Cricket Connections

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With the Ashes series starting this week, and with Cheltenham’s Music Festival and Cricket Festival underway, Music Festival Director Meurig Bowen reflects on the connections between music and cricket…

For the third day of the Lord’s Test in the 2009 Ashes Series, I programmed an event to close the Cheltenham Music Festival which paid tribute musically to this great sporting contest. It was a performance of Mendelssohn’s wonderful Octet which conjoined two string quartets from England and Australia. The two groups I’d chosen were all female line-ups; I thought that would be a nice counterbalance to the goings-on in St John’s Wood. Except that, on the day, two of the eight girls turned up as boys. These were not sex changes, you understand, just maternity-related personnel changes. Unlike the Test Match, which England won, I’d say it was a captivating draw out in Gloucestershire.

With this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival in full flow, and with the start of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival this week, it’s worth dwelling here on the close bond between cricket and music. Let’s start with the current England captain, Alastair Cook – a chorister in St Paul’s Cathedral Choir who, as a useful clarinettist too, subsequently got a music scholarship to Bedford School. One of his predecessors, Mike Brearley, apparently used to hum Beethoven to himself as the bouncers of Lillee and Thomson fizzed past his throat. There was The Guardian’s own great Neville Cardus – his generation’s most distinguished music critic and cricket journalist. And in my festival’s programme book this year, Alan Rusbridger himself admits in a little Q+A that his ‘unfulfilled ambitions’ are i) to conduct Verdi’s Requiem and ii) to be first change bowler for England.

Classical musicians – male ones at least – just seem to get cricket. Not a week goes by in the summer months when an orchestra, opera company or management outfit isn’t fielding a side against one of their counterparts. Perhaps it’s the equal demands of precision timing. Perhaps it’s the fact that with both, familiarity deepens understanding and appreciation in equal measure.

There are other connecting points too, though not necessarily positive ones. Neither classical music or cricket is in particularly rude health in state schools – though the cricket charity Chance to Shine has done superb work in reversing decline since 2005. Connected perhaps is the relative lack of ethnic minorities representation with either. Look at most orchestras and choirs in Britain, and you’d be forgiven for thinking multiculturalism had never happened. And where are the top players of West Indian heritage right now in the English game, the Phil de Freitas’s and Devon Malcolm’s? The dectrators’ tired accusation of ‘elitism’ is far more likely to stick, sadly, if both are perceived as posh, privileged and white.

There are manifestations of cricket and classical music that are both vibrant and hugely popular, or obscure and modestly attended. The same concert hall or county ground can be miserably empty or packed to bursting, depending on the teams playing or the artists and repertoire being presented.

Recognising changing expectations in each successive generation for what passes as entertainment, both cricket and classical music have adapted well. Just as the one-day game and 20:20 have revolutionised cricket, musicians and programmers strive constantly to reinvent and reinvigorate the concert experience. (There is still a way to go: cricket’s progress has been more vigorous.)

For the purists, 20:20 and Crossover is invariably a step too far. And let’s remember that there is still huge demand for the ‘long game’, for what some consider to be the ‘real thing’. Big symphonies, long operas, five day test matches: this summer, hundreds of thousands of people will witness them all around the country, relishing their glorious subtlety and complexity as much as the visceral high a thumping six or spine-shuddering fortissimo might happily deliver.