Are You Being Patronising?
Melinda Hughes on why brilliant but broke young musicians need all the help they can get, and why old-fashioned soirées at swishy private salons are still a great way for would-be patrons to become involved
MY MAIN SOURCE of income is singing at corporate events but, as this financial crisis deepens, government subsidies in the arts are dwindling and companies are forced to cut back on lavish entertainment, the artists are the first to suffer. As my peers complain about austerity measures, I can happily sip my glass of champagne (a mere £6 at the Chelsea Arts Club) and quip: ‘I’ve always been broke so I’ve no need to make adjustments, thank you very much.’ I know ten different pasta recipes under a fiver and can often be seen in my cocktail dress on the No 14 bus, Annabel’s-bound. Bella risorsa, as Figaro would say.
That said, many things come at a price and I have had to depend on a helping hand here and there; I never would have managed to pay for my postgraduate course at the Royal College of Music were it not for my uncle subbing my fees through Gift Aid, nor would I have been able to travel abroad for auditions, pay for singing lessons or record my latest CD were it not for donations from benefactors.
America is showing us Brits how to do philanthropy properly, but, Mr Gates and Mr Buffett aside, there are those who in their own way are making a small but valued contribution to the arts in London. I’m not talking about fundraisers at £500 a ticket where your Amex Black will haemorrhage after bidding for the chance to race a Formula One car round Andalusia with George Clooney at your side, but rather attending select salons where money raised can go towards the purchase of a violin for an outstanding student or tuition fees for opera singers. There is a strong yet fairly discreet club of British patrons who open their homes to the well-heeled and well-meaning to assist the well deserving.
Vivien McLean is one such lady whose exquisite salon, One Mallord Street in Chelsea, plays host to politicians, artists and bankers alike. She’s in good company: Vernon Ellis, Bob Boas and Florian Leonhard also host exclusive recitals, whose attendance is rising.
‘It’s a great pleasure for me,’ explains Vivien, herself an accomplished singer and pianist with a string of art degrees to her name. ‘My evenings bring people together in a beautiful environment and their donations help many struggling artists. Too many people don’t think outside themselves and about how they can benefit others.’ She wants to encourage a sense of care and responsibility to artists harking back to the patronage of old. ‘Many people want to be on the board of committees purely to enhance their social standing; this is prevalent in the US, but in Britain we do it modestly yet effectively. All the money I raise goes directly to the artists or the charity. I don’t need a fee, nor do I employ assistants. I love my evenings and I enjoy putting people together.’
These evenings not only provide a personal and rewarding experience for the donor, who feels involved in the arts, but often also give emotional support to an artist. Patrons quickly become part of an inspiring and stimulating group of people creating for themselves and their favoured artists a great sense of achievement.
Illustration by Frann Preston-Gannon
THE PHILANTHROPIST AND ex-businessman Bob Boas has a gutsier approach. After his son Nicholas died in 1998, he used the money from the sale of his son’s apartment to set up a foundation, turning his exquisite neoclassical house in Marylebone into a buzzing operation hosting up to three concerts a week. On arrival guests are handed a glass of champagne and escorted upstairs to a drawing room filled with a diverse Contemporary art collection. Here one can listen to artists such as Nicola Benedetti or Sophie Bevan, as well as chamber ensembles and pianists.
Bob works tirelessly with his wife Elisabeth to provide support such as funding a CD or masterclasses. ‘These are things that other charities don’t necessarily have in their remit,’ he explains. ‘Although we don’t have enormous amounts of money to donate, these concerts make a huge difference and prove to be valuable dry runs for performances at the Wigmore or Queen Elizabeth Hall.’
They’re fun, too; I’ve attended a few concerts at Bob Boas’s house and stayed on for dinner only to find myself seated between the head of the London Arts Council and a Texan industrialist.
The renowned violin restorer and dealer Florian Leonhard is another whose support for musicians is paramount, frequently opening his Hampstead home to musicians and singers. His love for music is infectious and he’s particularly keen on introducing classical music to unconverted, stressed City financiers. ‘Coming to a beautiful concert will help them relax after the stresses of the day,’ he says. ‘It’s a wonderful and gentle entrée into the world of classical music.’
AS I SPEAK to Florian I can understand how persuasive he can be at enrolling the concertgoers of the future: his concerts are free; drinks and canapés are served; and there is always a chance to chat to the performer afterwards. It’s like a club, reminiscent of a 19th-century salon, and he’s proud that most people begin a long interest in music. Although the artists may be unpaid, Florian takes pains to invite relevant agents, orchestral managers and sponsors.
The baton of musical philanthropy, though, is surely held by Sir Vernon Ellis. An upbeat and jovial chap, he has donated more than £7 million to the arts and his pedigree is outstanding: chairman of the British Council, the ENO and the Classical Opera Company and a trustee of the Royal College of Music, to name but a few. Vernon, like his counterparts, believes in giving performers a platform early in their careers: ‘The concerts of course give us pleasure, but it is also a pleasure to share this experience with others. Most of all, though, it is a pleasure to feel that one is helping the musicians themselves.’ He has hosted events at his home in Queen’s Gate Terrace for the Tait Memorial Trust and the London Lyric Opera, as well as countless concerts for charities, artists and ensembles.
So, if you have a large living room and a grand piano, call me. I’m happy to help you get started (just as long as my glass of champagne is nicely chilled). The cost of a week in St Tropez, complete with the obligatory spraying of Cristal over white-bikini-clad sirens at Nikki Beach, is equal to supporting a struggling talented student for more than a year. If you can afford to do one, you can afford to do both.
Melinda Hughes is an opera singer and the voice behind the satirical group Kiss & Tell Cabaret
Bob Boas at 22 Mansfield Street: nicholasboastrust.org.uk; Vivien McLean, 1 Mallord Street: onemallordstreet.com; Florian Leonhard, 3 Frognal Lane: florianleonhard.com; Vernon Ellis Foundation: email Veronica Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org for information