National Orchestra for All seeks donations for its work breaking down barriers in music-making

The National Orchestra for All (NOFA) has released a new promotional video outlining the work the ten-year-old charitable organisation does in creating participatory music-making experiences.

NOFA is available specifically for young people who might otherwise be excluded because of social, cultural, health or financial barriers. Participants are nominated by a third party who can vouch for the young person’s commitment to music and the barriers they face.

It seems like such an obvious gap which needs plugging that I’m surprised I’ve not paid closer attention to NOFA before now. What draws my eye now is the point made by one player in this video: that by increasing access to those in society who are most at risk of being excluded so likelihood of a lifelong connection with the music that is played is increased.

No great surprises there, I suppose. That’s what the Simon Bolivar Foundation (or El Sistema) was doing with its network of Venezualan youth orchestras since 1975.

But when you’re spending a lot of time pondering how to maximise cut-through at a transition point for classical music as I’ve been over the past few months, then it’s the basic principles that perhaps come through loud and clear. Access is key. Please forgive the pun.

What is really useful to discover via the NOFA website is the cost per member. Such transformation via a mixed-ability youth orchestra demands £1500 per player. Members don’t have to pay (obviously), but somebody has to. That is the cost of access. £1500.

On the one hand – when I look at my monthly outgoings – that’s a significant chunk of money that makes sleeping at night a little deeper. On the other hand, £1500 to introduce the joy of participatory music-making to someone who wouldn’t otherwise experience it that seems a small price to pay.

Discover more about the work of National Orchestra for All and donate

St John’s Smith Square and Southbank Sinfonia to join forces from April 2021

A cracking start to the day this morning – a press release announcing the merger of two arts organisations.

Getting underway with digital concert on 15th April and underway by Summer 2021, training orchestra Southbank Sinfonia and Westminster concert venue St John’s Smith Square are joining forces to become Southbank Sinfonia at St John’s Smith Square.

The new organisation will be a home for world-class musical development and act as a permanent home for the Southbank Sinfonia. The fellowship of musicians will rehearse, run workshops and community-driven events, in addition to participating in St John’s Smith Square’s ongoing festivals like Holy Week and Christmas Festivals.

The news is a strong message ahead of the much-anticipated transition back into live performance, positioning a much-loved concert venue and exciting ensemble at a critical point in time.

“We’re incredibly excited to be welcoming 33 wonderfully talented young musicians to become the driving force behind the creative programme at St John’s Smith Square,” commented Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square. “It’s a stunning building with a fabulous reputation for music-making which embraces everything from local groups to world-class artists. Placing emerging talent at the heart of the organisation guarantees the future of our musical heritage.”

St John’s Smith Square has consistently demonstrated resilience, resourcefulness, and determination throughout the pandemic. Director Richard Heason made the venue available for all manner of recording projects inside and out, underlining the value of the venue’s much-loved acoustic for audio and video captures. A variety of crowdfunding projects underline the organisation’s determination (as well the venue’s lack of Arts Council funding).

Simon Over, Music Director from Southbank Sinfonia, and Richard Heason from St John’s Smith Square become Co-Directors in the newly-merged organisation. Simon Over said,

“I’ve always loved performing at St John’s Smith Square.  Southbank Sinfonia has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the hall since its inaugural concert there in 2002, and in its 20th anniversary next year, the moment is right for the orchestra to enter the next stage of its development, making this splendid hall its permanent home.”

100 young musicians from low income families to meet MILOŠ in inspirational online session

One unexpected discovery today: the list of so many familiar names who have through the financial support of the charity Awards for Young Musicians benefited during their development.

AYM supports young musical talent with financial support helping them overcome the financial and social barriers that might stop them from reaching their potential. It’s a charity that depends on donations.

What surprises me is who, throughout the charity’s relatively young 20 year life, the alumni of recipients are.

People like composer Gavin Higgins, saxophonist Jess Gillam, and clarinettist Julian Bliss. All of them, in the relatively small world of classical music, household names. There is an assumption I hold I hadn’t previously realised that those who are established now had an ‘easy’ life getting to that stage they’re at now. That they didn’t perhaps hints at what has changed in recent years in recent years, changes that perhaps have gone unnoticed and uncelebrated before now.

