In praise of the London Mozart Players

This weekend feels like one of those important transition times. This partly down to the government eagerness getting us back to the good-old-British-pub, the busy-ness of the nearby South Circular, and the comfort our neighbours display welcoming a considerable number of pals into their garden this afternoon, people who are quite happy hugging and stroking one another – people I’ve not seen from my office window over the past three months. This is the kind of person I’ve turned into. Give me six months I’ll be reading the Daily Mail and ringing the police on a daily basis.

Others have moved on. I haven’t. Because in my head there are some who feel a little left behind. Friday saw Johnson tease a timeline announcement. Might there be hope? Maybe. As I’ve said before, when the people I care about – the art form I depend on – return to something like a solution for working, then I’ll feel more at ease with this idea that we’re ‘emerging’ from a global pandemic.

Until then, classical music is dependent on the videographer, digital content producer, marketing person and PR.

Not a bad segue as segues go.

It’s worth flagging the efforts of London Mozart Players in all of this. I think their efforts may well go overlooked, possibly because of their scale. I want to write about their achievements because I think that they are one of a handful of classical music endeavours who have amidst all of this craziness consistently surprised me.

My connection with them is (in my head) quite loose. A few years back I interviewed Howard Shelley for a podcast. He was charming and a captivating contributor. Since then, I’ve received emails from LMP’s lovely PR Jo, interviewed some players and former conductors, and three months ago set up a content partnership with the band for Scala Radio Online as they headed into lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong. Not exactly an earth-shattering strategy. More like working with people to capture a moment in time from the perspective of those who were experiencing it.

At the same time, I was impressed by their nimbleness as an organisation. It was almost as though they had anticipated the sudden change in fortune. Someone had made plans for a variety of different digital treatements whilst the orchestra’s core talent – the players – were denied a platform to play together.

They weren’t, of course, the only organisation to do this. But they were one of only a handful who appeared to respond quickly – pivoting effortlessly – delivering a broad range of content digitally.

Part of that willingness, I think, comes from a determined spirit rooted in the band’s psyche. Listen to the interview with Exec Director Julia Desbruslais in the Thoroughly Good Fairfield Halls podcast to get a sense of that unshakeable determination.

Where’s my evidence? It’s anecdotal, predictably. It’s to do with the responsive of individuals, the readiness to meet the needs of various third parites. Willingness. Determination. Spirit.

I interface (sorry, I can think of no other word that helps here) with one individual for LMP: their PR, Jo Carpenter. What many PRs forget is that they are as much the face of the organisation they represent as the organisation themselves and their output. That means that as someone who could write about the organisation they represent, they need to epitomise it. Something magical happens when the right PR is aligned with the right organisation. There are others (in case they’re reading – Rebecca J, Kenny, Tessa, Rebecca D, Nicky and George). Rapport is what drives this key relationship. I will, assuming I’m of value, as a content producer do whatever I can if the rapport is there. In this world, where everyone is thinking they need to cut back everything, remain convinced that the PR is vital to raising awareness of an arts organisation’s activities, strategies, and success.

What LMP has demonstrated to me is that self-confidence, determination, and knowing the right people will pay dividends. Also an understanding of the impact storytelling can have on a digital platform.

Because really, the sight of a group of masked string players (the full concert comes with a co-partnership with another radio station, though 360 Elgar with Tasmin Little is a Scala Radio digital promo), the majority of them women too (one in the eye of anyone who reckons classical is pale, male and stale), is nailing a number of different messages: we’re here; we’re getting on with it; we won’t be beaten by your nonsense – not any of you; and when the time comes we can charge for tickets we’ll appreciate the money you part with.

BBC Proms 2020 details announced and highlights selected

Many years ago when access to the Proms brochure and programme archive was as straightforward a process and leaping down the stairs at Broadcasting House and opening a cupboard, I recall stumbling on the Winter Proms season print and thinking how odd a concept it seemed. This, obviously, because it my mind the Proms is something that shapes the summer.

