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.

Review: Lambeth Wind Orchestra and saxophonist Rob Burton play Rhapsodies and Fantasias

A demanding programme of unfamiliar and invigorating works for wind orchestra including a cracking show piece from saxophonist Rob Burton.

“Why are you going to a concert given by amateurs?” asked the taxi driver on the way to Lambeth Wind Orchestra’s Saturday night concert this past weekend.

“Because they work hard and I’d like to hear the results,” I replied.

A far more succinct response would have been, “Why wouldn’t I?”

I was irritated by his rookie attempt at jocularity. It didn’t land well at all. When he then moved on to pissing and moaning about the borough where I lived I was keen for the journey to end (preferably at the sought-out destination) and for me and The OH to pile out.

What LWO does well is cultivating a community feel. This was the second concert of theirs I’d attended, the first where guests were greeted by conductor John Holland at the door. Don’t underestimate the dividend. If the conductor is welcoming you personally, then you’re going to have to be a cold-hearted bastard to end up not appreciating something in the hours that followed.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to look very hard. LWO players are an impressive bunch. Thirteen of the 52 players were ‘guest musicians’ meaning the core of the rich ensemble sound is powered by regular members. And when they play a chord as one complete ensemble the evocative sound of well-balanced wind band resonates across the chest, (for me) stirring happy memories of twenty-five years ago when I was at university conducting a wind orchestra.

It would be easy for an amateur band not to sound that way – one duff bit of tuning and everything jars, heads start to turn, and people start looking at their watches. But not so for LWO. Even at the point of tuning for performance its apparent that people listen, adjust and adapt. They pay close attention to Holland’s exacting and expressive beat – one of the reasons I imagine LWO secured Gold at the National Concert Band Festival last week.

The quality of the playing was most evident in Holland’s arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Daring. So much of the work depends on the textures of the strings. Dry mournful Sunday afternoons are best evoked by string players. That a quartet of players sat behind us played VW’s transcribed score with such warmth demonstrates not only vision on the part of the arranger, but an understanding of who in the band could realise the dream to greatest effect. The Thomas Tallis Fantasia is a demanding blow for a wind and brass player – endless extended sequences for (some) instruments right at the top of their range. But there were moments of intense emotion. The hideousness of the real world outside was momentarily put on hold. Exactly (I think) what VW intended. Quite some achievement for an amateur band playing in a concert hall at a school in which the composer taught.

Similarly impressive was Morton Gould’s epic Jericho – brimming with detail, dramatic perhaps momentarily piercing dynamic range – and Claude T.Smith’s blistering Alto Saxophone Fantasia. Soloist Rob Burton deftly delivered the punishing solo line with a warm round tone and gratifyingly unpretentious articulation. Sometimes swamped by the massed sound of the band in the opening material, his consistent musicianship made this an exhilerating discovery, the expansive and demanding cadenza in particular demonstrating how there’s much to discover from this remarkably mature instrumentalist.

Recommended recording of Claude T. Smith’s on Spotify from West Texas A&M Symphonic Band.

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Review: Der Freischütz conducted by Laurence Equilbey featuring Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, and Chiara Skerath

An inventive thought-provoking production with captivating contributions from Johanni van Oostrum, the Insula Orchestra, and one or two illusionists.

Terrific orchestral playing in a generous acoustic that supported the period instrument Insula Orchestra   in the production of lean string sounds, and evocative woodwind textures. Possibly the best live theatrical pit sound I’ve heard in a long time. Conductor Laurence Equilbey is a passionate and efficient director, combining a clear beat with a dynamic expressive range. Her energy and precision can be heard in a range of orchestral textures, and contributed to a number of electrifying moments on stage. 

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum shone the brightest in amongst an impressive cast with her Act III Scene 2 Cavatine Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle, sending chills up the spine with a rounded tone, silky smooth legatos and gossamer octave leaps. Hers combined with the voice of Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max, and the sometimes Mary Poppins-esque characterisation of Annchen by Chiara Skerath made for an exquisite first act trio Wie? Was? Ersatzen that didn’t quite muster the effort from the audience with the response it deserved. 

