Light

News from 10 Downing Street last night about post-national lockdown tier rules provide a little bit of hope pre-Christmas for classical music venues, groups and organisations. Just so long as you’re in Tiers 1 or 2.

Reports document the three-tiered approach will return to England, allowing sports and live performance venues to accommodate 50% of their capacity audience or (in the case of live performance) 1000 people whichever is smaller. Numbers vary for sports according to whether the sport is played outside (maximum of 2000 spectators) or inside (maximum of 1000 spectators).

I see some leaping on the headlines which drove the story – sport – as a trigger for highlighting the apparent inconsistency or lack of consideration for the arts. Whilst I’m not about to sign up to the Conservative party as a fully-fledged member or start defending the government’s poor record in responding to COVID, not seeking out the information on live performance does skew perspectives on this change.

Speaking for myself, I experienced an unexpected rush when I discovered the news. Maximum capacity of 1000 is not 80% of the house (which is what is said to be the level at which a classical music venue breaks even on a concert) by any stretch of the imagination. In some cases it will be significantly less than 50%.

But it’s a step in the right direction, and presumably means that the two metre mitigation has been reduced to one metre now. If that’s the case, its both a success for those membership and trade organisations who have been working with DCMS on the latest measures.

Of course, all of this is dependent on one key thing: what parts of the country are in Tiers 1 and 2, and which parts of the country are in Tier 3. Some areas of the UK (and presumably its going to be a lot) are going to end up in the toughest of tiers. We’ll know how bright the light is, nationally speaking, come Thursday.

Orchid Classic’s release of Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Gran Partita

I wrote a few weeks ago about burnout. I was listening to Copland’s clarinet concerto at the time same time as writing the post. I recall thinking how Copland’s music helped me identify what I was thinking and feeling at that moment in time. Music to raise your levels of awareness. That kind of thing.

A few weeks on and it feels like made good progress on a recovery. The fatigue has passed. So too the phenomenal aches and pains. And there’s a growing sense of solidity too. And a commitment to carving out time to rest, relax and potter.

This week’s musical accompaniment (and NLP anchor, if you like that kind of thing) has been Orchid Classic’s new release featuring recordings of Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s wind serenade in B-flat major – ‘Gran Partita’ – recorded at Saffron Hall in Cambridgeshire earlier this year.

It is a remarkable recording – brimming with colour and energy. Simpson’s Geysir is a captivating soundscape that evokes the mesmerising power of nature at its most insistent – when a geyser bursts forth. The textures Simpson combines between upper and lower wind have a quality to them I feel as though I could touch with the tips of my fingers.

Tonal harmonic progressions emerge from melodies in the upper wind contributing to a growing tension that can only be resolved one way, driven by deep powerful chords in the lower registers of the brass. It’s an aural rollercoaster. A treat for the ears. An unfamiliar concert opener coming out of my JBL speaker making me feel as though I’m in attendance at an actual concert.

That means there’s a theatrical quality to the whole thing, not only in Simpson’s score, but in the performance and recording too. It’s a listening experience that takes me someplace else.

The Mozart Gran Partita on this recording is something I’ve come back to repeatedly over the past few days. Every time it’s brought me an enormous amount of joy, either by pulling me from moments of melancholy or by helping me understanding how much of a recovery I’ve made. I’m not quite sure which it is yet.

The musical deep breaths that open the first movement are followed by a jolly industry in the allegro, depicting a colourful kind of celebration that isn’t as incongruous with our shared present-day experience as one might imagine.

In ensemble passages throughout the combined wind has a burnished quality to it that is momentarily overwhelming. Being able to hear individual lines brought out in amongst this mix reinforces the sense that actual human beings are making this remarkable sound. Imagining actual human beings playing this familiar work in such an arresting fashion is important what with the pandemic this year. Potent perhaps? Human beings making things in the weeks after the first lockdown restrictions were lifted. A recording that captures a collection of musicians thoughts and feelings in the moment. I like the idea of it. I acknowledge I might be getting a little carried away here.

