Four carols to kick off the festive season

The tree is up, the lights are on, and save for one or two decorations in need of repositioning, everything’s looking good, even if my arms are now covered in an unexpectedly prickly rash.

Baubles, lights, and other ephemera retrieved from surprisingly tidy boxes demonstrates that me and The OH’s decoration packing strategy honed at beginning of this year had paid dividends. Rediscovering each decoration in the box also triggered memories of traditions started in years gone by.

Decorating for Christmas has then an element of being reunited with old friends.

Similarly so where the music that accompanies the decorating process.

The carols and seasonal music one plays to ease the unpacking of Christmas only really gets listened to once every year. The melodies and harmonies bind themselves to memories of Christmases past, and hopes for Christmases future. No other music has the power (and is required) to command so much in such a short space of time.

Some of the music we play (this is me and The OH’s twentieth Christmas together) as we decorate remains the same – Hely Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, a smattering of Rutter, plus the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

But some of my music has been superseded by new personal discoveries. A selection of this year’s new entries is included below.

I’m struck by the personal needs this music meets. There’s a desire for something distinctive (or maybe just different), a ‘hard edge’, or in one case something mystical, fantastical and a little other-worldly.

Not so much revelling in the headiness of a contrived Dickensian Christmas, more a musical articulation of the way I now see the Christmas story.

Once in Royal David’s City / Voces 8 / Thomas Hewitt Jones

The third verse arrangement by Thomas Hewitt Jones subverts expectations set by the familiar-sounding verses that precede it, with a heady almost seductive range of harmonic progressions.

The first few chords (I’ve no idea what chords they are, so I won’t even try to describe them) take us on an entirely different path, each line of the carol’s conclusion the aural equivalent of biting into salted caramel. All decorated with a simple descant that climbs and climbs until it disappears into the darkness.

Voces 8’s precision execution of Thomas Hewitt Jones’ writing transports this carol from the usual combination of heavy organ and sluggish congregation into something stylish and sophisticated.

Balulalow / Ceremony of Carols / Benjamin Britten

My first introduction to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (1942) was singing This Little Babe during a school carol service in the early 1980s. The antiphonal fireworks in the three part round was an electrifying experience in Suffolk’s St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Britten’s musical language seemed stark and awkward in comparison to the melancholy burned into the more familiar congregational carols.

But it’s Balulalow which speaks to me more now thirty five years later. It’s relentless shift from major to minor chords throughout the carol gives this lullaby a dark restless feel (though others regard this as the characteristics of a love song – I’m not quite so sure). This isn’t a saccharin depiction of Christ’s first night in the cot – a happy ending. There’s menace in Britten’s use of the chord progressions which gives things a sense that life will be hard-fought.

And I particularly like the fragility of Britten’s original recording. The boy treble sounds as though it might shatter during the opening verse. There’s a sense of reassurance when the boys choir joins in, but still that threat of danger remains. It’s Christmas music that gives Christmas a hard edge.

Illuminare, Jerusalem / Judith Weir

I stumbled on Illuminare, Jerusalem one Christmas Eve a couple of years ago listening to Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The late Stephen Cleobury then Director of Music at Kings College commissioned Weir to write the piece for FONLC for the 1985 Christmas Eve service (there’s a video of Weir reflecting on an archive recording of the premiere).

It’s mysterious other-worldiness crafted by a melody that seems to crawl over the words and tracked by an underlying melodic line, paints remarkableness of the Christmas story in a multitude of brilliant and arresting colours. There’s a human quality to the uneven lengths of the phrases too, tidily resolved by the ‘Jerusalem’ phrase repeated throughout. Modest and efficient writing.

Bethlehem Down / Peter Warlock / King Singers

I’ve always loved Warlock’s music. The Capriol Suite is an obvious starting point, brimming with ‘English-sounding’ modes that evoke Sunday lunch roasts, bracing walks in the Fens, and a roaring log fire on return. Where Britten’s music evokes the bruised skies and plump ploughed fields of East Suffolk, Warlock’s scores seems to compensate for the lack of contours in the West Suffollk. Music that fills in the gaps left by nature.

Highlights from the Ivor Composer Awards 2019

If one was to do some as seemingly pointless as rank classical music awards ceremonies for their usefulness, their print, the range and availability of food and drink, the speed of cloakroom facilities, or the slickness of the actual event, then the BASCAs (now renamed the Ivors Composer Awards) would come out on top for me.

