Sheku and Tokio take classical music to a new level — and bust the myth it’s a genre for old white guys

Tonight sees the return of the Classic Brit Awards at the Royal Albert Hall (broadcast next Sunday on ITV at 10.30pm) after five years away. I’m glad about this, mainly because I’m going but also because it’s high time we celebrated music from the worlds of film, television, theatre and games. We rightly celebrate contemporary music but it’s easy to overlook other genres, especially classical. 

There’s a misguided view that it’s dying out, becoming irrelevant and that nobody under the age of members of the House of Lords cares. But statistics tell a different story. The Official Charts Company reports that from the start of 2018 classical streams rose by 52 per cent, often surpassing 10 million a week. Classic FM has 5.7 million listeners every week and more than a million of those are under 35.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra found that more than 62 per cent of British adults want to broaden their musical horizons and the age group which wants to learn most about classical are the under-25s. 

Classical music is part of our cultural identity and heritage. It’s not just names from the mists of time — we have bright new stars on the scene such as 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who mesmerised us with his extraordinary performance at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. His debut album, Inspire, broke the Top 20 here and the US Billboard charts. 

Then there’s Tokio Myers, a pianist who won Britain’s Got Talent last year via the Royal Academy of Music. I can’t wait for Myers to perform tonight with the full Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Both are state-educated and bust the myth that classical is only for old, rich, white folk. 

Having said that, we must do more to make sure classical music reaches a wider audience, is more accessible and starts at school. Due to deep cuts to arts education, in some areas music is being left to decay. Subjects such as maths and English are being prioritised over culture and the arts, which is such a counter-productive policy.

Learning to sing in a choir or play an instrument not only helps you appreciate music; it develops confidence. As tonight’s host, Mylene Klass, has said, music can help you with your algebra. Sadly, that didn’t quite work for me but learning to play the cello at school and playing in an orchestra opened up a world I would never have had access to — or my family.

“Playing cello in an orchestra opened up a world that my family and I would never have had access to otherwise” 

I remember the thrill of being part of a special schools’ performance of Carmina Burana at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. It was the first time our family had been anywhere like that — me as a performer, them as audience members. 

It was intimidating. We were all nervous but it was the most exhilarating experience and created a lifelong affection for and connection with classical music. Especially that “lovely Old Spice tune”, as my dad calls it.  

Diversity and excellence can co-exist

Hats off to Penguin Random House, which announced a goal to make sure that its authors and its staff reflect the diversity of UK society by 2025. 

To most people, especially those of us who fight for equality, this target seems ambitious yet achievable. It’s a modest and commercially advantageous message so who could be against it? Step forward Lionel Shriver, who wrote the brilliant We Need to Talk About Kevin and declared that the world-famous publishers were “drunk on virtue” and accused them of putting diversity ahead of literary excellence. 

Then Toby Young piped up about how this measure would make minority authors feel tokenised and insecure about merit. No, Tobes, we minorities are really OK with the paid work, mate… Why do we always assume that a minority person is not up to the job? Why do we always have blind faith in the innate ability of mainly white men to be the fount of all knowledge when they mess it up so gloriously on an everyday basis? And I haven’t even mentioned Brexit … 

Also, I would find it easier to take lectures on merit from Young if his dad hadn’t stepped in when Toby failed to get a place at Oxford. These interventions from Shriver and Young are depressing but instructive — the fight for equality is far from over. We need to talk about white privilege …      

*Having played one of the most famous women on the planet — Her Maj — Claire Foy now takes on the role of one of most compelling female characters in recent popular culture — genius computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, the anti-hero at the centre of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.

Claire Foy (AP)

But Foy has been criticised over whether she’s too prim and proper to play the often violent character in her latest film, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. This is unfair. Foy is a skilled actor and if she can capture the complex nature of Elizabeth II, she’ll have no problem getting under the skin of Lisbeth. I only hope she gets equal pay this time! 

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