Notable movements to listen out for:

1. First movement: the combined textures of Nicholas Daniel’s fragile oboe line and Mark Simpson’s rounded upper register clarinet gives this a sharp insistent energy full of determination and, as a result, hope. It is incredibly uplifting in a way I didn’t think I would feel uplifted right now.

2. The ensemble in the second movement minuet presents itself as a rich three dimensional block of colour, a deep container out of which multiple lines cascade out like a waterfall defying gravity.

3. The third movement adagio is delivered with elegance and poise throughout, topped by devastatingly fragile solo lines.

4. The same unbridled enthusiasm that exudes the first movement is present in the finale.

I’ve read plenty of blogs where the writer starts waxing lyrical about why something moved them. I admit to have been a little dismissive about what they’ve written. So I’m mindful I might be falling into the same trap here.

But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this recording has acted as an important signpost for me this year. That people I feel I half-know (and fully respect) are responsible for something that has brought me so much needed joy these past few days is a wondrous thing. Lovely lovely work.

Central, vital, and gone

News out on Twitter this evening that classical music PR Dvora Lewis has died.

For the majority the name probably won’t mean anything. And to a subsection of that majority to even highlight her departure is evidence of the classical music sector’s aching insularity.

But. The reason to flag her departure is because of the positive impact she has had over so many years shaping the story not only of a great many recognisable brands in the classical music world, but also the influence she has had establishing best practise, and developing the current generation of PRs – the ones who currently shape the story of the music world I now feel a part of.

The finest of today’s PRs learned from Dvora Lewis. Her departure is unexpected and really rather sad.

Dvora Lewis is pictured left (above) at an event celebrating her retirement from the LSO in 2015.

Mozart’s Requiem from ENO

ENO’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with soloists Elizabeth Llewellyn, Sarah Connolly, Ed Lyon and Gerald Finley was originally planned to be filmed in front of a social distanced Coliseum audience. England’s second lockdown put pay to that.  

Elizabeth Llewellyn undoubtedly shone in the performance with a gentle, delicate sound that felt solid. It consoled, too. This was fantastic exposure for Llewellyn – really pleased for her. Gerald Finlay’s contribution was grave and warm (if the two words aren’t a contradiction).   

(Don’t think I’m passing comment on Connolly and Lyon by not talking about them. It’s just that Llewellyn and Finlay were the voices I connected with most.)

Light was also shone on the impact distanced musicians has on performance. “The fragility of the arts has been exposed by this pandemic,” said Lucy Thraves to me earlier in the week. ENO’s performance also exposed the limitations of current mitigations.  

The distance between conductor and chorus, so too that between individual singers, exposed how much our appreciation of music depends on proximity. To date this year, I think this is possibly the biggest music performance in terms of on-stage forces I’ve seen. And I wonder whether its the upper limit too right now. It was evident how distance placed greater demands on ensemble, with the disparity between voices and orchestra easy to detect in places. Speeds varied at times. I have taken ensemble for granted, that much is clear. The BBC Proms next year seems like a long long way away in terms of getting anywhere near what was experienced in 2019, for example.  

The performance didn’t touch me in the way I’ve long anticipated billed performances of Mozart’s Requiem can be something for our collective emotions to coalesce around, though others might have felt differently. But there was a simplicity to the presentation that was the pleasing and an undoubted sense of occasion seeing classical music billed on a Saturday night at 7pm.  

I’d like to think this was a test for other such TV broadcasts in the weeks and months to come.  It would be something rather wonderful if classical music reasserted itself in the schedules, being made more visible to more people.  

Mozart’s Requiem is available on BBC iPlayer until October 2021

Jess Gillam's Virtual Scratch Orchestra Logo

Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra set to record Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride

News this week that Jess Gillam is launching another lockdown virtual scratch orchestra brought a smile to my face.

As role models go Gillam’s activity throughout 2020 in response to COVID has been impressive, acting as a beacon for young musicians and amateurs alike.

That along with her obvious industry, determination and spirit, not only maintains Gillam in the education and entertainment worlds, but also injects a little bit of hope and sparkle at a time when its needed most. The Let it Be mashup from a few weeks ago, even if you assume the lockdown style won’t be compelling on a first glimpse, does tickle the tear ducts come the final chorus.