I’ve read some dismissive reviews about the stage direction and set design, drawing attention to the lack of shotguns in an opera about a shooting contest as being a creative failure. 

Seeing this year old production at its Paris premiere sat in the intimate art deco interior of Theatre des Champs-Elysees there was a sense that with the horrific events of recent terrorist atrocities still surprisingly fresh in the mind, that not seeing actual guns was a sensitive creative response. Whether this was an active choice when the production opened last year I’m not entirely clear. What the absence of guns resulted in however was a creative opportunity for the production, demanding more engagement on the part of the audience. The intent appeared to trigger (forgive the pun) the audience to use their imagination more, something that increased engagement. 

An array of illusions was deployed which met this dual aim of focusing audience attention on the hows and the whys. Sometimes the depiction of the magic bullets – white balls juggled, thrown and sometimes swung – distracted the eye, especially during Agathe’s Und ob die Wolke. 

At other times, the time spent perfecting slow motion movement whether powered independently or with a seemingly invisible wires really paid off, heightening the drama considerably. The conclusion to the Wolf’s Glen scene was a case in point when characters strained for Samiel’s fire only to fall back in the melee. So too when Agathe gets hit with the seventh bullet in the last scene – all very Keanu Reeves. Additionally, never has watching one dancer moving in slow motion accompanied by a cello solo on one note ever created so much tension. 

The use of dark light projected onto the stage created threatening shadows in the penultimate scene of Act 1 almost worked, although at times the movements didn’t quite tally up with the available ‘black space’ on stage. 

The use of figures projected onto gauze to create storytelling vignettes maintaining engagement during sequences of dramatic exposition, adding depth both to the storytelling and the perceived depth of the stage – a complex effect demanding continuity between pre-recorded and live performances. The depiction of a silvery sea complete with dry ice (or was it a hologram – I’m not quite sure) was a thing of directorial and design beauty. 

The best should really be left until last. The chorus provided a remarkable sound – a rich, sonorous and burnished colour that compensated for the grey uniformity in their near-totalitarian costumes. One other commentator have dismissed the chorus’ supposed lack of movement, though the simplicity of the lines complemented the stark stage design. There were some elegant movements in the final scene when Hermit and chorus moved in a collective slow motion. 

A concert performance of the production is staged at the Barbican on 4 November 2019.

Cast: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Max), Johanni van Oostrum (Agatha), Chiara Skerath (Annchen), Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar), Christian Immler (Hermit), Thorsten Gruumbel (Kuno), Daniel Schumtzhard (Ottakar), Anas Seguin (Kilian), Clement Dazin (Samiel)

Recommended recording London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Colin Davis, featuring Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews and Simon O’Neil.

Reccomended Insula Orchestra recording Beethoven Emperor Concerto

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A night at the Gramophone Awards 2019

The Gramophone Awards are an industry event which celebrates that which has been released the year before and, in the process of handing out the gongs, brings industry figures together in a spangly affair.

But, I’ve always struggled a little to understand where the Gramophone Awards sit in my classical music world.

Beyond the simple explanation I’ve always felt the Gramophones (and the magazine come to that) was another world – the world of recordings, expert assessments, probably a little bit of flannel here and there and, perhaps most importantly, a world where I’d be forced to confront how little I know of the current classical music world.

Perhaps there was even a thought when watching the Gramophones from a distance via a live stream in years gone by that the ceremony and its contents and participants didn’t necessarily represent me or illustrate my connection with the art form. Gramophone magazine was something for the grown-ups not for the frivolous light-on-detail person like me.

What the narrative, contextualisation and representation of the artform actually looks like for me has come into sharper focus over the past six months or so.