The idea that someone would even entertain the idea of mounting a similar kind of programme in the winter seems like a bizarre thing. Reading Alison Garnham’s chapter in the Proms history book edited by Nicholas Kenyon highlights that the then revival of the Winter Proms in 1947-52 brought the BBC into conflict with other concert promoters who smelled unfair competition. The season wasn’t financially viable either.

I digress. Kind of. Will this year’s Proms season announced today, if it was to be available in print, cast a similar spell on future fans furtively rifling through that same cupboard? I like to think so.

For someone like me – an unreliable, fickle and sometimes critical Proms devotee – there is little difference for me as a consumer this year as opposed to previous years. I’m a predominantly a listener. I prefer imagining the Royal Albert Hall as I listen on the radio. Memories collide. The unfamiliar is introduced. The summer is made sense of.

While its easy to scroll through the listings for this year’s season – 6 weeks of archive broadcasts across TV and radio plus two weeks of as yet-to-be-defined audience-free live performances – and think that this will be seen as a phoney season because I don’t have the choice to attend in person, the reality is that Proms 2020 is exactly what its always been: a series of concert broadcasts I can listen to on the radio. Only this year I get to browse through the past twenty years or so and relive some moments.

I’ve pulled-out a handful of things that catch my eye from a cursory glance of the list. But basically, the summer is sorted – an entire season of archive broadcasts. That, frankly, is good enough for me.

Thoroughly Good Highlights from BBC Proms 2020

Tavener’s The Protecting Veil (1989) – Tuesday 21 July – Radio 3

Norrington conducts Beethoven and Schubert (1989) – Monday 27 July – Radio 3

Sondheim at 80 (2010) – Friday 31 July – Radio 3

Richard Hickox (2006) – Sunday 2 August – Radio 3

Neville Marriner (1994) – Thursday 6 August – Radio 3

Rattle and Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (2002) – Sunday 9 August – BBC Four

Andrew Manze conducting Vaughan Williams Symphonies 4-6 – Tuesday 12 August – Radio 3

Argerich, Barenboim, and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (2016) – Sunday 16 August – BBC Four

Kissin (1997) – Wednesday 19 August – Radio 3

Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra (2007) – Sunday 23 August – BBC Four

Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (1987) – Wednesday 26 August – Radio 3

Ibiza Prom (2015) – Friday 28 August – BBC Four

Rachmaninov Vespers (2017) – Sunday 6 September – Radio 3

Not and exhaustive list of my listening committments, but enough to delight and act as a substitute. What we need to do next is follow the Royal Albert Hall’s lead and make this count for classical music, live performance, and the wider arts. This season is the supporting evidence for the campaign audience, performers, and broadcasting organisations alike need to get behind: to reiterate the lifelong value of music in the minds of those who have the power to ensure the UK arts sector survives post-COVID19.

BBC Proms 2020 starts on Friday 17 July. Discover the full line-up on the BBC Proms 2020 website.

Borlotti Buitoni’s deft piece of comms

An unexpected delivery today through the letterbox. A spongy brown envelope in which was a tote bag and a face mask.

Inventive marketing I thought. Arresting communications, as I retrieved the Borlotti Buitoni Trust branded mask and bag.

I’ll admit that I still don’t like wearing a mask. It’s dehumanising. I hate not seeing other people’s smiles. Face masks feel like prisons. Middle class prison.

But it’s a punchy medium. Imagine having your key message emblazoned across someone else’s face. What would that message be? What would you say to others?

The bag was on reflection a far more sobering experience. I peered at the names printed on either side. A handful were familiar to me: previous podcastees; previous discoveries.

The inevitable questions arose. How are they faring? When will I hear them perform again? Will it really be next year at the earliest?

Yes. It will. And what I learned today is that there’s still a significant number of people who think that the money musicians earn from their craft is so small and insignificant as to not be worth banging the drum for.

That’s the next challenge. We need to go old school. We need to build more momentum. From the ground up. This campaign is a marathon not a sprint.

Ignorance, ineptitude, and inverse snobbery

I watched BBC Parliament Live today. I haven’t watched BBC Parliament since Brexit late-2019.

