These weekly posts help me. They’re probably more helpful to me than they are interesting to read. I have no real idea whether that’s true or whether it’s just a reflection of my own negative thinking. This said, a weekly (or fortnightly) as has been the case in recent weeks does help order my thoughts around those things which have acted as an interface with the classical music world.
First, a visit to nearby Beckenham Place Mansion with a colleague to capture b-roll and talking heads about their paywalled chamber concerts. They’re not the only band doing this at the moment. Expect other announcements next week. But, still there was an element of an occasion about the experience. There was also something reassuringly authentic about the experience too.
Orchestras aren’t really that big or grand or aloof. That’s what I’ve been reminded of this week.
Orchestras are perceived as ‘big things’. And because they’re seen as big they’re also assumed to be rolling in money or grand or aloof. Let’s avoid the aloof thing (because I’ll just descend into surfacing all of that negative talk I’ve heard about ‘classical music’s problem’ in recent months).
Instead, let’s focus on the reality that challenges that ‘grand’ assumption of scale.
The English Chamber Orchestra this week was the experience I recall most potently from my early arts admin days: little glamour; lots of anxiety; lots of negotiating spaces; lots of making sure everyone’s happy.
Don’t get me wrong, it was all perfectly organised. It’s just that orchestras aren’t in themselves glamorous things. And they’re not always big. This week was a reminder.
This was a dozen players. Single wind, trumpet, string quartet, and percussion. Filming meant I could get up to two metres away. And that combined with the deft purchase of a Canon EOS I made for a filming job in The City two weeks before lockdown meant not only was I able to get some tasty footage, but I was also able to hear an ensemble in rehearsal (Debussy) up close.
You’d think a sparse orchestration would leave me wanting. Of course it didn’t. Debussy got orchestration, wanting individual strengths of instruments to take centre stage. In chamber form the sound is rich, warm, strong but with a hint of shoestring. In Beckenham Place Mansion’s near-shabby chic interior, the combination of location and sparseness elevated the music by putting textures first.
I didn’t get emotional. Very early on in lockdown I assumed that I would get teary when I heard an orchestra play. Instead I felt at ease in the company of others I felt I knew (I don’t) and possibly even resentful that seemingly ridiculous health and safety measures were making the miraculous unnecessarily hard-fought.
That’s perhaps what I’ve concluded most forcefully throughout all of this second ‘period’. Measures are not so much things which are there to preserve health, but ill-thought out and literal extrapolations of ham-fisted interpretations of health advice. It’s as though someone is standing next to a conductor during a concert and stopping proceedings to say: “but it says pianissimo there. I don’t think any of us would regard what you just directed as anything other than a piano.” You know, someone present bleeding all the joy out of life.
I’m thinking all of this at the same time as watching, for the third time in twenty-four hours, the CBSO’s Centenary Concert on YouTube.
It didn’t work terribly well on our TV screen. The sound mix wasn’t great – better in a mono mix than stereo – and the ‘live’ pieces to camera dissappointingly clunky unhearsed. But, the intent was strong and the storytelling potent. This was a fundraiser, of course. (Side note: I’ve now seen enough of these to think that if you’re asking for money, then the more potent thing to do would be to reveal how much money you’ve raised.)
It worked better on a laptop with a mono speaker. A.R. Rahman performing was touching, Sheku’s Saint-Saëns concerto was unexpectedly arrestin. Hannah Kendall’s Sparks was utterly compelling. Stravinsky’s Firebird was a bit of a tear-jerker come the final bars.
There was an air of sorrow about the whole thing. Plucky musicians doing their thing because they’re allowed to in a tight-controlled space. Yes, you can have your party so long as its absoutely and completely utterly safe. Not the uplift. A sort of outdoor concert done indoors. Not the kind of celebration I had hoped for.
No matter. This is all part of a journey that everyone is on. Stick with it.