Stephen Hough at Wigmore Hall during COVID19

I can’t remember the last time the words ‘a live stream’ had been quite so an exciting prospect. In the run up to it I wasn’t entirely sure why, but it was exciting enough to insist of moving my laptop, phone and notebook to the sofa to watch on the ‘Big Screen’ downstairs in the lounge.

I sat in considerable anticipation, staring at the screen, leaning in to what I thought I heard as someone bashing at a laptop keyboard. Had there been some kind of technical error? Was there someone there? Was this all just another pre-recorded YouTube premiere, or were we going to see Stephen Hough on stage at Wigmore Hall playing something or other?

When the shot did change to reveal an empty Wigmore Hall I admit, for no reason I can immediate explain, I cried a bit. I miss the sense of occasion. I miss the people. I miss the escape. As lovely as it is to experience something ‘sort of live’, it all seems cruel. Here, a gift from the classical musical world to those who feel most at home in it, we’re reminded of the ineptitude, double talk, lies, and deceit that means the thing we love will remain out of our reach for all too many months to come.

Look at it this way. Hough’s Wigmore recital was the present-day digital manifestation of the Tristan chord: yearned for but ultimately destructive.

Hough’s performance was both electrifying and crushing. Uplifting and cruel. The wait is too long.

I miss the people who make this kind of magic come to life. I miss the peers who clap excitedly in response to it in the same way I do.

But we have (effectively) a month of daily performances like this to follow. Thank fuck for that.

Returning to writing, content fatigue, self-care in isolation, Vaughan Williams and Benedetti’s Elgar

It’s the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to write. So, please treat this post as a way of breaking myself back into the process. An attempt to order a jumble of thoughts. The first in a pre-paid programme of self-facilitated therapy sessions.

On returning to writing

Writing now triggers all sorts of different thoughts and feelings, some of which make the practise almost impossible. A list of those thoughts presents itself.

  1. There’s nothing to say about classical music right now
  2. Your copy will ramble
  3. Your copy always rambles
  4. You bring way too much of yourself to your copy
  5. You make everything about you
  6. You take ages to get to the point
  7. There is no event everyone is coalescing around
  8. People don’t want to be reminded of what they don’t have
  9. You have an over-inflated idea of your own importance
  10. Shut the fuck up

There are some truisms in here. Even in the first two paragraphs points four, five and six are borne out. Watch the detractors rub their hands together with glee at that one.

Importantly, is the question of where these thoughts originate and what their effect is.

In coaching terms I know where those phrases originate. The effect is creative gas-lighting.

To bring oneself to ones writing – whether it’s literally using the first person in one’s copy, or drawing on first-hand experience or turns of phrase is for some a sign of weakness or exclusivity. I have over the past three or four weeks felt guilty for my go-to creative framework that is second-nature because of the very creative outlet – a blog – that helped develop my creativity.

One has to be robust. Rigorous. Recognise when the gas-lighting occurs and take steps to avoid it, so that what’s important is allowed the space it needs: advocacy whether it be in writing, audio, visual storytelling depends on knowledge, experience and emotional awareness. Bringing that to one’s creativity isn’t just a good thing, it’s a requirement. Otherwise, how do you connect with your audience?

Content fatigue? No, distractions

I read somewhere on social media that some considered classical music consumers were suffering content fatigue in response to the slew of digital endeavours embarked upon by various arts organisations amid COVID-19.

It’s true that there are a multitude of split screen lockdown performances which are very quickly blending into one another. One or two resonate more than others – the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Fairey Band’s Slane, and The Sixteen’s recent release.

These are successful not because they have cut-through, but because they have a narrative underpinning them or they anticipate and exploit an emotion experienced by a majority audience.

I remain convinced that offering free content like this is not detrimental to the music industry. It is a pragamatic and understandable reaction by a number of arts organisations and individual performers to unforeseen circumstances. This moment in time provides an excellent marketing opportunity and digital is king at raising awareness (even if it struggles to result in changed behaviours).

