Perfection

I’ve been a little restless today. I haven’t been able to put my finger on why exactly. Not until now.

I’ve wanted to write (since watching last nights Proms gig with the LSO) but couldn’t. So I read instead (about Vaughan Williams and the British perception of music and landscapes). Then I read Gretchen Ruben says about what Rebels can do to meet their inner expectations (spoiler: the secret is self-deception). Then I started work on a database service I’ve wanted to provide musicians for a couple of years. Endless displacement activities. Open book stuff.

At the tail end of all of this I discovered I’d massively cocked up and failed to turn up for a Zoom interview by an hour. And after that I felt I was ‘able’ or at least ‘motivated’ to write.

Back to the LSO’s blistering performance last night. Hearing a concert (or seeing it on TV) is, it seems, only the beginning of the classical music experience for me now. Hearing something when I’m not able to be physically present in the same space means I’m dependent on the moment when the music has the most impact on me – the moment when the musical experience takes me by surprise. And if it has (and it did) then reflecting on how much and why is important. Until that point is reached it seems the concert isn’t ‘over’.

That’s weird. I know.

Or at least it marks a shift. Because up until this year writing about a concert was something that I felt I should do in order to demonstrate my presence at a concert retrospectively. A sort of personal responsibility to advocacy of the genre. Now, a year later, writing about a concert is something I have to do in order to make sense of it to myself. To arrive at a sort of closure.

Rattle and the LSO was one of the most remarkable pieces of television (and radio – I’m listening as I write this in the bath) I’ve seen in a long long time. There was a detail to the sound mix which brought an urgency, relevance and immediacy to say the Elgar Introduction and Allegro that I’d not heard before. Every instrument sang. There was more punch in the overall ensemble. And the content – emotionally – seemed not only to reflect the implicit visual narrative (a space in which us at home were denied access) but also provide a soundtrack for what has happened to the arts over the past six months, but hints at what might be lost if the ridiculousness of this situation is allowed to continue.

That kind of programming isn’t an accident I don’t think. It’s a measure of how COVID has brought about an opportunity to experiment with a different way of bringing concert programmes to life. Look at it this way: if I’d seen Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Adès, Kurtag, and Vaughan Williams fifth symphony I might well have overlooked it.

But when you’ve been starved of something you love (and when an artist has the opportunity to programme works in response to present constraints) then the resulting concert has the potential to respond more immediately. And it did. With devastating effect.

After a gritty and impassioned Elgar, Mitsuko Uchida performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was terrifying. Crushing, even. The pieces by Kurtag created a displaced feel to them. Ades’s Dawn was other worldly. Transcendental – just as perhaps he’d intended.

And the Vaughan Williams. I ended up crying a lot during the third movement. It was though something had been lanced. Someone or a group of people had come along and presented a playlist of music live performing to a perceived audience. They not only entertained, but spoke to us and sought to represent us all at the same time. And in doing so they reinforced precisely the thing that makes this art form so utterly indispensable. And so vital right now. Music as a series of statements that speak to, reflect back, an articulate the mood of a collection of people the players can’t see in the moment.

The eyebrow-raising element for some will be this. After all my crowing and complaining about TV at the Proms last year, it was TV that came good this year. Because without the audience, a boom camera had the most access to the stage – more than ever before. With no audience in the Hall, the audience at home was able to experience a potent narrative made possible by the sight of a vast interior, access to the edge of the stage, and an enviable range of wide angle lenses. The script wasn’t needed to compensate. The music was allowed to speak for itself.

Not every concert can be like this. Nor every concert will be. But if you’re looking for an illustration of why this art form isn’t just relevant but needed, here was an example.

Quite a remarkable evening.

Grass pushing through concrete

I can’t take credit for the title – that was a line from Stephen Fry during last night’s touching first live Prom concert in the 2020 season. A fitting evening with poignant music choices and a satisfyingly pared-back presentation style too.

Radio deftly highlighted the impact that the COVID measures were having on live performance with an explicit reference from conductor Sakari Oramo and a delightful implicit one from the orchestra when, in between movements of the Beethoven symphony, silence exposing the sound of players turning the pages of their music.

On TV there was a solid pace, natural to and fro, and some much-appreciated advocacy from Stephen Fry. The simplicity of content meant the core implicit messages were clearer to make out: when something (live music in its broadest sense) is under threat, its value to us as individuals needs to be emphasised.

