‘I count the ethnic minorities in the audience… I get as far as my mother’

‘I count the ethnic minorities in the audience… I get as far as my mother’


norman lebrecht

May 31, 2016

From an outspoken interview with the half-Jamaican British baritone Roderick Williams:

The baritone Roderick Williams plays a game when he sits and looks out across the auditorium from the concert platform, between solos. “The game often doesn’t last long,” says the popular and sought-after singer. “I count the ethnic minorities. But I might get as far as my mother and stop there.”

Read on here.

roderick williams


  • Will Duffay says:

    He’s absolutely right. The questions are: who’s to blame, and what can be done?

    The blame is political and crosses the divide: the left is reluctant to ‘force’ western culture on anybody, let alone non-whites, and embraces cultural relativism; the right considers the arts a luxury for the wealthy only and doesn’t see the need to fund them at grassroots level.

    If we blame venues and orchestras etc for the lack of diversity of the audience we’re looking in the wrong place. It’s too late by that stage. We need to start earlier, much earlier, and properly fund music lessons at primary school, across the country, and continue that funding beyond the first year. Currently there have been some great all-class instrumental lessons, with a few chosen pupils getting subsidised lessons after that, but the subsidy is not high, and at some point it’s always down to the parents to stump up regular amounts of cash for lessons and instruments.

    And of course this isn’t about the colour of the audience: it’s about the continued existence of an audience, any type of audience, for classical music. If the nation wants classical music to remain alive, it has to fund it at schools. The question is: does the nation want that? It’s unclear.

    • Basia Jaworski says:

      well said Will

    • John Borstlap says:

      Wise words. And – suspecting the comment referred to the US – it also counts for Europe, where subsidy cuts in education tend to first focus on the arts and especially, music. Although cultures mostly have developed in localized and ethnic contexts, eventually they become independent from these roots and can be chosen by anyone. A striking example is the interest in Western classical music in China.

      • Adam says:

        Will is correct – very well written, and common sense for anyone who cares to use their eyes and see the truth.

        If the young don’t come forward then there’s no future. That’s the obligation of the older generation to carry it forward as it was for us.

        That goes for all people regardless of race (though I “get” Roderick’s point)

    • Old Whig says:

      Interesting thoughts, and many grains of truth. But I don’t know any conservatives who “consider[] the arts a luxury for the wealthy only.” I do know conservatives who are skeptical about too much government involvement in the arts, but most typically for the following two reasons.

      First, markets have done a great job at making arts more varied and accessible. I’m sorry that there aren’t larger, more diverse audiences in concert halls. I can’t afford to go often myself (it’s a once-a-year indulgence for me), and I almost always go alone, because it’s so expensive. But for very little money, I can hear some of the best performances of the world’s greatest masterpieces at the click of a button. And if I tire of the same fare that plays season after season at the symphony, I can go off the beaten path and listen to works that are unlikely to get a concert performance these days.

      Second, getting government more involved eventually leads to making artistic decisions political. That is the worst possible outcome for art–and anyone who cares about it.

      You’re welcome to disagree, of course–and I think a good case still can be made for government subsidized music education–but I wanted to add what I believe a more typical (modern, American) conservative view might be.

  • Maria Brewin says:

    I’m sure he’ll always see quite a few people from SE Asia. I do.

    Don’t they count?

    • Una says:

      Not at concerts in London unless they’re rich. Perhaps Orientals but not Asian as we know them.here.

      He’d also have another game in some places to find people under 60!!! He came here for recital.in Ilkley last year. 600 in the audience of mainly white middle class and the returns from those who don’t like any singers, resold to.Opera North members. Same the year before when Sarah Connolly cane – and tickets only £11. This year no recitalist, only instrumental.

      • Maria Brewin says:

        I really meant “Orientals”, but some people don’t like the term. Much in evidence in London audiences.

        Interesting you should mention Ilkley. I have bad memories of a RLPO concert in St George’s Hall, Bradford. Stuffiest audience I’ve ever been in. I was a student at the time and looked like one. Never felt out of place in a London concert hall but felt like a leper in Bradford, and I was born there.

        Don’t know what was going on. Still missing Barbirolli/Halle perhaps.

  • Tom Gossard says:

    Here, in Los Angeles CA, our Philharmonic Organization researches to find programs keyed to young people, especially minorities. It has been quite successful. There has to be a constant search for innovations and programs that are of interest to younger people and minorities in particular.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    If people aren’t interested, they’re not interested. Don’t force them to come if they don’t want to. Does anybody moan about the lack of white, middle-aged audience members at rap concerts? Is anything being done to make that music more attractive to them? If not, why not?

    • Florestanman says:

      I completely agree. There is no outreach program for attracting white, middle aged audience members into rap music. The only difference between rap and classical is that rap, like Jazz and Rock n Roll before that, is a purely commercial art form. So when it stops being relevant or popular, it finishes, unlike classical music. Rap doesn’t feel the need to impose onto it’s audience it’s own brilliance. Also, I don’t know how many rap concerts you’ve ever attended, but it can’t be many, because the white middle aged 30-40 year olds who should be attending classical galas are actually paying to see Jay Z rap in art installation projects at the Met (gallery not house).