Raising awareness then is a baseline for arts organisations during this hiatus. But in doing this digital producers and artistic directors now (finally) appreciating what digital is for (even if they don’t understand its often contradictory complexities) need to remember that audiences (those that are lucky enough to work, as well as those interacting with family on handheld devices or over Zoom) are spending considerably more time at their laptops during this pandemic. Little wonder then that a bright blue sky, the warmth of the sun on your skin, or simple pleasures like plants, baking, or reading a book are compelling distractions over watching another video online.

It’s not that its content fatigue, it’s that there are bigger, more powerful and considerably more gratifying distractions right now. If you’re making content right now that content is competing with those distractions. That’s what you need to bear in mind.

Managing oneself in isolation

As the lockdown continues and will, let’s face it, for the rest of the year, some aspects of day to day life are coming more and more into focus.

Switching between tasks without the usual moving from location to location which marks out those different activities is, I think this week, as much a drain on energy reserves as being in receipt of a poorly phrased email, mean-spirited exchange on What’s App, or an extended video conference call.

My new personal canban – an experiment for managing a heavy workload

I was lucky enough to have lined up a month’s worth of project work for April which has now spilled into May. The to-do list is now getting reduced to a more manageable size which is a relief. At the same time I recognise I’ve been battling not only with the workload, but the intensity of it and the associated thought-processes (most of them negative) made more destructive by isolation-powered focus I’m working with.

Every-day now feels like a working day. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I never finish my day at the time I want to. I don’t really relax. I see how one could easily stumble into burn-out by continuing this way.

The C Major scale: bland as fuck

One of the solutions is to limit calls that interrupt the flow. My current bugbear is calls where things are just reported. It’s the meeting equivalent of listening to some playing a C Major scale – something I have to be present for but which doesn’t engage me as much as perhaps it does the person playing it. Isolation brings experiences like these into focus: our presence and participation in group experiences needs to be defined beforehand and ideally active too.

And the other thing that has become clearer for me in isolation is the need for empathy, praise and encouragement for others. Denied the serendipitous interactions with friends and associates, all of our exchanges are now pre-arranged, deliberate acts. If those are the only interactions you’re experiencing then the content of them needs to be well-intentioned, genuine, sincere, and long-lasting.

For the sake of everyone else’s mental wellbeing, we need to approach every interaction with positive intent. The great wave of compassion and empathy at the beginning of lockdown now feels like a distant memory. It feels as though we’re in danger of falling into the same habits we did before we were all locked away in our homes. Only the effect of some of those same habits is going to be more intensely felt by most of us because we have nowhere to escape to in response to them.

One undoubted and unexpected boon was participating in a coaching learning session with some peers Friday. Within minutes of the call starting it was as though all five of us were participating in a big collective breath. Space expanded all around. Implicit permission given to explore the imagination, to identify present needs. This kind of work is powerful. And needed. Especially in lockdown.

Where my musical tastes have rested recently

I began writing this section of the post listening to Vaughan Williams fifth symphony again – a work I’ve been returning to a lot this past week. The third movement largo with its opening call to prayer from the cor anglais: a reflection on those in need; a statement of hope that we will be there for them as we’d hope others will be for us. It, like the coaching learning session yesterday, has the power to release great waves of emotion whenever I hear it. Listening to it is like plunging into a very deep pool, not realising you needed to until your skin hits the water.

And Elgar’s Violin Concerto –  Nicky Benedetti’s release on Decca this week. An intimate recording of an epic statement. It’s an album I’ve had on preview for a few weeks now but haven’t (for the reasons I outlined at the top of the post) not got around to writing about. And yet returning to it again this week has reminded of one of the work’s most compelling characteristics: it’s complex and rewarding narrative. Reflecting on that now makes me almost regret the comparative cursory attention when discovering new music in the past. Giving attention seems like a nice thing to do right now. Space and attention to delve into detail.

