Vaughan Williams 5, culture wars, and the language we use to talk about music

My latest musical squeeze is inspired by the NDR Philharmonie/Manze Beethoven extravaganza I wrote about in the previous post.

Vaughan Williams 5 (and 6) from the RLPO conducted by Manze released 18 months ago demonstrates the conductor’s love of detail which, coupled with similarly forensic production techniques, brings out silky smooth string textures, ensemble staccatos that gently but efficiently puncture the score like a staple in a 50 page document, and precision pianissimo articulation that brings me out in goosebumps all over.

The third movement lento is a particular favourite – what sounds like a love letter to someone that triggers a sense of pride, warmth, and solidity. The woodwind tuttis are the kind of creations that make me want to reach for my clarinets and find the nearest band with VW 5 in its music pad. The cor anglais is to die for. A ravishing thing.

I hear the third movement as roast beef, stinging nettles, ploughed fields, and hedgerows. It’s not sentimental or nostalgic. The character isn’t easy to read at first, but its the complexity that makes that character beguiling. Introverted for sure. There’s a whiff of self-doubt in there somewhere. But, on the whole, the character holds his or her head high throughout, self-belief growing with every dynamic swell in the score. There’s a sense of hope stitched into the score that elevates the mood, building on that innate personal resilience. And come the final almost imperceptible chords there’s a hint of resolution, as though something has been aired or laid to rest.

Questions questions questions

And there in lies the answer to the year-long question I’m posing myself: where, when and why do I interface with the art form? What effect does it have on me? And what does that say about my mood or my needs?

In the case of VW 5 even as a whole, it appeals right now because of it’s relative newness to me. I’m sure I’ve heard the work before, but I wouldn’t have been able to recall it. Hearing it this week in a recording that leads on detail and texture, it is the immediacy of the writing that appeals the most. It as though VW’s score is written in a ‘clean’ musical language that surfaces nuanced and sometimes conflicting emotional responses.

The optimism that exudes the work, coupled with that experienced discovering and responding to it over the past 48 hours is tinged with an observation about the way we talk about classical music, and the way those who talk about it talk to one another.

Over the past few months I’ve connected with a variety of organisations that seek to reach out to newcomers – online, on-air, and via the live concert experience. Common to all of these connections is the pervasive view that classical music is like a prickly bramble to the uninitiated. And beyond classical music, the idea that a deeper appreciation of music as a whole – how it works and it’s effect on us – is anathema to achieving the widest reach.

I see it in pop and rock music too. I’ve spent twenty two years living with a serious music lover whose gateway is lyrics and who revels in country, rock, and musical theatre. It’s not unusual for the pair of us to spend a long Friday night listening to comparative recordings of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park, for example. Different recordings bring different insights, forging different personal connections both with the music and with another.

Avoid detail at all costs

I am beginning to wonder whether this is the exception to the rule; that the vast majority don’t consume music in this way; that to acknowledge the impact music has on us is to set us apart and even unwittingly elevate people like me from the masses.

Is that how a love of music in all its constituent parts is seen by others? I fear it is. And if it is, one wonders whether there’s much point in trying to advocate the artform as a map accompanying a journey exploring the self.

Put another way, how do point people from music as entertainment towards the place where music has a deeper impact on the soul? Or at least point them in the direction of where music can have a deeper impact on the soul?

This isn’t a question of good and bad music (whatever that means) or making a value judgment of one genre of music or other. All genres have the potential to touch the heart in the way that VW5 has done on me this week (just in other ways for other music heard by other people). But there is undoubtedly a resistance to go deeper.

To go deeper is to hint at superiority it seems. That saddens me a great deal. Because that means the bigger challenge isn’t about writing about a particular genre in a ‘more accessible way’ in order to avoid ‘alienating the audience’. It means that the challenge is to support consumers of music as they understand the impact their chosen music has on them at a particular time. No one seems able or willing to do that.

The view from the steering wheel

Those that do feel comfortable discussing music in these terms find themselves in the middle of a culture war. No surprises really. That culture war is going on everywhere. That’s why its a culture war. Viewed from my metaphorical steering wheel, I see some questioning whether those with privilege dead or alive have the authority or right to advocate the value of music education for all. Some even question whether advocating music education for all is to deny the greater need of a ‘fair’ education for all. I’m a rabbit caught in the headlights when I consider the permutations for this particular question.

