Classical music gets a bashing once again

A big broadcast classical music festival is about to get underway. Someone call in the clickbait writers to have a poke at the artform. Predictable.

Thursday’s Guardian editorial is a mismatched poke at the classical music world in the UK just as the classical music world gears up for the annual music festival which seeks to celebrate it in all its forms. What predictable timing.

It’s frothy self-loathing masks the writer and sub-editor’s ignorance about the artform, the audiences who love it (for whatever reason), and its psychological effects. It has, inevitably, had classical music afficiandos, artists and advocates up in arms.

A summary of the piece to save time: classical music has been reduced to tackling anti-social behaviour in retail outlets, it’s being overrun by rich people who use it to virtue signal, and the landmark music festival most audiences know classical music by is in danger of being so watered down as to be meaningless.

For some businesses, [classical music] is the aural equivalent of homeless spikes, deployed to shift or subdue targeted undesirables; for the rich, events like the Proms provide status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts. 

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

There’s not a great deal to disagree here with necessarily. The evidence provided isn’t far from the truth. Classical music is often piped into tube station ticket halls and coffee shops and it does have a surprisingly calming effect.

So what?

To describe that act as ‘a grim social function’ means the author of the piece (newspaper editorials are never published with a by-line) is making a class judgment on the art form, elevating it to a rarefied status – an act which is part of the problem classical music (and no other musical art form) continues to struggle with today.

Are there any alternatives solutions for the social problems he or she describes as grim? None appear to be forthcoming.

People who own Royal Albert Hall seats are reportedly reselling tickets, with a pair of stalls seats for the Last Night of the Proms going for about £2,500. Harrods Estates is marketing a 12-seater box in the same hall, available to buy on a leasehold of more than 840 years, for £3m – a snip if you want to avoid rubbing shoulders with cheap-seat plebs.

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

The point about the sale of boxes at the Royal Albert Hall highlights the ignorance of the piece too. Leases on boxes are sold by the Royal Albert Hall (not the BBC Proms) which stages a variety of events throughout the year, of which ‘the world’s greatest classical music festival’ is one. Boxes are therefore ‘owned’ by corporate entities or individuals with considerable disposable income, giving those in the lease agreement access to sporting events, musicals, rock concerts, Carols by Candlelight, the BBC Proms and a great many other things.

That system is part of the Royal Albert Hall’s business strategy (and has been since its inception). That tickets are sold at that price isn’t because of the high value on classical music per se, but on the opportunity that classical music presents for leaseholders to make money out of their Royal Albert Hall asset. I imagine tennis matches go for a similar price. And, if ABBA were to reunite and perform at the Royal Albert Hall, the prices would be even higher.

The unwillingness of many audiences to expose themselves to the shock of the musically new is more acute today because most of the output of Britain’s three classical music radio stations is devised to be unchallenging.

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

Blaming the audience for being ‘unwilling’ to ‘expose themselves’ to the ‘shock of the musically new’ effectively tramples on the work of many of today’s composers who seek to create compelling works of art that delight. If the author knew as much as he or she professed to care about the way the art form was widely regarded, then seeking to support contemporary composers by avoiding the word ‘shock’ would have been a good place to start (though would have demanded more than a few paragraphs in an editorial).

Britain’s three classical music stations are catering for different audiences, go after them aggressively, and present entirely different repertoire. Anybody who has bothered to listen to them would know that already.

Where the BBC Proms is concerned there is an element of truth in the editorial. The season’s broad strategy is to be more ‘inclusive’ and ‘accessible’. That’s something which supports the BBC’s current relentless drive to reach out to more young people in a desperate bid to replenish its audience who it thinks will eventually wither and die.

It has significantly less money because the season is heavily subsidised by the Licence Fee, the financial limits of which have been highlighted once again by the BBC’s announcement it would not be automatically be granting free licences for the over-75s.

The Proms doesn’t delight and excite this year as much as it has done in recent years, and that is a disappointment. But anyone who ‘laments’ the state of the season by dismissing it as ‘easy listening’ clearly has spent as much time flicking through the season brochure as they have done event skim-reading the press release sent out by the BBC on launch day.

