Having valuable conversations in a remote-working world

Like many people I’ve been having a lot more video conferencing and telephone calls over the the past two weeks.

Some thoughts have arisen about how they’re supporting me, how they might be supporting others, and how best to manage them and get the best out of them. I’ve listed them below.

Please get in touch at thoroughlygood@gmail.com if there are any others to add to the list.

1. Seeing is believing

I’ve benefited from the presence of others in my working day. The positive impact of actually seeing someone else when you’re in isolation cannot be underestimated. Merely seeing someone else in video jolts you out of your majority (and often negative) thinking space. If you’re thinking of emailing someone, then stop to consider whether a telephone call might be quicker first. Look for ways of using video calls to help others in their day.

2. Look for the everyday

Seeing other people’s bookshelves, curtains and light fittings reveals an everyday-ness about the perception of challenging people and helps take the sting out of situations.

3. Always communicate with positive intent

Heading into a video conference call has to be done with rigorous attention to maintaining a sense of positive intent.

This is our personal responsibility to one another now: to make sure our conversations are future-focussed, built with clean language, and ultimately ensuring that we want the best for the other party.

4. Don’t broadcast what you’re doing

Gone are the days of reciting what we’re doing to one another during a call. I’ve often seen this in meetings; I’ve become immune to it.

Things are a bit different now: we are actively striking up a conversation when we participate in a video call. We have to look for ways to actively engage in conversation for the benefit of the other party.

5. Avoid manufactured group fun

This may well be more of an introvert thing. I’m finding I’m benefitting more from one-to-one time with colleagues and peers. Group conversation tends to feel like a battle for attention. There also needs to be a clear purpose for the interaction. This doesn’t need to be explicitly stated so long as one party has a reason or a desired outcome for the conversation.

Video calls of more than 5 people are mostly but not exclusively a waste of time. Manufacturing group fun on a video call is enough to make me claw at the walls.

6. Be wary of the interruption to productivity

This new normal style of communication comes at a cost. The positive energy which stems as a result of such interactions can act as a distraction from the priorities of the day. Managing when to have those conversations during the day is key. I rate morning over afternoon.

7. Use contracting methods to manage challenging conversations

It is possible to have challenging conversations over a video call, though both parties will need to be up for it. The conversation also has to follow a basic formal structure, one that is probably more instinctive and therefore natural in style given the inherent latency issues with live video exchanges.

Contracting how those conversations are had is key.

One very effective method is both of you agreeing that each party talks for three minutes at a time uninterrupted. Listen intently, reflect what you’ve heard back to the other party, then proceed. Conclude the conversation with an exploration of what you both need to do to work more effectively in future.

8. Staring at the camera can be a little offputting

Being present on a video call doesn’t mean one has to look at the camera all the time. I often have to take my glasses off so that I avoid looking at the inset image of me all the time. I’m not sure how I feel about not looking straight at the camera (ie making it possible for the other party to know they being given attention); I suspect I’ll change my thinking in the next few weeks.

9. Zoom isn’t the best solution

WhatsApp is better for one-to-one video calls. I’m not 100% convinced about Zoom’s quality personally; WhatsApp has more of an immediate feel and a sharper image too. Such seemingly small points are important for conveying presence and solidity in remote conversation.

10. Ask open questions always

Asking open questions of the other party is vital in these troubled times. Open question-words like ‘what’, ‘who’ ‘when’, ‘how’ or ‘tell me more’, will trigger the other party into reflecting a little more deeply on their own thoughts such that they feel more engaged in the conversation. Avoid ‘why’ at all costs – in isolation the word why sounds even more judgmental and accusatory than it does in real life. Always make a point of summarising what you’ve heard back in conversation – that lets the other party know they’ve been listened to.