No surprise then (and good for them) that Awards for Young Musicians are taking advantage of Milos’ forthcoming new release on Decca to gain credit for their contribution to the U.K. music education scene, by highlighting a Zoom session the guitarist is holding for youngsters interested in the life of a classical musician.

The session will take place online on Monday 12th April 2021, and will feature young people supported by the charity Awards for Young Musicians (AYM). AYM encouraged MILOŠ early in his career and welcomed the guitar legend as Patron in 2014. 

Greater people than I advocate delivering a realistic message to the next generation: it’s grim right now. But, for those who choose to drink from a glass that is consistently half full, maybe the message is that it’s changing and there will be different opportunities in the future and WE NEED YOU.

Orchestra of the Swan’s new album Labyrinth in recording at Saffron Hall this week

Travelling to Saffron Walden’s concert venue Saffron Hall to hear the Orchestra of the Swan’s recording for their next album Labyrinth, I felt invincible. 

JTwenty four hours before I conducted a self-administered COVID test and discovered I was negative. I packed my bag (including flask and sandwiches), and arrived at London Liverpool Street with a good 20 minutes to spare before my train to Audley End. There is a dividend amongst all of this hideousness it seems. I can arrive at places ahead of time and fit and healthy. All it took was a global pandemic and a ravaged economy.

The COVDI testing bit of that rambling introduction is important. Contrary to what I perceived the thought of a COVID test to be – a massive deeply unpleasant ball ache – turned out to be inconsequential. Knowing was better than not knowing. Knowing that others had carried out the test too meant interactions were less awkward. Knowing too at London Bridge Station that Southwark Council were already offering free rapid test results for anyone without symptoms confirmed in my mind en-route that the way out of this and towards a greater sense of freedom was a willingness on the part of all of us to voluntarily submit for testing. If that gives me access quicker to thing I love then I’m bought in.

“Where would you like to sit?” asked the masked orchestral manager after I’d stored my Brompton at the back of the hall and stood gawping at the size of the orchestra. “Up there,” I replied pointing at the balcony.

From my vantage point directly behind the Go Pro I looked down on a small string section, plus flutes, clarinet and harp. In an instant order had been restored. The familiar buzz of a pre-rehearsal band dampened my obsessive worries from the day before. The future may not be discernible yet, but it may not be so grim as I’d been thinking it would be. Why? Because me and the other journalist and the Managing Director were looking down on the thing the three of us cared deeply about.

Excitement levels rose accordingly. You can keep your box sets. I’d far rather spend an afternoon listening to a rehearsal and a recording session. 

On the programme for the afternoon, ‘Starburst’ by Jessie Montgomery and, if my attention was maintained, music by Respighi.

It’s a common misconception that an orchestra plays perfectly every time.

Hearing a group of players sight-reading reveals the precariousness of orchestral playing. Music can be (particularly in the case of Montgomery’s effervescent Starbust) messy, especially at the beginning of a rehearsal.

But, in the process of rehearsing, so the miracle of live music making is revealed. Each successive attack of this section or that shows an ever tighter ensemble: a real life demonstration of why live music is such a remarkable thing. 

No mean feat in a piece of music where the detail is terrifying.

Montgomery’s scoring holds no prisoners. There’s a driving infectious pulse reminiscent of Dani Howard’s brilliant opening for The Opera Story’s Robin Hood production in Peckham a few years back .Starburst is stuffed full of syncopations. The time signature shifts. And it concludes uneasily. No one player can rely on one another either: violas and clarinet lines (not orchestrated in Montgomery’s original score) are industrious ; upper strings take flight and soar from time to time (when they’re not required to be ‘argumentative’); piano and harp accentuate. It’s intense concise writing that triggers the heart rate, creating a technicolour spectacle.

In this way the musicians have to be on their mettle. The conductor too has to be patient. And everyone needs to anticipate the acoustic and compensate for the distance they’re still having to sit apart from one another.

