Two o’clock diary

I estimate I must have been snoring at 1.55am. I was awake at 2.00am. I’m now sat downstairs in the kitchen looking hopefully at a small mug of camomile tea in the hope that the contents combined with the process of writing will clear my head and ready myself (for the second time tonight) for much-needed sleep.

My mind is buzzing with thoughts, words and pictures, buffeting around like the rough-cut of a second-rate TV drama. They are relentless. This combined with the human brain’s incessant need for certainty means unless action of some kind is taken, I am doomed to lay next to my snoring partner until the sun comes up.

Outside the wind is all pompous and blustery. Leafless branches sway and bounce. Gusts pass through the cat-flap. The kitchen clock regimentally does its thing.

This feeling I have right now is unbearable. It’s familiar too.

First, the intense disappointment of being even wake at this hour feels like a dead weight. Next, the thought that the world we are experiencing right now looks set to continue for what feels like a lifetime. There’s a bland kind of horror associated with this feeling – a sort of middle-class banal-looking doom. A GP’s waiting room kind of inevitability to it, complete with well-fingered magazines and page-turners that go unread.

Our understanding of the world around us is shaped by that which we see on the television. Additionally, our perception is also shaped by the now commonplace video communication. The idiosyncratic behaviours of our immediate network are displayed in a series of thumbnail shots brought into our daily lives through video communication.

The outside world is forced down an imaginary pipe into our homes. Nobody invited that world in – it just arrived with an insistent look on its face as though it was look for a spare hot-desk and somewhere to plug in its laptop. It never told us how long it would be sticking around either. And its still here, strewing good stuff and bad stuff around.

The immediacy of video communication and its on-demand nature makes its a highly intrusive medium. And as it comes and goes it leaves unhelpful deposits on our mental cognition that would normally be washed away by the everyday distractions of a commute home. Now, the lack of distractions embed them. They’re not far below the surface. It only takes a partner to ask you to roll over on your back because you’re snoring for the eyes to suddenly open, the thought patterns to start up and the deposits from yesterday to pop up once more.

Amid all of the noise, and the faces of the people I feel I know but don’t all seemingly partying in my head with so much as a mask or any concept of the two metre rule between them, I look on an a frustrating incongruity in the world right now.

We are people who need contact with other human beings in order to function. Even if we don’t speak to them, we need to sense their contact in the same physical space as ours. We can see loved ones in a two dimensional form whenever we like, in the same way we can pull up mostly anything from an archive of on-demand TV whenever the need arises. But it is the physical presence of others that is missing.

This seems odd on the face of it. I live with someone I couldn’t be without. My rock. But it is others I also need to be able to be sense (if not actually touch) in order to reassure me that the world is OK, that reality is around the corner, and importantly that the world will be returning to a kind of normality sometime soon.

But, as my friend Becky has pointed out to me, the odd thing about the fact that we can if we so wish step out into our roads and see others. Yet this lockdown and the winter months builds a perception of distance. On the one hand we recall we’ve ‘done this’ a year ago, On the other hand, its difficult determine when we ever had a let up in the lockdown restrictions. This is worse in the small hours of the morning when the wind gusts through the cat flap. In these lonely fearful moments, unwelcome thoughts and feelings give oxygen to the unhelpful deposits electronic communication left behind.

There is a darkness to this experience. It’s lonely, for one thing. The early hours of the morning are the best time for panic to set in I find. Panic is such a loud insistent thing. Not unruly in its use of language. It doesn’t holler. It is instead pressing. Urgent. Strong. Wilful. It is liable to leave an impression if the pressure isn’t released.

Awareness is the double-edged sword here: a great skill to possess (and one to develop too), but it’s only as good as your ability to channel it in such a way you can observe and describe what’s going on in your head, and calm the party down a bit. Such a process demands the individual takes his or her own responsibility for identifying what’s going on and what needs to be done. With greater awareness comes a greater need to deploy ‘corrective’ behaviour.

I don’t remember anybody telling me this stuff (aside from the basic principles around self-awareness in coaching conversations for example). There seems to be no manual to help us get acquainted with the mind and manage in the way that sustains us as self-determined individuals. There is still shame, I think, in even talking about it (which is perhaps why I feel the need to write about it even more).