On the other side of the steering wheel I see commentators still arguing the toss amongst themselves about who is the authoritative source regarding the commentary on music. Some journalists under threat from a dwindling editor’s budget (because no one will pay for content) continue to posit that the unpaid self-publishing writer cannot be compared to the proper paid journalist in terms of knowledge, experience or connections. The ‘amateurs’ respond (understandably) indignantly. Just at the time when you’d think we’d all be united, the cheerleaders paid or otherwise are eating one another alive.

Warning: two metaphors in one blog post

I’m mindful of expressing any stronger view than that. Those who know me well will know what part of the fence I sit on and, given that the undergrowth below looks a little rough underfoot with a great many nasty looking barbs, I’m inclined to remaining sitting where I am. But what I see seems on the one hand utterly ridiculous, and the other infuriating. Everyone who talks about the way we talk about music adopts a defensive stance whenever anyone celebrates detail or dares to look under the bonnet. Expertise and passion has been demonised.

One can either argue each point (where did that get us over the past four years?) or we can go back to the core offer: the music. As I write VW5 is drawing to a close. A final call from the woodwind is passed on the strings.

The last few bars of harmonics in the first violins underpinned by a pillow of violas, cellos and basses leads to a conclusion: being resolute, and living true to our personal values is the best we can possibly hope for. Maybe, just maybe, like-minded souls will join us.

Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify

Brahms fills in the gaps

Two accidents today.

Accident one: thinking on my way to a meeting ‘I’ll listen to some music on my headphones on the way in.’

Then thinking, ‘What the f**k do I listen to? How do I avoid crying?’

And then for some apparent reason I cannot fathom right now, I end up selecting Brahms Piano Quintet in G minor.

The heart tightens. The eyes flicker. Simmering emotion threatens to bubble over. I realise I’m actually terrified of listening to any music.

Of course, I’m not terrified of the music. I’m terrified of the emotional response I’ll have.

This in a sense seems odd given that I’m ALL about exploring emotions. So much so that if I didn’t have the opportunity to explore my own emotions then I’d feel like I’d had nothing to say.

The effect of Brahms’ epic chamber work (first heard up close in Verbier a few years ago – Thanks Kenny) is odd. It is as though the musical ideas expressed in both melody and harmonic progression taps into the emotions I’m feeling at the moment: the dominant ones. The music is triggering an emotional equalizer – an indicator of where I am at the present time.

Only what it ends up doing is shining a light on some unexpected emotions. A glimmer of reslience. A sense of hope. A determination to reframe sadness into something more positive. Something more manageable.

Why do we never talk about music like this? Surely, that would help in conveying its appeal? It’s addictive qualities? It’s not something that injects a feeling; it’s music that helps identify what’s going on. You don’t need to know about music to listen to it, you need to know about your own emotions. And the only person who’s going to know about them is you, no?

Accident two: paying for a glass of wine at the Barbican with my debit card.

Whilst scribbling I was listening to Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor played Renaud and Gautier Capucon, Nicholas Angelich, and Gerard Causse

Surprisingly unhelpful music

I did promise myself that I wouldn’t write about death or grief.

I promised myself I wouldn’t be superficial.

I would instead be bold, daring and independent. I would challenge convention. I would share something of myself.

After all, people respond to passion (even if they don’t realise it), and passion necessarily comes from the heart.

Here’s the surprising thing that has happened in the few short hours since the death of our delightfully boisterous adorable puss Cromarty: classical music suddenly needs to be kept at arms length.

In fact all music needs to be kept at arms length. It needs to be roped off with warning signs and the like. Music right now is of absolutely no use. It cannot Polyfilla in the gaps. All it can really do is shove you across your otherwise robust emotional borders.

I was running over the things I might consider (or wouldn’t consider) listening to to make sense, soothe, or shape this odd time. I had a long list of music I couldn’t listen to and precious little I wanted to.