Ironically, there was a sense that the Prom concert denied a physical audience dramatically improved proceedings, possibly because it was a far more controlled environment. There was, as a result, a sense of occasion about the first live Prom concert, our eyes falling on the unoccupied spaces marked out by lines of lights. We had a sense of the distance that still needs to be travelled yet.

The central point illustrated both by Fry on TV and in the programming was the way in which a classical music programme can speak to a shared experience, or prompt thoughts around that experience. In this case: a new work inspired by questions around identity, by composer Hannah Kennedy, a piece about sleep, music that evokes memories or perceptions of lockdown (Copland’s A Quiet City), and Beethoven’s Eroica – a work I’ve always seen as a powerful statement of hope for the future.

It all got a little too much during the Copland. A Quiet City seemed like an apt choice, and as Stephen Fry later pointed out, made for a more heightened experience because of the thoughts and feelings those of us watching and listening brought to the experience. Not everyone, obviously. How could we all be thinking and feeling the same thing? How would we ever know? But this was a music choice that was perhaps helped bring people together in a shared, albeit it remote, experience. Something to coalesce around. Trumpeter Phil Cobb’s vibrato gave things a unsettling sense of vulnerability; Cor Anglais player Alison Teale’s rich warm tone added strength and a sense of hope.

The BBC Singers performing Eric Whitacre’s Sleep

What went before the Copland – the BBC Singers performing Eric Whitacre’s Sleep (on the day his news work ‘The Sacred Veil ‘ was released on Signum Classics) was a bit of a tear-jerker. Familiar faces spaced two and a half metres apart in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall. The sight – like that of a chamber orchestra on stage for the Beethoven later in the concert – seemed a little too much bear. Forgive the pun, there was a dissonance – a jolt with how we expect a group of people to stand. Challenging no doubt, but done anyway so that the music can live because determination insists upon it.

The Beethoven was a fascinating listen. It was apparent from the beginning that distance between players themselves and conductor Sakari Oramo was probably going to dictate a cautious approach to speeds and dynamic contrasts (though its worth qualifying here that I’ve been listening to Les Concerts Des Nations brilliantly gritty and rip-roaringly fast recording of Beethoven 3 over the past few weeks). During the first movement I wasn’t sure whether this sense of cautiousness worked. But the same cautiousness seemed to help expose the intricacies and complexities in the work, highlighting one aspect of the symphony’s revolutionary status.

Three quarters of the way through the second movement where the march pivots on rocking chords in the upper strings that appear to slow to a near-stop, I was bought-in. This was a gentle conclusion. A pause. But not an end.

It could have been exuberant from here until the end, but somehow it not being so seemed right given the moment. Live performance might be partially back, but its at a point when the fragility of the ecosystem needs to be highlighted. There needs to be determination and strength, but it doesn’t feel right to celebrate, not yet. Not by any means.

At the end of the concert unexpected applause broke out from the orchestra themselves – applause for soloists Alison Teale and Phil Cobb and, presumably for one another. Deserved undoubtedly, but also a moment that broke the tension of the night. And on radio we learned how having arrived on stage two-by-two, the BBC Symphony Orchestra would now leave two-by-two. “It’s going to be some time before the stage is empty,” explained presenter Petroc Trelawny.

Should Rule Britannia be ditched from the Last Night of the Proms? Yes. Here’s why.

It’s not a bad way of getting a discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme I suppose.

Get the conductor of an event (Dalia Stasevska) to say something provocative about the content of a much-loved institution; make sure it taps into the public conversation; invite on a couple of contributors with opposing views; be sure to make one of them an out-dated representative of the industry.

‘Debate’

Result? A bit of PR for the approaching fortnight of live Proms concerts. Job done. Little wonder Martha Kearney trumpeted (boom, etc) the introduction to the ‘debate’ with “There’s always a row about the BBC Proms” to which Norman Lebrecht responded, “Well it’s the only way the Proms can get the attention it needs.” Such nonsense.

I digress. The focus of the ‘debate’ was the issue over whether or not the Last Night of the Proms should ditch Rule Britannia, the words of which celebrate slavery.

Norman disagrees of course, saying that the words are ‘innocuous’ and the song unifies people. Wasfi Kani from Grange Opera suggests replacing the song with Jerusalem and the Beatles classic ‘All You Need Is Love’.

