Verdi’s Luisa Miller at London Coliseum

ENO’s production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller challenged musical and storytelling assumptions

I’ve waited a day before committing thoughts about ENO’s of Luisa Miller. There has been tremendous buzz about the production ever since press night, deservedly so it seems to me. At the same time, it would all too easy to go along with the crowd and say the same as everyone else.

Voices

©Tristram Kenton

Given that opera has so many different facets, taking time to reflect on how and why an experience resonated probably makes for better copy.

The top line message is undobutedly the strength of the voices. Right across the cast too Elizabeth Llewellyn’s smooth edged sonorities driven by unwavering support, kept close to the orchestral line. This created a solidity to the music-making that meant the fascinating score in itself held my attention.

Lewellyn’s voice combined with David Junghoon Kim (Rodolfo) made for some breathtaking duets – powerful expressions of love burnished with gold.

Similarly, bass Soloman Howard (Wurm) could have stood on stage and sung all night and I would have applauded like a mad thing. Like Llewellyn he sings with a consistent through-line, finished off with a warm tone and gratifyingly clear articulation.

Casting

©Tristram Kenton

What I appreciated most was how the casting challenged my assumptions.

It’s a difficult point to raise without running the risk of falling into a pit of diversity-related errors. There was a moment when the diverse casting spanning one family, and the seemingly unlikely-ness of the Rodolfo-Luisa pairing made me question the motivation casting.

Beyond that, Luisa and Rodolfo seemed less plausible than …. what?

That was when I began to identify what my assumptions were about casting. In short, I assumed I would have more obvious or overt visual cues as to the class divide between the characters. What I saw instead was (perhaps) a more international representation of divisions between race? And I appreciated being made to think about that.

Deeper appreciation of the score

During the production, identifying the assumption had another unexpected consequence: it prompted me to look beyond what I saw on stage and immerse myself more in the music and reflect on how that supported the storytelling.

This triggered a deeper appreciation of what was going on in the orchestra pit, and what surprised me the most where that was concerned were the unusual orchestral textures Verdi had created. To date, Verdi with all of his gilt edge, flamboyance and seeming sentimentality, was somebody I wanted to avoid. Now on the basis of Luisa Miller’s score I want to explore it further.

The set

©Tristram Kenton

There was a downside.

I wasn’t entirely convinced about the set. I liked its modernist feel. I really appreciated the house used in a variety of different permutations. I liked the inventiveness of the black ink seeping down the scenic backdrop during the third act. And I really responded to the movement in scene changes.

But this modernist feel demanded less distraction on the surface of the stage. It was the ‘mess’ on the stage which distracted my eye. Odd bits of direction too resulting in groups of dancers moving in different parts of the stage whilst action was going on elsewhere, also created a distraction. And whilst I appreciate that the daubing on the backdrops was important to the ongoing narrative, truth be told I did in the end find it a bit annoying after a while. Gratuitous maybe? I’m not quite sure.

A long conclusion

But there needs to be a parting shot. What was the last thing I thought as I left the auditorium? How very long the death scene felt. In terms of time it extended between ten and fifteen minutes (depending on where you see the deaths beginning), but it felt a lot longer. And I think that might be down to the direction.

There seemed to be a lot of shuffling around, but not very much dying. I’d need to look at the score and the libretto to reflect on exactly why Verdi devoted the time he did to the sequence, but it did leave me wondering whether the pace had dropped a bit.

The chorus

©Tristram Kenton

But let’s head towards the end on a high. The chorus was stunning, in particular when they sang from the front of the stage (The Coliseum feels like quite a barny old place in comparison to the Royal Opera House – I’ve no idea of the exact difference in size, indeed if there is one). When the entire ensemble sang as one my heart nearly burst – a remarkable power that provoked an unexpected emotional response.

Listen to Elizabeth Llewellyn in conversation about the role of Luisa Miller in an episode of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast.

What’s the plan?

