington and Auckland ended up with conductors from an area whose collective population was smaller than that of Texas.
It doesn’t take a doctorate in anthropology to figure out how. Go to Finland or Scandinavia and you’ll see countries dotted with professional orchestras, opera companies and suitable modern concert halls – a stark contrast to all of South West England where I grew up, where there is no professional orchestra to be seen and only increasingly sporadic visits from opera companies based far, far away.
The colossal success story of Nordic music – the reason why we seem to be in thrall to composers like Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Hans Abrahamsen, Anders Hillborg and Björk just as much as we are to Nordic conductors and soloists – is the story of the Nordic region’s special attitude towards arts and culture. It is the story of the principle of universal access to high-level education and performance of all kinds, whether or not an economic dividend can be drawn from it. It is the story of a reasoned media that reports on these performances and broadcasts them (including on television, every week of the year) and of a flat education system that means that there is no You don’t have to be rich to have the basics of classical music laid during your time at school.
It’s only natural that small, homogeneous countries incubate distinctive and fertile music scenes – and it’s perfectly explicable that equally distinctive aesthetics emerge (perhaps one of the reasons why we find the region’s avant-garde music a slightly more palatable).
It may be too late for Britain to turn back time to the post-war years and embed culture into the political and sociological fabric of the nation, as has been done in the Nordic region. decades ago. Furthermore, there are elements of our musical life that work far better, including the hunger that stems from its competitive, cutting-edge fiscal arrangements and the artistic tension and unpredictability that it engenders.
In the meantime, we might as well learn the lessons we can from the Nordic countries. This means ensuring universal access to instrumental teaching. This means ensuring that young composers and conductors get the time with professional orchestras that they so desperately need and currently lack in their formative years. It’s keeping (should we “put”?) classical music on television and maintaining its presence in the pages of our newspapers. It means recognizing that music and the music industry are different things; music is above all a community quest and an agent of intergenerational liaison. It means trying to get rid of that annoying, lingering idea that classical music has class connotations, and helping us with that task by ceasing to treat it as a display of sophistication or good taste.
It may also mean slowing down and listening to the silence, which is always something the Proms and its home at the Royal Albert Hall have facilitated rather well.