At one point the Leader of the Commons in his baggy double-breasted suit stood up to respond to Peter Bone’s (remember him?) nauseating platitudes about ‘English cricket’. If ever there was indisputable evidence of a gleeful sense of privilege and self-entitlement here it was.

Later, Rees-Mogg responded to a Conservative and then Labour MP about a call for a debate about how best to support the arts during the easing of lockdown. Twice came the response: “The Secretary of State is aware of the problems some areas of the economy are suffering.”

That’s all the arts gets in response to its present situation.

Elsewhere this week I’ve been reminded of the spectacular inverse snobbery that exists in the classical music world. For those keen to introduce the classical music canon to those who assume its not for them, there persists a view that being an advocate who knows anything about the classical music world is in itself A Bad Thing. Yes, there are those who believe that the problem with classical music is those who love classical music.

Imagine it for a moment. You’re someone who loves the thing you advocate. But there are those on one side who judge you for not knowing enough (because you didn’t go to Cambridge or Oxford), and even more unaware individuals who judge you even more harshly for following your passion and sating your appetite in a particular chosen field. Self-knowledge and first-person advocacy is an even worse educational crime it seems.

Imagine transposing that situation onto a film buff. No one unsure what film to watch at the cinema would actively criticise a film fan en-route to purchasing their ticket for knowing ‘too much’ about the medium they’re passionate about. You’d have to be a complete arsehole to dismiss anyone who knew less than you standing in the same queue. Why is there significantly less snobbery about film, but so much persistent snobbery about classical music? And is that inverse snobbery classical music (and possibly the wider-arts) biggest problem? And if it is, when did that start?

And given the situation I observed this afternoon as I glared at Jacob Rees-Mogg postulating about the joys of cricket and goading his opponents over which county will win when the game does start up again, why is this ignorance so pervasive when so many musicians livelihoods are under threat? Shouldn’t even the most ignorant and inarticulate have worked out by now that regardless of what music you play, the fact that you play music for money means its the economy you exist in that is worth supporting?

It seems not.

I am rudderless. Disconnected. Unrepresented in the present climate. And the focus of my attention seems still focussed on Westminster.

Earlier this week I trialled a coaching workshop – a session to help managers and those they interact with communicate more effectively face-to-face. I worked with a musician friend of mine to introduce the basics of coaching to friends and associates.

It was a collaborative experience. It was also dynamic in that I was responding to what was going on in the group (hence why often the best thing for a plan is for the plan to be left to one side). At its simplest level it was a teaching experience – an opportunity to share skills which I often take for granted. Skills which at the same time also have provided me with life-changing experiences. I was reminded at the end of it that I’d wanted to be a teacher.

I’ve written about why I wanted to be a teacher and why it didn’t happen in longer form in a previous post. For those that haven’t read that, it’s the pervasive thoughts about Westminster which are probably most relevant here.

A few weeks ago a colleague offered to facilitate an introduction to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson (this after I had explained to the colleague, and on a blog post, how a Department for Education wonk back in 1994 had judged me unfit to teach children on account of being a perceived ‘threat’). I thanked the colleague for the consideration and the kind offer, later concluding to myself that Williamson’s politics made it unlikely I could even respond to an email from the man let alone expect a favourable review of my case.

The Wonk’s decision-making back in 1994 aligned with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s disdainful response to reqeusts for arts support meld into one ball of unmanageable vileness that I’m now, metaphorically speaking, throwing in the direction of Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I can’t and won’t blame him for everything. I’m not a complete arsehole. He’s, like Rupert Christiansen rather clumsily suggested earlier today, basically a good man.

But why do the things we cherish, the things we strive for, the things that make sense for all – why do they get trampled on so brutally?

What I conclude the day thinking as I try to wrestle with all of these seemingly disparate thoughts, is this.

People hate passion. They despise enthusiasm. They are threatened by it.

In the face of these seemingly intimidating traits the majority devolve personal responsibility, reaching instead for tired tropes or misformation to mask their own ignorance and insecurities. The things that bring us long-lasting meaningful pleasure – the thing we want others to experience in a similar way to us – are the very things that the majority look down their noses at because they think its more difficult to experience than it really is.