Montgomery’s music shines come the end of the rehearsal and takes. Starbust is an exciting opening track for an eclectic range of musical styles on Orchestra of the Swan’s new album out in November 2021 which also includes music by Britten, Purcell, Nico Muhly, Thomas Newman, Peter Maxwell Davies and Joy Division.. This, like Timelapse released earlier this year which has now secured two million streams, solidifies Orchestra of the Swan’s reputation for creating rich musical experiences for a wide range of audiences with ‘mixtapes’, genre-melding playlists that reach further than the conventional concert-going crowd.

Talking to MD Debbie Jagla during the break, it’s easy to see why Orchestra of the Swan is able to capitalise on this moment.

They’re a small team. Artistic vision from leader David Le Page, powered by a can-do managing director, aided and abetted by a former player orchestral manager, documented by a nimble digital capture team who understand the impact of visual storytelling and can armed with high-end mobile kit. This isn’t a story of COVID forcing a pivot in Swan’s activities. Rather, it’s two years pre-COVID experimentation with concert formats readying the brand for the moment when recordings in controlled environments became the order of the day. 

“Digital isn’t compensating for live, it’s helping raise awareness,” explains Debbie to me during the break. Quietly, inside I’m cheering. I had thought I was the only one who thought this about the COVID era. But it’s a risk – costs are covered by the band (supported by Culture Recovery Funding) with no real sense whether they’ll be recouped by sales. Streaming figures from their Timelapse album now totalling 2million are likely to bring in around about $1000. That makes this a marketing project. But given that they’re reaching more people than they did with ‘live only’, increased reach is worth the spend. 

Later after the tea break, the back row of the band shifts around a bit to accommodate an oboist. We hear The Dove from Respighi’s The Birds. A warm rounded oboe solo emanates from the back of the hall and takes those of us on the balcony momentarily by surprise. 

Such experiences can only happen in a physical space – a musician taking hold of the music in front of them and bringing their own voice into the space and gently commanding your attention. 

The Respighi doesn’t demand the time and attention Jessie Montgomery’s more complex piece does. But my focus remains fixed.

Something in the back of my mind links up with a thought: that person far away in the distance looks oddly familiar.

I grab my camera, attach my zoom lens and focus. Yes. It’s Victoria Brawn. An oboist I used to boom for a training orchestra in Aldeburgh in 1996. Memories flood back with the creeping realisation that I’ve nor been in her company for 25 years. And here she is now. Doing what she did then.

After the Respighi takes, me and Victoria talk briefly outside.

She comments how Aldeburgh still seems like yesterday. I bang on about hearing news about her teenage children makes me feel old. She also remarks on how these opportunities (her last concert was in November 2020) are “very precious”. It turns out that the after effects of an infection meant there was a chance she would have to find someone to cover her first paid gig in months. I’m relieved she didn’t have to.

Classical – whatever the format or content – is more than entertainment. There is art to be found in curated eclecticism. And community too.

It has been hugely uplifting to be in the company of music makers today – spirited people doing different things but drawing on the same passion I’ve benefited from over the past twenty five years. Proof of a vaccine or a negative COVID test seems like a small price to pay (assuming the latter is free at the point of delivery). Orchestra of the Swan’s Labyrinth is scheduled for release in November 2021. Too long to wait.

Orchestra of the Swan’s Timelapse 2.0 Digital Concert is available from 8pm on Monday 19 April 2021 and includes music by Bach, Grieg, Nyman, and Rameau.

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Marquee TV co-production of Bach’s St John Passion is a must-see

I’m never considered myself a Christian. Nor religious. At best I might consider myself spiritual. But, this Easter weekend, listening to the music of Bach, I’m beginning to question. Sort of.

First, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Bach St John with Mark Padmore (£7 via OAE Player).

Helen Charleston and Gerald Finley. Eye-catching. A story told by musicians to musicians watched by an isolating and isolated audience. To create such a digital theatrical statement that lasts over two hours and make its message linger twenty four hours later is a quite some achievement. 

