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You could say that this is a book about classical music changing lives in unlikely places. But don’t imagine it is an unquestioning promotion of ‘Western-classical-music-as-salvation’, as the author terms it.

One of those lives, partly told here, is Allen’s own. An author, screenwriter and civil rights activist, she grew up in a black middle-class family in fifties and sixties New England, listening avidly to black popular music of the time. Only for white pop – the Beatles et al – to nip in the bud the growing prominence of ‘her’ music.

As a young adult with expanding musical tastes, she stops short of wholeheartedly embracing classical music until introduced to it up close by a young British conductor (whom she chooses not to name) working in California. She realises that it can offer the same ‘frisson … of music explored, interpreted, conveyed, received, exultant energy’ as jazz. So, despite misgivings relating to her race and its historically offhand treatment by the American classical music establishment, she becomes an advocate. The question of what constitutes ‘her’ music has become less stable.

Allen brings her double perspective to the second half of the book: accounts of a selection of classical music education projects, notably in Ramallah, Congo and Venezuela. On the one hand, as a ‘veteran of cultural wars’, she is keen to critique the gleeful reception of El Sistema in the west, suspicious that it might be rooted in ‘gloating that young people of color have abandoned their indigenous voices for the Western classical canon’. And to critique western misrepresentations that invariably give all the credit to classical music while neglecting to mention that indigenous music is also taught.

Yet, on the other, this nuanced, thought-provoking and stylishly written book does not deny the effect that western classical music, in certain cultural contexts, self-evidently has. In those projects she discerns (perhaps as she had experienced herself) a sense of freedom – from conflict, from deprivation, from poverty, but also from cultural ideology. ‘Who [am] I in my privileged comfort,’ she asks, ‘to question the source of so transcendental a joy?’

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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