We are instead introduced to the joys of various activities designed to distract the mind (wellbeing and ‘wellness’) in the belief that distraction subdues and extinguishes. It doesn’t. I know this as a middle-aged homosexual when I recall the period of time I was in denial about my identity. Distraction doesn’t change things, it only delays change. Delay increases the pressure on the mind. It is only by observing a situation and confronting it that we’re able to move on from it taking ourselves to a place where we need to be.

Rattle, a trade deal gone wrong, and music’s managed decline

My husband doesn’t understand me.

He puts up with a lot of course. He possesses a good listening ear and, like any good coach’s husband, has mastered the art of listening without judgment. But every now and again when energy is low he’ll helpfully point out one of the major differences between us.

For him, Lockdown 3 isn’t really that much different from arrangements for Christmas, or indeed our day-to-day habits since we returned from Brighton truth be told. For him the announcement of something approximating a complete lockdown had no impact on him.

I on the other hand often overlook how things are the same day to day, and look at the potential implications of an announcement. I predict the future based on my own life script. In coaching parlance this is ‘catastrophisation’.

This is from a writing perspective quite useful, because it means I can take two things that crossed my day to day experience in a week (the touring musicians Brexit trade deal fuck-up and the disappointing news about Sir Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO) conflate them and build them into a reasonably interesting piece of copy that serves me cathartically and might even drive a little bit of traffic in the process too.

My husband on the other hand, observes a kind of connection between these two things but refuses to move from the now to imagine a future where these events have contributed to a situation where musicians and their work have been irrevocably devalued. We often joke about this in lockdown when I point out to him that I think I’m a thoughtful, sensitive, empathetic kind of soul, and that he’s a cold-hearted bastard.

Brexit ‘deal’ for touring musicians

Never underestimate how much ignorance and ineptitude can bring about a fuck-up.

According to the Independent in a story published on Saturday, it turns out that post-Brexit musicians will, despite reassurances made by the Government throughout 2020, be denied exemption from touring visas and instead be required to complete a dizzying array of paperwork to be able to continue their international work – this from an ‘EU source’ who said that the U.K. was offered a standard exemption package as part of trade deal negotiations but turned it down.

Caroline Dinenage MP responded saying the story was incorrect because the story was based on an anonymous EU source (like the U.K. Government never briefs with anonymous sources). Cue: arched eyebrows. Note: it had taken nearly 24 hours for anyone to rebutt the story.

The rebuttal is rooted in how the failed arrangement came about. The question for me isn’t how this happened, but why did you let this happen?

The answer is down to not thinking about the bigger picture – not thinking outside of the Brexit bubble and thinking about the implications of a decision or non-decision on a section of society.

If you’re invested in what happens to a particular part of the economy then you’ll fight for it. Or you’ll think about the implications of it and find a work-around. That’s where a sense of trust begins – when you know that someone has your back.

There is no trust. The arts doesn’t believe the Government recognises what the arts and culture brings to this country. The Indepedent’s story confirms what I learned a few months ago, that even with a Secretary of State representing the cultural economy, bringing about change depends on the people he’s speaking to being willing to listen. They’re not. Because they either don’t instinctively see its value or they haven’t looked at the relevant line in The Spreadsheet.

Why, for example, commit the money the Government has to the Culture Recovery Fund at the same time as cutting off a valuable source of revenue for the same sector? It’s not joined up. That lack of connection is either deliberate (which would suggest a strategy being followed) or its ineptitude. Often the simpler explanation is the right one.

It’s hardly a surprise. The person who banged the drum for Brexit back in 2016 hedged his bets, drafting columns for both sides of the argument. And throughout the pandemic has said one thing only to implement and endorse policies that do the complete opposite. Why would anyone trust a man to lead a team that manifests trust, when you yourself can’t be trusted? Johnson is a failed leader (assuming you thought he was any kind of leader in the first place), so little wonder the people he entrusted to do the job on his behalf can’t be trusted either.

According to The Charlatans Tim Burgess‘ impassioned response in The Independent underlines what’s at stake: in 2019 UK touring musicians and their support teams brought £2.19bn to the UK economy.