Barking mad No.10 has, as anticipated, shifted its sights and focussed eyes on the BBC this past weekend, in a story headlined by The Times (which is also conincidentally angling to put out a Radio 4 rival) today.

No surprises really. The present Tory Government run by chief adviser Dominic Cummings was always going to go for the public service broadcaster.

There’s talk of binning the Licence Fee. Pitching the BBC as a subscription service against the likes of Netflix and Amazon. Gammons are as I write no doubt lining up to sell tickets for a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness the downfall of their second most-hated institution.

For those who don’t recall or don’t already know, I used to work there.

And I always wanted to work there too. I deployed untold amounts of energy securing just an interview. Even applied for two jobs at the same time. The recruitment process was frustrating. Weighted against me at times it seemed.

So I ended up making videos about it. Because, just like anyone like me will testify: say no to me and I’ll come back fighting louder than ever. I am that kind of pain in the arse.

Leaving the BBC back in 2017 prompted me to confront the impact working for a large-scale organisation had on me personally.

In short: I spent years believing I was hopeless at what I did. Only when I left did I finally come to understand that I was doing the very best I could and that on balance I’d pretty much done OK.

I’m critical of some of its output and fiercly defend my ‘right’ to do so.

Last year’s Proms content wasn’t especially awe-inspiring (in contrast to some over the past fifteen years). And whilst sundry other classical music commentators will point to the BBC Proms and the BBC orchestras and Radio 3 as evidence of the vital contribution the Corporation makes to the cultural landscape of the UK (and it does) and think that’s where the discussion ends, we have to be careful in remembering the difference between something not being good, and something being open to criticism purely because of the way it is funded. That’s the pay off for a publically funded broadcaster and all of its creative endeavours. And I’d rather have it, than not.

That’s why, even though I left there (and remain still) bitter that I never secured that job at Radio 3 I’d always longed for (not even the digital job back in early 2012, secured by the bloke who told me that Benjamin Britten wrote a ‘Summer Symphony’), I recognise the difference between me being a bitter old queen (and that being irrelevant) and being able to critique its output and that being important in itself.

The BBC is the broadcasting equivalent of an errant partner – the one who messes up from time to time, but who you go back to not because of coercive control but because of love.

And to ditch it’s present funding model (now) in favour of subscription would undoubtedly mean a great many friends, associates, and mildly agreeable individuals losing their jobs. I can’t sanction that. So I’ll fight for it instead.

That’s not to say that subscription will never be introduced. It’s possible to see the lining up of BBC Sounds (for radio) and iPlayer (for TV) as ways of separating out the BBC’s on-demand offer and preparing consumers for the possibility that they pay for the privilege to listen or watch whenever they like, but listen ‘live’ for free. It’s my view that’s the long range strategy of Director of Radio (and once touted for ‘DG Greatness’) James Purnell. That was certainly the talk of one of his ‘Get To Know Me’ sessions back in 2013 I attended.

It’s not a bad idea. Pragmatic in a way. Though quite how that would leave the great many performing groups and the musicians that form them I’m not entirely sure. And from the classical music world’s perspective, that is perhaps the plan that needs to be articulated most urgently. If the BBC’s plan is to go to a subscription model, what’s their plan for the orchestras?

Not everyone will care, of course. We’re such a small concern us classical music lovers.

But what’s the plan?

Er

Internet bubbles have a tendency to highlight blind spots. I’m reminded of this today with a strange anomaly I can’t get my head around.

On the one hand Twitter is going a bit wild about this video featuring Peter Jan Leusink from The Bach Choir in the Netherlands and his distinctive (for distinctive read crazy) conducting style.

On the other hand, I’m pointed in the direction of this article, and this post (helpfully in English albeit on Norman’s blog) regarding a documentary highlighting claims of sexual misconduct directed at the conductor in question.

He’s still working given that a tweet from December 2019 sees him taking a bow on stage, which suggests that if there were charges they’ve been dropped.