      • clarrieu says:

        “rap, like Jazz (…) , is a purely commercial art form”? Hey, sure, this for example was purely intended for making dollars:
        Evil Mingus might have read the Wall Street Journal while arranging… How crazy have you guys gotten on this blog? Can’t you get yourself a pair of ears before posting?

    • Minutewaltz says:

      Good point. I hadn’t thought of that.

  • Peter says:

    It’s called free choice, what’s the problem? If different parts of the human race want to engage with different cultures, and they have a choice to do so, or not, that’s surely fine. No one prevents people from going to classical concerts, they choose not to. Not the same thing. It’s only because classical music tends to be subsidised, and therefore prone to political correctness and all sorts of other tests about accessibility that we have this sort of meaningless debate.
    It’s the same kind of correctness that means that funding for certain parks and nature reserves is available if you demonstrate accessibility to the disabled. I can think of one nature reserve that had a tarmac path built right through the ‘green and pleasant land’ to facilitate it. Kind of defeating the object of keeping it green. But it’s ok, because now it’s accessible.
    So rather than trying to ‘reach out’ and find the latest hip-hop arrangement of Beethoven or some other rubbish to demonstrate correctness and accessibility, let’s celebrate classical music and if people want to come, let them.

  • DESR says:

    It only becomes a problem, because some (actually, a lot) of classical music is propped up by public money.

    If it were not, it would not matter so much, apart from being a shame.

    e.g. The Royal Opera House has to care, and should care. Glyndebourne does not need to care, even though it still does.

    • Peter says:

      Accessibility means everyone has the same right and possibility to buy a ticket. Not that some sections of the population have to be pandered too, offered programmes to entice them, or special deals.
      But we are being swayed ever more to over compensation in this and other things. Just like equality doesn’t mean better chose a woman because they are currently under represented, it means chose a man or a woman based simply on the best person for the job, without reference to gender. (Although I acknowledge some conductors would have a less busy schedule if this was the test).

  • Tom Gossard says:

    Again, here in Los Angeles, where the Philharmonic receives not a huge amount of public money, private giving and endowment funds make up the difference. I admit it’s a somewhat unusual situation, but there is not much reason to suppose that it cannot be done elsewhere. However, the secret is in building the support over many years, decades really.

  • Tristan Jakob-Hoff says:

    Two things will help with this, and both relate to broadening the audience for classical music in general, rather than specifically targeting the BAME audience. The first is to get classical music onto the educational curriculum as early as possible. People need to be engaged by it before their peer group and society have helped them to make up their minds about what cultural activities are and are not ‘for them’. By the time people are teenagers, they are well on their way to having made up their minds for life. Early education is key.

    But secondly, we need to stop apologising for classical music. Present it for what it is. Yes, it’s ‘elite’ in the sense that all high art is ‘elite’, but that does not stop it from being accessible. It’s not pop music. It’s not cool. It’s not trendy, no matter how many times you play it under a railway arch in Hoxton. But it’s wonderful, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so for fear of being ‘elitist’ or ‘uninclusive’. Imagine if Apple tried to sell its products by telling you how you shouldn’t be frightened by them, and really, they were just like PCs, and here’s a kind of half-PC/half-Apple hybrid so you can try it out and see if you like the experience. And then when it does’t get the results they wanted, doubling down on the strategy. No – they’d be bust.

    Instead they sell their products as if they were the best products in the world. They sell them at a premium because they value those products highly. They advertise all the things that are unique to their products, not how they are kind of similar to some other product you might already know. For BAME audiences and any other audience, we need to start presenting classical music as something they might actually want to learn to enjoy. And we’re not going to do that by continually trying to dilute it to suit the tastes of people who don’t really like it.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      Bravo, excellently put.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Entirely agreed…. well said. Especially: “But secondly, we need to stop apologising for classical music. Present it for what it is. Yes, it’s ‘elite’ in the sense that all high art is ‘elite’, but that does not stop it from being accessible.” In this context, ‘elite’ means: superior quality and exciting experience. Alas, egalitarian ‘thinking’ which wants the masses to believe that classical music is merely an instrument of the bourgeois classes to distinguish themselves from lower strata of society and to intimidate and suppres them (Bourdieu), has provided many people (among which politicians) with the ultimate excuse to ignore and undermine the art form and its practitioners.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Actually, very little of the interview is about colour.

    • Bruce says:

      See the selected snippet from the earlier post about Emmanuel Vuillaume (the headline is “homeless 3-job conductor” or something). I don’t know if Lebrecht is selecting the snippet most likely to get a lot of clicks, or if he’s finding an interesting sentence or two buried among all the blah-blah-blah and thinks “ooh, this would make an interesting discussion topic.”

      Either way, it’s working, although (see Vuillaume again, among others) some readers tend to react only to the snippet and not consider context.

  • Itsjtime says:

    Tiger Woods and the Williams sister face the same issue.