What the Ivors also have over some of the others on the circuit is an element of usefulness. It’s a platform for the individuals who play a crucial part in the creative process but who often go overlooked save for a credit in a programme. In this way composers can sometimes be the faceless wonders, making identification at composer awards a tricky business to anyone who isn’t a publisher or another composer.

In the presence of people to be grateful for

Note my surprise and excitement then when I discovered that composer Edward Gregson not only won the award he was nominated in the Amateur or Young Performers category for ‘The Salamander and The Moonraker’, but was also sat in the row in front of me. Here, a man responsible for music in my formative County Youth and university music-making days that brought a smile to my face.

The Ivors Composer Awards 2019 at British Museum, London – Edward Gregson, winner of Amateur or Young Performers on Wednesday, 4 December 2019. Photo by Mark Allan

Similarly, a cursory glance of the judges page in the programme revealed that another wind band and TV composer hero of mine – Nigel Hess – was also present. I didn’t get to meet them but felt the undeniable buzz when i discovered I was in the same room as creatives who had unwittingly played such a crucial part in my recovery from depression at University. Hess’ works for wind band, so too Gregson’s, helped provide a sense of purpose and through my responsibilities as wind band conductor, an unexpected element of accountability. Making that connection amid the awards made for an unnerving emotional response. Thank God I wasn’t anywhere near a microphone.

Awards that promote self-discovery

What the composer awards achieve is surfacing that which would normally go overlooked in the on-demand world we exist in. When you’re sat in a room and made to listen to excerpts from new works written by people sat all around you, you can’t help but be interested. And if as you’d expect, those excerpts are an illustration of what prompted the judges to elevate these works for the considerable weighty prize.

The Ivors Composer Awards 2019 at British Museum, London – Laura Jurd, winner of Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble on Wednesday, 4 December 2019. Photo by Mark Allan

That means what you hear is compelling. So compelling in many cases that the ridiculously short excerpts were a major disappointment, compounded by longer descriptions of what we’d just heard. Sometimes its better to just play the music and make your own mind up about it.

Laura Jurd, James MacMillan, and Anna Meredith

Perhaps the flip-side of that is that the short excerpts stimulate self-discovery. So it is this morning I’ve spent time discovering the music of Laura Jurd (Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble winner for ‘Jumping In‘), Sir James MacMillan‘s striking and reassuringly warm ‘O Virgo Prudentissima‘ peppered with the composer’s trademark lush close harmonic writing (Choral nomination), and the brilliant ‘Paramour‘ from Anna Meredith MBE (Innovation). The accompanying video is a visual delight.

Winner of the Sound Art – Martin Green’s ‘Aeons’ category piqued my interest too. Where do immersive soundscapes available on-demand? Green’s work was site-specific, hence the title ‘A Sound Walk for Newcastle’. But, as a listener driven by curiosity, creations like Aeons are my next must-explore. And I’d pay to download artistic explorations like that by the very best in the business. Where do I find that stuff? I’m not clear. It’s not being promoted much.

Charlotte Bray

Props to composer Charlotte Bray (winner Solo/Duo for ‘Invisible Cities‘).

The Ivors Composer Awards 2019 at British Museum, London – Charlotte Bray, winner of Solo or Duo on Wednesday, 4 December 2019. Photo by Mark Allan

I like Charlotte’s musical language, illustrated in the second movement of IC – stripped right back. Delicate composition assets both in terms of harmonies and textures that create a character just about clinging on to what ever it is that is keeping them from their last breath.

A lovely evening showcasing new discoveries and, in the case of cellist Anna Joubert in attendance to hear the performance of one of her recently departed father’s solo work for viola, a chance to bump into people from my arts administration career back when I was young, thin and earnest.

Review: Amadeus Chamber Orchestra play Bach Keyboard Concertos

The Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio with their conductor Anna Duczmal-Mróz are a modest but proud bunch with a fierce attention to detail. They play a joint programme with the London Mozart Players in concerts this coming weekend in London and Edinburgh.

Their concert on Sunday 17 November in Poznan was an interesting highlight of my year. Efficient front of house procedures at AMU Concert Hall in Poznan, and generous uncluttered open spaces for audience members both inside and outside the auditorium, combined with a simple programme of four Bach keyboard concertos with ever more increasing numbers of pianos, made this concert fly by. These elements – distractions eliminated – increased attentive listening.

Dimitry Shishkin’s performance of BWV 1056 appeared sedate initially though retained a sense of elegance to it in the opening movement. The fortissimos combined with romantic textures from the strings sometimes made the first movement feel a little leaden.