Why should I feel guilty for that?

As long as that view is prevalent there is little point in trying to get people to experience the arts or even entertain the idea of it: the people who make the decisions will trample on the very thing we hold dear.

Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and Sir Simon Rattle speak to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden about the needs of UK orchestras post-lockdown

Sir Simon Rattle to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden: “We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs.”

I read Sir Simon Rattle’s Times interview first thing on Sunday morning in bed as soon as I woke up. Take it from me this is not the best strategy. Not right now at least. Top line message from Rattle: orchestras will go to the wall; everything’s fucked.

Later in the day during a telephone chat with a pal of old, I glibly say that reading Rattle’s interview should be reserved until later in the day. It’s suggested to me that a similar strategy is being adopted by the theatre world to lay things on the line, to get the attention that’s needed to move things along.

I get this. And I agree with it. Later in the day I pick up an email pointing me in the direction of a meeting Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Sir Simon Rattle all have had with DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden last week to talk about what the UK orchestral sector needs right now. Put simply – other countries are moving already to make live performance happen because a) they’ve supported the arts during this period and b) they’re collaborating to find workable pragmatic interim solutions; we want to work with you; help us.

Combined with the Saturday appearance of Nicola Benedetti, CBSO general manager Stephen Maddock, Chi-chi Nwanoku, and Southbank’s Director of Music Gillian Moore on Radio 3’s Music Matters, this feels like a more concerted and coordinated effort than in recent weeks. It certainly reads more explicitly than the joint open letter Petrenko, Karabits, Brabbins, Jurwoski, and Sir Mark Elder put out last week. Why wouldn’t they all coalesce around one thing? Or did the emotive former prompt the more specific and practical latter?

Most compelling in Rattle’s contribution is the experiences he shares with other European orchestras right now. And specifically the idea of distancing amongst the band in a performance space. This tallies with another piece of news I picked up from Bamberg Symphony who in May were testing the reach of aerosols in a performance space. Spoiler: turns out wind instruments aren’t spreading the virus anywhere near as far as the two-metre distancing rule might lead you to believe. Bamberg Symphony plays host to the Mahler Conducting Competition from 29th June (albeit behind closed doors and streamed live on YouTube) as a result.

In this way, its possible to see the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people dependent not on the development of a vaccine or the reduction of the R, but instead reliant on those with the power to make small changes to listen to spokespeople from the sector, and for those to be persuasive. Seen from this perspective, the return to live performance should be driven by those with an eye on the science and who can come up with workable solutions. Is the UK industry doing that? I’m genuinely not sure. I’ve not seen obvious evidence of that.

Meeting statement in full

We know you know the terrifying hardship and uncertainty the classical music sector faces. That an entire, complex ecosystem of musicians, composers, behind the scenes creators, managers, technicians, festivals, venues, orchestras, choirs, education & outreach leaders, publishers, marketers etc. are not only unable to work, but unlike many other industries, have absolutely no concept of a timeline to work towards. It is making any semblance of getting back to work, and saving our industry from collapse impossibly and increasingly hard.

However, we are aware that you know the phenomenal contribution arts and culture brings to our GDP, £10.8 billion in GVA (source Arts Council England).

As you’ve already referenced today, we know you recognise the weight and importance our cultural landscape holds, both worldwide and to the British public.

But all of us representing the classical sector today are here to say that with the right financial support, and workable social distancing guidelines, our entire industry is united, ready, prepared, and desperate to get back to doing what we do best.

People all over the country are in need, people are in crisis. Classical music itself is steeped in history and tradition, but we are agile, dedicated and reactive. And we want to help ease people out of this impossibly difficult time. 

There are countless examples we could list of what people and organisations have already been doing, but hopefully you will have been keeping up to date with these.

Looking to the immediate future, there are so many areas of opportunity within which we can work with government, and there is so much we want to offer – individually and collectively. But we can only do so with the right support and collaboration.

We know we can provide national moments of unity and uplift, and a coming together of mass music participation and appreciation.