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Live streams, bespoke video, and archive content from arts organisations and performers during COVID19

London Philharmonic Orchestra

On Thursday 26 March the London Philharmonic Orchestra announced its digital response to the COVID-19 crisis – LPOnline – including unique performances filmed remotely in the homes of orchestra members, concert playlists, and a range of online resources for schools, home learning, and social care projects.

Fenella Humphreys

Fenella is combining live streams with pre-records via her YouTube Channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_JlM05leyWyMXxUjiZBn6w

UPDATE: Pending her reaching the magic 1000 subscribers (at the time of writing she’s 90 off the target), she’s planning a live stream on Sunday 29 March 2020.

London Symphony Orchestra

The London Symphony Orchestra have a nifty offer. Streams on YouTube with accompanying digital programme notes, plus spotlights on movies where they feature in the soundtrack. Everything commenced on Thursday 26.

Royal Overseas League at Home

The annual music competition is publishing a series of home-based videos – charming personal pieces to camera with a performance – on its YouTube channel. 2019 ROSL Finalist Kris Garfitt’s touching arrangement of Portugal’s winning Eurovision song (above) from a couple of years back is the perfect tonic.

Royal Opera House

ROH and Royal Ballet announced plans to stream performances late last week. The first wave of content is scheduled for streaming is detailed below.

Peter and the Wolf, The Royal Ballet, 2010 – 27 March 2020, 7pm GMT
Acis and Galatea, The Royal Opera, 2009 – 3 April 2020, 7pm BST
Così fan tutte, The Royal Opera, 2010 – 10 April 2020, 7pm BST
The Metamorphosis, The Royal Ballet, 2013 – 17 April 2020, 7pm BST

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Posted on 20 March, this cumulative video sequence of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th is a bit of a tear-jerker. Beautifully put together. Heartfelt.

London Mozart Players

LMP have announced their ‘At Home with LMP‘ series featuring YouTube Premieres and Live Facebook Watch Parties. First concert on 28th March at 7pm.

7pm, Saturday 28th March
Craig Ogden guitar

Barrios Vals op.8 no.4
Scarlatti Sonata in E major, K.380
Excerpts from Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez

Belle Voci

Recorded in an empty church last week, The Voice participants Belle Voci release a pre-recorded concert on YouTube sometime this week. Subscribe to their YouTube Channel and Facebook page for more details and alerts.

Matthew Sharp

The ridiculously multi-talented cellist, actor, and now cook Matthew Sharp is reaching out to Chris Martin to get advocacy for change in the self-employment market mid-COVID19, and he’s offering #DinnerKaraoke. A good egg.

Garsington Opera #MondayMotivation

10am every Monday via Garsington’s YouTube Channel. Session from 23 March captured via Zoom embedded above.

Sean Shibe

Sean has plans to live stream, dates and times to follow
https://www.youtube.com/user/seanstshibe

Voces 8

The choir signed to Signum and Decca are releasing YouTube Premieres at different times on their channel.
https://www.youtube.com/user/vocescantabilesmusic

Support musicians affected by cancellations

Direct links to recordings by musicians, artists and composers affected by cancellations, from spring 2020 curated by the brilliant Adrian_Specs on Twitter.

London Mozart Players go virtual, launching ‘At Home with LMP’ in response to the COVID-19 outbreak

One week on and orchestras, opera houses and freelance musicians are looking to digital to help maintain awareness of their role, contribution and impact to society, and highlight the risks they are facing in uncertain times.

Much of their successes in the months to come will undoubtedly come down to, not only infrastructure availability, but familiarity with tech, editorial risk-taking and nerve.

Live Experience is highly prized

There’s an argument for saying that the Digital Concert Hall’s generosity to extend free access to its live streams and archives until the end of March caused an overload on its systems. One week later its worth trying again to see whether their infrastructure can withstand multiple concurrent connections. I hope it can, because the live experience is highly prized (though presumably Germany’s most recent ban on gatherings above two people may make that a non-starter from now on).