I’m not in the business now of defending my former employer. Not any more. There’s a lot wrong with it. A lot of its faults are down to a range of spectacularly inept individuals who work there. The Corporation and its activities deserve to be held to account and its endeavours scrutinised and contextualised. And if there’s something that absolutely needs to have closer attention paid to it this year its the way in which the artform is contextualised in its presentation.

But the Proms is, arguably, one of the constants which has maintained classical music. That people want to and are able to spend lots of money in order to be present in a box at a concert demonstrates the art form’s appeal for a particular audience demographic and therefore the Proms success at raising awareness.

Listen to BBC Music Commissioning Editor Jan Younghusband introduce this year’s BBC Proms TV coverage in the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast.

Squeezing classical out of classical music

In the mad dash to make classical music more ‘appealing’ to more people, the representation of youth is a priority for record labels. But is that a good thing?

I attended the Decca Summer Drinks ‘thing’ last night in Central London. I appreciated the invite. I appreciated the wine. I appreciated the balloons. I was less keen on the lack of AC in the main performance ‘space’. But you know, free wine.

We heard from Isata Kanneh-Mason on piano (playing Clara Schumann) and from Milos on Gee-Tar with accompanying septet previewing his new release featuring arrangements of Sound of Silence and a Portishead track.

Yes. That’s right. Simon and Garfunkel and Portishead.

This in amongst a couple of promos featuring Decca Classics’ illustrious past.

It was a confused affair. At least I was confused. On the one hand Decca are keen to celebrate their archive. On the other hand they’re even more keen to underline their commitment to diversity, youth, and accessibility.

In doing so, I wonder whether someone at Universal Music/Decca HQ is deliberately or inadvertently overlooking a truism.

Decca’s present-day lead signings are undoubtedly talented but painfully young. As an audience member (and according to some an ‘influential commentator on the subject’) I don’t buy in to what that new talent offers. That’s not to say I don’t believe that Isata, Sheku, and Jess Gilliam will be powerful forces in the classical music world. Rather, it’s that I recognise that they are at the beginning of their careers. And yet it sometimes feels (as it did last night) as though those artists are at the pinnacle of them.

And as lovely as Milos absolutely is, and as striking as his snazzy shirt was last night, I do think releasing an album of pop songs arranged for septet and acoustic guitar basically puts him on the same level as Mantovani.

There’s nothing wrong with anyone who wants to listen to that, of course. Any rabble rousers out there who get a whiff of snobbery or elitism on my part can put down their arms.

The irony is that hearing Milos playing Portishead last night, prompted me to head back to the considerably more satisfying original.

It just got me thinking. Is this what Milos had hoped for when he studied his art? And is this what record industry executives really think people like me actually want?

Or is it worse than that?

Is it the case that record industry execs don’t actually care what I and people like me think?

A new URL for the Thoroughly Good Blog

Just recently the Thoroughly Good Blog over at www.thoroughlygood.me has been subject to a malware hack. It’s not massively serious, although it does make browsing around the blog a bit of a faff. Not ideal.

So, I’ve started to rebuild a fresh version of the blog here at http://blog.thoroughlygood.me.

There are some 1540 blog posts to migrate across to the new home. So it is going to take a bit of time.

But, seeing as I’ve been publishing on this platform since 2009, it’s probably a good opportunity to strip out the dross and revisit some of the good stuff.

I’m going to work on it week to week – you’ll see the archive posts appear in the sidebar, month by month.

This will be the blog’s new home from now on, with some of my other content production and training and development services coming online in the next few weeks.

Sorry for the partial inconvenience.

Until things settle down, its probably best to follow Thoroughly Good on Twitter or Facebook.

You’ll find the podcasts published on Audioboom and Spotify.