That figure will shrink dramatically when bureaucracy impacts the smaller artistic concerns who along with the big-name brands help shore up our dwindling global reputation.

I know a significant amount of people whose livelihoods are assumed to be able to withstand any change brought about by increased bureaucracy. That’s because, I think, people equate that musicians because of their elite ability, or their high-level of success will be able to absorb administration costs as inconsequential lines in a budget.

The reality for rock, pop and classical musicians is that bureaucracy will stop opportunities coming their way, and the business they run (rock bands, pop groups and orchestras for example are all businesses) will be denied lucrative trade opportunities.

People predicted this would happen. A negotiating team promised it wouldn’t. And now it’s happened. Few in power have music and musicians backs.

Rattle leaving the LSO

Rumours surrounding Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO emerged a few weeks ago, corroborated by various sources of mine. My post on Twitter about it triggered one or two people to ask me privately what I was talking about and, when I explained to one LSO person, it was suggested that this was all very unlikely. Just rumour, nothing more.

Yesterday, the LSO’s statement confirmed the news broken the night before by the Times’ Richard Morrison. Now today, Morrison has expanded on the reasons for Rattle’s departure – a heady combination of Brexit, the pandemic, and the UK’s ‘indifference’ to classical music as manifest in the halted development of London’s newest concert hall.

The arts doesn’t need Rattle per se, but his departure is a blow, and the timing of the announcement serves to highlight the fragile state of things. Most reasonably well-informed individuals predicted that taking control of our borders would have a negative impact on the arts ability to thrive on the world stage. COVID has compounded that and provided the Government with some bargain bucket blister pack of smoke and mirrors.

Back to the catastrophisation

In some respects my husband is right. These developments do not directly affect me. To think about them in the way that I do illustrates how I still see some drama to be mine. Social media has a habit of doing that. I’m a sucker for glomming-on.

On the other hand, these stories contribute to a growing fear I have that music is in trouble in this country. A crisis is being managed by people who don’t recognise the value that the arts brings to society, and the crucial role it plays in maintaining the health of that society. They understand only those things that generate big money. They overlook anything that appears to need subsidy. Music to them is something which is available on demand, in return for a subscription like say television. The mechanics involved in bringing art to an audience is of no consequence to them. The connection isn’t made between human beings creating art and human beings benefitting from it. So, ensuring that the arts is protected wouldn’t even occur to them. It’s not a priority.

If I’m wrong about that, then why would such a castastrophic error have occured in the Brexit trade deal negotiation? And why would Rattle have gone?

Without a thriving music scene there is even less incentive for future generations to engage with music-making. An economy will die, elected representatives overseeing its systematic decline.

And that does affect me. Something I care about, that I write about. Something I celebrate and advocate. Something I work in amongst is in crisis, because the people who can bring about change consistently and habitually overlook it.

International concerts for U.K. artists has been made more difficult for a significant number of the music-making industry at a stroke. Don’t think that music venues will be the first to reopen when all the vaccines have been given. Concert going and musicals and theatre won’t be like it was before. Programmes will be less daring because they need to be ‘safer’. And that will have a knock on effect for everyone who works in the arts.

I’d be better off being a cold-hearted bastard.

Riccardo Muti’s much-needed assertion at the New Year’s Day concert

Riccardo Muti’s short speech at the end of the New Year’s Day concert at the Musikverein in Vienna (watched by an estimated worldwide audience of 90 million) reasserted the crucial role music has in culture and society’s health, reminding those appear to have forgotten that music isn’t merely entertainment. It’s art.

And art helps us understand ourselves. Art sustains mental wellbeing. To be in a state of good mental health also helps our overall health.

I feel really strongly about the clarification. If we don’t maintain an awareness of those who create the art, or the impact that art has on us as we experience it, then we’re doomed.

Music isn’t the clothes we put on to make ourselves feel or look better. Music and the way we react to it is our very core as individuals. And the key to understanding that core is to appreciate that it shifts depending on what our mental state is at any one given moment in time. And my core is going to be entirely different from another person listening to the same music at the same time.

