How many times have you been to a concert or gig in a church? Or, in a moment of curiosity, have you ventured into a Cathedral and been greeted by the proud roar of an organ? The magical sound of treble voices floating up to the heavens? I challenge anybody not be moved by such experiences.
With its heritage so tightly bound to that of Christianity, classical music in the UK (and indeed across much of the globe) has so often found a home in the myriad churches and cathedrals that dot the landscape: concerts given as sonic offerings to the glory of God perhaps, channeled heavenward through spires and domes; or often simply artistic showcases, enhanced by an excellent acoustic and facilitated by ample - if uncomfortable - seating room.
‘I find it absolutely extraordinary that disability access comes second to heritage … that’s one way of saying we don’t care about you isn’t it?’
But for all my enthusiasm for this happy pairing of architecture and music, there is a hidden catch that works at odds with the inclusivity that lies at the core of both music-making and Christianity: not everybody can attend. In my previous article I spoke about the barriers facing the disabled with musical potential. In a recent podcast for the BBC, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby lamented the fact that many of the Church of England’s 9000 buildings are ill-equipped and inaccessible, largely due to heritage legislation having greater clout than that of accessibility: ‘I find it absolutely extraordinary that disability access comes second to heritage … that’s one way of saying we don’t care about you isn’t it?’ I find it equally unbelievable that heritage is still top trump in this seemingly antiquated conflict, and was shocked to hear of Welby's experience as Subdean at Coventry Cathedral, less than a decade ago, where plans to build a ramp up to a chapel were blocked for ‘heritage reasons’.
Sadly, secular concert halls are not doing much more to encourage inclusivity. Although this year’s Proms is to include a ground-breaking performance from the world’s first disabled-led professional ensemble, the BSO’s Resound, there are just 20 wheelchair seats available in the main auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall, and four in the gallery. According to the disability advice on the Proms website, these spaces are, rather insultingly, ‘bookable … for the majority of concerts.’ The majority. There is further space to promenade, but unless they are able to get a coveted font-row spot, wheelchair users are likely to spend the whole performance staring at a balding, red-trousered back-end. How sad, and deeply ironic, that a concert with the potential to inspire so many disabled musicians is accessible to so few.
The step-only access at the Victoria Palace Theatre would suggest an equally Edwardian attitude towards disability
The theatre world is equally culpable. The Victoria Palace Theatre, for example, which hosts the brilliant Hamilton, still has a way to go to in providing proper disabled access. Here, whilst chandeliers and plush velvet seats provide a nostalgic reminder of Edwardian opulence, the step-only access, and availability of just three wheelchair-appropriate seats (all with limited visibility) would suggest an equally Edwardian attitude towards disability. I was recently told a shiver-inducing story of a disabled theatre-goer who, at the Arcola in Dalston, had to be lifted into place in front of the entire audience. This is a building that was converted into a theatre in 2000, over 90 years after the Victoria Palace was built.
Anybody who has applied for a job recently - particularly one in the creative industries - will be aware of emphasis on equal representation in recruitment. Call me cynical, but there seems to be just a whiff of box-ticking in these ostensibly noble efforts to encourage diversity, when you consider such lacklustre attempts to facilitate practical and welcoming environments for the disabled.
As we, quite rightly, begin to see a rise in the number of high quality disabled artists, we simply must have the facilities to allow a disabled audience to reap the benefits of their performances. Justin Welby is leading the charge for the Church of England, having hosted a conference just last month at Lambeth Palace exploring how disabled people can participate fully in the life of the Church. But now more than ever we need those in the classical music and theatre world, those organising the shows and managing the concert halls, to stand up for the rights of the disabled, so that they can be inspired in the same way that I am every time I see a musician take the stage.