Broadly speaking, anything in a major key seems frivolous and bound to provoke guilt; minor keys are likely to amplify the sense of dark emptiness. Avoid the overly romantic like the plague (now would not be the time for the slow movement of Rach 2 for example). The Curtain music from Purcell’s Timon of Athens is a definite no no with its constant oscillation between major and minor. Verklarte Nacht is too bleak. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 too rich.

Music in these moments then suddenly presents itself like a object in the fast lane of the motorway guaranteed to cause a nasty road traffic accident: something to swerve or risk being floored by.

But what really surprises me is how in an instant like death any requiem mass – Mozart, Britten especially, Verdi (without any doubt), Faure and particularly Rutter – seems wholly unrepresentative of mood, thinking, or need. Suddenly, these works appear as theatrical settings, irrelevant, unhelpful, and overbearing.

I certainly didn’t expect the shell shock or the numbness of grief, even if I anticipated the event that preceded it. There is more coming down the line too. What has surprised is the way the connection with music has suddenly changed. Temporarily, I’m sure.

Classical music in modern life?

Two things dominated yesterday: the resurrection of the bloggers vs. ‘proper journalists’ debate, and the values that drive the Benedetti Foundation’s music sessions running in London this weekend.

I’m not going to link to the tweet that reignited the discussion about bloggers versus journos, nor mention the author. That’s not cricket or helpful. But quoting it is necessary.

Specialist classical music critics are proper journalists whose criticism we may not like but we grudgingly accept because they write well with education and experience. Self-appointed bloggers who publish criticism with no such background are a plague on our houses. Discuss.

The divisive message was oddly hurtful. Masking behind the guise of a discussion the underlying comment was clear: proper journos are the useful ones people should take notice of; the unpaid writers, influencers and commentators aren’t at all.

It read like a bit of an insult (though I did wonder I was making an assumption that it was referring to me and my considerably more active peers) – a sweeping dismissive statement which even when challenged appeared to achieve no more than the other party doubling-down on her original meanness.

It is that this was a discussion generated by a member of the classical music fraternity aimed squarely at those that seek to celebrate the art form that cut so deep. And more personally (and this is a common trait with me) the idea that even when evidence is shown of an injured party, that the response is to ignore as though to convey to people like me are those who are to blame for this exchange in the first place. Meanness with an extra dollop of gleeful meanness. Classic passive aggression. There’s a lot of it about.

What’s important isn’t so much my feelings during the exchange with the singer, rather the stark contrast with the other experience of the day: visiting one of the London sessions of the Benedetti Foundation’s current music education project.

Thursday night’s press conference featuring Nicky Benedetti discussing the Foundation’s vision and activities had already succeeded in bringing a lump to my throat. I’m an emotional sort at the moment anyway, but the sound of Benedetti’s spirited and impassioned detailing of what the Foundation is committed to (embedding music education back into the curriculum by making the experience of making music as universal as possible and as diverse as possible in terms of age, ability, and class) was powerful. So too the demonstration given by one small group of primary school kids illustrating how a series of simple participatory exercises can introduce the principles of movement, ryhthm, and pitch in a relatively short space of time.

None of what we saw in this demonstration was new to me. I recall experiencing the same thing as a kid thirty odd years ago.

It also triggered memories too of wanting to train as a teacher after I completed my music degree so I could give some of that joy back. It wasn’t to be thanks to one faceless wonder at the Department for Education back in 1991 who deemed the sexual assault I suffered as evidence that I would be a threat to children. Little wonder I still to this day have an issue with injustice.

On a broader level what has changed between then and now is the systemic destruction of music’s reputation in the curriculum, deeming the likes of the Benedetti Foundation not a nice-to-have but a necessity.

“That’s enough to get me angry,” I blurt out to Benedetti during the Q&A after the press conference, “Do you experience that anger? And if so how do you channel that into the obvious good of the Foundation?”

I can’t remember the exact words Nicky Benedetti responded with. Shoot me. I’m obviously not a proper journalist. But it was something along the lines of an admission that the emotional experience was the same, but that the challenge was to channel that into a sense of motivation that served the purpose of the endeavour. Showing best practise rather acting from a place of anger, bitterness or resentment.