Daniel Elms and the Manchester Collective at Peckham's CLF Art Theatre

Review: Manchester Collective premieres Daniel Elms’ new work at Peckham CLF Art Cafe

Manchester Collective has found it’s London home with Daniel Elms’ capitivating Islandia

Manchester Collective created a Fringe vibe with an added sense of urgency about it in one of CLF Aft Theatre’s warehouse spaces last Tuesday.

Some people sat, some people mingled at the bar, others stood at the back and the sides pint glasses in hand. The musicians of Manchester Collective took their seats and, as though they were preparing to perform an operation, carefully fiddled with screws and dials, positioned themselves in their seats and checked their instruments. Respectful nods and smiles exchanged, a reverential pause, and a new sound world – to be found on composer Daniel Elms’ new album Islandia also released last week – emerged.

Such productions are tricky things to pull off, as I pointed out to an industry chap a couple of days afterwards.

Putting classical music in unusual venues is in itself a bit old hat now. Endless organisations issue proclamations revelling in their supposed innovative approach to making audiences feel less intimidated at the concert hall (the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is doing a run of concerts with ‘light displays’ later in the year) believing that transplanting their usual programmes into a different venue is all they need to do.

The trick is to make the music fit the venue. There’s no real dark art to this. Use instinct. Exploit neuro-linguistic cues: some repertoire works (usually chamber or solo and almost certainly Baroque, early classical or contemporary), other repertoire doesn’t. The more intimate the venue and the more pared back the score, the better the two will combine.

But it’s also about understanding the audience you want to appeal to, and anticipating the experience they want.

And that’s where I think Manchester Collective do successfully achieve the perfect mix. The vibe is right for the crowd. A re-purposed warehouse in South East London’s version of Shoreditch (minus the hipsters), a few theatrical lights, and the right music. Not only new music from Daniel Elms and Singh/Gainsborough, but Bach as well. Nothing felt too forced. Nothing stuck out like a sore thumb particularly.

The overall effect had a strange effect on my memories.

My teenage years (and those in higher education) were awkward and confused. I was a massive square, and didn’t really do cool, curious, or unorthodox. The kind of places my contemporaries were frequenting on Friday and Saturday nights didn’t interest. In fact, they scared me. To fit in would have necessitated completely changing my personality. I avoided most of them.

But there are times nowadays – like Tuesday evening in Peckham – when the vibe prompts me to recall those few experiences I did participate in with a warm glow, as though adulthood has helped me understand what the appeal of such experiences are and finally, at the age of 46, made me ready and possibly even hungry for them. It all seemed so alienating in the early 1990s when I was supposed to run towards it. Twenty-five years later its my kind of thing by virtue of the fact it makes me feel a little edgy.

Daniel Elms’ work played a key role in establishing the vibe. It’s a compelling collection of pieces running to 40 minutes with flashes of Reich, Glass and, part way through a ravishing trumpet solo – a musical oasis of bittersweet calm. Unusual sounds you never thought you wanted to hear that draw you into a world fuelled by your own imagination. I found it engrossing, absorbing, and thoroughly entertaining.

This was the first of a string of tour dates in which Elms’s new work appears and with a beatifully poetic piece of scheduling, the studio recording of Islandia has come out this week too. Hear it live, listen to it back on your preferred streaming service (or even buy it).

I was less enthralled by Singh/Gainsborough’s Paradise Lost. Lengthy and often intense, it did have a similar to MC’s gig at King’s Place recently where I felt it pushed me to the edge of my emotions, an achievement which might paradoxically be the sign of good art.

Daniel Elms Islandia is available via Bandcamp and Spotify.

Michael Seal and the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra

Review: Corinthian Chamber Orchestra with trumpeter Alan Thomas and Michael Seal

Sometimes the most pleasant surprises are to be found in the most unexpected places

If the UK orchestra’s marketing departments have to frequently scratch their heads to dream up new ways to entice audiences through the doors (the LPO’s recent reward scheme is a great one by the way), then spare a thought for the slew of amateur bands up and down the country. Not only are they trying to persuade people to attend an event with music that maybe unfamiliar, they’re also doing battle with the perception that an amateur performance won’t be up to scratch in terms of quality.