Part of that success is down to the direction (and Padmore’s vision) whereby chorus and soloists perform to the musicians who accompany them. All who feature in shot are cast members making the viewer a silent participant in proceedings. It is because of the striking visual direction that the audience experiences something so unexpectedly immersive throughout.

Gerald Finley

Of course, the direction wouldn’t have impact if the material didn’t inspire so. But, it is because of a unique set of events – a perceived collective sense of isolation and the pernicious ongoing low-level stress that promotes a sense of fear about what life will be like beyond June of this year – that such a story told through the mastery of Bach’s music, that the story not only maintains attention, but demands the redemption found on Easter Sunday. 

Here’s the thing: I know St John Passion well. I’ve listened to it endlessly over the years. But I’ve never felt it. I’ve never experienced the spiritual message in this music until now. And what it took was a part-cinematic part-theatrical digital experience created and distributed amid a global pandemic for me to finally get it.  

St John Passion experienced in amongst the busy lifestyle is a mere performance. This digital stream with its powerful visual storytelling has done much to shape Easter 2021 for me.

Watch the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s 2021 production of St John Passion featuring Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley

Culture Recovery Fund Round 2 recipients announced

The second round of recipients of the Culture Recovery Fund has been announced today.

Four ensembles (that have previously featured on Thoroughly Good) in receipt of round two funding are listed below.

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (£102K)

Following funds received in the first round of the Culture Recovery Fund, in round two of the Culture Recovery Fund, the Oxford Philharmonic will Funds will go towards various education projects, plus a celebration of UN World Environment Day on Saturday 5 June with a ‘Pastoral for the Planet’ concert, part of a four-part concert series, which will include two programmes dedicated to investigating the relationship between Mozart and his contemporary Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

The Mozartists (£45K)

Ian Page, artistic director from The Mozartists said: “We are deeply grateful for this grant, which provides a vital step in securing our survival and enabling us to return to live performances. Above all, this award is a valuable and well-earned appreciation for our small but outstanding administrative team, which consistently punches above its weight with tremendous dedication, commitment and excellence. It will make a huge difference to The Mozartists as an organisation, and we will work indefatigably to make the most of the crucial springboard that it provides.”

London Philharmonic Orchestra (£425,000)

Chief Executive David Burke said of the LPO’s second round Culture Recovery Fund support: “We’re delighted to have been awarded a further £425,000 from the ACE/DCMS Culture Recovery Fund. This will help sustain the Orchestra across the summer period, supporting streamed concert promotions at multiple UK venues through our partnership with Marquee TV, creating vital work for our freelance musicians, and allowing us to take advantage of the long-awaited return of live audiences. 

Academy of Ancient Music (£69K)

Academy of Ancient Music will receive £69,000 from second round of the Culture Recovery Fund. This will support the AMM’s return to the concert hall for three live-streamed performances from April to June.

First selection of live events announced for 2021

There’s a new phrase to look out for in press releases: live audience. Guaranteed to bring a smile to my face. Worthy of bringing to the attention of readers. Necessary to celebrate. Important to underline.

Now is the time to bring attention to those intrepid arts administrators who are scheduling their first events for people in real life.

I’m not entirely sure whether I can keep a regular set of updates on here, but I am going to try my very best. Here’s the first selection of ‘trailblazers’ bringing live music back to the real world.

Hertfordshire Festival of Music 2021 (4-10 June 2021)

Albion String Quartet

Conductor (and Thoroughly Good Podcastee) Tom Hammond and composer James Francis Brown are staging last year’s COVID-post-poned Hertfordshire Festival of Music, with the help of the music of Judith Weir, violinist Chloë Hanslip, pianists Florean Mitrea and Danny Driver, the Albion Quartet (their Dvorak string quartets 5 & 12 released on Signum from 2019 is worthy of your attention if you haven’t already experienced it), and the ridiculously energetic cellist and actor Matthew Sharp.

Full list of performances on the Hertfordshire Festival of Music website.