I have over the past few weeks been unexpectedly challenged with a lot of things. Some of those things have pushed me to revisit difficult memories of the past in order to understand something of the present. Other challenges have brought on the anticipation of grief and all the associated feelings associated with it. And then there are the phenomenally challenging conversations where emotion needs to be left behind in order to mine for information. Such fierce conversations (meant in the context of the book of the same name by the way) are in themselves incredibly demanding both in the moment and afterwards.

But what links all of those experiences with what Benedetti said during her press conference is this idea of having to keep an eye on the goal, and aligning our thinking, feelings and actions with both our core values and the end goal. I don’t always do that. But I’m inspired to try harder at that because of Bendetti’s vision.

And the point of explaining all of this is because of the stark contrast between the two exchanges had on the same day.

The first triggered negativity, fear, and defensiveness. It was aggressive, accusatory, and disrespectful.

The second revealed a greater sense of purpose underlining the responsibility we all have to meet the challenge we all experience to channel our darker thoughts into a positive force: to draw on passion, to look with kindness, and to share.

What I’m struck by is how an unequivocal sense of purpose as articulated in the Benedetti Foundation which is in itself something intended to go beyond classical music, has at its heart a value that goes beyond classical music too. But that the only reason I’ve learned of it this week is because of classical music.

That is the power of classical music in modern life: music whose exponents are able to convey a message of hope that transcends the art form itself.

Whilst penning this I listened to clarinettist Mark van de Wiel playing Joseph Phibbs and Mozart’s clarinet concertos with the Philharmonia and London Chamber Orchestra.

Be sure to listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring Nicola Benedetti and Foundation tutors Jo and Elsa Bradley.

How Stephen Hough and the Castalian Quartet touched the soul at Wigmore Hall

The quest to identify the music that helps create meaning for me in 2020 is now underway. Last nights Brahms Piano Quintet live from Wigmore Hall unexpectedly hit the spot.

First was the impact hearing Hough and the Castalian Quartet had on my ears.

Sure, there’ll be some I know who might consider a pretentious thing to say, but that view is just redolent of lack of practice actively engaging with live performance.

The sound refreshed my ears – similar to the experience of hearing straight after having your ears vacuumed out. In that way it reunited me with listening, bringing my listening alive, kickstarting the heart and nourishing the soul.

Here were human beings all collectively engaged in a battle of wits, a kind of fight to the death, and convening in a joyful concluding celebration. It was like a friend had burst through my office door, apologised for missing Christmas, and presented me with a gift as wide as his eager smile.

I’m reminded of a remark made by a colleague to me this week, berating me for referring to the ‘classical music world’ because it confers a sense of superiority. The coach in me would challenge that and ask whether that was an assumption, perception, or whether he had any evidence that I was actually conferring superiority.

The rub (which I will spell out to him when we next converse over wine) is that the thrill I experienced hearing what amounted to only 25 minutes of live music wasn’t to do with knowledge of the repertoire, or being a fan of Stephen Hough.

It was the effect the sound had on my soul. The physical sensation of hearing the sound (if you’re not at least aware of the principles of NLP then that sentence will appear like a contradiction). It was the way it triggered a sense of reassurance. How space in my mind had been momentarily reclaimed. And most importantly of all, how I reacted to it in the moment.

And that’s listening out for it not for the music but for the self. It’s about personal awareness. It’s about actively engaging in the experience of listening. And we can all do that in an instant, can’t we?

I’m not saying this is the way it needs to be listened to. Rather, this is one of the ways it can impact. And it’s softened the hard edges of the new year too. And its Brahms. And of course Brahms is just brilliant anyway.

Listen to the concert via Wigmore Hall’s Live Stream on YouTube

What role will music play in 2020?

Poking through the gaps in the steamed up bathroom windows, the new year presents itself. I’m struggling to make out what 2020 is offering.

Revellers wide smiles, and the midnight fireworks shrouded in smoke I saw on TV at midnight – contrived, meaningless, and wasteful – are a world away from what I see now.

This New Year morning is like no other. I am unable to locate the familiar sense of fresh start. Things are the same as they were 24 hours before as far as I can make out. No excitement, just a mild sense of dread.

Where does music fit in all of this? Can it lead me in a new direction? Should it compensate? Do I need it to articulate how I’m feeling, or challenge me to think or feel differently?