The generous acoustic – billowy in rich textures, favouring detail in more pared-back orchestrations – did sometimes demand a faster pace to help keep moving things along.

An appreciation that the acoustic was an additional ‘performer’ in the mix really became apparent in BWV 1062 for two keyboards featuring Paweł Wakarecy and Lukas Geniušas.

With more piano in the mix, the balance was made right, the acoustic supporting the interplay between the two instruments and amplifying the antiphonal effects written into the two solo lines.

Though there were moments when it felt like ensemble and soloists were slightly running ahead during the second movement, there was tenderness and delicacy that rooted us in the approach taken for the concerto.

The challenge then for all on stage given the efficiency of the event and the works programme became ever more obvious as each successive concerto added another keyboard to the platform: orchestral players and soloists getting accustomed to an ever more expansive sound world as the concert went on.

By the third concerto – BWV 1064 – the balance was assured allowing space for joyous cascades across all three instruments in the first and third movements, with a thought-provoking darker more contemplative second movement sandwiched in between.

The question: are the three keyboards separate solo lines in their own right, or is the combination of the three one entire solo line? I’m still not entirely clear. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

The most striking change came about in the final concerto – BWV 1065. Three of the four soloists shifted position to a different keyboard, bringing about greater clarity, a more resounding demonstration of ensemble especially with the delicate endings to phrases, and the final movement a joyous cavalcade of textures. Considerable industry abounded, the strings creating a pleasing cushion of sound.

Review: Joby Burgess plays Alex Groves at CLF Art Cafe

Prominent exterior signage would help at Peckham’s CLF. The former cricket bat factory has such a range of office, event and creative spaces that go under the banner of the Bussey that an ill-thought out stride through the wrong entrance could result in disappointment.

After visits there to see Opera Story’s production of Dani Howard’s Robin Hood, and one or two other events I always assume the main spaces are accessed via the side entrance. But there is a door at the front – leading up two flights of stone stairs to an white washed adorned with bulky post-war speakers hinting at its industrial past. That’s the key space for me. I probably just need to make a mental note.

This detail is worth stating again (not least because my archive of blog posts is currently unavailable due to a malware attack). CLF’s interior sets the tone, long before a note has been played. And if you’ve had a fraught day full of busy-ness that tone is distinctively one of escapism. A life never lived because you never dared, now possible because it’s open, uncluttered, unfussy and welcoming.

Joby Burgess at CLF Art Cafe, November 2019

Percussionist Joby Burgess has a similar air. Cool, passionate, proud and excited. He retains the cool-kid-who-plays-the-drums-from school vibe, at the same time as speaking with knowledge, experience and love about every composer’s work he brings to life

Wizard-like creations of live sequences permeated this intimate gig showing Burgess as nimble, light-footed, and assertive, marshalling multiple forces to construct imaginative worlds impossible to ignore. Becca Dale’s work written for Burgess – fun, atmospheric, playful and sweet – did much to set the tone. Spirit and verve gently squeezed out from each tantalising melodic cell. Gabriel Prokofiev’s Fanta Bottle riff was riveting storytelling reminiscent of any GCSE music students composition class, Burgess delivering deft theatre and effortless self-deprecation.

Composer, producer and curator Alex Groves Curved Form was scored largely for tam tams – provided a more reflective piece of storytelling. Not so much chilling as gratifyingly dark. An ambient creation that satisfied my NLP weaknesses, healing the flesh-wounds of the day that had gone before it.

Feldman’s King of Denmark – a whispered response to Stockhausen – continued the compelling listening experience but in comparative terms the material felt more a passive aggressive response to Stockhausen’s creative madness. In that way I’m not sure it worked quite so well in the running order – the other works shone brighter. Max de Wardener’s Winterreise infused exploration pushed us the edges of comfortable listening with anguished fragments of barely recognisable material and very loud drums. Some in the audience stuck their fingers in their ears.

Linda Buckley’s brilliant Discordia for sonic harp complete with rosin-coated gloves made for a mesmerising conclusion. This 2018 Barbican commission deserves more outings in evocative spaces after a recording has been released for streaming and download. An ambient-lover’s must-listen.

Alex Groves continues to show his creative and producer mettle with SOLO which combined with his gentle affability must surely project him and his work higher and higher. So too I hope for CLF Art Cafe which has over the past two years developed into a must-be-booked-at South London venue.

