The state of contemporary classical music

Violinist Madeleine Mitchell chairs a lively roundtable discussion with the panellists sharing their perspectives on topics including funding, education, audience development and supporting composers

A fundamentally changed landscape 

There’s a lot happening, with a real buzz around new music and it’s a vibrant and evolving genre. However, there is no escaping the immense challenges facing individuals across the sector, from composers and performers to promoters and venues, a theme that dominated the roundtable discussion. 

Starting with a birds-eye view of the sector, panellists described a landscape that has fundamentally shifted in recent years, with traditional routes of entry and sources of funding drying up, replaced with a need to self fund and utilise new technologies. It is no longer enough to have demonstrable qualifications and musical talent; composers and musicians today must develop entrepreneurship to take advantage of opportunities.

Innovative funding models 

In line with repeated conversations across the sector, panellists were keen to highlight the lack of funding facing the music world and the difficulty of accessing funds through philanthropy, corporate sponsorships or new government grants. In terms of funding models, Naomi Belshaw spoke about the frequency of co-commissions and David Burke listed orchestras in Boston, Leipzig, Dallas and Katowice as partners for major commissions. This gives composers greater opportunity than one performance and the LPO supporters trust the orchestra to support new commissions. 

The panel also stressed the need for young financial entrepreneurs to support contemporary classical music. Belshaw pointed to the new Music Patron scheme run by Sound and Music as one such example, supporting composers through subscriptions. Alex Groves called for a shift away from funding education alone, arguing that composers need grants to write music not to undergo ever more extensive training. Madeleine Mitchell spoke briefly about Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s shared commission scheme. As a performer she had managed to fund an album of new works, Violin Muse, via crowdfunding, though this was a process she did not relish! 

The accessibility challenge 

Strengthening music education is needed in the state system. Arts organisations such as orchestras are attempting to fill the serious gaps in government provision. Mitchell mentioned Opera North’s admirable In Harmony programme catering for 2,500 children in the Leeds area and the improvement in music college students’ enthusiasm for contemporary music. 

Burke pointed to the recent Creative Learning Alliance where the Welsh and Scottish governments were putting the arts back into education. However, these efforts remain a postcode lottery, dependent on local governments and regional ensemble budgets.  

Innovative programming

Regarding audiences Rebecca Dawson highlighted the difficulties faced by programmers outside London for audiences to embrace new music. At Music at Oxford, audiences are often reluctant at first, though new pieces are well received when included, and they are trying, by placing a greater emphasis on communication between composers and their audiences.

Belshaw echoed this sentiment, describing audiences at Three Choirs who expect “their” traditional Elgar and Vaughan Williams. This tactic is shared by the LPO, which trains composers to speak about their compositions with audiences, and Mitchell has worked with RCM students to engage with audiences and work with living composers – which she said many were now keen to do. 

The “success formula” 

Beyond programming, with a mix of standard and contemporary music cited as beneficial, the panel agreed that the “success formula” to attract audiences could be to offer a “whole experience”. This includes captivating personal stories from performers/composers that engage the audience, with attractive lighting, supporting videos, interviews and recordings. Although this clearly adds cost to performances this is offset by the value for audiences, especially younger ones who desire “a good time” alongside a fine performance. 

From emerging to established 

For young composers there remains a question, “How do you get from emerging to established?” As a publisher, Dawson stressed her disbelief at how an opera commission fee was less than the singers’, wondering if this speaks to a wider need to “sell composers more”. 

Belshaw agreed that part of the excitement that surrounds renowned conductors or soloists is their personal brand, something that composers must begin to develop. Social media is an accessible and effective way to build this and attract an audience, though Groves lamented an age where composers did not have to spend so much time promoting themselves. Although Burke left emerging artists with a glimmer of hope, “never underestimate how fascinating the process of composing is to anyone who’s not part of it”. Mitchell spoke about the importance of partnerships between composers and performers, and it was agreed how fruitful this can be.

Breaking down barriers 

The panel wanted to address the importance of diversity, exploring different ways their organisations engage with traditionally underrepresented communities. The LPO’s Junior Artist Programme gives young performers the opportunity to choose audition repertoire from beyond traditional programming, stressing the importance of connecting with music they perform and choosing pieces by composers they relate to. 

Dawson highlighted the importance of programming and making concert halls welcoming, having found success with an audience buddy scheme. At Three Choirs a new non-auditioned chorus, a parade through the street before the opening ceremony, a bandstand with all kinds of music outside the cathedral and free access to rehearsals helps but it’s still quite hard to get new or more diverse audiences. Syrian clarinettist and composer Kinan Azmeh worked with the LPO and the Syrian community through Counterpoint Arts, bringing 30 to 40 people to the concert “which was a real win”, but “if you want diverse audiences, you need diverse composers and performers.”

Madeleine Mitchell’s new album Violin Conversations features eight world premiere recordings, with six of the pieces written for her. The recording is released with Naxos on 23 June 2023 and includes works from Errollyn Wallen to Martin Butler, with several composers as pianists.

Final thoughts from the panel

Madeleine Mitchell

“Overall, conversations are valuable for sharing information and brainstorming ways to effectively shape the future of contemporary classical music.” 

Madeleine Mitchell – Violinist, Director of the London Chamber Ensemble and the Red Violin Festival, RCM professor with a long experience of working closely with living composers in performance and recording

Alex Groves

“Classical music is often rooted in the past. I think we need to take stock of what is working aand revolutionise what isn’t.”

Alex Groves – Composer and curator 

Naomi Belshaw

“Some modernisation is needed. Do it your way – be a modern composer but be aware of the legacy and honour both.”

Naomi Belshaw – Composer, manager and founder of Naomi Belshaw Consultancy, Chair of the Three Choirs Festival, formerly  with PRS Foundation and WildKat PR 

Rebecca Dawson

“For people outside our niche world, it’s fascinating how you communicate the process. Gently pushing ‘look you can trust us, here’s a new work’ to get them on board, to see a score – you have to imagine how it is for someone who knows less. Keep on communicating.” Rebecca Dawson – Artistic and Executive Director, Music at Oxford, formerly worked in music publishing 

David Burke

“There are different audiences and we need to have a good narrative, a whole journey getting a message across, bringing people with us, thinking carefully how we present things.” David Burke – currently Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and formerly General Manager