Portsmouth's classical orchestras and choirs are striving to reach new audiences

Portsmouth Choral Union performing at St Mary's Church in Fratton, April 2019
Portsmouth Choral Union performing at St Mary's Church in Fratton, April 2019

As the music swells and reaches its crescendo, the orchestra’s playing becomes increasingly intense.

The audience listens in rapt attention, some with eyes closed letting the music envelop them, others watch the conductor keenly as he leads his charges to the finale. Classical music has been with us for centuries, its symphonies’ enduring appeal testimony to their timeless quality.

The Portsmouth Chamber Music Series for 2018-2019 concluded with a second visit by Ensemble 360. Picture by Kaupo Kikkas

The Portsmouth Chamber Music Series for 2018-2019 concluded with a second visit by Ensemble 360. Picture by Kaupo Kikkas

According to industry figures, recorded classical music was the fastest growing sector in 2018, with online streaming rising by 42 per cent, and CD sales bucking the overall downward trend and actually going up by 6.9 per cent.

But with more and more forms of entertainment competing for our attention, something that requires concentration is going to find it difficult to satisfy the modern audience’s demands for instant gratification.

However, this does not mean there is any shortage of classical concerts in our area.

The well-respected Portsmouth Choral Union has roots stretching back to 1880 and continues to perform several concerts a year. Phil Stokes, the PCU’s chairman says: ‘I think it’s important people remember the roots of music. Today, it’s more pop music, which harks back to an African base, but we’ve also got a heritage of European music that’s worth enhancing. Classic FM and Radio 3 are promoting classical music, and it seems popular, but here in Portsmouth it doesn’t seem to be so popular.’

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Picture by Kevin Clifford

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Picture by Kevin Clifford

The PCU has forged close ties with Castle Primary School in Portchester and its pupils join them in concerts. ‘It’s good that we are getting young people involved and when there’s a piece that needs young people we can bring them in and that’s encouraging.

‘Church choirs are rare these days, particularly where young people are involved – you do get the odd “grannies’ choir” popping up, but it’s not so common for young people. And there’s also the lack of funding in schools for music generally.

‘The choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral said recently, at one time when new pupils came to the choir school he could reckon that they would know most of the hymns. Now they just don’t sing them, so they really have to teach them the basic hymns that a few years ago everyone would know.’

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, despite its name, is our regional orchestra, covering the south and south west. One of their regular venues is Portsmouth Guildhall.

BSO’s chief executive Dougie Scarfe, is bullish about classical music’s place in the cultural sphere. ‘We have a very supportive audience in Portsmouth who attend many of the concerts the BSO present in the city.

‘This spring, our film music concert sold out at the 2,000-seat Guildhall and the performance of Elgar’s cello concerto was also incredibly popular.

‘Attendance of BSO concerts in Portsmouth has remained stable in the past decade but of course we always strive for our music to reach the widest and most enthusiastic audience possible.’

Reaching the younger audience is something of a holy grail, and the BSO has worked hard on this with the likes of its Kids for a Quid scheme. ‘Last year 13,761 under-18s attended a BSO concert for free or just £1. Almost 2,000 children in Portsmouth attend the free BSO Schools Concert each year and workshops are offered to schools across the region. We are working more closely than ever with our colleagues at the Guildhall to understand audience appetite and next season we’re bringing some incredible works to Portsmouth that are the perfect introduction for those who may be new to classical music – Holst’s The Planets suite, Rachmaninov’s major piano works, the ever-popular Christmas Proms, film music and more – alongside this we’ll be introducing an affordable flat-rate fee which offers value for money compared to other events attracting younger audiences in the city.

‘We’re always looking at ways to interact with new audiences and look forward to the ways in which our new website will enable engagement in an accessible and inclusive way.’

The Portsmouth Chamber Music concert series recently finished its 15th season. Colin Jagger, who is also head of music at the University of Portsmouth, curates the series. ‘Audiences tend to go up and down. I think people come to classical music later in life, so while the audiences tend to be older, there are also new people getting to that stage in life where they want something a bit more different, or I might say, worthwhile. The audience renews, even though it does tend to be the older end of the market.

‘Any sort of music of the kind I’m involved in requires more attention. It might be half an hour/45 minutes long. Even if there are several movements, they might be 10-15 minutes and that requires a lot of concentration, whereas with a song that lasts two or three minutes, it’s easy to take it in and move on, so there’s always that difficulty that you’re going to need to apply yourself.

‘And I would say anything that requires more concentration is more rewarding at the end of it.’

He agrees the lack of music in schools is problematic.

‘A major problem we have now in schools is music education is being cut almost to zero. It worries me more at that level that very few people have exposure to music in the way that I had when I was going to school. Most of my friends weren’t musical, but they were exposed to music, and that little bit of background, later in life when someone talks about going to concerts, it doesn’t sound stupid, so there’s not that hurdle.’

Upcoming classical concerts

*Thursday Lunchtime Concert at 1pm on June 13 at St Mary’s Church, Portchester features Fumi Otsuki on violin with Sarah Kershaw on piano.

* Solent Symphony Orchestra join the Cathedral Choir, The Portsmouth Grammar School and other local school choirs in a concert of British and French music, marking D-Day 75 at Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral on Saturday, June 20. 

The evening includes a performance of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony from cathedral organist David Price.

* Portsmouth Festival Choir and  the Art-Ludeus String Quartet, perform a concert of Baroque melodies, both sacred and secular, accompanied by pianist Mark Dancer with conductor Ben Lathbury, on Saturday, June 22, at St George’s Church, Portsea. 

* Portsmouth Choral Union are at New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth, on Saturday, July 6 with Tonight, Tonight…

The programme features Misa Criolla by Ramirez and Bernstein’s West Side Story and his Mass.

* Havant Symphony Orchestra is at Oaklands Catholic School in Waterlooville on Saturday, July 13. Conductors Jonathan Butcher and Stefano Boccacci lead a concert featuring soloist Joo Yeon Sir in Profokiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major.

* The Renaissance Choir is at Church of the Holy Spirit, Southsea, on Saturday, July 13, with Night and Day, led by conductor Peter Gambie with pianist Karen Kingsley. The programme includes Lux Aeterna by Lauridsen, plus music by Eric Whiteacre, Grieg and more.