Muti’s words were undoubtedly made more impactful when combined with the potent imagery of the Musikverein’s empty auditorium and a tightly-packed Vienna Philharmonic on stage.

Here was powerful evidence that it was possible to have orchestras play without social distancing (the players had gone through a rigorous series of COVID tests similar to those on recent 2020 TV productions). Inevitable then that the sight of an empty auditorium at this annual event triggered all sorts of internal bargaining: will that sight look different in a year’s time? Could it?

As Muti spelled out:

“Music is not only a profession but is a mission. That is why we do this work. A mission to make society better, to think about the new generation that in one complete year has been deprived of deep thinking, thinking all the time about health – health is the first most important thing, but also the health of the mind. And music helps. So my message to the governors and presidents and prime ministers everywhere in every part of the world: consider culture always as one of the primary elements to have a better society in the future.”

Be patient and ride this out

Not everything has to be perfect. Not everything has to draw in a massive audience. Sometimes things are done for the sheer joy derived from doing them.

I work in a field where numbers are constantly held up as evidence of success or otherwise. More often than not those numbers often act as a mask hiding a lack of understanding of how digital works or what success looks like. Sometimes, success is nothing more than standing up in front of a camera and playing your flute in your bedroom.

Last year when we were able to sit closer than two metres from one another, I spent a Saturday afternoon in the company of the Opal Flutes – a group of amateur musicians who get together for rehearsals and concerts in South London, for the sheer love of playing, and also because of the enthusiasm and drive of its founder Sharon Maloney.

When we convened for filming I was reminded how much joy low-pressure participatory music-making could bring. As adults the experience of rehearsing together is valuable. As adults we gain a better understanding of what’s involved in playing in a group: a bit of direction combined with peer-to-peer encouragement. It was instinctive when we were kids; as adults its a much tougher ask.

Over the past few days I’ve got increasingly irritated by Government restrictions and those who assume that because the Government says its OK to meet up in a pub that its therefore safe and wise to do so. Today, I’ve had to actively remind myself that those people don’t care (even though they should), and they’re unlikely to care, even though some of them I know are those who seek to celebrate classical music.

Looking back over this video clip a year after it was shot reminds me what’s at stake. It reminds me why its important to draw on a sense of personal and collective responsibility and exercise caution.

There’s joy to be derived from experiences shared in close proximity to others. But if we’re not patient and ride this out farther than the ill-thought-out predictions made by our inept Government, then we’ll find ourselves denied these experiences for longer than we’d like.

Watch the Opal Flutes Virtual Concert on YouTube

Meeting John Rutter

On paper spending £30 to go to Oxford on the train and see the recording of a Christmas concert by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra seemed like a bit of an extravagance.

The Oxford Philharmonic’s programme is short, contains some old familiars – Abide with Me, Hallelujah Chorus, You’ll Never Walk Alone. And what Christmas concert is complete without some Rutter too. All of it dedicated to the work of those developing the COVID vaccine.

Compared to the last time I was in Oxford to attend a Beethoven Symposium (was it this year or last?), the live music-making experience is entirely different. Programmes are different – pragmatic artistic responses contained within a 16×9 crop, varying angles, a range of different coloured lights if the budget allows, and if you’re really lucky a bit of depth of field too.

No longer do I find myself sitting in a rehearsal wondering how best to write about a piece of music in order to get more people to consider experiencing it live. Now I sit in a kind of hermetically sealed box watching musicians shift through a series of postures in their seats according to whether they’re playing or waiting to play. When they play, the textures they create individually and collectively suggest that everything is just as it was. When they stop and wait for the producer to issue the next instruction across the talkback, they sit back and relax, waiting in silence for the next command.

This stop-start approach to music making is of course necessary. It’s a recording session. Some orchestras and ensembles have made a point of saying how they’re recording as live. Others adhere to creating recorded experiences.

“I come from the Glenn Gould school of performance,” said Oxford Phil conductor Marios.

“Oh. What’s that?”

I really should spend a bit more time researching. Or even reading.

“Gould hated audiences.”