Or does the Vienna Phil from the Musikverein this morning point to how I might better seek music out in the short term?

My views on the New Years Day Concert have changed in recent year. The concert from the Musikverein is music as entertainment, it’s presentation distracting us with a musical reenactment of a nostalgic age none of us have experienced. All gilt edge and lavish blooms, surrounding an orchestra steadfastly refusing to install a diverse and inclusive workforce; a usually vocal passionate audience equally uninterested in clamouring for change.

Diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities are all well and good it seems, just as long as some of the traditions are kept firmly in place.

Was it ever thus?

Why should such an inconsistency be allowed to continue? Why is such an event made available to so very many without even the discussion being had? Or is it that social politics and classical music doesn’t mix?

I digress.

Unlike some other commentators who seek to position themselves alongside the ‘best’ concerts of 2019 (whatever that means), or right at the heart of the stories they think everyone should be thinking about in the coming year I, predictably, prefer to think of the year ahead from a personal perspective?

What role will music play in healing divisions? What recordings and live performances will engender a sense of hope? How will music guide us from the darkness we’ve experienced over the past few years? Where will it take us? What will that music be? Where will it be heard? How will the experience be transmitted?

Some of it will almost certainly be written by Beethoven (which I might add is a good thing because for some this year will be the year they ‘discover’ Beethoven. But what of the rest of the music of this year? What will help contribute to a collective experience?

Something to keep an eye on. Me, not you. You can decide on your own editorial strategy for the year ahead. This one’s mine.

2019 / 2020

Every year I write a summing up of the past twelve months from a Thoroughly Good perspective: me in my bubble. And this year, it being a decade since I sort of started doing this, there’s also been the opportunity to reflect on ten years worth of similar blog posts – always a good way to reflect on how things have changed.

So, buckle up. Videos, tweets, and a reflection on my objectives for this year, plus a round-up of the last decade.

Smiles, travels and unexpected gifts

Time taken shooting video this year, in part down to the purchase of a gimbal for my iPhone, has meant there’s more material for a montage. I love making montages as a sequence is nearly always triggered by the music.

The musical discovery for this one was a recording of My Favourite Things by trumpeter Lucienne Renaudin Vary with the BBC Concert Orchestra – teeming with syncopations and an effortless Parisian feel.

With the music chosen, it was then just a matter of selecting the visual sequence to match details in the music that resonated with me. I started with the smiles sequence at the end, and then worked backwards, dropping in clips from my year like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Incredibly uplifting stuff. Reaffirming too.

Last year’s objectives

Be more strategic on selecting arts events to reflect on; outline what links content discoveries; resist getting irritated by the wheat and the chaff. Partial success.

Focus more on building content around coaching on the Thoroughly Good Coaching website; ring-fence time spent on Thoroughly Good (Classical Music) content and maximise that time. Partial success.

Tackle the garden; grow plants from seed; build replacement decking (this is a massive undertaking – so let’s not hold our breath here). Partial success.

Increase revenue by 35%. Exceeded expectations.

Use buses whenever is possible; reduce London travel costs by 25%. Partial success.

Keep the impact of Richard Wilson’s 20:50 at the Hayward Gallery’s Shape Shifters exhibition in mind with everything you say and do in 2019. Pass.

Continue producing the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast, but experiment with different hosts: truly ‘produce’. Partial success.

Meet more people. Visit new places; travelling is where I discover the most. Exceeded expectations.

Write more articles; you’re as good as anyone else who does so. Pass.

Drink less wine. Total fail.

Accomplishments

Cracking PRS for Music/Wildplum Arts Promo Video commission (see above)
Culture Mile video capture
Lots of coaching stuff
Coaching workshops and new clients
Travel to new places to hear unfamiliar music
Lots of podcast interviews for Thoroughly Good
Scala Radio
Work lined up for 2020 before the end of 2019
Attending the Gramophones and meeting Catherine Bott
Giving a presentation at the BPI Classical Music Committee meeting
Interviewing Jonathan Dove and Solomon’s Knot
Publishing FORTY TWO PODCASTS

Dissapointments

Video commission delivered but not used by a client
Proper ‘nice ride’ bike stolen from Catford station
Watching video and wanting it to be higher quality
Unpaid invoices
Commissioning editor Jan Younghusband describing BBC Proms TV coverage as ‘innovative’ in a podcast
BBC Proms
TV producer tweeting arsy comments at me

Discoveries

Not all music (partly because I’m a little rushed writing this), but here’s a selection of pleasing personal discoveries made this year.