London Piano Festival (8-10 October 2021)

It seems like a ridiculously way off (and in a far-away land in Kings Place, London), but the further away that live music experiences are billed, the more reliable the guarantee will be closer to, what feels like now, a nostalgic sense of normality. The brilliant Gabriela Montero, another Thoroughly Good Podcastee, brings The Immigrant, a recital culminating in a live improvisation to Charlie Chaplin’s short film to LPF this year.

There’s a premiere of premiere of Sally Beamish’s new two-piano work, Sonnets. In the same concert a group of five pianists – Katya Apekisheva, Finghin Collins, Gabriela Montero, Charles Owen and Kathryn Stott – perform works by Mozart, Schubert, Ravel, Rachmaninov and Poulenc on two interlocking Steinways.

The Festival culminates on Sunday morning when Charles Owen is joined by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy to explore the symmetry between maths and the music of J.S. Bach, including a performance of Goldberg Variations. Live performance AND immersion in nerdy detail. I’m in the queue before YOU.

Tickets and event details via the London Piano Festival website.

BBC Proms 2021 (30 July – 11 September 2021)

This completely passed me by. I didn’t see it in my social media feeds. And I am ENORMOUSLY relieved to discover that in whatever form the BBC Proms is going to go ahead this year. And I am prepared to wait my turn to attend.

London Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Concerts at Southbank Centre from 28 May

News from the Southbank Centre is that two of their resident orchestras the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia will announce their live audience events on 14th April.

Manchester Collective at King’s Place

Manchester Collective (18 June 2021)

Manchester Collective show interrogates the darker side of the American dream, evoking the intrigue and momentum of New York City’s sleepless nights and crowded streets. Steve Reich’s signature throbbing masterpieces bookend the programme and set the tempo throughout. Fast. Slow. Fast. The Double Sextet features an explosion of fractured rhythms and the composer’s characteristic shifts of mood. Elsewhere in the programme, the Collective perform the world premiere of a new work by the “inventive, challenging, and glorious” Hannah Peel. Finally, David Lang’s underhand masterpiece ‘Cheating, Lying, Stealing’.

A socially-distanced concert at King’s Place. Tickets at the Kings Place website

Nicola Benedetti, Aurora Orchestra & Nicholas Collon (4 July 2021)

Aurora Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti. Benedetti could play a C major scale with orchestral accompaniment and would still be an uplifting affair.

Royal Festival Hall with a live audience. Tickets available here from 14 April. 

Introducing the UK’s fourth classical music radio station

It’s taken a year of development during unprecedented times, but I’m really pleased to finally be able to share one Very Exciting Piece of News.

Coming soon, building on the ongoing success of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast (now on its 114th episode), I’m really proud to announce the launch of the UK’s fourth classical music radio station, Thoroughly Good Radio,

When does Thoroughly Good Radio launch?

Launching Friday 21 May 2021 at 7am, Thoroughly Good Radio will bring together the brightest, best, and most authoritative classical music artists, commentators, and fans from across the media landscape, to celebrate a musical artform which has for far too long been the poor-relation to opera, rock, jazz, and pop.

Over the past twelve months I’ve been working with a range of classical music artists, PRs, and marketers, to determine how best we can all collectively talk about a musical genre in a way that triggers the curiosity of first-timers, cynics, and the ignorant.

COVID-imposed isolation, underpinned by the wholesale denigration of the arts sector as witnessed over the past twelve months, is what drives this exciting new project,

The brightest, best, most authoritative and unapologetic talent

Thoroughly Good Radio will hit the airwaves, set on doing justice to centuries of composers, musicians and writers who have devotedly championed the art form to date.

More announcements will be made in the coming weeks, including lead presenters, features, and media partnerships.

BBC Radio 3’s Ian Skelley was recently moved from the network’s mid-morning show Essential Classics to Afternoon on 3 in a move that caused some ardent fans to come out in hives and email the BBC to complain.

Listeners can expect to hear an unapologetic celebration of classical music spanning baroque, classical, romantic, extreme romaticism, the music of Benjamin Britten, high-end musical theatre, avant-garde, and even film music.

A brand new Thoroughly Good festival dedicated to the joys of classical music

And to launch Thoroughly Good Radio, I’m working in partnership with Lewisham Council to stage the first ever open classical music festival staged in a urban street.