What I’ve overlooked in a lot of my listening and thinking and writing over the past few months is that recording is as a process something that some musicians enjoy. I and a lot of others this year have spent a lot of time moping around about the ‘lack of live’, some even bemoaning how pre-records are a poor substitute. The point is that they’re different. And both are valuable.

Proceedings get underway inside the Sheldonian Theatre with two sing-throughs of Abide with Me with choristers from Merton College Oxford who stand the obligatory two metres apart from one another in the gallery overlooking the audience. The intense melancholy spun out by bows sweeping gently across strings brings an irony into focus. We’re sat here in our distanced seats, watching a similarly distanced orchestra and choir record music for a digital concert dedicated to scientists who have discovered a vaccine which could help get us out of this mess. Music sung by choristers who quite rightly observed social distancing inside the building, but didn’t need to outside whilst they waited outside. The rules that bring everyone together for this now familiar ‘live’ musical experience aren’t about safeguarding one another’s health, they’re about insurance policies. The rules are more the thing the music world is doing battle with, not the virus.

When John Rutter glides into the Theatre in his white bow tie, mask and coat tails, there’s a distinct change in energy. Rutter and the world premiere recording of his newest Christmas gift – Joseph’s Carol – is the main event for this rather strange afternoon jaunt to Oxford. He sets down his worn brown leather briefcase on the floor and bends down to open it, revealing the modest tools he needs to bring his work to life.

Rutter. A name synonymous with Christmas. A name burned into the memories of countless individuals who mark Christmas, childhood memories set to beautiful melodies, and touching harmonies. A composer who has shaped so many people’s experience of Christmas. A composer who actual exists in real life and is there down there below me stood on a podium with his open briefcase on the floor behind him.

“Is there anyone you’d like to speak to Jon?” asks Nicky the PR who had invited me for the afternoon.

This question has a surreal edge to it though Nicky doesn’t realise it at the time.

Earlier on in the day I was arranging interviews with two other high profile performers for a different story, arrangements being made via two, three or maybe four intermediaries all of whom believed that an interview could only go ahead if the questions were pre-agreed, an outline of the twenty minute interview experience was detailed and agreed. If there’s anything that is guaranteed to drain the energy from any interaction it is the assumption that it can only work if everyone knows precisely what is going to be talked about in advance. That isn’t journalism. It’s also not content.

I came to Oxford with no expectations to speak to anyone. I came only to be in amongst musicians, to get a sense of an event and to capture the resulting experience. That was enough for me. And now I’m here, sat here in a tatty jumper with a stupid mask stopping much-needed non-verbal communication being asked if there is anyone I’d like to talk to before I leave. There are only three people potentially: the Oxford Philharmonic music director Marios, tenor Bryn Terfel, and Rutter himself.

“Mr Rutter perhaps?” I say to Nicky almost apologetically. “Maybe Mr Terfel?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” And then she disappears. All very Nicky. Textbook Nicky.

And then it all gets exciting again. In a flash I’m transported back a year to all those trips that marvellous classical music PRs have invited me on to talk to wonderful people about the thing I love. All of them opportunities to be present in a space where magic happens so that the magic of it can be documented and shared wider. The crushing silliness of over-engineered ill-informed ‘interviews’ are in turn a distant memory. In its place the casual spontaneity built on trust and rapport that yields the richest of content opportunities.

Like pre-COVID days. Like the ‘old days’. Back in the game.

Me and Mr Terfel speak. I try to build rapport by drawing attention to a mutual friend of old from Suffolk Youth Orchestra days, his reaction masked. We talk about the Sondheim Prom ten years ago, him playing Sweeney, politics and the unintentional impact of vaccine developments on freelance musicians and their plight. At one stage I wonder whether he might reveal the details of his tax bill, but fortunately we end up talking about he’s become a whole more interested in video and audio production this year and how he might start kitting himself out next year. “That technically means we’d be in competition Mr Terfel,” I quip. “Yes, I suppose so.” “Well look, I’d recommend you go for the cheaper end of the market, you know?”

He signals he’s got the joke with a hearty Terfel chuckle and we pose for the customary selfie. It’s Terfel, I tell myself. This moment needs to be captured.