Review: Lambeth Wind Orchestra and saxophonist Rob Burton play Rhapsodies and Fantasias

A demanding programme of unfamiliar and invigorating works for wind orchestra including a cracking show piece from saxophonist Rob Burton.

“Why are you going to a concert given by amateurs?” asked the taxi driver on the way to Lambeth Wind Orchestra’s Saturday night concert this past weekend.

“Because they work hard and I’d like to hear the results,” I replied.

A far more succinct response would have been, “Why wouldn’t I?”

I was irritated by his rookie attempt at jocularity. It didn’t land well at all. When he then moved on to pissing and moaning about the borough where I lived I was keen for the journey to end (preferably at the sought-out destination) and for me and The OH to pile out.

What LWO does well is cultivating a community feel. This was the second concert of theirs I’d attended, the first where guests were greeted by conductor John Holland at the door. Don’t underestimate the dividend. If the conductor is welcoming you personally, then you’re going to have to be a cold-hearted bastard to end up not appreciating something in the hours that followed.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to look very hard. LWO players are an impressive bunch. Thirteen of the 52 players were ‘guest musicians’ meaning the core of the rich ensemble sound is powered by regular members. And when they play a chord as one complete ensemble the evocative sound of well-balanced wind band resonates across the chest, (for me) stirring happy memories of twenty-five years ago when I was at university conducting a wind orchestra.

It would be easy for an amateur band not to sound that way – one duff bit of tuning and everything jars, heads start to turn, and people start looking at their watches. But not so for LWO. Even at the point of tuning for performance its apparent that people listen, adjust and adapt. They pay close attention to Holland’s exacting and expressive beat – one of the reasons I imagine LWO secured Gold at the National Concert Band Festival last week.

The quality of the playing was most evident in Holland’s arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Daring. So much of the work depends on the textures of the strings. Dry mournful Sunday afternoons are best evoked by string players. That a quartet of players sat behind us played VW’s transcribed score with such warmth demonstrates not only vision on the part of the arranger, but an understanding of who in the band could realise the dream to greatest effect. The Thomas Tallis Fantasia is a demanding blow for a wind and brass player – endless extended sequences for (some) instruments right at the top of their range. But there were moments of intense emotion. The hideousness of the real world outside was momentarily put on hold. Exactly (I think) what VW intended. Quite some achievement for an amateur band playing in a concert hall at a school in which the composer taught.

Similarly impressive was Morton Gould’s epic Jericho – brimming with detail, dramatic perhaps momentarily piercing dynamic range – and Claude T.Smith’s blistering Alto Saxophone Fantasia. Soloist Rob Burton deftly delivered the punishing solo line with a warm round tone and gratifyingly unpretentious articulation. Sometimes swamped by the massed sound of the band in the opening material, his consistent musicianship made this an exhilerating discovery, the expansive and demanding cadenza in particular demonstrating how there’s much to discover from this remarkably mature instrumentalist.

Recommended recording of Claude T. Smith’s on Spotify from West Texas A&M Symphonic Band.

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Professional criticism needs to get over itself

Recently classical music writer Charlotte Gardner appeared on Radio 3’s Music Matters to discuss professional criticism and its present demise.

A quick summary for those who either don’t know or wouldn’t otherwise care about professional criticism in the classical music or operatic world.

Simply, there’s little money for content in the print or digital world, a perceived lack of appetite for professional criticism too. Opportunities are drying up. Professional critics are withering and dying on the vine. The world is coming to an end. Bring out your dead.

The irony is that much of this current discourse about the state of music criticism has been triggered by the ENO’s recent announcement inviting new writers (let’s not call them novice – as terminology goes that’s massively condescending) the opportunity to develop their written responses to the operatic form, and for their copy to be published on the ENO website.

In digital marketing terms this is what’s referred to as ‘owned content’: a personal response to an ENO production published on the ENO website. A marketing boon for ENO.

It’s work which is unlikely to flirt with any journalism awards. Because it isn’t journalism. It’s marketing. It’s a way for ENO to get personal accounts of the work they put on. In the process the people doing it learn stuff about how to write about opera. And they’ll probably write about the opera in a different way from those who have hitherto written in (sometimes) codified terms about the art form. The end product is people writing favourably (presumably) about an ENO production so that other potential audience members might feel more inclined to attend said opera. The principal of endorsement or advocacy. It’s exactly the same as Waterstones staff promoting individual books on small cards positioned directly underneath the book they’re recommending. Those recommendations are there to sell books. I don’t hear any book critics wailing about missed opportunities because Waterstones staff are telling potential customers what books they might consider reading.