In some senses that’s all there should be to it, surely? If someone has been charged and they’re not either on trial or in custody, then there’s nothing more to be said on the matter and its all perfectly acceptable to go a bit wild about his crazy antics on stage.

Maybe its part of a rehabitaliation campaign (though I seriously doubt that any classical music PR would go anywhere near doing something quite so edgy and potentially career limiting).

So in some respects the conclusion to be drawn is this: in a small world like the classical music world there’s still a lot that can go under the radar.

It’s quite possible for information about (let’s be honest) a niche performer to go completely overlooked and for that same performer to easily bask in the glow inadvertently created by social media.

I find that – the lifecycle and reach of a story – utterly fascinating. At the same time, and perhaps unfairly, I also find it quite unsettling.

Be authentic, be accurate, and be forgiving

What the big challenge is for a social media producer operating in a field of expertise and what leaders have to do to support them

A well-known brand issued a tweet yesterday celebrating the 88th birthday of John Williams, conflating the lives of both a film composer and a guitarist into one glittering career.

Oops. The classical music world identified the error, some leading on ridicule, others following up close behind with empathy and forgiveness.

The tweet was deleted soon after, but the screengrab lives on.

I work in this field – (digital) content – and have done for 13 years. In that time I’ve been at the wheel during a couple of accidents: I’ve been responsible for prematurely announcing the death of a celebrity on a BBC account (it later turned out that my source – the celebrity’s wife – wasn’t a reliable one given that she was a dementia sufferer). This only came to light because it emerged the exclusive for the announcement had been given to a tabloid newspaper and the editor there was a little disappointed to discover a verbal agreement had apparently been reneged on.

And I’ve also tweeted a link on a different BBC account to my own blog believing it was directing users to a press announcement about job losses. It took the then the Head of the BBC Academy to point out the error to me.

Both of these experiences saw me experience inordinate amounts of shame to the extent that I was convinced everybody around me knew of my error and it wouldn’t take long before I was frogmarched out of the door. (That never happened, obviously.)

The John Williams tweet reminds me of those experiences and the effect they had on me as a creative. Powerful creativity comes from a place of trust. In return for trust those who delegate content creation to others rightly expect accuracy in addition to spirit, energy, and hopefully engagement. When that trust (external or internal) is damaged then confidence is given a knocking. Self-doubt creeps in. Content suffers.

Accuracy is vitally important in the classical music world. Different endeavours seem to reach out to different audience groups with differing levels of knowledge or expertise. Accuracy may not be a requirement for the target audience but it is vital for those who could endorse your product, especially if those same people (even if they’re not in that target group) could berate you in the event you get it wrong. The reality is that we’re all self-publishers. That means we’re accountable to considerably more people who have an opinion.

The JW tweet highlights a greater challenge for any content producer in the classical music world however. Knowledge, expertise and experience is of course important. Being able to articulate that in a way that connects with your target audience using a language that honours the experts at the same time as promoting curiosity and ongoing discovery is phenomenally challenging for the individual with knowledge. Being aware of what you know at the same time as knowing what your audience doesn’t know is the biggest demand placed on a social media producer. And rightly so.

There is another aspect to this which triggers the leadership coaching part of my brain: that of empathy and forgiveness. Somewhere someone who thought they’d done a good thing on Friday now thinks they’ve messed up. They think that probably because of the replies they’ve seen. Their weekend has been ruined because of a mistake. Nobody seeks to make that kind of error, but sometimes they happen.

What I always wanted in those situations was for someone in authority to seek me out face to face and check in with me. I wanted people to feel able to say, “This wasn’t great, and we know you know that, but we want you to know that it’s OK and you’re still very much valued. We’ll do better to support you in future.”

It takes a strong leader confident in their own skin to be able to say that, I know. Only two have been able. Those that don’t, can’t or won’t unwittingly reveal far more about themselves than perhaps they would like. I’ve always strived to say it to others. Done well and it can be transformative. It ensures trust is maintained and most importantly of all ensures creative aspirations aren’t extinguished.

