2019 / 2020

Every year I write a summing up of the past twelve months from a Thoroughly Good perspective: me in my bubble. And this year, it being a decade since I sort of started doing this, there’s also been the opportunity to reflect on ten years worth of similar blog posts – always a good way to reflect on how things have changed.

So, buckle up. Videos, tweets, and a reflection on my objectives for this year, plus a round-up of the last decade.

Smiles, travels and unexpected gifts

Time taken shooting video this year, in part down to the purchase of a gimbal for my iPhone, has meant there’s more material for a montage. I love making montages as a sequence is nearly always triggered by the music.

The musical discovery for this one was a recording of My Favourite Things by trumpeter Lucienne Renaudin Vary with the BBC Concert Orchestra – teeming with syncopations and an effortless Parisian feel.

With the music chosen, it was then just a matter of selecting the visual sequence to match details in the music that resonated with me. I started with the smiles sequence at the end, and then worked backwards, dropping in clips from my year like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Incredibly uplifting stuff. Reaffirming too.

Last year’s objectives

Be more strategic on selecting arts events to reflect on; outline what links content discoveries; resist getting irritated by the wheat and the chaff. Partial success.

Focus more on building content around coaching on the Thoroughly Good Coaching website; ring-fence time spent on Thoroughly Good (Classical Music) content and maximise that time. Partial success.

Tackle the garden; grow plants from seed; build replacement decking (this is a massive undertaking – so let’s not hold our breath here). Partial success.

Increase revenue by 35%. Exceeded expectations.

Use buses whenever is possible; reduce London travel costs by 25%. Partial success.

Keep the impact of Richard Wilson’s 20:50 at the Hayward Gallery’s Shape Shifters exhibition in mind with everything you say and do in 2019. Pass.

Continue producing the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast, but experiment with different hosts: truly ‘produce’. Partial success.

Meet more people. Visit new places; travelling is where I discover the most. Exceeded expectations.

Write more articles; you’re as good as anyone else who does so. Pass.

Drink less wine. Total fail.

Accomplishments

Cracking PRS for Music/Wildplum Arts Promo Video commission (see above)
Culture Mile video capture
Lots of coaching stuff
Coaching workshops and new clients
Travel to new places to hear unfamiliar music
Lots of podcast interviews for Thoroughly Good
Scala Radio
Work lined up for 2020 before the end of 2019
Attending the Gramophones and meeting Catherine Bott
Giving a presentation at the BPI Classical Music Committee meeting
Interviewing Jonathan Dove and Solomon’s Knot
Publishing FORTY TWO PODCASTS

Dissapointments

Video commission delivered but not used by a client
Proper ‘nice ride’ bike stolen from Catford station
Watching video and wanting it to be higher quality
Unpaid invoices
Commissioning editor Jan Younghusband describing BBC Proms TV coverage as ‘innovative’ in a podcast
BBC Proms
TV producer tweeting arsy comments at me

Discoveries

Not all music (partly because I’m a little rushed writing this), but here’s a selection of pleasing personal discoveries made this year.

Stuart Hancock’s Raptures
Michael Torke’s Oboe Concerto second movement
Gimbals
Lully’s ‘Isis
Nicola Benedetti’s recordings of music by Wynton Marsalis
David Carbonell’s ‘The Worry Trick’
Hooked
Brene Brown
Discovering (and then speaking to) the composer of ‘Poirot
Love Endureth by Roxanna Panufnik
Annalien Van Wauwe’s ‘Belle Epoque
Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux etoiles
How the consequences of a distressing incident in 1990 still resonate today

Bookmarked Tweets from 2019

Throughout this year I’ve bookmarked tweets that have caught my eye. What follows is a selection which really stood out as I scrolled my way over the past twelve months. Triggers for the stuff that defined, entertained, or enraged me during 2019.

Innovative BBC Proms

The coverage was billed as ‘innovative’. It wasn’t.

Wellness jumps the shark

The ‘good mental health’ mantra of the past few years has this year become fodder for lazy writing, stereotypes and tropes. Pity.