Her latest project calls on musicians across the world to submit video recordings of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride using music downloaded from the Virtual Scratch Orchestra website. All audio will be used in the final mashup, along with some of the video.

Set against the global pandemic and the economic crisis its brought about, Gillam’s marketing narrative in 2020 has shaken off the initial record-label fuelled contrivance it seemed to have pre-COVID. Her education work makes her relevant and relatable, just by virtue of it being needed and appreciated right now.

This combined with her second album released this year – Time – featuring a carefully selected running order of music suited to her instrument illustrates Gillam’s increasing maturity as a musician and an educator.

For more information on Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra visit her website.

Arts Council England announces Round 2 (over £1m) recipients of Culture Recovery Fund

Arts Council England and DCMS have today announced the latest tranche of grants given to arts and culture organisations across the country.

The organisations who have received over £1 million in the second round are:

Sheffield City Trust£2,243,000
The Lowry Centre Trust£3,000,000
North York Moors Historical Railway Trust£1,904,902
Academy Music Group Ltd£2,981,431
London Venue Group£2,358,902
Palmglen Ltd (Ronnie Scott’s)£1,272,631
Opera North Limited£2,000,000
The Marlowe Theatre£2,999,999

Note: Sage Gateshead received £1,800,000 in Round 1

The total awarded in today’s announcement amounts to £18 million of the total £500 million grants available.

Organisations who applied for the over £1m category could apply for up to £3m, and had to meet a range of criteria, including demonstrating what their activity would be between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021,

They needed to provide independently audited accounts covering at least one financial year, and an income and expenditure/proposed budget spend for October to March.

Following the Government’s recent announcement regarding lockdown in England from Thursday 5 November to Wednesday 2 December, Secretary for State for Arts and Culture Oliver Dowden clarified that workplaces would still be open for people to work in, for example, concert halls, theatres etc, but public access to these venues wasn’t permitted due to lockdown laws. Arts and cultural activities can only effectively behind closed doors via digital platforms.

The Culture Recovery Fund Grants can also be used to fund redundancies.

For more information, visit the Culture Recovery Fund Grants FAQ.

Recipients of under £1 million can be found on the Round 1 and Round 2 posts.

My new pal: Beethoven’s violin concerto

Meet my new pal: Beethoven’s violin concerto. I was originally a little unsure of it when I first came across it. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky. Or Mendelssohn. Or Brahms. It seemed heavier, laden with I don’t know what. Much deference seemed to be paid to it. And it was long. Very long.

Something has changed in the intervening years.

It’s still epic. Other worldly. Beyond comparison. The only difference now is that the way it basically shits over everyone else’s concerto, makes it the go-to work. The preferred work.

A lot of that is down to perhaps the most powerful insight I acquired during a symposium I attended in Oxford last year (or was it this year?): that Beethoven is the master of variation.

Right up until that point it hadn’t even dawned on me that at its heart, put in its simplest terms, Beethoven takes the smallest musical idea and runs with it, ringing as much out of it in as many permutations as he can possibly muster. And, when you stumble on that its very difficult not to see that every time you hear anything by Beethoven. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is confirmation bias. Yay.

The London Mozart Players performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto directed by soloist Jonian Ilias Kadesha was a daring endeavour it seemed to me. Such an epic work surely demands more than chamber forces and insists upon a conductor to ensure cohesion?

Not so it seems. Such slavish attention to convention in terms of orchestral forces is a reflection of the very deference rife in the classical music world which perhaps will in years to come be seen to have been eradicated by the pragmatism stoked by a pandemic-driven economic crisis.

Kadesha’s topline strategy was making a virtue of these reduced forces, utilising extreme dynamic contrasts to draw the listener in closer and closer to each individual statement. Placed deep in the heart of the strings (far further back than would normally be the case in a performance with a conductor), sometimes it felt like we struggled to hear Kadesha.

No matter. Kadesha’s secret weapons were his cadenzas. The first: a sort of rock odyssey pulling in various composers (Tchaikovsky’s concerto was without doubt referenced, though the rest moved so quickly I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were). The second (in the third movement): amounted to new material with inventive orchestrations for the upper strings that widened the eyes and delighted the soul.