Stuart Hancock’s Raptures
Michael Torke’s Oboe Concerto second movement
Gimbals
Lully’s ‘Isis
Nicola Benedetti’s recordings of music by Wynton Marsalis
David Carbonell’s ‘The Worry Trick’
Hooked
Brene Brown
Discovering (and then speaking to) the composer of ‘Poirot
Love Endureth by Roxanna Panufnik
Annalien Van Wauwe’s ‘Belle Epoque
Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux etoiles
How the consequences of a distressing incident in 1990 still resonate today

Bookmarked Tweets from 2019

Throughout this year I’ve bookmarked tweets that have caught my eye. What follows is a selection which really stood out as I scrolled my way over the past twelve months. Triggers for the stuff that defined, entertained, or enraged me during 2019.

Innovative BBC Proms

The coverage was billed as ‘innovative’. It wasn’t.

Wellness jumps the shark

The ‘good mental health’ mantra of the past few years has this year become fodder for lazy writing, stereotypes and tropes. Pity.

Classical music as an escape

The ongoing mis-representation of an art form I care deeply about goes on. Weak PR.

What a way to eliminate a workplace hierachy

I am amazed this tweet is still available. Ill-thought out.

Genuinely surprised by this Barenboim story

I’m impressed (in a mildly warped way) with how this story didn’t escalate further and was (therefore) managed. What was valuable was how it triggered thoughts about the language we use and its potential toxicity.

Day Today 25 Years On

It seems incredible that the work these people did 25 years ago is still relevant and their take on the world still as needed as it was then.

Olivia Coleman winning an Oscar

One infectiously uplifting moment.

Maitlis eye-roll

The most delightful moment of TV output.

FFS

Just because you have Photoshop doesn’t mean you should use it, especially if you’re being paid a lot of money to produce content for print and advertising. Jeesus.

Dame Janet Baker Doc

Another Bridcut triumph. Even when it was repeated it didn’t garner any official pre-publicity. That might have been at Bridcut’s request, I’m not sure.

Cruel departure

Paul Condon was a great man whose untimely departure rocked his considerable network of friends and associates. He is sorely missed.

That stupid article about classical music

Utterly moronic.

Hilare

I now can’t spend any time in swimming pools as a result of watching this.

God bless Philip Pullman

Classical music apologists

Totally agreed with Richard Miller on this. We don’t need to ‘warn’ people about a piece of music. If you warn them you signpost your ignorance (and that’s almost certainly the fault of the researchers rather than the presenters themselves).

FFS (Again)

Who the actual fuck wrote this?

Jessye Norman

FFS

Bellend.

Focus, goals, and commitments

A lot of what follows here has been generated using Best Year Yet. It’s an edit of the things I have written in my bullet journal.

  1. In 2020 I want to look for depth, richness and joy in as much video as I possibly can. That might mean emphasising light and shade. I may need to buy new equipment.
  2. I need to think of myself as more senior in the workplace than perhaps I do at present.
  3. Spend more time thinking longer term. Short term is for the birds.
  4. Ensure as much attention is spent in the now (this doesn’t necessarily contradict the previous para).
  5. Devote more time to aged parents.
  6. Ringfence time with the OH – schedule in special ‘escapes’. Life is too short for work-related mither.
  7. Focus on creating the very best content you possibly can whenever and wherever.
  8. Do 90 minutes exercise in a week (on three separate days).
  9. Spend some time working on the flower beds; make spring look fantastic.
  10. See the sneering Beethoven-haters for what they are; maintain a healthy cynicism about Beethoven.
  11. Make more of an effort with friends.
  12. Be on time to things more.
  13. Be happy to let things slip through your fingers. If people really want to take things away from you, they will. Why fight i

The Last Ten Years

It feels a little this year like the transition between the Teenies to the Twenties has been overshadowed by the everyday life social media has managed to co-construct with politicians, cage-rattlers and rabble rousers.