Classical music as an escape

The ongoing mis-representation of an art form I care deeply about goes on. Weak PR.

What a way to eliminate a workplace hierachy

I am amazed this tweet is still available. Ill-thought out.

Genuinely surprised by this Barenboim story

I’m impressed (in a mildly warped way) with how this story didn’t escalate further and was (therefore) managed. What was valuable was how it triggered thoughts about the language we use and its potential toxicity.

Day Today 25 Years On

It seems incredible that the work these people did 25 years ago is still relevant and their take on the world still as needed as it was then.

Olivia Coleman winning an Oscar

One infectiously uplifting moment.

Maitlis eye-roll

The most delightful moment of TV output.

FFS

Just because you have Photoshop doesn’t mean you should use it, especially if you’re being paid a lot of money to produce content for print and advertising. Jeesus.

Dame Janet Baker Doc

Another Bridcut triumph. Even when it was repeated it didn’t garner any official pre-publicity. That might have been at Bridcut’s request, I’m not sure.

Cruel departure

Paul Condon was a great man whose untimely departure rocked his considerable network of friends and associates. He is sorely missed.

That stupid article about classical music

Utterly moronic.

Hilare

I now can’t spend any time in swimming pools as a result of watching this.

God bless Philip Pullman

Classical music apologists

Totally agreed with Richard Miller on this. We don’t need to ‘warn’ people about a piece of music. If you warn them you signpost your ignorance (and that’s almost certainly the fault of the researchers rather than the presenters themselves).

FFS (Again)

Who the actual fuck wrote this?

Jessye Norman

FFS

Bellend.

Focus, goals, and commitments

A lot of what follows here has been generated using Best Year Yet. It’s an edit of the things I have written in my bullet journal.

  1. In 2020 I want to look for depth, richness and joy in as much video as I possibly can. That might mean emphasising light and shade. I may need to buy new equipment.
  2. I need to think of myself as more senior in the workplace than perhaps I do at present.
  3. Spend more time thinking longer term. Short term is for the birds.
  4. Ensure as much attention is spent in the now (this doesn’t necessarily contradict the previous para).
  5. Devote more time to aged parents.
  6. Ringfence time with the OH – schedule in special ‘escapes’. Life is too short for work-related mither.
  7. Focus on creating the very best content you possibly can whenever and wherever.
  8. Do 90 minutes exercise in a week (on three separate days).
  9. Spend some time working on the flower beds; make spring look fantastic.
  10. See the sneering Beethoven-haters for what they are; maintain a healthy cynicism about Beethoven.
  11. Make more of an effort with friends.
  12. Be on time to things more.
  13. Be happy to let things slip through your fingers. If people really want to take things away from you, they will. Why fight i

The Last Ten Years

It feels a little this year like the transition between the Teenies to the Twenties has been overshadowed by the everyday life social media has managed to co-construct with politicians, cage-rattlers and rabble rousers.

That said, reflecting on my own past decade throws up some interesting observations. In ten years I consolidated my move from technical to editorial in the digital space, shifting from journalis and training worlds, to the communications and PR world. Ten years later, I’ve moved to digital content production in the classical music world, to radio production on a classical music station. The circle is complete.

I’ve learned more about myself training and practising as an executive and leadership coach than at any time during psychiatric assistance, gestalt therapy, or everyday life. And in the past few months, that self-realisation has reached an unexpected new height. I can now look on my darkest moments 25 years ago, describe those times for what they really were (assault , depression and suicidal feelings), and recognise what impact they have on me (still) today.

Perhaps most impoirtantly of all, I’ve come to appreciate the scale, depth and richness of a network of friends and associates I’ve created over the past ten years, making content about classical music under the Thoroughly Good banner. Far from being the end of a meaningful working life, leaving the BBC in July 2017 was a liberating step to take. The highs that followed are a reflection of how supportive that network has been. That’s a rather nice thing to have sitting alongside me as I speed into the new year.

Vox Luminis performance style demonstrates a special kind of leadership

Just recently I’ve noticed a significant reduction in the number of live performance I’ve attended.

I know why that is.