Kadesha and the LMP’s performance was exactly what was needed. Cruelly well-timed too. Before the concert (which also included a cracking Coriolanus Overture by the way) LMP director Julia Debruslais stood up to speak to the small but perfectly formed audience, who informed us of one subscriber who had, in the weeks since buying her ticket, died.

Jonian Ilias Kadesha’s performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto with the London Mozart Players is available to watch from 15 November 2020. Ticket and season subscription access information available on the LMP Classical Club website.

Listen to a Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast with violinist Maxim Vengerov.

Fractured sound

Earlier this week I took a trip to Henry Wood Hall in London to hear Jack Liebeck recording Ysaye sonatas for Orchid Classics.

I was only there for an hour, but hearing fractured sequences of a vaguely familiar created a moment that seemed to go on for ever.

The audience experience is a distant memory. The crisp bright sound of skin on skin underpinned with the deep gentle roar of appreciation is an unreachable recollection.

The substitute is hearing live sound – human-powered unamplified sound ricocheting around a space, witnessed by a handful of people.

There were six of us – students of Liebeck, a PR person, and me – in Henry Wood Hall, plus the videographer and the musician. It was as though we were watching a scientific experiment: the very beginning of sound. The lone musician focussing on his craft, exposing not only the complexity of the music, nor its beauty, but the miracle of it.

There was power, grit, defiance and determination in that sound. An instrument compensating for an orchestra that can’t convene. One musician against the world. Stirring. Uplifting. Determined.

Liebeck’s recordings of solo music for violin by Ysaye is scheduled for release by Orchid Classics in 2021.

Burnout and Copland

Sunday mornings are best. Cushioned escapes from the week gone by, all wrapped up in a fluffy dressing gown, sipping coffee from a mug. Outside, bushes flail around in the wind, and if I’m not mistaken there’s a little bit of drizzle too.

Such wistful descriptions identify where I am at the present time, not just geographically but emotionally.

All burned out

Over the past few weeks I’ve experienced an unusually high and persistent level of fatigue. In the resulting vacuum, obsessive thinking has taken its place.

Lower energy levels have resulted in a drop in motivation. The end of the tether has been discovered and it appears rather frayed too.

An old friend gave me some sage advice recently after I admitted that things had become a bit of a struggle: make sure you take a moment to check in with the physical surfaces around you.

The technique of getting yourself out of your head and into the present is simple and effective. It’s also one I’d forgotten to draw upon in recent weeks. The sight of the world outside the lounge windows has the same effect.

As I write, I’m reminded of the way music has been absent recently too.

Ottensamer’s Copland

I’m currently listening to a review copy of a forthcoming Signum release of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with Richard Stamp and the late great Ernst Ottensamer, watching with wonder as the first movement melody gently meanders around an imaginary expansive landscape in front of me.

Aside from the brilliant efficiency of Copland’s writing, there’s something about the opening movement that creates the feeling that me, Copland, the Royal Scottish Northern Sinfonia and Ernst Ottensamer are engaging in one long much-needed breath. My chest expands. Air rushes in to fill a considerably larger cavity than I realised I had.

Leave the rice pudding be

It has been a strange few weeks. A recent doctor’s visit – the second of the week – confirmed that burnout was probably the right label (even if its not an official diagnosis) that helped explained the sudden onset fatigue and fragile emotional state.

Somewhere under the surface something previously been hidden had been exposed: an odd and inexplicable sadness or bleak outlook, closer to the surface that I’d realised.

It all became apparent a couple of weeks ago when I went away for a few days in Brighton. On arrival in our hotel room, I laid out on the sofa and slowly became aware of just how exhausted I was.

Brain fried. Deep set eyes. The heaviest legs. And the return of the most remarkable ruminations and obsessive thinking that I’ve not experienced for a good twenty five years.

Fortunately, I’m far better equipped to ‘tackle’ this state of mind compared to my twenty-two year-old self.

