“I Think the biggest misconception about classical music is that all the composers were old European men.” Gabriel Prokofiev, classical musician, composer, DJ, and young father of three from Hackney, does not fit with the cliché. Neither, he maintains do any of his contemporaries.
“In terms of the number of male and female composers, it’s pretty much equal, and they come from all over the world, with all kinds of musical backgrounds.” For proof one need only glance at the programme of this weekend’s third annual Sound Unbound: the Barbican Classical Weekender; gender balanced, with very few grey hairs.
Sound Unbound aims to make classical music more appealing to younger audiences by breaking with traditional etiquette and creating a music festival environment where audiences can move between different stages, drink and chat.
Among the event’s top-billed performers are Canadian pianist and producer Chilly Gonzales, British trumpeter Alison Balsom, electronic composer and performer Anna Meredith, and 17-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, winner of BBC Young Musician 2016.
Efforts to draw classical music ‘out of the concert hall’ across the weekend range from Silent Opera’s Carmen: Remastered, which audiences can listen to silent disco-style as they wander through the Barbican conservatory to a horn flashmob.
Gabriel has hosted Sound Unbound’s Nonclassical club night since the event was launched in 2015, but has spent the last 12 years organising similar mini-festivals as the founder of Nonclassical record label.
“We essentially look at ways to present classical music to people who don’t know about it,” he says of the label, which produces albums of contemporary classical music mixed by emerging artists and hosts club nights in east London. “Classical music is quite exclusive; it doesn’t enter your life if you haven’t been brought up around it.”
As the grandson of legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, classical music entered Gabriel’s life before walking did, but the impressive pedigree doesn’t seem to have framed his approach – in fact he argues the pomp and circumstance isn’t even necessarily true to the origins of the music.
“Chamber music was traditionally a very casual affair – Brahms played his piano in all kinds of informal venues and we’ve turned it into this saga that needs to happen in a recital room.
“It can feel like a school assembly or a church service; people don’t know how to behave, they don’t want to disturb the performance and they feel trapped in their seats – it shouldn’t be like that.
“Most people’s experience with music is in that gig environment, so you need to promote classical music like you would advertise dance or rock.”
To that end, the Nonclassical club nights on the Friday and Saturday will take on “a party mood” with Gabriel DJ-ing between short live performances, mostly from musicians on the programme for the day sessions.
“It’s going to be a real mix of classical instruments incorporated with live electronics and straight up contemporary classics, but also an opportunity for audiences to see guests doing something slightly more edgy.”
Edge remains a quality the classical music scene remains largely without, but Gabriel says that with the mainstreaming of live performances and streaming making new genres more accessible, we could be seeing a new era.
“There are classical music nights happening around the country now, and all that activity has had an effect on the more traditional music venues,” he says.
“It’s a movement that is going to take time, but it’s also essential for classical music if it is to remain relevant – you can’t stick to a format that makes you feel like you’re in the 19th century, you have to adapt.”
Sound Unbound: Barbican Classical Weekender is being held on 29-30 April