Thoughts arising from the Oxford Philharmonic Beethoven Festival Symposium

The only way to learn stuff is to immerse yourself in it. Just don’t ask any questions.

My Beethoven odyssey continues.

I’ve been in Oxford today at the Beethoven Festival Symposium at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building in St Hilda’s College.

It was the first time I’ve been in amongst academics for a long time, so too in a conference style atmosphere – listening to papers read out, discussed, challenged, and picked over. Lots of hand-shaking. Warm smiles too. Some odd hair. Mild unnecessary curmudgeonly-ness at times. Fascinating. And one or two unexpected tidbits, highlights of which I share below along with a few thoughts.

Beethoven and numeracy

During a delightfully detailed presentation about the numbering and mis-numbering of variations, one tidbit surprised me: Beethoven wasn’t terribly good at multiplication it seems, but was stronger instead adding and subtracting. We know this because of his ‘conversation books’, books he scribbled down his exchanges, notes and ideas (?) with his friends once his deafness had taken hold.

Academics aren’t necessarily great presenters.

Some of the delivery styles masked the academics’ considerable knowledge and expertise.

Some might see that as me poking fun or being mean-spirited (come get me), but there is a surprising twist to all of this.

Just as people like me (and considerably better people with much bigger networks) are called upon to articulate the art form in a manner that suits a particular audience, so I’m reminded how academics can sometimes need their ideas articulated in slightly plainer or, in some cases, slightly more engaging language. So we all need each other. Which is nice.

Beethoven 9 as four movements plus a conflated symphony

I have always struggled a little with Beethoven 9. It’s never really hung together in the way I assumed a symphony should be. There are jarring moments.

I know that’s a bit presumptious. I mean who the actual fuck am I to dare question Beethoven’s greatness?

But Professor David B Levy – the best speaker of the bunch by far today – offered a useful primer in his survey of the origins of the symphony, and the way its been ‘used and abused’ to meet a variety of cultural and political agendas.

In addition to simply describing the five movements in terms of the emotional content each touches upon, ie first movement – tragedy, second movement – farce, third movement – lyricism, and the fifth movement – joy (where the ‘fourth movement’ is a transition sequence), he also pointed to a range of other analyses of the last movement that depicted it as symphony in itself. You may not necessarily buy into the view. And let’s be honest, I may not necessarily have grasped the finer points of his presentation because this was an academic paper, but it was quite a neat look on the work.

Keyboard maker guillotine inventer

Turns out that piano maker Tobias Schmidt was also the inventor of the guillotine, and realised quite quickly that he was going to make more money from the patent for the guillotine than any piano he made and sold. Tut tut.

Was Beethoven a better businessman than he realised?

If I’ve understood Elaine Sisman’s paper correctly, Beethoven was quite focussed on making sure he got credit for his own work, so much so that the discussion around opus numbers for his work (normally a retrospective labelling of a composer’s output after death?) was robust whilst he was alive. Does that mean that Beethoven had an eye for his own legacy? More reading necessary I suspect.

A new discovery: Piano Sonata No.32 (and No.24)

This was a free lunchtime recital given by one of the speakers – William Kinderman – who provided an annotated introduction before performing the extensive two movement sonata.

I’m fascinated with those moments when I connect with something unfamiliar. What was the element in Kinderman’s performance that pulled me in? The opening of the second movement . The word ‘repose’ had been used a great deal during Kinderman’s introduction. The stillness of the opening arietta signifiied repose – a musical depiction of utopia? And it had that effect: time slowed down; stillness; completeness; serenity. It wasn’t twee: we weren’t listening to a fine tune which went through a series of permutations. It was a musical argument expressing a complex series of emotions. There was chromaticism. Nothing settled. But my attention was completely hooked. I ended up listening to No.32, No. 23, and No.24 from Brendel’s landmark collection on Decca on the way home. I think I’m hooked.