Following a series of often tense meetings with local councillors, plans have now finally be agreed to stage the inaugural Thoroughly Good Radio Festival.

The event will see the road where I live cleared of cars, and in their place a series of thematic stages constructed, dedicated to and decorated in the style of key classical music genres: the Baroque Stage will be at the bottom of the road, Romantic in the middle, and 20th Century close to the top.

Current plans see the Avant-Garde stage erected on the adjacent Torridon Road, with the ‘fringe’ Contemplative Piano Tent sited on the nearby South Circular..

The Thoroughly Good Radio Festival Contemplative Piano Tent is planned to be sited on London’s South Circular. Ludovico Einaudi is currently in negotiations to headline.

An innovative 360 raked seating solution will surround each stage, ensuring socially-distanced and masked audiences remains COVID-safe. Live performances will start at 7am and finish at 10pm.

The Thoroughly Good Radio Festival will run from Friday 21 May until Friday 28 May, concluding with a large-scale fireworks display celebrating the approaching end of social distancing, live-streamed on YouTube.

Local residents will have full free access to every single live performance throughout the festival .

More news to come. I am ridiculously excited by all of this.

Follow Thoroughly Good on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for the latest updates.

London Symphony Orchestra announce new Chief Conductor Antonio Pappano to start September 2024

Ooh. The LSO has a new Chief Conductor from September 2024. Sir Antonio Pappano will take on the new role after he steps down from his Royal Opera House Music Directorship in July 2024, the LSO announced today. Pappano will take on the role of Chief Conductor Designate from September 2023.

Kathryn McDowell, Managing Director of the LSO said of the appointment:

“I am delighted to welcome Sir Antonio Pappano as Chief Conductor of the LSO. We are deepening our association with him at a crucial time of rebuilding and refocussing following the challenges of the pandemic. With Tony, every concert performance is a memorable and special event. He is the dynamic life force that the LSO welcomes in the leading conductor role and I look forward to planning imaginative programmes with him for the LSO’s season in the Barbican and beyond.”

Pappano’s quote from the LSO press release is especially striking after the departure announced of Sir Simon Rattle, post-Brexit completion. Pappano said:

“I am committed to keeping London as my musical home and look forward to this most important journey that awaits me, full not only of discovery but also of continued exploration of technological and broadcast opportunities to convey the message of music to an ever greater audience.”

Pappano is a big draw for London’s most potent orchestral brand. Amongst my circle of orchestral player friends, he’s also a popular choice – warm, kind-hearted and a passionate music-maker. As Music Director of the Royal Opera House since 2002 he’s been the longest serving Music Director in its history. He conducted his first LSO concert at the Barbican in January 1997 and over the last two decades has conducted over 70 LSO concerts and made three recordings on the LSO Live label.

The Adam Mickiewicz Institute opens digital project Penderecki’s Garden

Maybe its because I’ve spent an extended period of time using one particular type of mass publishing platform, that visiting a new website dedicated to Polish composer Penderecki feels like a lavish treat. Penderecki’s Garden examines the man’s lifelong passions – music and flora – in one bespoke digital experience that features ravishing design optimised for touch-screens.

Explore Penderecki’s Garden

As well as featuring a rich collection of first hand accounts from young, training and established musicians, the website is peppered with audio clips that play in the background as the user explores the virtual garden across multiple locations.

There’s a museum display feel to the entire thing which is unexpectedly reassuring. It’s not that the site is compensating for a physical space. Rather, the bespoke design and build creates a much-needed escape from the ubiquitous text-driven web pages and social media formats which dominate content delivery.

I’m particularly impressed that the core content – videos and text – are presented in a phased approach, with enticing sub headers, introductions and, most important of all, there are full URLs available that take you straight to that content (like the Max Richter tribute performance available for free until 31 December 2021). That makes this both an absorbing visual treat, but a rich accessible resource too. Deft design.

Perhaps most important of all, the site isn’t seen to be apologising for the cultural richness of Penderecki’s life, work and passions. Pride is hard-coded into the creation. Quite some achievement.