Charlotte’s blog on the Society of Music website hints at the conflict of interest in ENO’s proposed route. The scheme (like a lot of ENO recent developments) is also a useful punchbag for the issue around professional critics no longer receiving a ‘plus one’ ticket for their criticism work. Dear God hasn’t there been a lot of bleating about that one recently. Critics can’t do their work alone, it seems. A great many other considerably more animated and seemingly self-entitled men and women have said the same.

The irony is that the more people bellow and moan about the state of professional criticism the more ENO’s oft-criticised scheme is given more light. For something that classical music writers are so dismissive of, everyone is doing quite a good job of giving it more oxygen. A scheme that could have been announced in an emailed press release and forgotten about in amongst a slew of others, is known by mostly everyone in the small world I frequent because a lot of people are worried about the loss of a ‘plus one’, and what it means for the lexicon used to describe the art form we all hold so dear.

It’s important to emphasise that Charlotte’s blog isn’t a complete summary of what happened on Radio 3’s Music Matters, only her perspective. As a digital content producer, strategist and editor, I know the pitfalls of the digital medium reasonably well, and appreciate that whilst a discussion in the context of a radio programme sounds balanced, benign (and in some cases banal), when it’s summarised in digital form it can take on a whole other existence, triggering people like me into a rage.

But I take umbrage with one particular element in her blog post, which when I see her at a press event next and we sip on our free glasses of wine together I will challenge her on (assuming there’s sufficient time left in the interval).

The discussion pointed to the threat posed by amateur bloggers, how they don’t have editors to save them from themselves. How amateur bloggers don’t fuel their musical knowledge all day and every day because their non-paying jobs prevent them from doing so.

Whilst there are some extremely knowledgeable amateur bloggers, there’s no adequate substitute for total immersion. Every day as a professional critic I’m talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what’s interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can’t be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job.

Criticism Reviewed, Charlotte Gardner, 6 November 2019

I do all of these things too. Every day. It’s just that I don’t get paid for all of it.

I am an amateur blogger in the strictest definition of the word. I don’t get money for this blog (well, maybe $30 a month via Patreon but that’s it), and I don’t get money for the podcast either. I left the BBC in 2017 in order to devote more of my content production skills to the classical music world. What I discovered was that it was phenomenally difficult to gain a foothold in the classical music writing world. Many of the outlets relied on a handful of the same people.

Many online publications threw shade on my credentials, quibbled over how I was getting funding to go to international festivals, pointing to anything other than a self-funded trip as evidence of a potential conflict of interest. What I realised a couple of years ago was that the conventional classical music writers world felt threatened by someone like me and so creating and then manning barriers to entry was paramount. The irony is that many of those people who questioned my independence and how it might threaten their precious publication are the same people who travel to international festivals to write about concerts, trips funded by the festivals themselves or PR agencies.

There are gifts (plenty of them), dinners, free drinks, and launch events. Those experiences are there solely to sweeten the classical music writer. You can either avoid those opportunities in order to preserve your precious independence, or you can attend them, have the free grub, mingle with nice people, and then challenge yourself to be just as independent afterwards. I’d suggest that (and will when I next see Charlotte at one of those events), it’s exactly that challenge which has helped shore up my independence and make me a better writer.

‘Plus ones’ are not vital to writing independently about classical music or opera; they’re a gift, or a privilege.

I’ve written negatively about concerts I’ve had free tickets for, and I’ve written positively about them too.

But independent criticism whether its paid for or not, isn’t measured by negative writing nor whether or not you’re writing from emotional starting point. Its (partly) about the mechanics of how that art is produced, in addition to the evidence of whether it was a work of art (ie whether it triggered questions in the reviewer). I write about that too because I’m interested in that – a reflection of how art is helping me develop as an audience member (of which a critic is one type of audience member, one that happens to report on the event).

I didn’t always do that because I didn’t always have the confidence. I started years from an emotional standpoint because I regarded that as my unequivocal truth (which is different from ‘truth’ in the more global sense by the way): writing about how I felt in reaction to something meant that I knew I was being authentic as noone else would have the same reaction as me. That’s where my writing started.

Over time, I grew more confident about acknowledging what I knew. At the same time I recognised that there were a great many people whose music educations were very different from my own. In the past two years I’ve come to realise that there is an undoubtedly two-tier view of music training in this country: outside of the conservatoire system you either went to Oxford or Cambridge or you didn’t.