Emotion not melody

This seems a bit of an odd observation to share on the face of it. But I’m increasingly of the mind that maybe a way of appreciating Beethoven as a newcomer (ie me) is to think of the emotional quality of his music first. If one were to listen out for melody first – ie listen to Beethoven like one might approach Mozart on a first listen, then Beethoven’s unorthodoxy, especially in his later works, is going to make Beethoven perhaps seem like a tall order. There is so much emotion in it, as in the piano sonatas, and so much narrative, that to only listen out for the mechanics of constituent parts is to miss the point of Beethoven entirely. This thought is essentially the musical equivalent of the advice a playwright friend of mine gave me before I watched an unfamiliar Shakespeare: “listen for the gist – be very light touch about it”.

Why so much attention?

Obviously, I get it’s Beethoven 250 this year. We all love an anniversary. But a question arose for me part way through the day: why do so many study the man and his music so closely and so much? Is can’t be just because he’s widely accepted as a genius. That doesn’t really account for the fervour or the range of views contained in the endless tomes. Is it possibly because there’s a lot of evidence to pick over? Is Beethoven a musicologist’s Aladdin’s Cave?

I like it though. I like the forensic attention. I like the year long immersion. And I’m reminded that what hooks me in is the three dimensional world that a musicologist exists in and, through their work, perhaps unintentionally creates.

The turning point in the day was seeing one of Beethoven’s early sketches for Eroica. Nothing especially moving in and of itself. Rather, the sight of his initial ideas for a work that is so very well known brought a man known from a bust careering into the present day. The handwriting made the herculean effort of a man from the past, a more human thing. The evidence made it real. In a split second, two hundred and fifty years didn’t seem quite such a long time ago.

And when those things from the past arrive in the present all shiny and new, there’s an electric charge. Exploring Beethoven further has all the addictive qualities that soaking up the life and work of Benjamin Britten in the early 2000s.

In our on-demand time-poor attention deficit world, it seems so tragic that something so wonderfully absorbing and enriching is going overlooked because of a false assumption that no-one is interested in detail. We really must try harder.

Riga Jurmala 2020 launches in London

From time to time its refreshing to attend an event where the the accusations of snobbery, elitism or aloofness usually levelled at classical music can’t be heard.

In the case of the Riga Jurmala Festival launch today, this wasn’t only because entry to the event was by invite only, but also because the interior – a private members club in Mayfair – meant the tone was already set long before anybody said anything or events were even talked about.

Riga Jurmala’s second annual festival starts in July this year and like last year features a smattering of British artists – the King’s Singers and the Philharmonia. One international orchestra visits the Latvian capital Riga each weekend, giving two performances with a day off in between.

Across the four weekends expect to the Israel Philharmonic, the return of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic, and in the last weekend, the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Highlights video from the 2019 Riga Jurmala Music Festiva

Post-Brexit (or are we still mid-Brexit?) festivals like Riga Jurmala, Verbier and the rest are seen from a different perspective. An ever-more important lifeline not necessarily for revenue (or maybe they are – the exact figures are an understandably closely guarded secret), but certainly for marketing purposes: cultural shop windows on an international stage most perceive to be closed off. Potent symbols of UK cultural successes, hope in the midst of political idiocy, and a vital connection with our European neighbours even if they’re now collectively looking at us in bewilderment.

It’s a nifty festival too. It’s easy to be distracted by a serif font and beautifully laid-out print, and assume this along with the big names like Schiff, Kavakos, George Li, Truls Mork or Leif Ove Andsnes mean its administrative wheels are as large and slow-moving as the reputation of its international artists.

Swag

Speaking with CEO Zane Čulkstēna before the launch event this morning, I got a sense of how nimble the building of the 2019 programme was after board approval for the inaugural event: two months. A lot of that is down to Artistic Director Martin T:son Engstroem (founder and artistic director of the Verbier Festival) whose involvement in anything it seems is in itself one less thing a PR professional has to worry about when selling any of his endeavours.

