Upsetting the olds
by Paul Connolly (The Times UK)
September 6th, 2003

Classical music needs Hayley Westenra.

It seems difficult to believe, but Hayley Westenra, a pretty 16-year-old soprano from New Zealand, may soon find herself at the centre of an unseemly squall in the classical music world. Her debut UK album, Pure, is about to be released, and Decca has every intention of making her a huge star, something that is certain to annoy some figures in the sphere of classical music.

The baritone Sir Thomas Allen made clear his opinion of what is known as “crossover” classical music when he claimed that popular classical artists such as Charlotte Church, Bond and Russell Watson were a symptom of an inexorable cultural decline.

Another critic of the popularising — or to use their favourite phrase, dumbing down — of classical music has huffed pompously: “We have reached a position of peril in the arts where we actually need a new elite.”

Westenra is dismissive of such people. “I don’t really understand their position,” she says. “Surely more people becoming interested in classical music is a good thing. I know of many of my fans who have taken up the violin or piano because of my records. They would never have taken an interest in classical music otherwise. How can these critics possibly see an upsurge of interest in classical music in any kind of poor light? It baffles me.”

Westenra certainly has a point. For years, interest in classical music among young people had been in steep decline. However, the past five years has seen an increase in children choosing to learn a classical instrument. The pioneering educational and outreach work undertaken by enlightened orchestras has played its part, but surely the high profile of artists such as Church has been significant.

The trouble is that for such critics any change is bad. Keep things as they are, close your eyes and maybe those horrid young people might go away and leave us alone with our music. Could these people be any more patronising? Indeed, without the revenue generated by crossover artists, “serious” classical practitioners who sell perhaps 15,000 copies of each release might not find an outlet for their music at all. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that crossover artists are good for classical music and maybe it is this that enrages the traditionalists so.

Regardless, Westenra looks set to antagonise the elitists further by selling lots of records; the glacial beauty of what is a remarkable voice — the control and purity of her upper registers defy belief — will surely captivate people in the same way as it has in her native New Zealand, where Pure enjoyed three weeks at No 1.

Let the fulminating begin.

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