Think of a rice pudding with a skin on top. Just out of the oven, the rice pudding is just cooked. The skin looks strong. But, give the pan a gentle shake and you’ll feel the extent of the mass underneath the skin wobbling. And you know looking at it that the contents are way too hot to even taste right now. And come to think of it, you also don’t want to break that delicate skin. Just leave it be for now. Leave it to rest. Come back to it later.

Don’t overlook the obvious

Awareness is the first step. Recognising what is going on by taking a few steps back and piecing together the key evidence. This helps take the immediate sting out of things.

Next, deploying strategies – desktop shortcuts if you like – in order to reduce the rumination. A lot of the time during the four days we were away in Brighton, this was about maintaining a sense of curiosity to what was going on in the moment, whilst striving to avoid ‘engaging’ in the thought processes. It feels clunky, ineffective to begin with, but with practise it becomes second nature. Space is reclaimed. A new mid-long term strategy can be put in place.

What remains are the insights about what has occurred over the past seven months, and the damage it has had.

I’ve been reminded how I have a habit of overlooking the significance of events I’ve experienced in the past, comparing those events to those suffered by other people and concluding that mine are somehow insignificant. I tell myself I don’t have ‘permission’ to see my experiences as negative, damaging or challenging. A sub-script emerges, explaining away present-day challenges as a failure of personality, lack of knowledge or skill. And yet, take a moment to acknowledge the impact of things in the past (even the past seven months) and that self-judgment lessens and pressure is release.

What other things do we all overlook that contributes to a weakening of our mental health? Because surely, if I do this, other people do it too. They just may not realise they do.

Acknowledging that the past seven months have brought a significant shift in our day-to-day life is the first thing I have to remind myself about why I am where I am. We’ve collectly told ourselves that because working at home is a relatively easy adjustment to make (assuming we’re lucky enough to have work), that we don’t really have anything to complain about.

What we overlook is the extent to which prolonged use of video communication where software naturally draws our eye to our own image, drains the system of energy.

Every video call is to a greater or lesser extent a kind of ‘live two-way’ demanding a level of energy for performance I wouldn’t normally bring to a face-to-face real life interaction. And depending on the intent of the individual, video has the same power to amplify an individual’s core energy (good or bad) in the same way social media does. We forget that. I’ve forgotten that. And prolonged exposure to that kind of energy is draining and ultimately damaging. There are some video calls I dread, preceded by the usual tussle about whether or not I’m switching on the camera or not. That is a strange thing.

And who’s in your network?

There is a coaching exercise often deployed in sessions in order to help develop resilience. The client is asked to make a list of the five people they most interact with on a weekly basis. After that the client is invited to describe what qualities (positive and negative) those interactions bring out in him or her. After that the simple question is asked: if you could choose who was in your list of five at the end of next week who would choose? Who would the people you would choose to be in that list who would help you be a more resilient version of the person you are now? Sometimes the exercise is developed to include those five people who are in the client’s thoughts or who they interact with most on email, not just face-to-face.

Heading to a different place

A cadenza links first and second movements of the Clarinet Concerto. Youthful curiosity, instinctive investigation and wide-eyed playfulness leads the listener on somewhere entirely different. Copland’s writing isn’t simple, but the path it lays out is difficult to resist following. The work transports us to a different place – not far from where we started, just somewhere a little better for body and soul.

But listening to Copland – Appalachian Spring Suite is also included on the forthcoming Signum Release – there’s another unexpected insight to capture: listening to classical music in an active and mindful way (by which I mean with intent and curiosity) is not something I’ve been doing in recent weeks and perhaps even months.

As I listen to the textures in Copland’s orchestrations, there’s a sense of being someplace else. Or perhaps even having a stage created in front of me on which I can step and explore musically where I can best occupy my place on it: a musical language which helps translates a mental state, by inviting focus to rest in a variety of different locations.

With everything on this album (and predictably with a lot of Copland’s music) it is texture which is the gateway or ‘bridge’ to the stage I’m referring to. And specifically its woodwind textures – the combination of flute and clarinet knitting together long sustained chords in the strings is very welcome. And in faster movements, a spirited guide leads the way with resolute optimism.