According to Norman who can’t help but have the final word, Jerusalem will cause people to fall asleep. He’s obviously overlooked the fact that Jerusalem has featured in the Last Night for decades already.

It’s probably not seriously being considered anyway

What’s important here is that – as far as I can decipher from the statements in the broadcast and what I’ve seen online – this isn’t an official decision being made, soon to be made, or made already by the BBC Proms team.

The prepared statement read out by Kearney during the feature was from the Head of BBC Music (commissioning – does Kearney mean Jan Younghusband?) dodging the question with a response that the BBC is currently trying to figure out what musicians they’re able to have for the audience-free live broadcast anyway. Meaning, that the decision maybe down to the musicians allowed on stage due to COVID regulations rather than an editorial decision.

In other words, no one is seriously thinking editorially about whether or not to include or not include the song, and nobody wants to comment on that either. It’s bluster – sort of dog-whistle journalism – inviting those with a view to join the debate. Hence the Express – that bastion of journalism – wading in with a headline and an online poll.

Rule Britannia should be ditched though

Our willingness to cling on to an outdated and unrepresentative piece of music in order to celebrate an anachronistic view of identity is embarrassing. That we would be debating it in light of George Floyd’s murder and the protests which resulted seems blinkered, bloated, and self-satisfied.

It is right that attention is drawn to the way that something like Rule Britannia is dissonant with present-day discourse. And now that it has been there is, regardless of any campaign mounted by a newspaper, only one course of action which is to bin the song entirely. To keep it in would only provoke even more ire.

Time to change the Last Night of the Proms completely

But there’s another perspective to bear in mind here. The endless sniping that is made about the BBC Proms by those who have never attended, watched or listened to them, is based on a perception formed by the most visible concert in the entire season, the Last Night. Those who dismiss classical music do so because they assume that all classical music experiences are like that seen on TV during the Last Night.

The Last Night isn’t representative of the Proms season. Arguably it does more damage projecting an incongruant image of the classical music industry by continuing in the format that it is.

The Proms season, this year more than any other, is a shop window for the industry. It is the starting point for orchestras, ensembles and artists appearances activities scheduled for the forthcoming season (though this year those seasons are understandably going to look very different from previous years).

It is therefore time for the Last Night to be treated less like a concert made for television, and regarded more like a concert at which television cameras are present. Create a concert programme that is more aligned to the Proms season as a whole.

When we achieve that kind of transformation then some of the assumptions held about the classical music world in the UK can be overcome for good.

Benedetti’s chart-topping Elgar, socially-distanced concerts back on, the Southbank, and a tweak to the career?

This week’s update from (near) the English Riviera – Falmouth

Without live events there seems to be little impetus to write. Since the £1.57 billion pledge to the UK arts scene, it feels a little as though the fire has gone from the fight. Nicola Benedetti stoked the grate a considerable amount a week last Friday with her appearance on Scala Radio. Good promo for her chart-topping Decca (physical) release of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the LPO on 7 August..

But there is, as a good friend recently posited just this week, a sense of resignation about the return of live performance. And whilst the seemingly never-ending album and track releases might act as a substitute, their rate impacts on noteworthines. All of these recordings battle for us streamers attention. The music pluggers and programmers would have you believe that the mere fact that something has been released is in itself the newsline. Difficult to believe. Finding the editorial line in a world devoid of occasion is a challenge.

Socially-distanced concerts are back on

On the flipside, three organisations announced socially distanced concerts over the past ten days: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from September (‘as and when guidelines allow’); Academy of St Martin in the Fields (23 August at St Stephen’s Church, Dulwich); and Snape Maltings Concert Hall starting up their offer on 21 August. At the time of writing all three days of concerts at Snape for a ‘small and socially distanced audience’ had sold out.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall’s socially-distanced concerts snapped up like hot cakes.

The restaurant experience isn’t much different from before

I’ve been staying in Falmouth over the past few days with members of the extended family, some of whom work in the catering and hospitality industry. Conversations with them about loopholes (the one about repurposing a currently redundant function room at a golf club as a restaurant that can house 150 people nicely gets around the restriction of mass gatherings it seems) combined with an experience at a local restaurant prompted me to reflect on the equivalent for concert venues and theatres. During our Saturday lunchtime snack at a restaurant on the high street, members of bar staff are masked, awkwardly maintaining a social distance and asking us to submit our contact details for track and trace, whilst diners sit in surprisingly close proximity (certainly less than a metre) inside and out and eat their food. I make the observation with my party that I’m not feeling unduly ill-at-ease, and that save from the various table staff milling around with their masks on, nothing is that different from normal. It prompts me to reflect that the restrictions are placed on live performance venues, they’re not wholly down to the careful consideration of health and safety regulations in a COVID-ridden world. Smells more like organisational ineptitude to me.