Reinventing TV amid a global pandemic: Tenebrae

It’s been ages since I’ve felt motivated to write.

I know that seems incredible given that the most recent posts have ostensibly been about sharing advice on how to tackle some of the current challenges we’re all facing.

That writing differs from this. That’s writing that seemed like a good idea to post.

This post is writing is something I’ve wanted to note down. This is journalling. This is documenting. This is writing when you’re ‘back in the saddle’.

I watched Tenebrae on BBC Four this evening. I had been aware of their isolation performance – 19 singers and conductor Nigel Short all performing in separate video feeds sync’ed together and presented as one on a composite background.

It is a remarkable thing to see. Something to marvel at. Wizardry, in a way. As though television itself is being reinvented right before our eyes. We have no choice but to accept an entirely different visual grammar. How quickly we adjust. How grateful we are for the considerable effort involved. How we take technology for granted.

At the same time as enjoying it (and seeing the Other Half completely focussed during the Miserere), I also found it quite painful.

On the one hand, here was something that had been made because of the COVID19 crisis, and because of isolation. On the other hand, here was something that was reminding us what we didn’t have because of COVID19: live performance.

Earlier today I spoke to an old friend who had read The Economist. He started talking about how there wasn’t a plan for how mass gatherings would be re-introduced because there wasn’t an exit strategy. At least there isn’t one being talked about. And until there was how could any ensemble motivate themselves to plan for a future season – to plan work for their staff.

Three weeks ago I thought I might step back in the Southbank Centre in the summer. Today I’m catastrophising and finding it difficult to imagine that will be possible this side of Christmas.

I appreciated hearing from my pal and for the reality check he offered. But seeing a visual reminder of what I didn’t have the freedom to experience in the same physical space (and no sense of when that freedom might be reinstated) made things almost unbearable in my particular bubble.

Isolation productions are double-edged experiences in this way. And I freely admit to finding the latter experience linger. I just hope the sense of urgency and momentum continues amongst performers and administrators alike. I cannot tell you how much the idea I can’t hear my favourite performers perform is a heartbreaking thing.

There was another unexpected twist to the Tenebrae broadcast. The production behind the programme were the same people behind last year’s Proms coverage. Remember that? It seems like a distant memory now.

So too the unnecessary contretemps that occurred on the blog and on Twitter as a result. Being able to articulate thoughts and responses to something I care about remains as vital to me now as it was then. I’m wondering whether our capacity to hold dissonant thoughts has changed at all in the meantime. I do hope so.

Er

Internet bubbles have a tendency to highlight blind spots. I’m reminded of this today with a strange anomaly I can’t get my head around.

On the one hand Twitter is going a bit wild about this video featuring Peter Jan Leusink from The Bach Choir in the Netherlands and his distinctive (for distinctive read crazy) conducting style.

On the other hand, I’m pointed in the direction of this article, and this post (helpfully in English albeit on Norman’s blog) regarding a documentary highlighting claims of sexual misconduct directed at the conductor in question.

He’s still working given that a tweet from December 2019 sees him taking a bow on stage, which suggests that if there were charges they’ve been dropped.

In some senses that’s all there should be to it, surely? If someone has been charged and they’re not either on trial or in custody, then there’s nothing more to be said on the matter and its all perfectly acceptable to go a bit wild about his crazy antics on stage.

Maybe its part of a rehabitaliation campaign (though I seriously doubt that any classical music PR would go anywhere near doing something quite so edgy and potentially career limiting).

So in some respects the conclusion to be drawn is this: in a small world like the classical music world there’s still a lot that can go under the radar.

It’s quite possible for information about (let’s be honest) a niche performer to go completely overlooked and for that same performer to easily bask in the glow inadvertently created by social media.

I find that – the lifecycle and reach of a story – utterly fascinating. At the same time, and perhaps unfairly, I also find it quite unsettling.