What links the Appalachian Spring Suite and the Clarinet Concerto is a perception of Copland based on the musical language he uses. And the overriding sense listening and exploring is a sense of humility, strength, honesty and resolve.

Half-way through the fifth movement of Appalachian Spring Suite, a sequence of three chords repeated twice creates a blissful state of release, preparing the way for the Shaker tune the ballet is best known for. The three chord sequence has the effect of pivoting the mind, inviting thoughts that take us in a different more sustainable direction.

Closer to home that means letting go of certainty, shoulds and musts. The need for certainty and security drives all of our thinking. Shoulds establish obligation and, when the obligation isn’t met, a sense of judgment. Self-criticism usually follows in abundance. Musts have much the same effect.

Being driven by certainty, shoulds and musts in the middle of an economic crisis powered by a global pandemic is understandable. That alternative path – one of letting go by taking the plunge and creating new opportunities – presents itself as foolhardy in present times, doesn’t it? But what if that path was more meaningful, helped shore up resilience, and in the long-term created a more solid kind of happiness?

And achieving that means focussing attention on endeavours which are more meaningful, activities which create a longer-lasting sense of resilience, and are more aligned to my values. Deciphering what that is during an economic crisis is of course the challenge. But who doesn’t like a challenge?

Postscript

I recently wrote about memories of bullying on my Facebook page and how, at 48, I still couldn’t understand why anyone who was doing it wouldn’t realise what they were doing, have a meeting with themselves, stop and make amends.

It prompted a slew of comments from people, some sent privately, sharing their own memories of being bullied at school – the same school. Most reported how they hadn’t thought about their own experiences until I’d posted about mine.

It would be easy for readers to respond to this post by interpreting what I’ve revealed as some kind of cry for help. Not a bit of it. To do so is to cram mental health in a box with a whole host of unhelpful assumptions with words like delicate, cotton wool, or sad.

More than this I think there’s also an opportunity to take the usual platitudes about normalising mental health and going a stage further. If we are to normalise it – take the sting out of the subject – then talking openly about what’s going on when what’s going on if a little out of kilter with normal service is vital.

Some thoughts on the new wave of digital classical music concerts

Over the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed watching a host of new concert series online. I wanted to use this blog post to document what I’ve enjoyed, why I’ve enjoyed it, and share some thoughts on what could do with being improved a bit.

What follows isn’t exhaustive. There’s a problem when you start scribbling about what you think – it triggers further thoughts which need to be thought through and documented.

If you’re in a hurry, these are the main points I’m exploring in this post:

  • What’s been good in the digital realm over the past few weeks?
  • Why has it appealed to me?
  • What needs to change?

What’s been good recently?

Be sure to watch the London Mozart Players from Fairfield Halls playing Mendelssohn’s Italian. The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Marquee TV series has packed a visual punch – the Messiaen (Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum) from last week was stunning. Music at Malling‘s excellent Classical Kicks pre-record fronted by the brilliant Lizzie Ball is compelling. And without doubt, City of London Sinfonia’s utterly charming Goldberg Variations from Southwark Cathedral is definitely worth a look. Also take time to experience Opera Holland Park’s video on demand option – the distribution method makes for a seamless user experience.

These aren’t billed as critically acclaimed performances necessarily – more examples of the kind of content I’ve appreciated over the past few weeks.

Why has it been good?

These experiences have been satisfying because they’ve appeared authentic and sincere. They’ve not tried to substitute live performance, but instead striven to create a digital experience.

A lot of this is down to polished videography (angles, lighting, editing techniques, and sound mix), but its also down to the presence and plausibility of those people that appear in it.

Put very simply, everyone is in the business of making TV now. Those who actively choose simplicity (not in itself an easy thing to design) are delivering a quality experience that creates value for money.

What needs to change?