We can help be a vital part of the emotional and psychological recovery for ALL people of the UK, but in particular for our elderly and vulnerable population.

When unified, we can be an unbelievable force for developing creativity and resilience in our next generation through education.

We can deploy musicians in innovative ways, through digital and inventive performance spaces reaching people in all parts of the country.

And of course, our substantial and growing track record for using music to positive effect in mental health and wellbeing speaks for itself. 

We have all been humbled by this experience, and are more understanding of our role in society than ever.

Morale, creativity and energy will be needed from all walks of life to find ways out of this crisis. It’s not just about managing circumstances in a reactive and stagnant way – let us tap into the part of the brain artists and musicians use all the time. We problem-solve through creating new pathways, and the country desperately needs that right now. 

Please work with us!

But we need money, we need a clear timeline to work to, we need guidelines that are both safe and workable and we hear there’s plenty of evidence specifically pertaining to our industry we are simply not making use of, some of which Sir Simon Rattle speaks more on below. 

– We need meaningful collaboration with creative leaders in the digital field 
– We are willing and indeed desperate to collaborate with scientists and experts and leaders in all fields to ensure we’re on the front foot of what’s possible to do, safely
– We want to look seriously at workable proposals
– We need to work out a timeline and business model for venues. Unlike in many parts of Europe, our venues by and large cannot open without significant support
– And from now until the moment where they can viably open, we still need to be making music for people, wherever that may be. What about licensing agreements to perform in car parks, warehouses, parks, etc.?

What Sir Simon Rattle said DCMS’ Oliver Dowden on post-lockdown orchestral life

Sir Simon Rattle said: “Orchestras need to play and play soon. Like dance companies or footballers, we have to train. We are a collective. We can do a great deal even before we are back in public, but even then, we have to be match ready! However, without workable distancing plans, an orchestra as such will not be a possibility.

On this subject it has been a surprise even for us how little aerosols or droplets are emitted while playing wind instruments, considerably less than normal conversation, for instance. We would ask that wind distances are a generous two meters maximum, and strings just one meter. In this way some kind of return to playing would be practical. The latest Danish scientific calculations suggest 0.5 meters for strings and 1 meter for winds as a perfectly safe arrangement. 

Over the last two weeks I played my first orchestral music in over three months in two European cities: first in Munich, in a studio, very distanced, but with a whole string section followed by a wind section of 13. The winds were 3 metres distant from each other which was like sending smoke messages between mountains: but we played! In Prague we played with a full orchestra, not distanced as everyone had been tested in the previous three days. There was an audience of 500, all masked but sitting together, and most shockingly of all, we shook hands on stage, something I had almost forgotten how to do!

Two different cities with different solutions: but both with scientific underpinning and immense care. And although both cities are further in their COVID journeys, the science remains the same. The aerosols move in the same way wherever they are in the world, which is why I would beg the UK to take note of the very thorough investigations from all over the world, rather than starting from the beginning. In other words, deal with the necessities of orchestral distancing not just the superstitions.

Orchestral rehearsal venues are willing and ready to transform into modern film and recording spaces which can follow the guidelines – but only if the guidelines are not impossible.

And finally, we will need some extra support over the next 12-18 months while we start performing to necessarily smaller, distanced audiences, and transition towards whatever our new world will be.  On the other side of all this, we will be alive and kicking and ready to take on new challenges once more.”

The resilience, work ethic and tenacity of people working in our industry is bountiful and deeply moving.

We really, really do not want to be left behind here, and have our world-class industry fall by the wayside whilst European cultural institutions are being protected.

We shouldn’t be penalised for our increased autonomy and our commercially viable business models. 

We don’t want more money for nothing. We don’t want our lights to stay dark. We want and need cash, support and guidelines in order to GIVE. To give to the public, to help people, to provide solace, comfort, uplift and art.

Fundamentally, we want to work with you. We don’t want to sit and complain and moan. We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs – but to also help lift people out of this awful situation.

James Recknell

I learned over the weekend that a relative in my musical family had passed away. Cancer had taken hold; COVID had made remission unlikely.

A family mourns. The need to reflect and pay tribute must be met.