Thoughts arising from the Oxford Philharmonic Beethoven Festival Symposium

The only way to learn stuff is to immerse yourself in it. Just don’t ask any questions.

My Beethoven odyssey continues.

I’ve been in Oxford today at the Beethoven Festival Symposium at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building in St Hilda’s College.

It was the first time I’ve been in amongst academics for a long time, so too in a conference style atmosphere – listening to papers read out, discussed, challenged, and picked over. Lots of hand-shaking. Warm smiles too. Some odd hair. Mild unnecessary curmudgeonly-ness at times. Fascinating. And one or two unexpected tidbits, highlights of which I share below along with a few thoughts.

Beethoven and numeracy

During a delightfully detailed presentation about the numbering and mis-numbering of variations, one tidbit surprised me: Beethoven wasn’t terribly good at multiplication it seems, but was stronger instead adding and subtracting. We know this because of his ‘conversation books’, books he scribbled down his exchanges, notes and ideas (?) with his friends once his deafness had taken hold.

Academics aren’t necessarily great presenters.

Some of the delivery styles masked the academics’ considerable knowledge and expertise.

Some might see that as me poking fun or being mean-spirited (come get me), but there is a surprising twist to all of this.

Just as people like me (and considerably better people with much bigger networks) are called upon to articulate the art form in a manner that suits a particular audience, so I’m reminded how academics can sometimes need their ideas articulated in slightly plainer or, in some cases, slightly more engaging language. So we all need each other. Which is nice.

Beethoven 9 as four movements plus a conflated symphony

I have always struggled a little with Beethoven 9. It’s never really hung together in the way I assumed a symphony should be. There are jarring moments.

I know that’s a bit presumptious. I mean who the actual fuck am I to dare question Beethoven’s greatness?

But Professor David B Levy – the best speaker of the bunch by far today – offered a useful primer in his survey of the origins of the symphony, and the way its been ‘used and abused’ to meet a variety of cultural and political agendas.

In addition to simply describing the five movements in terms of the emotional content each touches upon, ie first movement – tragedy, second movement – farce, third movement – lyricism, and the fifth movement – joy (where the ‘fourth movement’ is a transition sequence), he also pointed to a range of other analyses of the last movement that depicted it as symphony in itself. You may not necessarily buy into the view. And let’s be honest, I may not necessarily have grasped the finer points of his presentation because this was an academic paper, but it was quite a neat look on the work.

Keyboard maker guillotine inventer

Turns out that piano maker Tobias Schmidt was also the inventor of the guillotine, and realised quite quickly that he was going to make more money from the patent for the guillotine than any piano he made and sold. Tut tut.

Was Beethoven a better businessman than he realised?

If I’ve understood Elaine Sisman’s paper correctly, Beethoven was quite focussed on making sure he got credit for his own work, so much so that the discussion around opus numbers for his work (normally a retrospective labelling of a composer’s output after death?) was robust whilst he was alive. Does that mean that Beethoven had an eye for his own legacy? More reading necessary I suspect.

A new discovery: Piano Sonata No.32 (and No.24)

This was a free lunchtime recital given by one of the speakers – William Kinderman – who provided an annotated introduction before performing the extensive two movement sonata.

I’m fascinated with those moments when I connect with something unfamiliar. What was the element in Kinderman’s performance that pulled me in? The opening of the second movement . The word ‘repose’ had been used a great deal during Kinderman’s introduction. The stillness of the opening arietta signifiied repose – a musical depiction of utopia? And it had that effect: time slowed down; stillness; completeness; serenity. It wasn’t twee: we weren’t listening to a fine tune which went through a series of permutations. It was a musical argument expressing a complex series of emotions. There was chromaticism. Nothing settled. But my attention was completely hooked. I ended up listening to No.32, No. 23, and No.24 from Brendel’s landmark collection on Decca on the way home. I think I’m hooked.