So that experience of ease when you’re learning about an event like Riga Jurmala is rooted in the event’s self-confidence. It’s reflected in the ease at which the people who speak at it speak with wit, warmth and pride.

And it’s also refreshing because Riga Jurmala is the kind of event that knows exactly what its target audience is: people who want to travel to a location they’ve not been to before, somewhere rooted in a musical tradition, where music isn’t a treat or a luxury or a privilege, but a right enshrined in law for all Latvians. Imagine that.

The Riga Jurmala Music Festival returns this summer from 10 July – 30 August 2020

Listen to a Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring artistic director Martin Engstroem recorded in Verbier, July 2019.

The podcast interview with Riga Jurmala CEO Zane Čulkstēna is coming out soon.

Corinthian Chamber Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Nicola Benedetti

Back to the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night for the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra concert in a programme of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, also featuring last minute stand-in soloist, Grammy award-winning violinist Nicola Benedetti.

The QEH is fast becoming my favourite London venue. The acoustic gives each individual sound and texture the room to breath (please forgive the tortured analogy), meaning individual lines have more prominence than they normally would. For those of who love detail, that’s a treat.

I maybe doing conductor Michael Seal a disservice there however. It might be that exposed lines are as much to do with the acoustic as they are to do with his direction. Most notable – the trumpet descant in the second movement of the Symhonie fantastique giving an already lively waltz extra emotional intensity.

Seal doesn’t hang around, nor does he let the players in the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra get entrenched in sluggish speeds when things get a bit difficult under the fingers. There were plenty of opportunities when that could happen – the programme was ambitious and demanding for all. But Seal has an energy about him (along with a clear beat and expressive movements) that sweeps people along.

The opening Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien was all the more impressive as a concert opener because it was ‘on the nose’ pretty much from the start. Nicola Benedetti’s Tchaikovsky was a rich, folky, and magic affair, underpinned by a responsive orchestra fuelled by adrenaline and enthusiasm.

Given the choice between a professional band playing the same repertoire they’ve played for years or an amateur group playing music on their ‘big night’, I’ll always go for the latter. The energy levels are higher, the excitement is palpable, and the smiles on the platform make the whole experience considerably more gratifying.

A cracking night.

Beethoven 2 & 3 from Norrington and the OAE at the QEH, and the Beach Boys

On the one hand theres an element of guilt writing about a concert four days after it happened. Details can be lost; a reputation, such as it is, withers. People will roll eyes, probably even tut.

Not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however. They’re a groovy bunch. Always have been. They’ll know, just as I am reminding myself now, that there are no rules and, just as not all orchestras are the same, not all writers are the same.

A few days distance on the OAE’s electrifying concert with Sir Roger Norrington, thoughts have crystallized. These thoughts develop my thinking about Beethoven, about the second and third symphonies we heard on Tuesday night, and perhaps most interestingly for me, about communication.

Taking a break with recent posts, I’m going to section each observation off into a handy list. It’s easier like that, for me and, I suspect, for everyone else too.

Roger Norrington is a beguiling conductor

Norrington is 85. He shuffles gingerly onto stage with a protrusion from a light-fitting blouse, reaching for musicians to guide him to the podium where a swivel chair awaits. There is a glint in his eye, a flirtatious smile, and an unapologetic willingness to collude with the audience. ‘Clap when you want, perhaps after the funeral march will be a little tricky, but clap whenever you would like,’ was his instruction, or something along those lines.

In between each movement of the joyous and uplifting second symphony he swung around triumphantly to greet and thank, before moving on. And when the moment allowed during the third, he did the same perhaps revealing a little more of how taxing a work this monument to composition really is to both conduct and play.