I find myself pacing whilst I’m waiting to speak to Rutter. A familiar feeling from Eurovision days returns in a flash whilst I mentally clock how much the other journalist in the space has had. This seems a rather futile process given that I like everyone else has suffered an internal body clock malfunction this year. The overriding emotion is one of impatience. Possibly even a sense of competition. Utterly ridiculous I tell myself. But so very familiar when you’re given the unexpected opportunity to connect with a celebrity who actually means something.

Rutter is as I expect. Softly spoken. Mild-mannered. Irritatingly modest. And as I predicted to a friend in a WhatsApp message minutes before, more than attuned to rhetorical questions asked by a fanboy. Of course he is. He went to Cambridge.

We talk about his year, his industrial nature, explaining how he chose to turn his attention to ‘painting the garage’ during lockdown – a witty metaphor for the keyboard arrangements he’s made this year of his most popular choral music. It appears in hearing him speak so modestly about his contribution to a universal experience of music that he is either unaware or unwilling to let himself get in the way of the music. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the manifestation of his music. Or maybe his music is a manifestation of him. Either way, I’m not going to get to the bottom of it in ten minutes, so I go for the full on clumsy, ham-fisted approach: “Do you have any sense of how much joy your brings?”

And when that doesn’t yield much, I go for “Do you think you have the best job in the world?”

“I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid.”

“And what would you like to take from 2020 into 2021?”


Boom. Thank you Mr Rutter. We stand for another selfie.

After a short break, me and the other members of what I now realise was a bit of a pre-embargo press junket convene distanced seats back in the gallery. A hush passes over the Theatre. Rutter steps up to the podium. We hear Alex the producer speak from somewhere we can’t see him. “OK. Thank you very much. In your own time.”

The music Rutter has written is classic. Warm strings create a soft reassuring pillow on which Terfel’s carefully-placed voice gently rests. Beautifully balanced melodies that caress the soul supported by harmonic progressions that edge us to and fro from melancholy, hope, pain and pain. It’s difficult not to hear the carol as something that goes beyond Christmas. An anthem for a city proud for the vaccine its University has discovered. As we tread carefully through the final verse and a modest descant stretches the bittersweet tension just a little bit further, there’s a glimmer that all is not lost. Those vital connections which have proved so important over the past few years are still there. And they’re still active.

Later on, during the short trip home, I spend a lot of time beaming at the composition of the selfie – how unusually chipper I look in the shot. Maybe I’m not quite so fat around the face as I thought I was. Maybe I have still got a jaw. Better that Rutter with his still strong chin is in the background slightly out of focus.

Hear John Rutter’s Joseph’s Carol on 18th December via the Oxford Philharmonic’s YouTube and Facebook page.


News from 10 Downing Street last night about post-national lockdown tier rules provide a little bit of hope pre-Christmas for classical music venues, groups and organisations. Just so long as you’re in Tiers 1 or 2.

Reports document the three-tiered approach will return to England, allowing sports and live performance venues to accommodate 50% of their capacity audience or (in the case of live performance) 1000 people whichever is smaller. Numbers vary for sports according to whether the sport is played outside (maximum of 2000 spectators) or inside (maximum of 1000 spectators).

I see some leaping on the headlines which drove the story – sport – as a trigger for highlighting the apparent inconsistency or lack of consideration for the arts. Whilst I’m not about to sign up to the Conservative party as a fully-fledged member or start defending the government’s poor record in responding to COVID, not seeking out the information on live performance does skew perspectives on this change.

Speaking for myself, I experienced an unexpected rush when I discovered the news. Maximum capacity of 1000 is not 80% of the house (which is what is said to be the level at which a classical music venue breaks even on a concert) by any stretch of the imagination. In some cases it will be significantly less than 50%.

But it’s a step in the right direction, and presumably means that the two metre mitigation has been reduced to one metre now. If that’s the case, its both a success for those membership and trade organisations who have been working with DCMS on the latest measures.

Of course, all of this is dependent on one key thing: what parts of the country are in Tiers 1 and 2, and which parts of the country are in Tier 3. Some areas of the UK (and presumably its going to be a lot) are going to end up in the toughest of tiers. We’ll know how bright the light is, nationally speaking, come Thursday.