I say that because I know that I think that myself. Amateur music-making just isn’t going to cut it. I’m not going to be moved. I’m going to walk away dissatisfied.

But as with a lot of things just recently, those assumptions are slowly being challenged. Some of them are being eroded too. Where does our obsession with perfection or elite performance come from? Who says that if its not perfect its not worth listening to? Where does that come from?

Maybe that’s a whole set of questions for another blog post. Or a podcast or something. At the very least, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra‘s concert last night at St Martin in the Fields prompted those same questions.

That’s not to say by the way that the CO’s performance was rough around the edges. Quite the opposite. That was the fundamentally surprising thing about the band. Professionals by day, high quality unpaid amateur musicians (my assumption is they’re from conservatoire backgrounds though I’m not entirely sure) by night. Nine hours or so of rehearsal, then a concert. That’s it.

The aspiration was initially most striking. An arresting and captivating arrangement of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path for, essentially, wind and bass strings by conductor Michael Seal, bringing Janacek’s piano cycle closer in concept to Schoenberg’s first symphony.

Programmatically this seemed like an impressively bold aspiration, met with considerable aplomb by the CO’s two clarinettists for whom key movements saw them play centre stage. It was also a bastard of an arrangement for the bassoons. My money’s on arranger Michael Seal a liking for clarinets more than bassoons.

Come Beethoven’s Eroica in the second half, the stamina of the wind section became apparent and another surprise from this concert: the attention to detail both articulation, ensemble and intonation was obvious. A considerable undertaking, excellently executed that maximised the challenges of St Martins in the Field’s generous acoustic.

Soloist Alan Thomas evoked a celebratory air with Haydn’s joyous trumpet concerto – it’s a rare thing I actually sit in an audience and a wide warm smile stretches across my face – and although the large string section sometimes felt a little clunky in places, there was still a skip and a bounce in proceedings to keep things moving in the first and third movements.

The strings shone in the Beethoven. There was a ferociousness to the opening movement, an enthusiasm articulated through dramatic dynamic contrast, and a rich range of colours. With my head down listening attentively, there seemed little evidence that this was anything other than a collection of professional musicians playing a low-key gig in a church.

Personally, I think the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra should just drop the amateur tag in the biography. I like the idea that there could be a brand of music-making powered by musicians who have entirely different day jobs. What a call-to-action that would be for music education.

The Corinthian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal embark on a week-long tour of engagements in Spain next week. Follow their progress on social media with the hashtag #CCOOnTour

Jonathan Dove

Composer Jonathan Dove and Thoroughly Good Podcast contributor awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List

Well.

Would you look at the influence the Thoroughly Good Podcast has now.

Latest contributor – adorably excited composer Jonathan Dove – features in the Queen’s birthday honours list. He’s being made a CBE. Coo.

It was a pleasure to meet the man. All very last minute and a complete surprise, but an invitation I snapped up too.

Listen to the Thoroughly Good Podcast with Jonathan Dove on Audioboom.

Opera ‘Dead Equal’ launches crowdfunder for Edinburgh Fringe 2019 run

Rose Miranda-Hall was one of the composers who participated in the Wildplum Songbook two-day workshop hosted by PRS for Music. I made a film about it.

Now, she’s working with librettist and singer Lila Palmer and director Miranda Cromwell, on a production of a new opera entitled ‘Dead Equal’, featuring the stories that aren’t heard about women in combat during World War One.

Like the workshop participants who featured in Thoroughly Good Podcast 39, there is an unshakeable energy to be fed off when you’re in the company of enthused individuals. I felt it at PRS for Music, and looking back over some of the footage I captured at last night’s launch event for a film I want to make about their work, I felt it again last night.

More and more I find I’m drawing inspiration from the people I speak to as I make the stuff that seeks to spotlight their endeavours. Powerful.

There are a mammoth 19 shows programmed for ‘Dead Equal’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I don’t envy them. The Fringe offers great opportunities, but demands a great deal from its performers. I’m in no doubt they’ll triumph, just like the subjects of the story they’re telling.

