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How Nissan’s tone-deaf classical music advert backfired

A supposedly tongue-in-cheek advert for a luxury SUV caused a backlash among classical music lovers

Nissan's advert for its XQ60 SUV (Pic: YouTube)

Over close-ups of a luxury SUV floats the sound of Richard Strauss’s Also
Sprach Zarathustra
. The camera pans lovingly over its shiny contours and leather-lined interior, but as it zooms out, you see that Nissan’s Infiniti QX60 is at the centre of an auditorium, surrounded by young musicians making a hash of the piece. The “yummy mummy” inside the car can bear it no longer. Shutting the window and sunroof to drown out the music, she leans back, relaxed, as the voiceover urges: “Take on life in style.”

This supposedly tongue-in-cheek advert ticks so many negative boxes for young classical musicians that it’s hard to know where to start. The undesirability of children’s performances is taken as given, the mother praised for tuning out, then smiling with hypocritical pride as she drives her violinist daughter home in her well-appointed gas guzzler. It’s up there for cringeworthiness with Mr Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice publicly silencing his daughter Mary’s awful musical performance by saying, publicly, that she had “delighted us long enough”.

Nissan was slammed on musical social media for ridiculing young musicians and a petition on wants the ad to be pulled, but perhaps the best riposte was by the Canadian New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO). In a mischievous video, their president, Ken MacLeod, gets out of an SUV and says: “Can you imagine, a big company like that couldn’t find a youth orchestra to play the music? They should have called us.” He goes into a concert hall where the NBYO impressively rehearses the same piece, popularised by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“There is this tired old stereotype of youth and bad music,” said MacLeod. “It’s too bad that that’s the message conveyed, when there is so much positive we could say about youth and talent and performance excellence.”

It’s true, there are some incredible young musicians around, from the 13- to 18-year-olds of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, who recently performed a storming version of Igor Stravinsky’s tricky Rites of Spring at the Royal Festival Hall, to the numerous other accomplished youth ensembles such as the NBYO and the young Spanish string orchestra I saw performing in Venice last month.

Seasoned music judges and conservatoire professors tell me of ever younger prodigies turning up at auditions and competitions. Three years ago I interviewed Christian Li, then 10 and the youngest winner of the junior Menuhin competition, as he fidgeted in his chair and play-punched his father – but with his half-sized violin, the young Australian set the stage alight. Amid distressing images of war, videos of talented young Ukrainian
instrumentalists demonstrate resilience as well as prowess.

But the ad, like TV programmes and films that mock beginner musicians and school concerts, doesn’t just insult the talented – it unfairly pillories the
less impressive who have just as much right to have a go. The terrible playing
is inauthentic. With two musical children, I’ve seen many beginner orchestras, and this isn’t how it goes wrong. These instruments aren’t just
out of tune on the edges, but wildly out – an exaggeration deliberately construed for mockery.

Learning instruments isn’t always pretty, but even bad music can be a joy. At the Easter performances of our local music hub, the youngest children were
the most excited, beaming as they sought their parents in the audience. Patiently coaxed by their teachers, they produced a fun performance, and were ecstatic when applauded.

One day, they might become superlative musicians or much-needed audience members for a music form that has been slowly disappearing
down a vortex of underfunding and misconceptions over elitism.

With precious few trying to learn, and even fewer persevering to higher levels, the least we can do is listen when someone’s child wants to perform a terrible rendition of Mozart. Yet there are still those who recoil at the thought of listening to a few minutes of imperfect strings, arriving late or leaving early so they only suffer their own offspring’s musical output. It shows – one child asked me: “Why do we keep playing to parents who don’t want to be here?”

The feeling we shouldn’t be subjected to anything substandard goes hand in hand with a counterproductive fetishisation of early talent – even though few go on to be professional musicians.

Some junior musicians do play badly, but so what? Should they instead retreat to their phones because we can’t give their efforts the time of day? Let them play, don’t mock them, and if you need a stiff drink afterwards – just do it in secret.

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