Orchid Classic’s release of Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Gran Partita

I wrote a few weeks ago about burnout. I was listening to Copland’s clarinet concerto at the time same time as writing the post. I recall thinking how Copland’s music helped me identify what I was thinking and feeling at that moment in time. Music to raise your levels of awareness. That kind of thing.

A few weeks on and it feels like made good progress on a recovery. The fatigue has passed. So too the phenomenal aches and pains. And there’s a growing sense of solidity too. And a commitment to carving out time to rest, relax and potter.

This week’s musical accompaniment (and NLP anchor, if you like that kind of thing) has been Orchid Classic’s new release featuring recordings of Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s wind serenade in B-flat major – ‘Gran Partita’ – recorded at Saffron Hall in Cambridgeshire earlier this year.

It is a remarkable recording – brimming with colour and energy. Simpson’s Geysir is a captivating soundscape that evokes the mesmerising power of nature at its most insistent – when a geyser bursts forth. The textures Simpson combines between upper and lower wind have a quality to them I feel as though I could touch with the tips of my fingers.

Tonal harmonic progressions emerge from melodies in the upper wind contributing to a growing tension that can only be resolved one way, driven by deep powerful chords in the lower registers of the brass. It’s an aural rollercoaster. A treat for the ears. An unfamiliar concert opener coming out of my JBL speaker making me feel as though I’m in attendance at an actual concert.

That means there’s a theatrical quality to the whole thing, not only in Simpson’s score, but in the performance and recording too. It’s a listening experience that takes me someplace else.

The Mozart Gran Partita on this recording is something I’ve come back to repeatedly over the past few days. Every time it’s brought me an enormous amount of joy, either by pulling me from moments of melancholy or by helping me understanding how much of a recovery I’ve made. I’m not quite sure which it is yet.

The musical deep breaths that open the first movement are followed by a jolly industry in the allegro, depicting a colourful kind of celebration that isn’t as incongruous with our shared present-day experience as one might imagine.

In ensemble passages throughout the combined wind has a burnished quality to it that is momentarily overwhelming. Being able to hear individual lines brought out in amongst this mix reinforces the sense that actual human beings are making this remarkable sound. Imagining actual human beings playing this familiar work in such an arresting fashion is important what with the pandemic this year. Potent perhaps? Human beings making things in the weeks after the first lockdown restrictions were lifted. A recording that captures a collection of musicians thoughts and feelings in the moment. I like the idea of it. I acknowledge I might be getting a little carried away here.

Notable movements to listen out for:

1. First movement: the combined textures of Nicholas Daniel’s fragile oboe line and Mark Simpson’s rounded upper register clarinet gives this a sharp insistent energy full of determination and, as a result, hope. It is incredibly uplifting in a way I didn’t think I would feel uplifted right now.

2. The ensemble in the second movement minuet presents itself as a rich three dimensional block of colour, a deep container out of which multiple lines cascade out like a waterfall defying gravity.

3. The third movement adagio is delivered with elegance and poise throughout, topped by devastatingly fragile solo lines.

4. The same unbridled enthusiasm that exudes the first movement is present in the finale.

I’ve read plenty of blogs where the writer starts waxing lyrical about why something moved them. I admit to have been a little dismissive about what they’ve written. So I’m mindful I might be falling into the same trap here.

But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this recording has acted as an important signpost for me this year. That people I feel I half-know (and fully respect) are responsible for something that has brought me so much needed joy these past few days is a wondrous thing. Lovely lovely work.

Mozart’s Requiem from ENO

ENO’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with soloists Elizabeth Llewellyn, Sarah Connolly, Ed Lyon and Gerald Finley was originally planned to be filmed in front of a social distanced Coliseum audience. England’s second lockdown put pay to that.  

Elizabeth Llewellyn undoubtedly shone in the performance with a gentle, delicate sound that felt solid. It consoled, too. This was fantastic exposure for Llewellyn – really pleased for her. Gerald Finlay’s contribution was grave and warm (if the two words aren’t a contradiction).   

(Don’t think I’m passing comment on Connolly and Lyon by not talking about them. It’s just that Llewellyn and Finlay were the voices I connected with most.)