Emotion not melody

This seems a bit of an odd observation to share on the face of it. But I’m increasingly of the mind that maybe a way of appreciating Beethoven as a newcomer (ie me) is to think of the emotional quality of his music first. If one were to listen out for melody first – ie listen to Beethoven like one might approach Mozart on a first listen, then Beethoven’s unorthodoxy, especially in his later works, is going to make Beethoven perhaps seem like a tall order. There is so much emotion in it, as in the piano sonatas, and so much narrative, that to only listen out for the mechanics of constituent parts is to miss the point of Beethoven entirely. This thought is essentially the musical equivalent of the advice a playwright friend of mine gave me before I watched an unfamiliar Shakespeare: “listen for the gist – be very light touch about it”.

Why so much attention?

Obviously, I get it’s Beethoven 250 this year. We all love an anniversary. But a question arose for me part way through the day: why do so many study the man and his music so closely and so much? Is can’t be just because he’s widely accepted as a genius. That doesn’t really account for the fervour or the range of views contained in the endless tomes. Is it possibly because there’s a lot of evidence to pick over? Is Beethoven a musicologist’s Aladdin’s Cave?

I like it though. I like the forensic attention. I like the year long immersion. And I’m reminded that what hooks me in is the three dimensional world that a musicologist exists in and, through their work, perhaps unintentionally creates.

The turning point in the day was seeing one of Beethoven’s early sketches for Eroica. Nothing especially moving in and of itself. Rather, the sight of his initial ideas for a work that is so very well known brought a man known from a bust careering into the present day. The handwriting made the herculean effort of a man from the past, a more human thing. The evidence made it real. In a split second, two hundred and fifty years didn’t seem quite such a long time ago.

And when those things from the past arrive in the present all shiny and new, there’s an electric charge. Exploring Beethoven further has all the addictive qualities that soaking up the life and work of Benjamin Britten in the early 2000s.

In our on-demand time-poor attention deficit world, it seems so tragic that something so wonderfully absorbing and enriching is going overlooked because of a false assumption that no-one is interested in detail. We really must try harder.

Riga Jurmala 2020 launches in London

From time to time its refreshing to attend an event where the the accusations of snobbery, elitism or aloofness usually levelled at classical music can’t be heard.

In the case of the Riga Jurmala Festival launch today, this wasn’t only because entry to the event was by invite only, but also because the interior – a private members club in Mayfair – meant the tone was already set long before anybody said anything or events were even talked about.

Riga Jurmala’s second annual festival starts in July this year and like last year features a smattering of British artists – the King’s Singers and the Philharmonia. One international orchestra visits the Latvian capital Riga each weekend, giving two performances with a day off in between.

Across the four weekends expect to the Israel Philharmonic, the return of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic, and in the last weekend, the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Highlights video from the 2019 Riga Jurmala Music Festiva

Post-Brexit (or are we still mid-Brexit?) festivals like Riga Jurmala, Verbier and the rest are seen from a different perspective. An ever-more important lifeline not necessarily for revenue (or maybe they are – the exact figures are an understandably closely guarded secret), but certainly for marketing purposes: cultural shop windows on an international stage most perceive to be closed off. Potent symbols of UK cultural successes, hope in the midst of political idiocy, and a vital connection with our European neighbours even if they’re now collectively looking at us in bewilderment.

It’s a nifty festival too. It’s easy to be distracted by a serif font and beautifully laid-out print, and assume this along with the big names like Schiff, Kavakos, George Li, Truls Mork or Leif Ove Andsnes mean its administrative wheels are as large and slow-moving as the reputation of its international artists.

Swag

Speaking with CEO Zane Čulkstēna before the launch event this morning, I got a sense of how nimble the building of the 2019 programme was after board approval for the inaugural event: two months. A lot of that is down to Artistic Director Martin T:son Engstroem (founder and artistic director of the Verbier Festival) whose involvement in anything it seems is in itself one less thing a PR professional has to worry about when selling any of his endeavours.