Again, for busy people, here’s a summary of thoughts:

  • Build the digital experience from the idea of it being something translated, rather than pretending it’s a direct equivalent of the live experience.
  • Visuals and storytelling are central to maintaining attention digital concerts throughout
  • Reflect the small details of the live experience in vision – these will trigger memories of live in the audience (the video equivalent of short story writing)
  • Administrators need to shift their thinking and overcome resistance – digital concerts are opportunities to experiment with storytelling
  • Audiences need to adjust their expectations: compelling digital concerts aren’t intended to be substitutes for live, they’re a different offering
  • Marketing and communications need to create stories around the release of these recordings that create a sense of occasion around virtual
  • Pay close attention to the user experience and user journey
  • Confusing labelling creates barriers
  • Strive for the seamless, simplest, and quickest user journey
  • Sector-wide collaboration on a uniform experience

Think of it a translation not an equivalent

Part of the resistance to digital streams both from a production and consumer perspective is down to an assumption that digital is a trying to be an acceptable like-for-like equivalent to the live classical music experience. This sets up an expectation that will never be met. Digital concerts (like TV) aren’t the same as live. Why are we trying to make out that they are? Why does anyone think they are? The two are different containers for the same music. What is delivered via a digital concert is different from what is experienced in the concert hall, just as radio is different to TV. Because that expectation is there, disappointment will always follow. Resistance sets in. On the production side that results in people either not embracing the storytelling opportunities; on the audience side that results in people experiencing disappointment when they do sign up and watch a digital concert, assuming they sign up at all.

Visuals and storytelling are doing the heavy-lifting

As an audience member who longs for the live experience to return, I figured I would end up in that resistance camp. However, I’ve been surprised about how quickly I’ve adjusted to looking out for different details in pre-recorded digital content. This means that the visual element needs to delight the eyes in terms of visual design, direction and storytelling.

The LPO does this well capitalising on the interior front of house shots to set the scene, bathing the interior of the Royal Festival Hall with light to create a cinematic feel to the finished product. Slow-motion introductions of conductors walking to the stage set the tone, reduce the heart rate, creating a sense of anticipation in the viewer. This, for me, is the digital equivalent of walking in through the venue doors, up the stairs, handing my ticket to the usher and heading to my seat. The language necessary to convey a sense of occasion has adapted to fit the size of the aperture we look at the content through.

Look for the detail on stage

A wide side shot of an orchestra isn’t the primary shot anymore, the cutaway is. I found myself looking out for detail that elevates my perception I’m present in the space – small detail in shots which give a human quality to the experience. Over-the-shoulder effortlessly achieves this, so too capturing those moments when players exchange glances with one another. More demonstrative players (so long as they’re authentic and sincere in their movements) help drive energy too and hint to me that even though all of this is a bit weird for everyone at the moment, the performers I’m watching are in the moment, are doing the thing we’d expect of them. The London Mozart Players have achieved this well working with Apple and Biscuit on their video production. Similarly, the Philharmonia’s Benedetti/Classic FM production from Battersea Arts Centre. Authentic expression translates well on camera.

What digital has to do is look for those elements in the live performance which can be translated into a digital experience. We’re not pointing the camera at the stage in order that a wide angle shot will capture the experience, but instead creating a version of that ‘as live’ experience for consumption within the context of the digital world. Digital video is graduating: everybody is expected to make TV now.

Audiences need to look for a (digital) sense of occasion

What is clear to me is that audience expectations need to shift too.

The sense of occasion created by a visit to the bar, a meal or a chat with friends beforehand isn’t going to be easily translatable into the digital world. But I’ve been surprised by how quickly I’ve come to accept the idea of a concert’s premiere time as a kind of broadcast time. I know whose concert is available on what day and, although it might sound a bit quaint to admit it, I look forward to those moments. If I can’t watch then, I will and have ended up setting aside a block of time when I can watch it on the TV at the weekend, for example. And what’s interesting for me is that this is a deliberate choice – time I’ve actively blocked out for me. I don’t normally do that. It’s not a substitute for the joy of going to a concert hall – no one is suggesting otherwise – but for the time being its bringing me closer to a series of ensembles and their seasons. And in some cases I’m perhaps even more aware of what each orchestra has programmed because I have it at my fingertips.

This idea of ‘digital occasion‘ maybe a difficult concept to embrace, especially if an assumption is held that what’s being created is attempting to be an equivalent. As an audience member I recognise the experience isn’t comparable, but it is an alternative I’ve unexpectedly grown accustomed to.

