Our review of Classical:NEXT 2017

It’s three days since I returned from Classical:NEXT and I’m still not quite caught up on sleep. There’s also a serious stack of business cards on my desk, which will probably take weeks to work through. As for the new ideas and inspirations, they’ll be buzzing around my brain for months to come.

After stepping off the train into unseasonably warm weather – it was 28 degrees in Rotterdam – I took an hour or two to look around the town. It’s a clean, bright place where you cannot walk more than a few blocks without bumping into a major cultural landmark of one sort or another – in other words, an ideal location for an event like Classical:NEXT.

Squinting in the Rotterdam sunshine
Squinting in the Rotterdam sunshine

This year’s opening concert focussed on companies and performers who provide access to music for those who might otherwise miss out. So, we heard from Afa Dworkin from Detroit’s Sphinx Organization, who work to redress the lack of Black musicians in America’s orchestras. We also saw an inspiring montage of work going on all over the world from groups like Germany’s Selam Opera!, Gondwana Choirs in Australia and Columbia’s 3 Thousand Rivers.

Afa Dworkin interviewed by Paul Bräuer
Afa Dworkin interviewed by Paul Bräuer © Eric van Nieuwland

But the best bit was the selection of pieces from Chineke! Orchestra. Founded only two years ago by effervescent double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, and with a mission similar to that of Sphinx, the orchestra’s playing provided the perfect start to the conference: energetic, edgy and inspiring.

Chineke! Orchestra
Chineke! Orchestra © Eric van Nieuwland

After a short and uncomfortable night’s sleep (word of advice: never stay at an easyHotel), it was time for the conference proper. Classical:NEXT’s aim is to “explore potential paths forward into the future” for classical music. “We want to provide stuff you can actually use – practical things you can try for yourselves when you get home,” said Classical:NEXT director Jennifer Dautermann during the orientation session. “We go to a lot of professional conferences … steal the best bits … and learn from their mistakes.”

So, how did the sessions match up to those goals? There were some real successes: an exploration of new music venues provided a vivid insight into how you might make a space more inviting to new audiences. The network meetings, such as the Global Orchestra Network session led by Anselm Rose and Mark Pemberton, were also winners.

Global Orchestras Network meeting
Global Orchestras Network meeting © Eric van Nieuwland

Even the ones that didn’t quite come off had interesting moments. A debate about the genre ‘neo-classical’ was a bit stodgy until Dautermann, who was sat in the audience, interrupted and took it in a more interactive direction. You certainly wouldn’t get a moment like that at most professional networking conferences, and it added an air of spontaneity to the proceedings.

I also went to one of the classical music club nights, which – while interesting – proved classical music doesn’t always mix with drinks. Whereas normally at a club or gig you’d be able to chat freely with your friends, here it ended up interrupting the performer (whose music was quite quiet). It’s an idea that could work, but needs a few tweaks.

The main success though was the expo. Featuring stands from companies, countries, content creators, magazines, media outlets and management groups from all over the world, it was here that you found the heart of the conference. This was where I picked up the most promising leads and had the most engaging conversations. As for the national booze and food on offer, that was a welcome bonus (a special shout out to the Belgian stand for its beer).

Expo at Classical:NEXT
Expo at Classical:NEXT © Eric van Nieuwland

Unfortunately I missed the Innovation Award as I had to take an early flight back to London, but congratulations to winners Buskaid, who provide stringed instrument tuition to disadvantaged young people from Soweto in Johannesburg. Buskaid was a fitting choice for the conference themes, and one that will hopefully inspire others to start similar schemes.

As for me, I’m off to make a start on that pile of business cards – hopefully I’ll be done before the next Classical:NEXT comes around.