Light was also shone on the impact distanced musicians has on performance. “The fragility of the arts has been exposed by this pandemic,” said Lucy Thraves to me earlier in the week. ENO’s performance also exposed the limitations of current mitigations.  

The distance between conductor and chorus, so too that between individual singers, exposed how much our appreciation of music depends on proximity. To date this year, I think this is possibly the biggest music performance in terms of on-stage forces I’ve seen. And I wonder whether its the upper limit too right now. It was evident how distance placed greater demands on ensemble, with the disparity between voices and orchestra easy to detect in places. Speeds varied at times. I have taken ensemble for granted, that much is clear. The BBC Proms next year seems like a long long way away in terms of getting anywhere near what was experienced in 2019, for example.  

The performance didn’t touch me in the way I’ve long anticipated billed performances of Mozart’s Requiem can be something for our collective emotions to coalesce around, though others might have felt differently. But there was a simplicity to the presentation that was the pleasing and an undoubted sense of occasion seeing classical music billed on a Saturday night at 7pm.  

I’d like to think this was a test for other such TV broadcasts in the weeks and months to come.  It would be something rather wonderful if classical music reasserted itself in the schedules, being made more visible to more people.  

Mozart’s Requiem is available on BBC iPlayer until October 2021

Jess Gillam's Virtual Scratch Orchestra Logo

Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra set to record Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride

News this week that Jess Gillam is launching another lockdown virtual scratch orchestra brought a smile to my face.

As role models go Gillam’s activity throughout 2020 in response to COVID has been impressive, acting as a beacon for young musicians and amateurs alike.

That along with her obvious industry, determination and spirit, not only maintains Gillam in the education and entertainment worlds, but also injects a little bit of hope and sparkle at a time when its needed most. The Let it Be mashup from a few weeks ago, even if you assume the lockdown style won’t be compelling on a first glimpse, does tickle the tear ducts come the final chorus.

Her latest project calls on musicians across the world to submit video recordings of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride using music downloaded from the Virtual Scratch Orchestra website. All audio will be used in the final mashup, along with some of the video.

Set against the global pandemic and the economic crisis its brought about, Gillam’s marketing narrative in 2020 has shaken off the initial record-label fuelled contrivance it seemed to have pre-COVID. Her education work makes her relevant and relatable, just by virtue of it being needed and appreciated right now.

This combined with her second album released this year – Time – featuring a carefully selected running order of music suited to her instrument illustrates Gillam’s increasing maturity as a musician and an educator.

For more information on Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra visit her website.

Arts Council England announces Round 2 (over £1m) recipients of Culture Recovery Fund

Arts Council England and DCMS have today announced the latest tranche of grants given to arts and culture organisations across the country.

The organisations who have received over £1 million in the second round are:

Sheffield City Trust£2,243,000
The Lowry Centre Trust£3,000,000
North York Moors Historical Railway Trust£1,904,902
Academy Music Group Ltd£2,981,431
London Venue Group£2,358,902
Palmglen Ltd (Ronnie Scott’s)£1,272,631
Opera North Limited£2,000,000
The Marlowe Theatre£2,999,999

Note: Sage Gateshead received £1,800,000 in Round 1

The total awarded in today’s announcement amounts to £18 million of the total £500 million grants available.

Organisations who applied for the over £1m category could apply for up to £3m, and had to meet a range of criteria, including demonstrating what their activity would be between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021,

They needed to provide independently audited accounts covering at least one financial year, and an income and expenditure/proposed budget spend for October to March.

Following the Government’s recent announcement regarding lockdown in England from Thursday 5 November to Wednesday 2 December, Secretary for State for Arts and Culture Oliver Dowden clarified that workplaces would still be open for people to work in, for example, concert halls, theatres etc, but public access to these venues wasn’t permitted due to lockdown laws. Arts and cultural activities can only effectively behind closed doors via digital platforms.

The Culture Recovery Fund Grants can also be used to fund redundancies.

For more information, visit the Culture Recovery Fund Grants FAQ.

Recipients of under £1 million can be found on the Round 1 and Round 2 posts.