Since stepping back into an office environment at Scala Radio, working on digital and on-air production, headspace has been completely surrendered to projects and opportunities that fulfil personal ambition.

The wide-eyed joy experiences securing this project was rapidly replaced by a different kind of thinking. one that demanded an unexpected amount of energy.

In case anyone thinks I’m being snarky, I’m not. The past eight weeks have been incredible. Exhilarating. Rewarding.

But there has been a cost: a drop off in email response times; less ‘free’ time; less opportunity to connect with the thing that drives all of this – the music.

Vox Luminis’s St John’s Smith Square Christmas concert was a moment when I took stock of all this.

The sound, the swaying, and the dramatic slow-down of thought processes brought about by the music of Bach and Handel was like a holiday. Vocal textures, surprising harmonic complexity, and a touching sense of inclusivity in an area of London – Westminster – now democratically enshrined as the epitome of betrayal and alienation, created a much-needed sense of occasion. It was as though I had careered into a lay-by, jammed the handbrake on and started staring into the middle distance. Bliss.

A lot of that is down to Belgian baroque ensemble Vox Luminis.

Passionate, skilled and European, their sound was warm, edges precise but not domineering, and their inclusive approach to performance practise utterly compelling.

Direction comes from one person in the chorus, not a conductor or director in the centre of the stage. What this means is that the mechanics of the process are delivered by chorus member/director, whilst the collective musicality in the performance was brought about by an in-the-moment kind of consensus. Wizardry, basically.

And whilst, at the conclusion of the performance, the director did stand front and centre to thank, relate, plead and reassure us in the post-Brexit world fast approaching, the evening never felt as though it was about him, but rather everyone including the audience in St Johns Smith Square.

And it strikes me now reflecting on that special evening and listening back to Vox Luminis’s recording from 2017, that the performance appealed to me because that is the kind of atmosphere I thrive in as a creative in the workplace.

I seek out opportunities where I feel part of a team. I benefit from feeling as though my view helps develop thinking.

I like to direct. I want to direct. I always have done. Ever since the conducting studies at university helped pull me out of the darkest period of my life to date. But it is a direction which is a means to an end, rather than being the end in itself.

The direction can only work if everyone is heading in the right direction. And that’s a difficult thing to make happen.

Conducting back in 1994 was never about me. Not really. In fact, I look at the posters and programmes from 1993 and shudder with embarrassment seeing my name. It was instead about driving others to deliver of their best.

And what I was reminded of watching Vox Luminis this week was how the direction from the chorus captured that same aspiration both from the past, and help root me in the present.

And I’m reminded this evening that success doing that is dependent on trust.

If there is no trust then the aspiration won’t become an ambition and the ambition won’t stand a chance of being realised. And establishing trust takes time, respect and commitment, which is what makes Vox Luminis’ (and others like them like Solomon’s Knot) achievement all the more pleasing (even if there is a dribble of envy mixed in too). And the feeling that accompanies a perceived lack of trust is dark, lonely, and perhaps even a little bit frightening.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast 66: Discovering the music of Lully with Christophe Rousset

Conductor and harpsichordist Christophe Rousset discusses the writing of composer Lully following a performance of ‘Isis’ given at Opera Royal in the Palace of Versailles on Tuesday 10 December. 

Listen to the podcast below, via Audioboom or Spotify.

Read a synopsis of the opera on the Les Talens Lyriques website. A recording of the opera made by Les Talens Lyriques is available on Spotify or to purchase

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 demonstrated 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 unexpectedly joyful element of being reunited with old friends.

Similarly so where the music that accompanies the decorating process is concerned.

The carols and seasonal music one plays this season only really gets listened to once every year. We demand a lot of our Christmas music; it only really has one chance at the big moment. Melodies and harmonies bind themselves to memories of Christmases past. Wallowing inevitably follows. No other music has the power (and is required) to command so much in such a short space of time.

Some of the music me and The OH play as we decorate remains the same: Hely Hutchinson’s Carol Symphon;, a smattering of Rutter; Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

This year some of that music has been superseded by new personal discoveries, a selection of which 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.