The infrastructure challenge may well be met by third-party platforms like Facebook and YouTube combined with more nimble flexible organisations like the London Mozart Players whose marketing team have the generalist skills now increasingly in demand to bring live content to their audiences.

LMP will be broadcasting an illuminating introduction from Howard Shelley – filmed from his own home – which will unpack Franz Xaver Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat in Shelley’s usual charming fashion, with excerpts performed to camera. The broadcast is planned to go live via LMP’s Facebook page at 1.05pm on Wednesday 1 April. 

Launching the first of LMP’s ‘Saturday Sessions’ is acclaimed classical guitarist Craig Ogden, who LMP are due to perform with in two concerts this Spring. Live-streamed from Craig’s home via the LMP’s Facebook page at 7pm on Saturday 28th March, Craig will bring the soothing sounds of the classical guitar right to your living room with a relaxing performance of much-loved classics from the guitar repertoire, including Scarlatti’s Sonata in E major and excerpts from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

The full list of events this week and next are here on the LMP website and detailed below:

Monday 23rd March (Mozart Mondays)

LMP leader Simon Blendis gives an illuminating introduction to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G minor.

Tuesday 24th March (Chamber Tuesdays) Bryony Gibson-Cornish introduces the Marmen Quartet and a performance of Schubert’s G Major Quartet (mvt I).

Thursday 26th March (Thursday Thoughts) ‘How Conductors Practice’ with LMP’s Associate Conductor Hilary Davan-Wetton.

Friday 27th March (Family Fridays) Musical treats for the kids with co-principal cellist Julia Desbruslais and violist Michael Posner.

Saturday 28th March (Saturday Sessions) Craig Ogden performs much-loved classics from the guitar repertoire, streamed live via LMP’s Facebook page.

As a charity with no core funding, the coming months of lockdown will have a huge impact on the orchestra and other arts organisations across the country. Freelance musicians and artists will struggle with no income sources for the foreseeable future. LMP’s initiative will work to combat some of the losses and help support its musicians through this difficult time. Viewers will be given the option to donate money towards the campaign so that the musicians involved are partially compensated for the loss of income they will inevitably face.

Over and above the technical requirements for live streaming (not as over-bearing as you might think), the greatest demand is the ability to move fast on digital ideas and commit. It’s great to see LMP doing this, along with a few others.

The next challenge is to create moments in the schedule which everyone in the audience coalesces around and which are also well-publicised.

Keep an eye on this blog later in the day for an update on who’s doing what when.

Half-an-hour to check in and right-yourself

For the foreseeable future we’re having to hunker down, keep our distance, and somehow carry on doing what we were doing a couple of weeks ago.

For some it’s a walk in the park. For others it’s an exciting adventure. For a great many others it’s stressful: the kind of experience that triggers challenging thoughts.

In my work as a leadership coach, I’ve supported many individuals as they transition into new roles, or adjust to new circumstances.

At this challenging time, I’m keen to offer my coaching skills to as many people that need them in a timely responsive way. I want to help people thrive (not survive).

Coaching is often seen as a luxury and ‘out of budget’. Not so. Speak to any coach worth their weight in gold and they’ll concur: what drives us all is seeing you succeed in challenging circumstances.

I’d like to help up to four people a week as they, like me, adjust to the shifting experience we’ve all been asked to embrace. I can’t do it for free – I recognise that people are on limited budgets. So I’m asking people to pay what they can afford.

So, if you’re blocked, challenged, at your wits end or you need someone to talk to who can help nudge you in the right direction, please get in touch.

Email me at jon.jacob@thoroughlygood.me or message me on WhatsApp at 0776864655 for a no-obligation chat.

Remember: all conversations are confidential. I’m a BBC-trained coach with seven years professional experience in the public service, higher education, and media industries. I adhere to the ICF Coaching Code of Ethics. References on request.