So that experience of ease when you’re learning about an event like Riga Jurmala is rooted in the event’s self-confidence. It’s reflected in the ease at which the people who speak at it speak with wit, warmth and pride.

And it’s also refreshing because Riga Jurmala is the kind of event that knows exactly what its target audience is: people who want to travel to a location they’ve not been to before, somewhere rooted in a musical tradition, where music isn’t a treat or a luxury or a privilege, but a right enshrined in law for all Latvians. Imagine that.

The Riga Jurmala Music Festival returns this summer from 10 July – 30 August 2020

Listen to a Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring artistic director Martin Engstroem recorded in Verbier, July 2019.

The podcast interview with Riga Jurmala CEO Zane Čulkstēna is coming out soon.

Corinthian Chamber Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Nicola Benedetti

Back to the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night for the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra concert in a programme of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, also featuring last minute stand-in soloist, Grammy award-winning violinist Nicola Benedetti.

The QEH is fast becoming my favourite London venue. The acoustic gives each individual sound and texture the room to breath (please forgive the tortured analogy), meaning individual lines have more prominence than they normally would. For those of who love detail, that’s a treat.

I maybe doing conductor Michael Seal a disservice there however. It might be that exposed lines are as much to do with the acoustic as they are to do with his direction. Most notable – the trumpet descant in the second movement of the Symhonie fantastique giving an already lively waltz extra emotional intensity.

Seal doesn’t hang around, nor does he let the players in the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra get entrenched in sluggish speeds when things get a bit difficult under the fingers. There were plenty of opportunities when that could happen – the programme was ambitious and demanding for all. But Seal has an energy about him (along with a clear beat and expressive movements) that sweeps people along.

The opening Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien was all the more impressive as a concert opener because it was ‘on the nose’ pretty much from the start. Nicola Benedetti’s Tchaikovsky was a rich, folky, and magic affair, underpinned by a responsive orchestra fuelled by adrenaline and enthusiasm.

Given the choice between a professional band playing the same repertoire they’ve played for years or an amateur group playing music on their ‘big night’, I’ll always go for the latter. The energy levels are higher, the excitement is palpable, and the smiles on the platform make the whole experience considerably more gratifying.

A cracking night.

Beethoven 2 & 3 from Norrington and the OAE at the QEH, and the Beach Boys

On the one hand theres an element of guilt writing about a concert four days after it happened. Details can be lost; a reputation, such as it is, withers. People will roll eyes, probably even tut.

Not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however. They’re a groovy bunch. Always have been. They’ll know, just as I am reminding myself now, that there are no rules and, just as not all orchestras are the same, not all writers are the same.

A few days distance on the OAE’s electrifying concert with Sir Roger Norrington, thoughts have crystallized. These thoughts develop my thinking about Beethoven, about the second and third symphonies we heard on Tuesday night, and perhaps most interestingly for me, about communication.

Taking a break with recent posts, I’m going to section each observation off into a handy list. It’s easier like that, for me and, I suspect, for everyone else too.

Roger Norrington is a beguiling conductor

Norrington is 85. He shuffles gingerly onto stage with a protrusion from a light-fitting blouse, reaching for musicians to guide him to the podium where a swivel chair awaits. There is a glint in his eye, a flirtatious smile, and an unapologetic willingness to collude with the audience. ‘Clap when you want, perhaps after the funeral march will be a little tricky, but clap whenever you would like,’ was his instruction, or something along those lines.

In between each movement of the joyous and uplifting second symphony he swung around triumphantly to greet and thank, before moving on. And when the moment allowed during the third, he did the same perhaps revealing a little more of how taxing a work this monument to composition really is to both conduct and play.

Sometimes the signalling to the audience at the end of every movement became a little tired. But there can be no doubt that Norrington still illicits a great deal of enthusiasm on stage, his poise, delicacy and detail are a joyous thing to observe. He maintains a youthfulness of spirit which is utterly adorable.