But, after a disappointing Proms season, taking to time to gain a deeper understanding of where commercial radio sits in encouraging and catering for a new and varied audiences for classical music, and now the Gramophone Awards, I’m getting accustomed to a more nuanced take on the sector.

Last night’s awards ceremony at the De Vere Connaught Rooms shone new light on the classical music world. A human one.

Jakub Józef Orliński. Counter-tenor. Model. Break-dancer. Skipped dessert.

Seeing counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński (someone I had no previous knowledge of – the shame) take up his seat at our table prior to proceedings getting underway provided an opportunity to observe the remarkable energy he exudes. To then see him leap to the stage to sing in a fascinating yet matter-of-fact way meant the mesmerising tone he produced when he sang was electrifying. One minute Jakub was someone sat a table, the next his voice was creating a moment of stillness. The magic of live performance highlighted once again, so too the wonder the human voice can have on other human beings in an instant. I think I’m right in saying that he skipped dessert too. So a lot of self-control there, because I wolfed mine.

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin had a similar impact. His stint at the keyboard (Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words No.1 if I’ve recalled that correctly) silenced the inevitable awards dinner murmurs, glass chinks and fidgeting ice-cubes to create a similarly electrifying moment: busy-ness tackled head-on with innate and immediate musicianship.

The awards also have the added bonus of signposting a path for future exploration.

Knowing that someone who was previously sat across from me (who I also didn’t recognise – the shame) and who I’d assumed was a marketing type but who later turned out to be an award winner made him an interesting character to know more about. That he then sat down at the piano and commanded perfection to emerge from it was one thing. That when he spoke into the microphone when collecting his award with breathtaking understatement and unfussiness made him all the more fascinating.

Double award winner pianist Bertrand Chamonoy. Self-effacing to a fault. Adorable.

A lot of this of course is down to the event itself, an entertainment format which, it strikes me, is unique in the classical music world. There is no live cabaret style event where audience surrounds the stage and music is interspersed with speech. We might hear an idea of it on the radio, but we don’t see it on TV. Not anywhere. And that kind of experience would do much to reveal the magic of the art form – intimate music-making for a wider audience where the musicians natural personalities shine as brightly as the music they make just by virtue of speaking from the heart.

Guitarist Sean Shibe. Award winner for concept album SoftLoud. Loving the musicianship, Less keen on the ruff.

The discoveries I made I’m committing to future exploration (with one or two inclusions on the first Thoroughly Good Classical Music Playlist) include Bertrand Chamayou who appeared surprised and possibly even choked when his recording of Saint-Saens piano concertos was announced as both Concerto of the Year and Recording of the Year. Albums recorded by pianist Denis Kozhukin, Víkingur Ólafsson (adorably self-deprecating), and counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński.

And a wildcard too.

Cardoso’s Requiem on Hyperion which secured the Early Music Award. Partly because of the arresting image on the cover of the album, but also because it was the Early Music Award I accidentally kicked as I squeezed past table twelve in search of Catherine Bott. No damage was done, but the look on recipient Pedro Alvares Ribeiro’s was momentarily distressing. Profuse apologies offered and accepted, and I managed to find Catherine Bott too.

Review: Alexandra Dariescu and the Moscow Philharmonic play Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2 and Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet

I was cutting things a little fine arriving in my seat panting and sweating just as the first chord of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet sounded. By its inclusion – 5 minutes longer than the billed duration – my heart rate had reduced and my face and neck had dried off. Conductor Yuri Simonov took the work, even in its fast sections, at a surprisingly slow pace so that slow bits felt rather long and drawn out. Consequently, the the yearning and the emotional rushes never really felt convincing. It was as though Romeo’s heart wasn’t really in it and Juliet just felt relieved when it was all over.