A quick way to avoid panic and refocus attention on now

I panic a lot. Panic for me is an extreme kind of worry, or rumination. It’s unhelpful thinking in fifth gear with a unrelentingly tight grip on the steering wheel. It brings about a tightening of the stomach. Seemingly innocuous low-level acts of kindness can bring about a watering of the eye. Like the train guard (who knew we had any of them any more?) on the South Eastern train into Charing Cross yesterday.

There is for some quite a lot to panic about right now. Especially if you’re someone like me who’s habit for catastrophic thinking (baked in since childhood ever since I ended up watching ‘Threads’ as a kid) has gone largely unchecked until well into my forties.

That catastrophic thinking often starts up again first thing in the morning. That’s when my mind is at its most vulnerable. That’s when the most unhelpful thinking can infiltrate otherwise normal thinking processes.

Being aware of this habit – especially at heightened times like this – is the first step for me. So too a little trick I learned during coaching training.

Instructions

  • Take a piece of paper – A4 will do – and draw a large circle on it. Big enough so that the edge of the circle touches the edge of the page.
  • Inside the circle draw another circle – equidistant between the centre of the page and the first circle you drew. There will be two rings created. These should be big enough to write in them.
  • In the outer ring – henceforth known as ‘The Circle of Influence’ – scribble down words or phrases that illustrate the specific things you’re worried about right now. I’ve included mine in the image further down this page – they’re representative of my world but are not meant to be representative of anyone else’s.
  • Next, I read out the statements out loud and with a pen highlight those statements which elicit a yes to the following question: is this something which is in my control?
  • If a statement has a ‘yes’ it’s moved to the inner circle – henceforth known as ‘The Circle of Control’.

    To do that I’ve taken the statements I originally put in the ‘Circle of Influence’ and rephrased (or rather, reframed) them as statements of positive intent. I’ve then written those positive statements inside the ‘Circle of Control’.

    For example, “Will I get sick?” becomes “Stay(ing) healthy”. Repeat this for every statement you’ve identified as being something which is in your control.
  • Revisit the remaining statements in the ‘Circle of Influence’. Are there any you missed? If not, no prizes for guessing that everything else in the ‘Circle of Influence’ isn’t in your control and isn’t worth your time picking over – because there’s nothing you can do to bring about any change in those scenarios.

    For example, as I much as I would like to do all I can to protect the economy, it is a much more complicated thing than I will ever be able to understand and, I was quite shit at maths at school (and geography too).

Happy Consequences

An interesting thing happens for me when I focus my thinking on the ‘Circle of Control’.

First, the mere process of writing things down and saying them out loud takes the sting out of them. Similarly, reframing each concern into something positive has a reassuring effect.

Second, the ‘Circle of Control’ helps me prioritise what’s important now. And if I’m focusing in on what’s important right now, it should limit rumination and trigger other thinking too. So, added to the list is “Take each day as it comes” and “Be kind”.

And … now I come to write that down, the thought of ‘Being in the now’ immediately springs to mind too. And when other most positive thinking starts springing to mind, so it feels like the mind has been put back into the right way of thinking and the day can get underway.

A few minutes documenting the process for this post and I’m already feeling ‘back in the saddle’, with a recalibrated sense of purpose, drive and motivation. And I recognise that’s my preferred state to be in right now.

Give it a go. Best of luck. Remember: the circles don’t have to be perfectly drawn.

On Schiff and the guilt of knowledge

News: Sir Andras Schiff has a book out. They’re memoirs. They’re published by Orion Books. He’s not written the book himself. He like a great many other non-writers has dictated his thoughts and feelings to a writer who has shaped them into a manuscript, and persuaded someone to publish them. After that, a PR has sought to get coverage for the forthcoming release by highlighting some of his key messages, those in particular most likely to curry favour, divide opinion, and entrench camps.

Schiff’s views aren’t new, nor are they especially radical: audiences don’t really understand what they’re listening to and a lot of that is down to music education being a pile of shit.