He is too, speaking personally, the last of the rock stars – him referencing the London Classical Players took me back to Denis McCaldin at university introducing the notion of ‘authentic performance’ with the first recording I’d ever heard of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on period instruments. It seemed like an another world when I heard that. Any opportunity to see in the flesh the man who I regarded then as a bit of an iconoclast is going to be a must-see.

Beethoven symphonies reveal stark contrasts and commonly held assumptions

We think we know Beethoven’s music because – certainly in the case of the most well-known works – the melodies are familiar and engaging. But take a historically-informed band conducted by an octogenarian who resists any attempt to wallow, and suddenly the detail is exposed – multiple layers with eye-popping detail brimming with dissonance, tricky counter-intuitive rhythms, and unexpected textures. When you lean into Beethoven 3 and listen attentively the detail is remarkable.

Shameless Beach Boys comparison

It’s the same with the music of the Beach Boys. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, or Sloop John B from Pet Sounds are a case in point – seemingly simple infectious melancholic mid-tempo ballads, the pleasure of which eclipses the multiple layers of seemingly incompatible and utterly bizarre individual tracks that make up the whole.

Not written, forged

The detail in Beethoven 3 challenges our unwitting assumptions about what Beethoven’s music is. And when we’re confronted with what it really is then it comes alive there in front of us. And what the OAE achieved under Norrington’s direction was to present Beethoven as a progressive perhaps even fearsome creative and his third symphony as a creation forged in the white heat of the furnace.

To observe that or experience it or perhaps even momentarily see Beethoven 3 from that perspective, makes it impossible to listen to any performance subsequently in the same way again. Maybe.

Celebrating the man’s music is like one year-long Beethoven degree module

I went into this Beethoven 250 thing feeling a little daunted. Others sought to use the anniversary to embolden gender politics. Some others understandably and rightly used to continue to shine a light on the ongoing diversity of representation challenge. I realised quite early on that for a man that so many claim did so much to transform classical music, I appeared to be able to recall very little about him. And I had a music degree. And that seemed a bit strange.

Quite early on I now see Beethoven 250 as one long season of music that will challenge my assumptions, force me to research and remember key dates (they are important milestones which helped embed learning despite what any classical music marketer would have you believe), and help guide me in the discovery of a composer I possess very little knowledge about.

And I when I reflect on my knowledge starts and where I feel is moved on to just in the space of a month, I’m beginning to wonder whether most of our perceptions about Beethoven are to do with that damn opening of Beethoven 5 – a kind of musical trope that celebrates, ridicules, and pokes fun at the art form all at the same time.

Not too much and not too little

Which then brings me on to the writing insight. The past few months have seen me working on a project which seeks to evoke a positive reaction to the discovery of classical music in an audience wouldn’t normally consider listening to the art form. It’s what me and another journalist friend have discussed at length over wine as the classic challenge: needing knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with a particular subject, but having to find a way of communicating just a fraction of it in such a way that one entices but not alienates.

And the challenge isn’t just about fine tuning your own communication filter so that you’re not always reaching to look under the bonnet at the earliest opportunity. It’s also about recognising how commonly held assumptions, well-trotted out ‘factoids’, or the over-reliance on lazy historical tropes are in themselves damaging to classical music’s perception.

It isn’t for example, to merely say that one of the interesting things about Beethoven is that he’s suffered from a profound loss of hearing but composed anyway. That’s the starting point for understanding Beethoven and appreciating the impact of his music. And what’s challenging for me is professionally is understanding what’s sufficient information and what’s ‘too much’ for one blog post or article.  

Identifying the essence of what makes the discovery of Beethoven’s music a thrill and something to keep coming back to is the challenge in this 250th anniversary year. And every challenge brings with it a useful source of motivation too. Which is nice.

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