Live music, pilot events and hopes dashed

I’ve had an inkling of what it’s like to be a political journalist this week. Or at least what i think it might be like, starting the week thinking the angle on live performance was documenting the first tentative post-COVID steps and the hope that emanates from attending DCMS ‘pilot events’ at St John’s Smith Square or invitation recordings at Hatfield House. A few days later, ending the week feeling oddly crushed that venues I hold dear having to shelve plans for socially-distanced concerts in August because of Boris Johnson’s surprise announcement pausing the easing of lockdown restrictions. It’s difficult to pinpoint what the angle is when the target keeps shifting.

I started the day with a press release about Snape Maltings innovative response to managing the demand of a socially-distanced audience by offering ‘pay what you want’ for access to a 45 minute programme of live music. A pragmatic response, I thought. A vision of the future. Maybe the start of a new path. Could I combine a weekend trip to East Suffolk on the 7th or 8th or 9th with a parental visit in West Suffolk too, I pondered. Could I justify that expense? And if I could, why was I doing it? Was it for me? Was it for a blog post? Was it for the venue? That’s what it’s come to. In case you’re wondering: it’s a little from columns a, b, and c.

A radical shake up is what’s coming. I’ve heard three different PRs (not this week I hasten to add) say that to me as being the opportunity for the industry presented by COVID19. The most obvious example of that opportunity already being grasped is digital. Some organisations get it and have responded editorially in an authentic and relevant way. Others have been a little twee. Some have even dared to take the plunge with paywalled concert performances. One starts this weekend – the Live from London Festival.

That such projects have sprung up without the slavish deference paid to the likes of Medici TV (until they truly offer a casting facility that supports actual video their £14.99 a month subscription is an extortionate amount of money to spend chained to your laptop or mobile) highlights the next step U.K. arts organisations might as well take in the twelve months: daring to ask its audience to actually pay for its content. Those organisations who do so first will rightly take the glory. Because in the absence of a viable independent live-streaming platform that serves U.K. musicians, they might as well give it a go. According to the FT for example, Live from London secured 2000 subscribers a week before the first stream too. Even accounting for over-inflation of figures, to have secured revenue at all right now is a story worth shouting about.

As far as I’ve witnessed this week there are three possibly four people in the game – Stagecast, a chap from Cambridge, Apple and Biscuit and Barney Smith (plus the producers the ensembles have kept on). They all have the business acumen, strategic vision and the kit to offer the infrastructure which could create a platform for organisations to serve up their content and, importantly, get a fair cut. It won’t substitute ticket sales and album sales (I don’t think) but it would be a start.

I like too the nimble responses of organisations – the resourcefulness and pragmatism – to make something of this, to dare (as far as I can make out) to press on regardless anyway. To do the very best they can. The idea of a 45 minute concert does seem crushingly short. But then, what’s more important? That groups of up to 25 can hear a Mendelssohn Cello Sonata in an intimate setting or than we wait until more financially viable audience groups can hear a longer concert performance and in the meantime there be silence? I’d go for the former. And if I got used to that maybe shorter concerts would be something I just got used to anyway. It’s what the New Music Biennial we’re doing a few years ago. I remember quite appreciating that format.

Is it heartbreaking or is it all in my imagination?

One thing that did surprise me interviewing people this week at St John’s Smith Square was the extent to which the shutdown of live events had prompted me to project a lot of my own sense of disappointment onto performers and arts administrators. Neither Richard Heason nor Gesualdo Six Director Owain Park bit on the emotive question in the way I thought they would. That’s either because I’ve assumed their heartbreak to be the same as mine and completely misjudged things or they’re utterly professional. Let’s go with the latter (because they are actually professional anyway).

Still I think of those who have spent time building up to their own organisations moment of reemergence – orchestra managers, chief execs and musicians – and can’t help but think they must feel massively disappointed. Effort expended for a particular deadline, only to have hopes dashed. It won’t be a fortnights delay – this will surely go on for longer than that. And when I think like that I can’t help but think of this not as live performance stopped, but people struggling to do the right thing not for audiences but for their colleagues. Because the arts enables livelihoods.