How you respond to his points denotes what side you’re on in the present cultural war. PRs and publishing houses know that – that’s the whole point of the ‘story’ in the Telegraph, that’s the reason its been published in the Telegraph, and that’s why I’m writing about it at 6.30am on the DLR into London.

I don’t especially care what Schiff thinks about whether or not me and others like me understand what a good performance or a poor performance is. The experience of listening to a live performance isn’t solely about ‘observing’ the instrumentalist as though they’re in a gilt frame hanging on a wall. Listening is about reflecting on how I respond in the moment to the music I’m listening to.

Music is art. The musician is an interlocutor. Musical experiences then depend not only on the music and musician, but the receptiveness of me the audience member. My knowledge or lack thereof is of little consequence. It’s my self-awareness in the moment that is important.

What saddens me is not what Schiff says nor the fact he said it. Rather, its the way a statement like this reminds me of the way classical music is weaponised. In Schiff’s case, its the judgment made about apparent the lack of classical music knowledge and the way it fuels the snobbery and superiority over those where knowledge is found to be lacking.

In other areas of my life, I see the reverse happening. Those with knowledge and experience of repertoire like me are regarded with suspicion. Expertise is sometimes seen by those who themslves recognise their own lack of knowledge, as a threat to the accessibility and universal appeal of the genre. Expertise is projected as barrier to universality. And anyone who points that out is regarded as a self-appointed gatekeeper who is part of the problem.

It’s tiresome. I end up feeling guilty for my ongoing fascination with a musical genre which helped reclaim me from depression and suicidal thoughts – a genre and sector which continues to surprise, delight and excite.

The very studies which might make Schiff nod with approval, are the very studies that make others regard me as ‘too Radio 3’ or, if you speak to some at Radio 3, ‘not Radio 3 enough’. I often feel as though I am caught in the middle where it feels surprisingly lonely, chewing at my nails hoping the sense of guilt will disappear a little more quickly this time around.

I don’t believe there will ever be a time when this argument – triggered by the digital utterances Schiff’s forthcoming memoir have provoked – will be a thing of the past. As long as that argument survives we will always need marketers and PRs to sell the thing we all care about so deeply.

I just hope I do eventually stop feeling guilty for knowing about classical music, and for not knowing enough about it.

Be sure to read Fran Wilson’s take on this for a different perspective.

Jigsaw pieces

On marketing concerts: a consistent authentic approach can build communities not alienate

Richard Bratby’s Gramophone opinion piece responding to the recent discussion online about orchestral marketing departments not doing enough to ‘sell’ new composers is a thought-provoking thing. Read it first before continuing (that will save me explaining in detail).

In it he identifies the need for us to remember that human beings populate marketing departments, and that if as a classical music fan you find yourself irritated by a piece of marketing content, the chances are it’s not intended for you.

Sound advice. So too the overriding message which will no doubt dominate this year online and hopefully beyond: be kind.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I find I have a view in response. One that differs from Richard’s (and that’s OK too), one that I’ve always held but have been reluctant to articulate because I didn’t think it was valid.

Where my view on content comes from

Things have changed a bit since I’ve gone self-employed. Understanding my own brand a bit better in terms of the aspirations I have for it, the impact investing just a dribble of paid advertising has on your own thinking, and stepping into multiple environments (government, commercial, arts and education) has seen me consistently draw on my most valuable learning experience: six years spent in an external comms and PR department working with one of the best there is.

Content is the product; different specialisms feed into content

Those who know me from the BBC will know who she is. Those who don’t, don’t need to. What I learned from her is what is important: marketing and communications aren’t an adjunct to the product, they are part of the product. That meant that conversations about what the product was going to be (long before work started on it) necessarily demanded her input. Comms had a seat at the production table. That wasn’t necessarily to steer what the product was, rather ensuring that the way in which that end product was communicated to the wider world was congruent with the organisation’s values.