Sometimes the signalling to the audience at the end of every movement became a little tired. But there can be no doubt that Norrington still illicits a great deal of enthusiasm on stage, his poise, delicacy and detail are a joyous thing to observe. He maintains a youthfulness of spirit which is utterly adorable.

He is too, speaking personally, the last of the rock stars – him referencing the London Classical Players took me back to Denis McCaldin at university introducing the notion of ‘authentic performance’ with the first recording I’d ever heard of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on period instruments. It seemed like an another world when I heard that. Any opportunity to see in the flesh the man who I regarded then as a bit of an iconoclast is going to be a must-see.

Beethoven symphonies reveal stark contrasts and commonly held assumptions

We think we know Beethoven’s music because – certainly in the case of the most well-known works – the melodies are familiar and engaging. But take a historically-informed band conducted by an octogenarian who resists any attempt to wallow, and suddenly the detail is exposed – multiple layers with eye-popping detail brimming with dissonance, tricky counter-intuitive rhythms, and unexpected textures. When you lean into Beethoven 3 and listen attentively the detail is remarkable.

Shameless Beach Boys comparison

It’s the same with the music of the Beach Boys. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, or Sloop John B from Pet Sounds are a case in point – seemingly simple infectious melancholic mid-tempo ballads, the pleasure of which eclipses the multiple layers of seemingly incompatible and utterly bizarre individual tracks that make up the whole.

Not written, forged

The detail in Beethoven 3 challenges our unwitting assumptions about what Beethoven’s music is. And when we’re confronted with what it really is then it comes alive there in front of us. And what the OAE achieved under Norrington’s direction was to present Beethoven as a progressive perhaps even fearsome creative and his third symphony as a creation forged in the white heat of the furnace.

To observe that or experience it or perhaps even momentarily see Beethoven 3 from that perspective, makes it impossible to listen to any performance subsequently in the same way again. Maybe.

Celebrating the man’s music is like one year-long Beethoven degree module

I went into this Beethoven 250 thing feeling a little daunted. Others sought to use the anniversary to embolden gender politics. Some others understandably and rightly used to continue to shine a light on the ongoing diversity of representation challenge. I realised quite early on that for a man that so many claim did so much to transform classical music, I appeared to be able to recall very little about him. And I had a music degree. And that seemed a bit strange.

Quite early on I now see Beethoven 250 as one long season of music that will challenge my assumptions, force me to research and remember key dates (they are important milestones which helped embed learning despite what any classical music marketer would have you believe), and help guide me in the discovery of a composer I possess very little knowledge about.

And I when I reflect on my knowledge starts and where I feel is moved on to just in the space of a month, I’m beginning to wonder whether most of our perceptions about Beethoven are to do with that damn opening of Beethoven 5 – a kind of musical trope that celebrates, ridicules, and pokes fun at the art form all at the same time.

Not too much and not too little

Which then brings me on to the writing insight. The past few months have seen me working on a project which seeks to evoke a positive reaction to the discovery of classical music in an audience wouldn’t normally consider listening to the art form. It’s what me and another journalist friend have discussed at length over wine as the classic challenge: needing knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with a particular subject, but having to find a way of communicating just a fraction of it in such a way that one entices but not alienates.

And the challenge isn’t just about fine tuning your own communication filter so that you’re not always reaching to look under the bonnet at the earliest opportunity. It’s also about recognising how commonly held assumptions, well-trotted out ‘factoids’, or the over-reliance on lazy historical tropes are in themselves damaging to classical music’s perception.

It isn’t for example, to merely say that one of the interesting things about Beethoven is that he’s suffered from a profound loss of hearing but composed anyway. That’s the starting point for understanding Beethoven and appreciating the impact of his music. And what’s challenging for me is professionally is understanding what’s sufficient information and what’s ‘too much’ for one blog post or article.  

Identifying the essence of what makes the discovery of Beethoven’s music a thrill and something to keep coming back to is the challenge in this 250th anniversary year. And every challenge brings with it a useful source of motivation too. Which is nice.