In conclusion

The Johnson announcement was a blow. The conversations where one industry expert posited that orchestras wouldn’t play for a year was probably true but still too difficult to hear. Everybody should stop thinking describing their season as a ‘virtual festival’ is endearing or acceptable because it’s annoying the hell out of me: virtual isn’t a substitute for real, stop trying to make out it might be – at best it’s quaint, at worst it’s fascile.

On the plus side, Elder and Coote’s Sea Pictures, the Helen Grimes and Beethoven 3 that followed in the BBC Proms archive concert this week was a blissful treat – so full of energy, rasp and depth. I’m now wondering whether COVID19 was the best thing that could have happened to the Beethoven celebrations this year.

Onward. This blog has a revised editorial vision: keeping the flame alight for a year (or however long it takes).

Amid confusion and misinformation: Dvorak from Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Earlier this week I cycled over to nearby Syndenham to collect the Ray Bans I left at my friend Vicky’s following a haircut.

During my revisit I exchanged with a pal who was staying with Vicky whose words about how concert venues like theatre would adjust in response to social distancing had caused me some consternation. I explained about the challenge classical music and opera venues face as articluated by Guardian journo and Thoroughly Good Podcastee Charlotte Higgins.

What my exchange with Adrian last weekend reminded me of was that there are aspects of our respective worlds and systems we don’t instinctively understand. What commands the focus of his attention isn’t the same as what commands mine.

Later in the week I posed a question on Facebook about whether having COVID19 antibodies I could or could not be contagious. Most respondents commented on whether or not antibodies meant one was immune from the ill-effects of the virus. No-one was able to articulate or respond to the specific question I was asking; many seemed confused on what the dividend having antibodies actually was. To be clear: I don’t have any COVID19 antibodies.

We are living through a period of confusion and misinformation. Few of us are singing from the same hymn sheet. Not only that, there are insufficient copies of the hymn sheet.

Admidst this I’m reminded of the pull of the writing, especially during what for me is the perfect diary-inducing period: the Proms.

Not everyone is in agreement. Contacts in my circle see plundering the Proms broadcast archive as evidence of a lack of innovative thinking. That’s a shame because I’ve reveled in unexpected musical excursions. Such broadcasts have been re-affirming. A sort of anchor.

Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Dvorak 8 (2004) was a particular highpoint this week. Muscular, thorough, detailed. Warm sonorous strings. Taut brass. Evocative storytelling.

Rigorous detail too. Listen to the second subject in the second movement, in particular to cascading bit in the upper strings – locked on to the beat but pushing the edges of musical hesitation. I listen to that detail repeated in the woodwind equivalent when the same material comes back before the end of the movement and wonder how on earth a conductor communicates the vision and ensures a consistent realisation of it.

Similarly the rip-roaring final movement complete with horn cues sounding like elephants running riot in amongst the band. And the cheer from the crowd after the final chord too. Such performances from both performers and the audience bring a tear to the eye.

Such moments – this one from 16 years ago – give me a second chance at hearing something special for the first time. I don’t remember attending the concert nor listening to it on the radio. I listen to it now and think how utterly amazing it is. I’ve listened to it six times in the past three days. That kind of listening experience doesn’t present itself that often.

And listening to it back for a seventh time as I write it feels like we’re clinging on to classical, celebrating the thing we hold dear, holding on tight in a storm. They are broadcast moments – so far – that remind me of the only thing which appears to make sense to me right now: someone’s musical intent articulated by a team of musicians who themselves create a spectacle that moves not only me but a whole crowd of other people I don’t know.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2020

Finally. Amid a global pandemic, the audience gets the credit it deserves.

It’s not the same. Not by any means. But, still the opening night of this year’s highlights-driven Proms season arrived with some sense of anticipation, signposted at the top of the day with a Facebook-generated memory of me pictured in the arena waiting for the First Night to start in 2009.

Later, an unexpected invitation to preview Ian Farrington’s fun-filled Beethovenmania – a season-opening commission that mashed-up all of Beethoven’s best-loved melodies. It’s a gorgeous thing to watch (you can see it on BBC Four on Sunday 19 July 2020) which depicts 350+ musicians and singers trapped in their lockdown view playing the music whilst two dancers rip off their masks and gig about to the music. It’s a tear-jerking thing which unexpectedly got me in the mood.

Come the actual First Night broadcast some of that infectious energy was inevitably lacking. Georgia Mann and Petroc Trelawny valiantly compensated with to and fro, plus some contributions from performers ‘down the line’.