And when I began to realise that inherent snobbery in the classical music writing world I began to wonder how on earth it was possible that same snobbery couldn’t bleed into everything that was written about it – through editorial choices, word usage, knowledge and expertise and, ultimately, blocking opportunities. Convention reigns and an artform makes itself appear impenetrable because the gatekeepers still insist on making it so.

I was recently invited to attend an opera in Norway. The festival were paying for the travel and accommodation. I’d never been. I was flattered to be asked to go by another journalist. I pitched a review – my first opera review – to a well respected magazine. I read reviews of other operas written by other journalists before I wrote my own. I watched the opera in one performance – it was in French with no English surtitles. And in the airport waiting to go home I wrote my review. I published it on my blog first, alongside the podcast I’d published, after which I sent the review to the magazine editor. I received one set of suggested edits. It was published a month later. I received some money – enough to cover the opera ticket (if I’d had to pay). I don’t really care about the money by the way. And as it turned out, I didn’t really revel in the legitimacy a paid writing gig gave me. It made no difference. What was important was being able to write the copy in a way that suited the publication. And it appeared the money confirmed it: I could.

There is to me little difference between what I do, what others like me do, and what Charlotte does. We are all writers who spend a lot of time advocating the art form we love. Some are better than others. And then there are those who just copy and paste press releases or distribute unchecked gossip desperately trying to convince the rest of us that its news.

Everyone rolls their eyes whenever anyone bemoans Norman Lebrecht’s blog – “That’s just Norman,’ they’ll say with a smile and a wink. No one ever complains about his dubious output. But they’ll happily complain about the amateur bloggers. No one will condemn his errors or his bias; they effectively condone it. Yet if an amateur blogger creates content that compares well to anything a professional writer is churning out, its the delicate classical music writing ecosystem that’s in danger of extinction. There are some in the sector who think that may well be the best outcome.

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Review: Matthew Whiteside’s ‘Entangled’

For someone who spent his formative years non-plussed by the prospect of All Hallow’s Eve and irritated by its commercialisation in the years that followed, even I’ve surprised myself in 2019 by my curiosity for this odd time of year.

I’m reading Dracula right now. Never read it before. I actively sought it out because I actively wanted to be disturbed. For context: I have a partner who’s go-to cultural experience is high-budget TV drama. Reading an actual book is the perfect foil for the tyranny of the 68 inch 4K screen that sits in the corner of our living room.

Stoker’s Gothic horror is a cracking read. Fast-paced storytelling. Evocative language. It’s taking me time to read (because I’m a slow-reader) because I discover to my great surprise that its a world I want to spend a little time in. That means extending Halloween beyond 31st October. A new tradition is forming itself now that GMT has been ushered in, followed by the various other habits and pastimes we all unwittingly indulge ourselves now that the night air descends after half-past four.

Such a long introduction for this review for Matthew Whiteside’s Entangled is if you haven’t listened to it already appropriate. Listening to it at this point in the year a few days after its general release, the horror and terror that exudes from Whiteside’s experimental writing sits well with what’s going on in my imagination. It is as though Entangled is the soundtrack for an extended Halloween, extended for those who are currently catching up on their youth.

And yet there’s a contradiction. The sleeve notes, the press release and the accompanying development blog suggest an entirely different creative impulse.

The title work Entangled is a three movement quartet showcasing the brilliant Aurea Quartet. The work is a creative response to the physical phenomenon of ‘entanglement’, a theory proposed by Einstein and proved by physicist John Stewart Bell in 2013 that states groups of particles influence each other, even if they are at a distance from each other in space. A paradox in science, apparently.

No, I can’t believe I’ve actually written that either. And to be completely honest, I didn’t write all of it. Some of that previous paragraph was contained in the press release. But really, why reinvent the wheel? Time is money.

My point is this. I’ve really enjoyed Entangled. Regardless of its intent, the creative impulse for the tracks on the album, or how I contextualise it as a listener, there remains a narrative arc to Whiteside’s creation that pulls me in. He creates something fresh without pushing me away. The sound doesn’t jar with what I’m experiencing at this time of year but enhances it.

This may not be what Matthew wants to hear, but Entangled is the perfect soundtrack for the Halloween newbie. The third movement Spinning from quartet no.4 of the same name is a blissful creation for the imagination. The second movement of the fifth quartet is a masterful creation too. Loved all of it.

Listen to the Aurea Quartet on Matthew Whiteside’s new album ‘Entangled’ on Spotify
There are development notes available to read on Matthew’s blog
here.