Southbank confusion

I’m struggling to know what to think about the Southbank Centre connundrum. First, an open letter sent by members of the considerable number of staff at risk of redundancy pointing to (amongst other things) senior executive pay, and an intention by SBC management to mothball the site until 2021.

Some of the points responded to in the response by all the senior execs was inevitable, though the absence of the CEO Elaine Bedell on the list of signatories seems odd to say the least.

Letter sent in response to the SOS open letter

It’s all a little painful to read. Catastrophic thinking is inevitable. The idea that a building so dear (to me and a few others at least) could now be embroiled in an argument which if not resolved could come to represent how the global pandemic exposed some of the systemic issues classical music and the arts has failed to grapple with is a little sad. Maybe good will eventually come of it. I do hope so. I still consider the Southbank Centre a special place. Unsurprisingly, the Southbank Centre turned down the opportunity for a podcast interview saying they’d be back in touch with details about their plans in due course. Tsk.

I’m inclined to agree with #SouthbankSOS’s final para in the response to the Senior Execs letter.

SOS: The fact that Southbank Centre’s leadership are choosing to press ahead with this brutal programme of redundancies before they seem to have a clear understanding of whether they are eligible for a Government grant or loan suggests that they are using this crisis as an opportunity to carry out a cost-saving restructure. By making the majority of their staff redundant now they will be able to use the Government bailout – which it seems clear to us that they will receive – for something other than saving jobs or honouring their own redundancy policy.

https://saveoursouthbank.com/southbanks-response/

Surprising coaching revelations

Many readers know I work as a leadership coach. Some maybe surprised that I have in the past couple of months signed up for a leadership coaching programme myself. Part of that coaching experience for me on the receiving end of the process is to reflect. What has come to the fore in an unexpected way is the feeling – and that’s all it is right now – of unfinished business, or perhaps unrealised ideas pertaining to work in the classical music world.

During recent sessions I’ve stumbled on the notion of the ‘Hero Story’ and ‘Shadow Careers’, the way in which we live a shadow-life instead of the life we intended or hoped to. And how, when put into the context of the ‘Hero Story’, one can return to the original career or intention renewed by the discoveries made during our shadow career.

It’s prompted me to return to that period of time when I worked in arts admin, the new opportunities I was energised by towards the end of it, and to reexamine my reasons for leaving it behind. There is more work to be done here (and probably more to write about). But the time feels right now to explore more of what happened before in order to understand where best to go next.

PRS for Music and Riot Ensemble in partnership with Zeitgeist commission six new works for solo instrument during lockdown

The commissions will be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show in August 2020

It’s been a pleasure to work on the PRS for Music / Riot Ensemble project this year which saw six composers commissioned to write new works for solo instrumentalists who form part of the Riot Ensemble.

My involvement extended to providing the composers with coaching, productivity, and creativity workshops delivered over Zoom. In addition, Thoroughly Good Digital produced a short film documenting the process, capturing the thoughts of some of those involved in the project.

One of the most pleasing things about the video for me personally was responding to the challenge of documenting a lockdown creative project in video. It’s primary content function was to support a press announcement which itself coincided with a series of broadcast premieres on BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show.

Creatively speaking the video need to reflect the common experience for isolated performers and composers. There was a nod in the visual language to the lockdown video audiences will in time instantly associate with this period. But, importantly, there was a need respond visually to the music which featured as a soundtrack to the contributions. The starting point in terms of treatment was the limited quality of Zoom video. Performances were produced by Riot Ensemble.

I’m really pleased with the finished product. I like its simplicity and cleanness exemplified by Harriet Wybor’s heartfelt script and delivery (achieved in only two complete takes by the way), the different vignettes created by the music, and the opportunity for taut edits presented by details in the scores.

This is the second PRS for Music project Thoroughly Good Digital has captured.

For more information on the project visit the PRS for Music website.