Cadogan Hall’s acoustic is arguably the most demanding space to play in. There is nowhere to hide. Errors are then distracting. That’s not altogether a bad thing – it often means a deeper appreciation of what’s involved in a live performance is laid bare and it’s possible to notice when an ensemble has become used to the concert hall with its audience ensconced. So whilst there were some disappointing errors in intonation and ensemble in the woodwind in the first 10 minutes of the piece, that things were consolidated into a richer unified more passionate sound in the final section created something real with a story of eventual triumph. I just would have liked it a little faster.

My probable impatience with proceedings continued in the Rachmaninov. Dariescu is an assured performer – resilient, accommodating and strong. There’s lyricism in her right hand in all the places, and an enviable strength where the score demands. But there were times when it felt like Simonov was wanting to go at his pace and not hers. Some of the energy – that Hollywood verve and brio that I think exudes Rachmaninov’s movie-gold sound-world – petered out.

That said, there were some blissful gossamer string textures in the upper strings during the second movement. The Cadogan Hall acoustic also revealed some pleasing detail in the cello line and woodwind.

At times Simonov paid more attention to the strings than communicating with the soloist. In the second movement this projected Dariescu as a paradoxically lonely figure on stage. This emphasised the pathos of the second movement though I suspect that was by accident than design.

One of two most trusted pals

As it’s World Mental Health Day, it seemed timely to rewrite and update a blog I’ve published before. The bonus for those who read it before is that this time it’s all a lot more concise. And for those who are new to this blog, its a chance to understand why classical music remains an important part of my life.

Twenty-seven years ago or so I experienced an unexpected, deeply unsettling and confusing event which brought about the biggest personal challenge in my life.

It was only in 2016 when I saw a play at the Edinburgh Fringe about male rape that I began to understand that my experience, although not rape, was in the category of sexual assault. And, importantly, how such experiences are inherently confusing.

The details aren’t especially important to this post – I don’t really want to delve again. I’m not sure it necessarily helps anyone. I certainly don’t need to. They’re not especially unique or especially harrowing. What’s important here is the impact the experience had on my mental health and everything else.

It catapulted me into depression, and brought about a tiresome ‘identity crisis’. It ushered in drug-related and psychiatric therapies. It threatened my studies, my A-Levels, my university career. It also, I re-discovered a few weeks ago, prevented me from embarking on a teaching training course because the college where my place had been accepted had gained access to my psychiatric notes and deemed me a threat to children.

All this inevitably placed a variety of special relationships under immense pressure.

Everyone delivered. I remain indebted.

One particular moment in time was particularly dark. The first term of my third year at university. ‘Plans’ were made. The only thing which kept me from pursuing a self-inflicted fatal path were my commitments to practical music making with members of the university music society.

This critical moment in time took seven or eight weeks to reach something manageable. Weekly rehearsals of the university wind orchestra put me back on track, chasing the dark clouds away on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Fridays and Saturday were the precarious days. Sundays and Mondays were the days I was preparing for the next rehearsal. The end of term rehearsal sealed the deal and, thankfully, rock bottom was left far far behind.

There were wobbles that followed – some I’ve been reminded of recently flicking through some personal diaries a few weeks ago – but November 1993 and the role that classical music, participatory music making and my student friends combined all helped the subsequent turn-around.

The counter-experience – the ‘treatment’ if you’d prefer a slightly more blunt work – was a sense of routine, personal responsibility to others, and discipline. Conducting was something which helped me make a connection with my own personal values. Classical music saved me.

Since that time I’ve returned to classical music as a listener, a commentator, an arts manager, and a content producer. Sometimes classical music has provided an escape. At one time it provided me with inspiration for content. Now it is a world I feel most at home in. In recent years – especially since completing my coaching training – classical music has been a way for me to self-identify where my thoughts and feelings are at any given moment in time. Classical music as an emotional barometer. A trusted pal.

It could have easily been a different music genre. I know that others have derived the same benefits from rock, pop, punk, electronica, dance. But I remain indebted to a long-standing trusted pal – classical music – that continues to sustain my mental health, stimulate my thinking and, importantly, create lasting valued friendships.

I couldn’t do without it.