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Review: Opera Holland Park’s Into the Light

I’ve watched Opera Holland Park’s latest social action doc Into the Light a few times over the past few week in production, and when it went live on YouTube today.

I hear there are future plans for its wider release. Good. Well deserved. Because OHP top dog Michael Volpe’s exploration of the impact of opera on army and navy veterans captured during this years season is a thing to behold.

Lovable contributors, heartbreaking real-life stories, jeopardy, pathos and redemption, all underpinned by the music of Tchaikovsky.

Crafted with an eye to the art form Volpe so evidently adores, it’s a must-see 30 mins heralding the impact opera has on the curious and open-minded. If you’re a living breathing human being who hasn’t already seen this then you must. Touching stories, unfussy photography, and effortless advocacy.

Every time I see it it makes me cry (a lot). In that way it has a much-needed grounding effect at a point in time when the world appears to have gone completely mad.

Watch it on YouTube before the masses pile in on it. If you don’t reach for a tissue in the first thirteen minutes then you’re a cold-hearted bastard.

Review: Der Freischütz conducted by Laurence Equilbey featuring Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, and Chiara Skerath

An inventive thought-provoking production with captivating contributions from Johanni van Oostrum, the Insula Orchestra, and one or two illusionists.

Terrific orchestral playing in a generous acoustic that supported the period instrument Insula Orchestra   in the production of lean string sounds, and evocative woodwind textures. Possibly the best live theatrical pit sound I’ve heard in a long time. Conductor Laurence Equilbey is a passionate and efficient director, combining a clear beat with a dynamic expressive range. Her energy and precision can be heard in a range of orchestral textures, and contributed to a number of electrifying moments on stage. 

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum shone the brightest in amongst an impressive cast with her Act III Scene 2 Cavatine Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle, sending chills up the spine with a rounded tone, silky smooth legatos and gossamer octave leaps. Hers combined with the voice of Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max, and the sometimes Mary Poppins-esque characterisation of Annchen by Chiara Skerath made for an exquisite first act trio Wie? Was? Ersatzen that didn’t quite muster the effort from the audience with the response it deserved. 

I’ve read some dismissive reviews about the stage direction and set design, drawing attention to the lack of shotguns in an opera about a shooting contest as being a creative failure. 

Seeing this year old production at its Paris premiere sat in the intimate art deco interior of Theatre des Champs-Elysees there was a sense that with the horrific events of recent terrorist atrocities still surprisingly fresh in the mind, that not seeing actual guns was a sensitive creative response. Whether this was an active choice when the production opened last year I’m not entirely clear. What the absence of guns resulted in however was a creative opportunity for the production, demanding more engagement on the part of the audience. The intent appeared to trigger (forgive the pun) the audience to use their imagination more, something that increased engagement. 

An array of illusions was deployed which met this dual aim of focusing audience attention on the hows and the whys. Sometimes the depiction of the magic bullets – white balls juggled, thrown and sometimes swung – distracted the eye, especially during Agathe’s Und ob die Wolke. 

At other times, the time spent perfecting slow motion movement whether powered independently or with a seemingly invisible wires really paid off, heightening the drama considerably. The conclusion to the Wolf’s Glen scene was a case in point when characters strained for Samiel’s fire only to fall back in the melee. So too when Agathe gets hit with the seventh bullet in the last scene – all very Keanu Reeves. Additionally, never has watching one dancer moving in slow motion accompanied by a cello solo on one note ever created so much tension. 

The use of dark light projected onto the stage created threatening shadows in the penultimate scene of Act 1 almost worked, although at times the movements didn’t quite tally up with the available ‘black space’ on stage. 

The use of figures projected onto gauze to create storytelling vignettes maintaining engagement during sequences of dramatic exposition, adding depth both to the storytelling and the perceived depth of the stage – a complex effect demanding continuity between pre-recorded and live performances. The depiction of a silvery sea complete with dry ice (or was it a hologram – I’m not quite sure) was a thing of directorial and design beauty. 

The best should really be left until last. The chorus provided a remarkable sound – a rich, sonorous and burnished colour that compensated for the grey uniformity in their near-totalitarian costumes. One other commentator have dismissed the chorus’ supposed lack of movement, though the simplicity of the lines complemented the stark stage design. There were some elegant movements in the final scene when Hermit and chorus moved in a collective slow motion. 

A concert performance of the production is staged at the Barbican on 4 November 2019.