And that learning has stuck with me as I’ve worked with different organisations. But it’s only been when I’ve interacted with them I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which that drives my work. I owe that individual a lot.

Think of content in its widest sense as the complete product

This is what that learning experience has led me to believe about how content is ‘the complete product’, and what steps need to be taken to create that content:

identify exactly who you are, what you do and most importantly, why;
market yourself with integrity;
articulate the brand in everything you say.

My guiding principle is this: content spans multiple disciplines and the message (implicit of explicit) has to be consistent across all of them.

Tell an authentic, sincere, and distinctive story

Take the difference between paid content (essentially marketing outputs) and owned (non-paid) or ‘organic’ content.

My career has always favoured the ‘owned content’ path. That’s largely because of my lack of formal training, my early adoption of self-publishing in the digital space, and some experience in journalism. I’m a digital storyteller and a self-publisher. My own creative endeavours have always stemmed from creating content that satisfies me first, not seeking to satisfy a target audience.

What that’s taught me over time is that if your story (whether that be a brands or your own) is told authentically, sincerely and distinctively, that this will play a valuable role in capitalising on any paid content opportunities.

Be consistent

But alignment between the two – paid and owned content – is critical.

If the pizza restaurant experience bears little relation to that promised on the flyer shoved through your letterbox, that mismatch of perception isn’t going to help spread the word.

The content experience from poster, to digital post, to TV or radio advert, to programme note, to presenter on stage surely then needs to have a level of consistency.

Content production no longer exists in separate disciplines: content production is a discipline in itself driven by a strategy than acts on a number of different organisational needs. Those needs in turn drive actions that seek to deliver ticket sales, increase listeners, meet the expectations of partners or sponsors. Depending on where the impetus for the content comes from denotes the emphasis given to the style of that content.

How content strategy ensures consistency

This is where an overarching content strategy comes in – a document detailing aims, outputs, resources, and most pertinent for what I’m writing about here: tone of voice. How the subject or brand or event is talked about across multiple disciplines (marketing, comms, pr and native content channels) is key to ensuring that a consistent feel is ensured for all audiences – familiar and unfamiliar; newcomers and existing subscribers or concert goers. By ensuring consistency across multiple disciplines and outputs, a content strategy won’t risk alienating an existing audience whilst pursuing a new one.

That perspective comes I think from experience – not only in terms of years, but also familiarity of a particular sector. There is a need to recognise the value of securing ones existing audience to help endorse the product for a wider less familiar audience. That existing audience (those already ‘bought in’) may not seem of value, but they a network of passionate advocates who, of if they’re on your side, will do a lot of the heavy-lifting.

Don’t alienate advocates by employing disruptive or destructive techniques

A deliberately disruptive approach will seek to ignore that group of advocates, making the same assumptions about its membership that the initiated make about the product marketers are trying to raise awareness about in the first place.

But here again is where an overarching content strategy articulated with authenticity and consistency can help mesh networks together, increasing the likelihood of multi-experience communities coalescing around the very thing we’re all trying to introduce others too.

Build a larger community, not lots of distinctive ones

I know of artistic endeavours whose programmes are built around audience surveys about what potential audience might consider paying money to experience. This seems like a perfectly reasonable pragmatic strategy. How the storytelling for these endeavours is articulated across all of its supporting content is what a content strategy should drive: not to redefine an audience demographic, but to build a community around a brand, genre or activity, thereby creating a larger community.

And that kind of thinking comes with experience. So whilst I recognise the need to be kind, I always want to make a bid for the value of experience, and of community building, and of acknowledging that seemingly small or unimportant things like knowledge or language can have a significant impact on the robustness of those communities. Strategic thinking helps ensure content builds communities rather than alienating them.

How it relates to orchestras, artists, and performers in the classical music world

It seems a little odd to conclude this post with a caveat. But I think that’s important. This is my perception of how a content strategy can work well. The post is an articulation of how I’d like to see the genre love being talked about more. I think I see some brands doing it well (though i don’t actually have the core evidence to prove they’re following the same thinking!).