Don’t worry. It won’t be mawkish.

James – tall, bedecked in a strange wirey beard – navigated the creaks of the music department floorboards with the same light touch he adopted at the keyboard. That was partly why he was so good at sight-reading. So very able to turn his hand to seemingly anything put on the piano in front of him. So seemingly at ease improvising at his students endless demands.

He adopted the same verve conducting a choir, galvanising an army of otherwise reluctant pupils to participate in the annual carol service. He never made the occasion about him; he allowed us the opportunity to make it ours instead.

It wasn’t an easy sell. I understand that now. Music was never the valued education stream the school I attended should have seen it. They were too focussed on sport. That I didn’t appreciate that tension at the time illustrates the way in which James’ energies were focussed on making the best of an otherwise challenging situation. Those with the talent he made full use of – teachers and pupils.

I benefited from both. When you hear someone better than you, or observe someone working harder than you, you can’t help but try and emulate them (even if you know full well you’ll never be as good as them).

One day during a clarinet lesson with my teacher Mrs Filby, I signalled my hope to play in the school production of South Pacific. “I’m not sure you’ll be able to play the part,” replied my teacher. “Maybe we should ask Mr Recknell.”

So we asked Mr Recknell. And he agreed with Mrs Filby. This wasn’t the response I had been hoping for. Not at all. Nor was my response. “I think I’d like to try. Couldn’t I try?”

A few weeks later, I played second clarinet to Mrs Filby’s first in the band for Culford School’s production of South Pacific.

From that point on I’ve revelled in the way I respond to people saying ‘No’. The people James Recknell brought to Culford School showed me what was worth working towards. And he was the first person to try and say no to me. That kind of lifelong education is invaluable.

Fifteen or so years after I left Culford School I emailed James Recknell asking him whether he’d be up for making a film that explored the things that kids responded to when they heard classical music for the first time they heard it. To my surprise and delight he said yes. He was game. Open. Willing. I appreciated that. He lined me up with a member of his team who sat to one side whilst I performed “experiments” on his class. It was only during the filming I realised that the room we were in was in fact the room I had that fateful clarinet lesson in nearly twenty years before.

After the filming we talked about the quality of the streams on the then named ‘Listen Again’. I extended my heartfelt apologies, adding that I agreed wholeheartedly with what he was saying but had absolutely no control over the quality of the output. He was, just as he was twenty or so years before, utterly charming about it.

I owe James a lot. He created a space for me to realise my own musicality such as it is. He brought me into contact with people who spurred me on. He prepared fertile ground for a lifelong love of classical music and appreciation of music-making. Only last year he was playing concerts in West Suffolk. My only regret is that I didn’t line up my schedule quickly enough pre-COVID to offer my thanks in person.

Oliver Dowden in the Evening Standard

I’m a little late to the Dowden interview in the Evening Standard.

This late discovery doesn’t change the view expressed in the previous post. If anything the interview only backs it up.

Julian Glover’s interview is a positive profile piece, seeking to project Dowden as the nice guy. The kind of Everyman the arts world strives to appeal to itself.

Quite why the DCMS brief would be described as a ‘backwater’ pre-COVID is lost on me. In the hours after Johnson’s election win last year, there was plenty Brexit-related in the arts world that demanded urgent attention. Culture and sport was at that time far more than just free tickets.

The point of the role is advocacy, surely. Loving football nor any of the other activities in the portfolio isn’t a requirement: understanding how the cultural economy functions and what the needs of its key players are is. You’re required to bang the drum. Loudly. To do that you just need to understand how the system works. You don’t need to love football, nor love opera or classical music. Bottom line: be curious how the ecosystem works then defend it and advocate it with all your heart as though your life depended on it.

And whilst there are good noises made about museums, there’s little of substance offered to live performance venues meaning Dowden has little wriggle room until the 2m rule is removed. I find the line about nobody in the arts world wanting to be paid to do nothing troubling. But hey, maybe that’s what most arts managers are thinking. Maybe I’m speaking to the wrong people. The ones I speak just don’t want their organisations to go to the wall.