But, in its place a strange unexpected feeling as a listener: a perception driven by a moment in a radio schedule – a day, a month, perhaps even the air temperature; the idea that Proms regulars are all coalescing around speakers to relive a shared memory.

Why else would I look forward to listening to a series of pre-recorded links and archive broadcasts, if I knew none of it was actually going on up the road, if not to reconnect with a cavalcade of broadcast-related memories?

In the absence of the actual event, memories were driving me to listen. The warmth in the listening experience wasn’t only down the content (the music) but the way the contrived event stirred concertinaed memories and recollections.  

Ian Farrington’s Beethoveniana

Farrington’s commission was a rip-roaring joyous musical celebration of all things Beethoven, neatly capturing recognisable melodies and subverting them with a series of musical theatre and movie medley style variations and settings. There was a whiff of Nigel Hess’ mastery in Farrington’s score. I also heard bits of former BBC music director Victor Hely-Hutchison’s harmonic style too. There was something effortlessly pleasing about the whole thing that got this rather odd year underway with a much-needed flourish. Jaw-dropping efficiency. Watch out for the choral element – those harmonies tickle the melancholy gland.

LISTEN TO IAN FARRINGTON’S BEETHOVENIANA

Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 / Igor Levit / 2017

What became obvious pretty quickly to me during Igor Levit’s taut and electrifying performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was the sound world of the Proms-world. Regardless of whether you’re one of those tiresome purists who relishes a debate about the declining quality of Albert Hall sound mixes and the like, there is a distinct Proms ‘live’ sound. It’s different from studio recordings and live concert captures. What I hear on the archive broadcast is the ‘space’ of the Royal Albert Hall, itself a contrivance. And yet it transports me in an instant. There is in that imagined space a grand sense of occasion, inclusion, warmth and acceptance. A projection of a kind of egalitarianism. And I miss it (we’ll go into that in later posts).

Audience as unlikely but valued artists

And there are coughs. And warm applause. I can hear evidence of real life in between the first and second movements of the Beethoven. Never in my concert-going and listening experience have I wanted to hear more coughing, not less. The sound from the audience reminds me what we’re striving for: a viable return to live performance.

From this delicate almost painful soundscape emerges a hard-fought opening chord at the piano at the beginning of the second movement. The response from the orchestra sets the mood in a fragile state. There are moments when I imagine myself inside the Royal Albert Hall listening to it there, at which point it all gets a bit too raw and I have to back away.

Such passion and enthusiasm is the enemy of accessibility

This is all tempered by the thoughts and feelings I’m still grappling with. I’ve spent way too much time in the company of people for whom wax lyrical about why music moves me is evidence of me being elitist. As though my passion and enthusiasm and joy at responding to the music I love is the very thing that is casting a shadow over them. I find myself feeling guilty at wanting to articulate the enormous joy I experience in the moment hearing all of these textures in this contrived aural ‘space’. That’s gaslighting. Isn’t it?

I’m struggling with it now as a I embark on 6 weeks of listening to archive Proms broadcasts. Advocacy is seen by some I know as a threat. A danger. How can something that brings joy even in the darkest times for whatever reason be such a threatening thing? And why am I still feeling guilty about it? Unless of course it’s because you feel jealous.

LPO Brass at Henry Wood Hall

I was at Henry Wood Hall this afternoon to interview brass players and percussionists at the LPO rehearsing and recording for the band’s Summer Sessions available on YouTube next week, many of whom hadn’t seen each other in real life for four months. Also weird to see actual people in real life doing ‘work things’. Oddly demanding to interview people at an extended distance – mean almost. Generated some good stuff (though tussled with the imagined voices of nearby critics saying that talk of tubular bell tuning was alienating for classical music newcomers – fools). Uplifting to be in the company of like-minded people – people whose livelihoods I care deeply about. Current health and safety measures are tiresome – holding live performance back right now. Adjusting to requirements about what’s ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’ in a physical space is exhausting too. But as someone who is always keen to bang the proverbial drum, it is a delight to be amongst musicians again as I was today. Generous types who just want to get back to work. Indebted to Rebecca J at Premiere for the visit. We all just need to knuckle down: this is going to take a long time.

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.