Cast: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Max), Johanni van Oostrum (Agatha), Chiara Skerath (Annchen), Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar), Christian Immler (Hermit), Thorsten Gruumbel (Kuno), Daniel Schumtzhard (Ottakar), Anas Seguin (Kilian), Clement Dazin (Samiel)

Recommended recording London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Colin Davis, featuring Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews and Simon O’Neil.

Reccomended Insula Orchestra recording Beethoven Emperor Concerto

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A night at the Gramophone Awards 2019

The Gramophone Awards are an industry event which celebrates that which has been released the year before and, in the process of handing out the gongs, brings industry figures together in a spangly affair.

But, I’ve always struggled a little to understand where the Gramophone Awards sit in my classical music world.

Beyond the simple explanation I’ve always felt the Gramophones (and the magazine come to that) was another world – the world of recordings, expert assessments, probably a little bit of flannel here and there and, perhaps most importantly, a world where I’d be forced to confront how little I know of the current classical music world.

Perhaps there was even a thought when watching the Gramophones from a distance via a live stream in years gone by that the ceremony and its contents and participants didn’t necessarily represent me or illustrate my connection with the art form. Gramophone magazine was something for the grown-ups not for the frivolous light-on-detail person like me.

What the narrative, contextualisation and representation of the artform actually looks like for me has come into sharper focus over the past six months or so.

But, after a disappointing Proms season, taking to time to gain a deeper understanding of where commercial radio sits in encouraging and catering for a new and varied audiences for classical music, and now the Gramophone Awards, I’m getting accustomed to a more nuanced take on the sector.

Last night’s awards ceremony at the De Vere Connaught Rooms shone new light on the classical music world. A human one.

Jakub Józef Orliński. Counter-tenor. Model. Break-dancer. Skipped dessert.

Seeing counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński (someone I had no previous knowledge of – the shame) take up his seat at our table prior to proceedings getting underway provided an opportunity to observe the remarkable energy he exudes. To then see him leap to the stage to sing in a fascinating yet matter-of-fact way meant the mesmerising tone he produced when he sang was electrifying. One minute Jakub was someone sat a table, the next his voice was creating a moment of stillness. The magic of live performance highlighted once again, so too the wonder the human voice can have on other human beings in an instant. I think I’m right in saying that he skipped dessert too. So a lot of self-control there, because I wolfed mine.

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin had a similar impact. His stint at the keyboard (Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words No.1 if I’ve recalled that correctly) silenced the inevitable awards dinner murmurs, glass chinks and fidgeting ice-cubes to create a similarly electrifying moment: busy-ness tackled head-on with innate and immediate musicianship.

The awards also have the added bonus of signposting a path for future exploration.

Knowing that someone who was previously sat across from me (who I also didn’t recognise – the shame) and who I’d assumed was a marketing type but who later turned out to be an award winner made him an interesting character to know more about. That he then sat down at the piano and commanded perfection to emerge from it was one thing. That when he spoke into the microphone when collecting his award with breathtaking understatement and unfussiness made him all the more fascinating.

Double award winner pianist Bertrand Chamonoy. Self-effacing to a fault. Adorable.

A lot of this of course is down to the event itself, an entertainment format which, it strikes me, is unique in the classical music world. There is no live cabaret style event where audience surrounds the stage and music is interspersed with speech. We might hear an idea of it on the radio, but we don’t see it on TV. Not anywhere. And that kind of experience would do much to reveal the magic of the art form – intimate music-making for a wider audience where the musicians natural personalities shine as brightly as the music they make just by virtue of speaking from the heart.

Guitarist Sean Shibe. Award winner for concept album SoftLoud. Loving the musicianship, Less keen on the ruff.

The discoveries I made I’m committing to future exploration (with one or two inclusions on the first Thoroughly Good Classical Music Playlist) include Bertrand Chamayou who appeared surprised and possibly even choked when his recording of Saint-Saens piano concertos was announced as both Concerto of the Year and Recording of the Year. Albums recorded by pianist Denis Kozhukin, Víkingur Ólafsson (adorably self-deprecating), and counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński.

And a wildcard too.

Cardoso’s Requiem on Hyperion which secured the Early Music Award. Partly because of the arresting image on the cover of the album, but also because it was the Early Music Award I accidentally kicked as I squeezed past table twelve in search of Catherine Bott. No damage was done, but the look on recipient Pedro Alvares Ribeiro’s was momentarily distressing. Profuse apologies offered and accepted, and I managed to find Catherine Bott too.