That said, reflecting on my own past decade throws up some interesting observations. In ten years I consolidated my move from technical to editorial in the digital space, shifting from journalis and training worlds, to the communications and PR world. Ten years later, I’ve moved to digital content production in the classical music world, to radio production on a classical music station. The circle is complete.

I’ve learned more about myself training and practising as an executive and leadership coach than at any time during psychiatric assistance, gestalt therapy, or everyday life. And in the past few months, that self-realisation has reached an unexpected new height. I can now look on my darkest moments 25 years ago, describe those times for what they really were (assault , depression and suicidal feelings), and recognise what impact they have on me (still) today.

Perhaps most impoirtantly of all, I’ve come to appreciate the scale, depth and richness of a network of friends and associates I’ve created over the past ten years, making content about classical music under the Thoroughly Good banner. Far from being the end of a meaningful working life, leaving the BBC in July 2017 was a liberating step to take. The highs that followed are a reflection of how supportive that network has been. That’s a rather nice thing to have sitting alongside me as I speed into the new year.

Vox Luminis performance style demonstrates a special kind of leadership

Just recently I’ve noticed a significant reduction in the number of live performance I’ve attended.

I know why that is.

Since stepping back into an office environment at Scala Radio, working on digital and on-air production, headspace has been completely surrendered to projects and opportunities that fulfil personal ambition.

The wide-eyed joy experiences securing this project was rapidly replaced by a different kind of thinking. one that demanded an unexpected amount of energy.

In case anyone thinks I’m being snarky, I’m not. The past eight weeks have been incredible. Exhilarating. Rewarding.

But there has been a cost: a drop off in email response times; less ‘free’ time; less opportunity to connect with the thing that drives all of this – the music.

Vox Luminis’s St John’s Smith Square Christmas concert was a moment when I took stock of all this.

The sound, the swaying, and the dramatic slow-down of thought processes brought about by the music of Bach and Handel was like a holiday. Vocal textures, surprising harmonic complexity, and a touching sense of inclusivity in an area of London – Westminster – now democratically enshrined as the epitome of betrayal and alienation, created a much-needed sense of occasion. It was as though I had careered into a lay-by, jammed the handbrake on and started staring into the middle distance. Bliss.

A lot of that is down to Belgian baroque ensemble Vox Luminis.

Passionate, skilled and European, their sound was warm, edges precise but not domineering, and their inclusive approach to performance practise utterly compelling.

Direction comes from one person in the chorus, not a conductor or director in the centre of the stage. What this means is that the mechanics of the process are delivered by chorus member/director, whilst the collective musicality in the performance was brought about by an in-the-moment kind of consensus. Wizardry, basically.

And whilst, at the conclusion of the performance, the director did stand front and centre to thank, relate, plead and reassure us in the post-Brexit world fast approaching, the evening never felt as though it was about him, but rather everyone including the audience in St Johns Smith Square.

And it strikes me now reflecting on that special evening and listening back to Vox Luminis’s recording from 2017, that the performance appealed to me because that is the kind of atmosphere I thrive in as a creative in the workplace.

I seek out opportunities where I feel part of a team. I benefit from feeling as though my view helps develop thinking.

I like to direct. I want to direct. I always have done. Ever since the conducting studies at university helped pull me out of the darkest period of my life to date. But it is a direction which is a means to an end, rather than being the end in itself.

The direction can only work if everyone is heading in the right direction. And that’s a difficult thing to make happen.

Conducting back in 1994 was never about me. Not really. In fact, I look at the posters and programmes from 1993 and shudder with embarrassment seeing my name. It was instead about driving others to deliver of their best.

And what I was reminded of watching Vox Luminis this week was how the direction from the chorus captured that same aspiration both from the past, and help root me in the present.

And I’m reminded this evening that success doing that is dependent on trust.

If there is no trust then the aspiration won’t become an ambition and the ambition won’t stand a chance of being realised. And establishing trust takes time, respect and commitment, which is what makes Vox Luminis’ (and others like them like Solomon’s Knot) achievement all the more pleasing (even if there is a dribble of envy mixed in too). And the feeling that accompanies a perceived lack of trust is dark, lonely, and perhaps even a little bit frightening.