Pledge your support for ‘Dead Equal’ on the production’s Crowdfunder page.

Review: Violinist Daniel Pioro plays Beethoven Sonata Op.96, Biber and Lark Ascending at Wigmore Hall

Daniel Pioro is an intriguing performer with a gentle presence on stage. He moves and speaks with intent. His body follows the trajectory of the music he’s playing. And he plays with a delicate kind of sweetness I’ve not heard before.

These characteristics alone made the cool clear air of Wigmore Hall an ideal setting for Pioro’s performance style.

But there was, from the moment he walked on stage, an other-worldliness to Pioro that made this an unusual experience for the listener.

Pioro has a stillness about him that sets a slower pace for the audience member long before he starts to play.

There is no flourish, razzmatazz or affectation when arriving on stage, only natural rhythm. Calmness descends, the bow rises and falls, and the notes sound. The mechanics of the process are left far behind (in the dressing room). What we see is music being drawn in front us.

It’s clear where Pioro most feels at one: long expanding melodic material that expands over a long period of time, supported by an emotional maturity that was solid and unwavering. The adagio of the Beethoven violin sonata in G was a case in point, though his most sonorous sound was reserved for Clare O’Connell’s deft arrangement of Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending for violin, viola, cello and piano. Here Pioro exchanged the bright sweetness he’d deployed in the Beethoven with something richer and rounder.

The pathos of the Lark Ascending was brought to the fore inducing a few tears to roll down the cheek. But, it was Biber Passacaglia in G minor that opened the programme that I especially enjoyed. More and more I’m appreciating those musical introductions which transition the audience from outdoor to indoor experience.

Here Pioro thrived, at ease on the stage bringing that trademark stillness to bear at the beginning of the work before making small moves from left to right of stage as he played. This created an unexpected sense of inclusion and intimacy to proceedings. At tones during the Biber there was even the sense that he was accompanying the music on stage rather than playing it. Again, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. A quite moving affair.

That I found Daniel Pioro’s performance intriguing wasn’t entirely down to his rare sense of style (it’s worth flagging that the suit was a nice looking thing too), but the range of music he offered up and one or two biographical details too.

A recent Bedroom Community release entitled Dust sees him play a new work written for him by Edmund Finnis – Elsewhere. (Be sure to listen to the unusual arrangement for Lark Ascending there too.)

He’s also appearing at the Proms this summer with a new work by Jonny Greenwood (it will be interesting to see how that stillness translates to the Royal Albert Hall).

And personally speaking, I recall marvelling at his musicality in an ensemble setting during a stunning SCO concert in Kings Place last year. He also has connections with Manchester Collective. The man can switch between genres and locations with relative ease it seems.

One to watch.

Trombonist Kris Garfitt wins Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final 2019

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Guildhall School graduate Kris Garfitt secured the coveted Gold Medal (and a £15K prize) at the Royal Overseas League Final last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London with dazzling theatrics, charming modesty, and seemingly effortless musicianship.

His programme includeD pieces by Ropartz, Weber, and an entertaining showpiece by Folke Raba called Basta.

Chief judge (and the only man I know of who looks good in a spotty bow tie) Gavin Henderson led a considerable collection of eminent judges, and made good use of his platform before announcing the winner to draw attention to the ever-increasing demands student musicians face. A bleak future awaits those of us who take for granted the opportunity to peer at new musical talent year after year. The Royal Overseas League competition does much to fill the financial gap for a handful of the most talented.

My money was – no statement on the actual winner – on 22-year-old violinist Roberto Ruisi. Self-assured with a solid tone, out of all of the performers Ruisini took me on a journey throughout his unaccompanied Bartok sonatas. Some slips early on, eclipsed by remarkably focussed playing that come unassuming end left me hanging on a thread.

I enjoyed 24-year-old bass William Thomas thoughtfully put together programme, and in particular the opener, Brahms’ Feldeinsamkeit. Throughout his time on stage Thomas widened eyes and set hearts beating faster with a rich warm sound and precise delicate articulation. Sometimes his voice felt a little under-powered in the QEH acoustic and occasionally vowels sounded like they needed opening out at the top of his range. There warm a gratifying simplicity to his stage presence which made a possible contender for me.