Its Marcomms’ moment

Creating that sense of occasion is the work of marketing and communications. Now more than ever before comms professionals are playing a key role in creating a sense of anticipation around a virtual event. Announcements need to underpinned by a sense of self-belief and self-confidence. Language must have any hint of self-doubt edited out. A sense of continuity needs to be maintained – normal service has resumed, even if the delivery and product has adjusted somewhat. Some organisations and individuals are already doing this – the communications for Snape, LMP, LPO are good examples, though this list isn’t exhaustive. This isn’t in itself a massive shift in practise I don’t think – by and large marcomms professionals have been doing this for years with album releases and TV PR. The point is that for this present time more PRs are having to share announcements about audio/visual recordings. Finding the potential news line that command attention is the challenge. Marcomms have the biggest challenge right now.

Pay close attention to the user experience

The Marcomms challenge will be made easier when the end-user’s online experience is made more uniform, and aligned to other digital entertainment experiences. Failure to do so will mean the digital concert experience won’t be a viable option for classical music fans and UK orchestras will end up relying on conventional distribution methods.

I’ve experienced a range of user experiences over the past few weeks. Very few have been seamless.

Confusing labelling creates barriers

It’s seemingly small detail like button labelling, user journeys, page load times, website navigation bars, and search functions that create resistance. Same principal as website design. I’m also including hardware connectivity in this too, that is what device is the user watching this on and how easy is it to connect it to an external device like a TV?

Those who class themselves as early adopters will be the most at ease with purchase experiences on the internet. Those who followed will now be accustomed (without even realising it) or the steps one goes through to buy a book, or order online supermarket deliveries, or select something to watch from Netflix or iPlayer. These repeat experiences set up expectations in the mind of anyone who is using the internet, such that as users we look for recognisable signposts which not only signal what we need to do next to get the thing we want, but also to reassure us before we’ve even embarked on the purchase process that this is something we’re prepared to commit to in pursuit of the product we think we might want (in this case, a digital concert).

Strive for the simplest, quickest, and seamless user journey

A poor user experience creates barriers to the end goal – access to the concert. If there’s already a perceived resistance to engaging with the concert because we assume that it won’t be the same as being there in the concert hall, then those barriers appear even bigger in our perception.

If the user you’re targeting is in an older demographic and has little or no experience of using the internet let alone connecting their mobile device or laptop to a TV, then the barriers are going to present themselves as some kind of mountain range.

That means that purchase experiences for these digital experiences need to be uniform. Users need to have a rough idea of what they can expect before they embark on the process. The barriers need to be removed. Prior to COVID the classical music world was tying itself in knots trying to address the perceived barriers of access to and appeal of the physical space and content. Now some parts of the sector need to address the digital barriers which are stopping users from completing the user journeys which will deliver the revenue they’re looking for. This is before we get onto the subject of pricing.

Join forces to create a uniform user experience

I believe there’s a need for arts organisations to collaborate to create a uniform user experience, one that is aligned with that experienced on the likes of Netflix, Amazon or the BBC. There needs to be uniform archive strategy of content too which, combined with this improved seamless user experience will serve up assets to consumers and drive up revenues as a result. That doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel, but instead pooling resources, drawing on development already made in other parts of the entertainment industry, in order to create a uniform product.

When this is addressed, then adjusting to an additional ‘concert’ experience is something the user will do (even without even realising it). At that point it makes the work of marketing and communications not only easier but ever more important in drawing attention to new products.

It would be all too easy to dismiss digital streaming as a poor substitute (as I’ve seen a few other commentators do right now) for the live experience. I don’t think anyone should thinking of this process as trying to create a subsitute, but instead the beginning of a journey where an enhanced digital experience is the end goal. Orchestras, ensembles and other arts organisations are at the beginning of this journey, their hands forced by the impact COVID has had on the most obvious way they connect with audiences. That so many have readily and swiftly pivoted is a real testament to the kind of resolve creative individuals are renowned for. But the next stage in development is vital if digital audiences are going to join arts organisations on the journey.