Four carols to kick off the festive season

The tree is up, the lights are on, and save for one or two decorations in need of repositioning, everything’s looking good, even if my arms are now covered in an unexpectedly prickly rash.

Baubles, lights, and other ephemera retrieved from surprisingly tidy boxes demonstrated that me and The OH’s decoration packing strategy honed at beginning of this year had paid dividends. Rediscovering each decoration in the box also triggered memories of traditions started in years gone by.

Decorating for Christmas has then an unexpectedly joyful element of being reunited with old friends.

Similarly so where the music that accompanies the decorating process is concerned.

The carols and seasonal music one plays this season only really gets listened to once every year. We demand a lot of our Christmas music; it only really has one chance at the big moment. Melodies and harmonies bind themselves to memories of Christmases past. Wallowing inevitably follows. No other music has the power (and is required) to command so much in such a short space of time.

Some of the music me and The OH play as we decorate remains the same: Hely Hutchinson’s Carol Symphon;, a smattering of Rutter; Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

This year some of that music has been superseded by new personal discoveries, a selection of which is included below.

I’m struck by the personal needs this music meets. There’s a desire for something distinctive (or maybe just different), a ‘hard edge’, or in one case something mystical, fantastical and a little other-worldly.

Not so much revelling in the headiness of a contrived Dickensian Christmas, more a musical articulation of the way I now see the Christmas story.

Once in Royal David’s City / Voces 8 / Thomas Hewitt Jones

The third verse arrangement by Thomas Hewitt Jones subverts expectations set by the familiar-sounding verses that precede it, with a heady almost seductive range of harmonic progressions.

The first few chords (I’ve no idea what chords they are, so I won’t even try to describe them) take us on an entirely different path, each line of the carol’s conclusion the aural equivalent of biting into salted caramel. All decorated with a simple descant that climbs and climbs until it disappears into the darkness.

Voces 8’s precision execution of Thomas Hewitt Jones’ writing transports this carol from the usual combination of heavy organ and sluggish congregation into something stylish and sophisticated.

Balulalow / Ceremony of Carols / Benjamin Britten

My first introduction to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (1942) was singing This Little Babe during a school carol service in the early 1980s. The antiphonal fireworks in the three part round was an electrifying experience in Suffolk’s St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Britten’s musical language seemed stark and awkward in comparison to the melancholy burned into the more familiar congregational carols.

But it’s Balulalow which speaks to me more now thirty five years later. It’s relentless shift from major to minor chords throughout the carol gives this lullaby a dark restless feel (though others regard this as the characteristics of a love song – I’m not quite so sure). This isn’t a saccharin depiction of Christ’s first night in the cot – a happy ending. There’s menace in Britten’s use of the chord progressions which gives things a sense that life will be hard-fought.

And I particularly like the fragility of Britten’s original recording. The boy treble sounds as though it might shatter during the opening verse. There’s a sense of reassurance when the boys choir joins in, but still that threat of danger remains. It’s Christmas music that gives Christmas a hard edge.

Illuminare, Jerusalem / Judith Weir

I stumbled on Illuminare, Jerusalem one Christmas Eve a couple of years ago listening to Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The late Stephen Cleobury then Director of Music at Kings College commissioned Weir to write the piece for FONLC for the 1985 Christmas Eve service (there’s a video of Weir reflecting on an archive recording of the premiere).

It’s mysterious other-worldiness crafted by a melody that seems to crawl over the words and tracked by an underlying melodic line, paints remarkableness of the Christmas story in a multitude of brilliant and arresting colours. There’s a human quality to the uneven lengths of the phrases too, tidily resolved by the ‘Jerusalem’ phrase repeated throughout. Modest and efficient writing.

Bethlehem Down / Peter Warlock / King Singers

I’ve always loved Warlock’s music. The Capriol Suite is an obvious starting point, brimming with ‘English-sounding’ modes that evoke Sunday lunch roasts, bracing walks in the Fens, and a roaring log fire on return. Where Britten’s music evokes the bruised skies and plump ploughed fields of East Suffolk, Warlock’s scores seems to compensate for the lack of contours in the West Suffollk. Music that fills in the gaps left by nature.