I’d hoped for something a little feistier, truth be told.

UK orchestras in a post-lockdown world: a warning shot from The Guardian, and a hint of resilience and determination from The Times

Charlotte Higgin’s article in The Guardian “‘We could go to the wall in 12 weeks’ – are we just going to let classical music die?” makes for grim if not entirely unsurprising reading. It also makes the prospect of any series of concerts broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall in late summer look a little like the UK orchestral’s scene a macabre kind of last hurrah, especially if as the Royal Albert Hall and the Southbank Centre have signalled recently, their days are numbered if action isn’t taken soon.

Higgins lays it on the line:

“There is a deep contrast beginning to open up between the UK and much of continental Europe. For our neighbours, public investment in culture is much greater, and organisations are less reliant on box-office income, so the Covid-19 crisis is not an existential one, as it is in the UK. And there has been silence from the upper echelons of government.” 

There is an irony to the timing to the piece (or maybe in reality it was in reaction to last week’s much-needed circling around DCMS Secretary of State tweet quoting a rather meaningless statistic about young people listening to orchestral music).

Dowden said: “Our culture and creativity are Britain’s greatest strengths so I want them to be open to all. Really encouraging stat from @BBCArts. #CultureinQuarantine about how younger people are turning to orchestral music during lockdown.”

You’d think that someone with a portfolio like Dowden’s would think twice before putting a tweet out like that (or that whoever is running his social media for him would make sure both they and him are across his brief). Quite apart from the fact that the figure appears not to be attributed to anything or anybody, the story that isn’t told by the spectacular grandstanding here is that orchestras can’t perform if the venues where they can drive revenue can’t open.

But of course, they can’t because no one in government really gives a shit.

Elsewhere in the press, Neil Fisher from The Times reports on Grange Opera and highlights a finer point which may be overlooked by a lot of people, the challenge presented by venues being in the locations they are and the impact that has on the willingness of audience in a post-lockdown world to travel there.

“Concert halls may have the infrastructure, and the BBC the players, but their very location in city centres works against them. “How are people going to get to a theatre in the middle of London?” asks Brabbins, thinking of the Coliseum, the home of English National Opera (ENO). Which is why the Theatre in the Woods may present at least an interim solution. There are no public foyers for dangerous mingling, there are ample car-parking spaces and it’s only about an hour’s drive from central London.”

The article confirms what I’d thought a few months back that there will be a critical point in the narrative when classical has a different story to tell – the struggle to get back to their normal – and the opportunities that offers for various different ensembles (and their PR staff) to tell a story and raise awareness. Abbey Road Studios were first out of the traps last week with a strangely uplifting selection of social media posts which gave a little hope for the future.

Grange Opera’s coverage from Fisher essentially promos a video production of a performance for streaming on the internet later in the month – part of its ‘Found Season’ substituting its postponed 2020 season (similar then to Aldeburgh’s endeavour announced yeserday).

But The Times article leads on arresting visuals of a socially-distanced orchestra and an isolated audience member. It’s evocative and perhaps even gives a false sense of hope. It’s intended to communicate a sense that the classical music world has a hard-edged kind of resilience with a spirited determination – a view reminiscent of the war-related tropes handed out like candy when Boris Johnson was in hospital with coronavirus.  

Both remind me that advocates like me need to be in this for the long game, looking out for the innovation, as well as supporting the artists, ensembles and organisations which are having to adopt a long-range strategy and cling-on in the meantime. I’m veering more on the negative side like John Gilhooly in Higgin’s Guardian article: between now and the end of September, we’re going to start hearing about venues and ensembles completely shutting down. That’s going to be a painful series of posts to write.

The (kind of) 2020 Aldeburgh Festival

If memory serves me correctly, 2020 is the first time the 72-year-old Aldeburgh Festival won’t be going ahead. No surprises why. COVID.

This is notable because of the oft-told story of Benjamin Britten’s annual jamboree.

Fire at Snape Maltings Concert Hall back in 1967 on the eve of that year’s festival might have threatened proceedings. It didn’t. Triumph over adversity, etc.