Where Thomas built his programme around his strengths, pianist Joseph Havlat presented a programme which illustrate his personality as an artist. His was an unassuming presence on stage; expectations were subverted by Havlat’s dry humour in Poulenc’s playful Promenades.

The eye-catching performances of the evening were perhaps from those who had already won their categories, those showcasing whilst judges deliberated.

The Miras Trio are super-charged musicians who play with a mature kind of musicianship that belies their age. Electrifying as they were, it was The Hermes Experiment who stole the show. I’ve seen their continued rise on social media – evidence if raw talent, focus and enviable commitment – and assumed that they’ve already secured their position in the industry. I’m hoping that participation in ROSL helps widen their platform. Every performer brings an infectious energy to the stage and, speaking as a lapsed clarinettist, Oliver Pashley’s tone, articulation and all-round Pied Piper-iness is compelling. If you’re at one of their gigs and they’re asking for requests, be sure to ask for Meredith Monk’s Double Fiesta. Vocalist Heloise Werner is a marvel performing the Iberian-infused scat.

Overall this was well-produced event too. Speeches were short and punchy, with all but the most important prize winner left for the post-performance presentation.

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Nicola Benedetti and Wynton Marsali

Review: Nicola Benedetti plays Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Cristian Măcelaru

A rip-roaring fusion of musical styles documenting the travels of violinist Nicola Benedetti

Decca’s new release is a glorious recording of Marsalis’ captivating violin concerto, premiered in 2015, paired with his Fiddle Suite. The Fiddle Suite is good. Intense and intimate, hits the spot.

The focus on my attention has, since the first time I heard this recording, been on the concerto. Marsalis’ writing is efficient. Captivating drama abounds in a work brimming with tantalising textures and colours that evoke far-away lands.

The opening Rhapsody sees Marsalis combine a hint of English post-war pastoral style with Gershwin and a whiff of Copland, before easing the orchestra into a Bernstein homage replete with spidery solo line from the violin. A seemingly never-ending series of beautiful vignettes follows in a short space of time. Listening to this there are moments when I feel like I’m watching an MGM on a rainy Sunday afternoon. An cacophonous urban soundscape follows before we’re returned to something altogether more serene. A blissful harmonic indulgence nearly concludes the movement save for a whimsical jig squeezed into the final bars.

The second movement aptly-named Rondo Burlesque commands attention from the off with material which passes quickly through what feels like a subject, development and recapitulation all in the space of a few minutes. The candenza that follows – a dialogue between solo line and rhythm percussion is a gripping demonstration of Benedetti’s artistic commitment, and the ease at which she switches from one musical style to another. A tour de force performance of a gripping score. I’m sure I hear some rock reference in there somewhere towards the end.

Blues is a steaming theatrical number complete with vocal performances from the band and trombone imitations that concludes in what Marsalis describes as abject loneliness, but I prefer to look on as an introverts paradise.

And the last movement. A tub-thumping hootenanny that casts a shadow (albeit respectfully) on Copland’s Rodeo.

It amazes me the BBC Proms hasn’t snapped up this work yet. It must surely make an appearance in the next few years.

The concerto isn’t only a compositional triumph for Marsalis or another solid performance in the Bennedetti canon, but also something of a marketing win for Decca. In their 90th anniversary year I’ve struggled with the Decca narrative. They’re keen to celebrate their eclecticism, and seemingly desperate to emphasise their youth credentials. Some of the messaging around promoting Jess Gillam and Sheku Kanneh Mason has seemed a little obvious, for example; the content itself deliberately curated for mass appeal.

But this release feels like more of what I’d expect from the Decca brand: an exciting collaboration between two exciting creatives, aligning the work of a present-day jazz legend who knows how to create appealing new material with our most prized present-day UK classical musicians.

Nicola Benedetti’s recording of Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru is released on Decca on 12 July.