Some of those classical music brands include the likes of Southbank Sinfonia, the OAE, Philharmonia, Manchester Collective, the LSO, and the Bournemouth Symphony. I perceive these as solid brands because they present themselves as authentic, sincere, self-assured, but most importantly of all, real. They are brands which by and large few criticise too. They rarely come under the spotlight (unless they’re being celebrated), and to the best of my knowledge haven’t been the victims of digital pile-ons. I think that’s partly to do with the vision those involved in content production for those brands have.

And if my hunch is correct, that’s really why I think criticising (and then defending) a pure marketing discipline as having failed to sell the product in a way that supports a new composer, or pays due deference to a particular composer is slightly missing the point. What’s important is looking as content as a whole product and making sure that every articulation is closely aligned to the values of the brand that content represents. And that’s everyone’s responsibility.

Biss at Wigmore

I’m 47. I didn’t ‘go out on a Saddurday night’ until my second year sixth. I didn’t understand the appeal of pop music for a long while after my contemporaries (by which I mean years), and it wasn’t until I was 20 I understood why women needed to use more than one tampon a month.

I blame my parents for all of this. My father adored the music of Glen Miller (and latterly Syd Lawrence), my mother considered even the televised diaries of Adrian Mole risqué, and the family never really talked about bodily things either.

Similarly Beethoven. As a result my perception of Beethoven is misty. It’s shrouded in a cheap net curtain that diffuses the true image underneath.

There’s so much bollocks assumed about Beethoven. The tropes, trite phrases and cliches mask the detail. It is the detail in Beethoven’s music that yields the pleasure. If only we could trust ourselves and others to focus in on that detail.

Jonathan Biss’ Wigmore Hall recital pulled back a lot of that net curtain for me.

It wasn’t ‘on paper’ perfect. Sometimes the breakneck speed resulted in a momentary lack of clarity in the right hand. Sometimes I wanted to hear more of the gaps in between the semi quavers. And yet, it was terrifyingly taught and controlled. It wasn’t flabby around the edges by any means. It was a firework display.

Ten days of stomach flu had prompted a last minute change of programme. Biss shared this news with the audience before the second half. I’d argue it wasn’t necessary to be quite so transparent to explain at the beginning of the second half: a more cynical individual than I would describe such an act as an apology. Or better, ‘managing expectations’.

There really was no need. Biss is a consummate storyteller, pinning you against the wall with a statement he probably wasn’t aware he needed to make until an hour or so before the recital got underway. In that way these Beethoven sonatas were short stories or librettos all given a set, a cast, an orchestra and a conductor for a ‘flash’ production. Electrifying. Hutzpah. Gripping.

There were errors. Two. Maybe three. That feeling one gets when one thinks there might be an error was prevalent, but it did rather make it exhilarating.

The errors didn’t matter because the emotional connection between music, interpreter, and audience member had already been established. The errors triggered a sense of jeopardy, which in turn made us feel for him, and when he’d recovered, a sense of relief.

In that way Biss was captivating. Ridiculously fast (even when it said Andante). Sometimes it felt like it might even be out of control – on the brink of falling apart. But that still didn’t matter. Because at such a pace we saw Beethoven composition in a different way – dramatic statements, constantly shifting material, and relentless variations. And we had to cling on as we listened.

That is what live performance is all about. If only I could have learned that twenty years ago.

Verdi’s Luisa Miller at London Coliseum

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

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

Voices

©Tristram Kenton

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

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

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

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

Casting

©Tristram Kenton

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

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

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

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

Deeper appreciation of the score

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

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

The set

©Tristram Kenton

There was a downside.

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

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

A long conclusion

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

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

The chorus

©Tristram Kenton

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

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

What’s the plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what’s the plan?