Given the Maltings proximity to the North Sea there were countless occasions when flood could have brought things to an unceremonious end. It didn’t either.

Pestilence? Well. That’s a different story.

It’s easy to focus on the venues and events and the people I know who bring the thing I love to life in London. But when you receive a press release about your second home (I can’t afford a property there – I’d just like to think that at some point I might be able to) telling you what’s planned in the gaping hole created by its festival’s absence, then you’re going to stop, pause and reflect a bit.

Aldeburgh has like a good many other festivals this year, opened up its archive, reached for its digital platform and called upon its friends, associates and former colleagues to help keep the flame alight this year. There are programmes on BBC TV including, finally, a broadcast of Grimes on the Beach from a few years back (if you’ve not seen it YOU MUST), a trawl through the BBC archives for Britten on camera narrated by James Naughtie, and an intriguing invitation to recreate an artwork by John Cage from a few years back where visitors to the town got to hear multiple pieces of music all played at the same time. How delightfully John Cage.  There’s even the opportunity to submit your own memories of the festival for inclusion in a special digital timeline.

That these things are on offer is a lovely thing because they only serve to emphasise how important East Suffolk is to me. The yearning is way too much to bear (without a car to my name I can’t even justify to myself visiting my parents in their garden in West Suffolk, let alone heading to Aldeburgh Beach).

So, these warm gestures, alongside six broadcasts from yesteryear festivals, as well as the epic 1997 Radio 3 broadcast of the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano I have on cassette in my office, will have to suffice.

The Aldeburgh Festival 2020 begins in the hearts and minds of those who miss it on 12 June and runs until 28. Highlights include an ‘Opening Night’ broadcast of Britten on Camera on BBC Four followed by Struan Leslie’s Illuminations – a staging including circus performers of Britten’s Les Illuminations – seen for the first time on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube Channel, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available on BBC iPlayer later this month, and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast six archive performances from Aldeburgh Festival between 19 – 26 June.

More about the Lockdown Wigmore Hall Concerts

I was originally going to write at length (again) about the Wigmore Hall concerts this week. But, you’ll be relieved to read that I won’t.

There isn’t too much more to say, other than how the mere experience of them as a viewer after an extended period of time denied access to high quality live performance virtually, digitally or in person triggers all sorts of thoughts and feelings in response.

The elegant simplicity of Wigmore Hall’s live stream video presentation makes the story that emerges from the gaps in the concert experience electrifying. This week I’ve been obsessed with the things I can’t experience first-hand and the way my imagination leaps in to fill the resulting vacuum.  

I’ve spent most of this week watching the YouTube stream wondering about how WH Chieftain John Gilhooly, presenter Andrew McGregor and the assembled musicians say to one another on arrival at Wigmore Hall. Nobody hugs, I’m sure. But how do they greet each other? Do they smile apologetically? Do they jump up and down with excitement? Do they, like I think I’d probably do, sob in front of one another? Or do they just shrug their shoulders and resolve to just get on with it?

The theatre of the visuals only adds to the pathos. Concert producer, concert presenter and performers appear ‘in vision’ – without an audience what we see is a sort of laboratory version of music-making.

As an audience member I find that difficult, on the one hand, though not necessarily for the reasons you might at first think.

Classical music actually does poignancy really well. We can create an unifying event with music, especially when it’s been denied for a while. You only have to look at Menuhin and Britten in the aftermath of the Second World War, or Barenboim and du Pre in the sixties and seventies to see that classical musicians have an enviable range of repertoire at their disposal to help heal wounds and map out a path.  

So, when I see an empty auditorium I don’t think that me and others like me should be there. I see a narrative in flow: that those on stage are keeping everything warm for us the audience member.

There was a sense watching Nicholas Daniel, and pianists Pavel and Sampson that they and others like them would continue to play for as long as they needed or wanted to. That they would play – patiently, resolutely – until we the audience returned.

Musicians right now whether it’s in locked-down concert halls or playing live from their front rooms and giving us the audience a call to arms. The rest of us are waiting for the barriers to be dismantled. And they will. Eventually.