Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and Sir Simon Rattle speak to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden about the needs of UK orchestras post-lockdown

Sir Simon Rattle to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden: “We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs.”

I read Sir Simon Rattle’s Times interview first thing on Sunday morning in bed as soon as I woke up. Take it from me this is not the best strategy. Not right now at least. Top line message from Rattle: orchestras will go to the wall; everything’s fucked.

Later in the day during a telephone chat with a pal of old, I glibly say that reading Rattle’s interview should be reserved until later in the day. It’s suggested to me that a similar strategy is being adopted by the theatre world to lay things on the line, to get the attention that’s needed to move things along.

I get this. And I agree with it. Later in the day I pick up an email pointing me in the direction of a meeting Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Sir Simon Rattle all have had with DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden last week to talk about what the UK orchestral sector needs right now. Put simply – other countries are moving already to make live performance happen because a) they’ve supported the arts during this period and b) they’re collaborating to find workable pragmatic interim solutions; we want to work with you; help us.

Combined with the Saturday appearance of Nicola Benedetti, CBSO general manager Stephen Maddock, Chi-chi Nwanoku, and Southbank’s Director of Music Gillian Moore on Radio 3’s Music Matters, this feels like a more concerted and coordinated effort than in recent weeks. It certainly reads more explicitly than the joint open letter Petrenko, Karabits, Brabbins, Jurwoski, and Sir Mark Elder put out last week. Why wouldn’t they all coalesce around one thing? Or did the emotive former prompt the more specific and practical latter?

Most compelling in Rattle’s contribution is the experiences he shares with other European orchestras right now. And specifically the idea of distancing amongst the band in a performance space. This tallies with another piece of news I picked up from Bamberg Symphony who in May were testing the reach of aerosols in a performance space. Spoiler: turns out wind instruments aren’t spreading the virus anywhere near as far as the two-metre distancing rule might lead you to believe. Bamberg Symphony plays host to the Mahler Conducting Competition from 29th June (albeit behind closed doors and streamed live on YouTube) as a result.

In this way, its possible to see the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people dependent not on the development of a vaccine or the reduction of the R, but instead reliant on those with the power to make small changes to listen to spokespeople from the sector, and for those to be persuasive. Seen from this perspective, the return to live performance should be driven by those with an eye on the science and who can come up with workable solutions. Is the UK industry doing that? I’m genuinely not sure. I’ve not seen obvious evidence of that.

Meeting statement in full

We know you know the terrifying hardship and uncertainty the classical music sector faces. That an entire, complex ecosystem of musicians, composers, behind the scenes creators, managers, technicians, festivals, venues, orchestras, choirs, education & outreach leaders, publishers, marketers etc. are not only unable to work, but unlike many other industries, have absolutely no concept of a timeline to work towards. It is making any semblance of getting back to work, and saving our industry from collapse impossibly and increasingly hard.

However, we are aware that you know the phenomenal contribution arts and culture brings to our GDP, £10.8 billion in GVA (source Arts Council England).

As you’ve already referenced today, we know you recognise the weight and importance our cultural landscape holds, both worldwide and to the British public.

But all of us representing the classical sector today are here to say that with the right financial support, and workable social distancing guidelines, our entire industry is united, ready, prepared, and desperate to get back to doing what we do best.

People all over the country are in need, people are in crisis. Classical music itself is steeped in history and tradition, but we are agile, dedicated and reactive. And we want to help ease people out of this impossibly difficult time. 

There are countless examples we could list of what people and organisations have already been doing, but hopefully you will have been keeping up to date with these.

Looking to the immediate future, there are so many areas of opportunity within which we can work with government, and there is so much we want to offer – individually and collectively. But we can only do so with the right support and collaboration.

We know we can provide national moments of unity and uplift, and a coming together of mass music participation and appreciation.

We can help be a vital part of the emotional and psychological recovery for ALL people of the UK, but in particular for our elderly and vulnerable population.

When unified, we can be an unbelievable force for developing creativity and resilience in our next generation through education.

We can deploy musicians in innovative ways, through digital and inventive performance spaces reaching people in all parts of the country.

And of course, our substantial and growing track record for using music to positive effect in mental health and wellbeing speaks for itself. 

We have all been humbled by this experience, and are more understanding of our role in society than ever.

Morale, creativity and energy will be needed from all walks of life to find ways out of this crisis. It’s not just about managing circumstances in a reactive and stagnant way – let us tap into the part of the brain artists and musicians use all the time. We problem-solve through creating new pathways, and the country desperately needs that right now. 

Please work with us!

But we need money, we need a clear timeline to work to, we need guidelines that are both safe and workable and we hear there’s plenty of evidence specifically pertaining to our industry we are simply not making use of, some of which Sir Simon Rattle speaks more on below. 

– We need meaningful collaboration with creative leaders in the digital field 
– We are willing and indeed desperate to collaborate with scientists and experts and leaders in all fields to ensure we’re on the front foot of what’s possible to do, safely
– We want to look seriously at workable proposals
– We need to work out a timeline and business model for venues. Unlike in many parts of Europe, our venues by and large cannot open without significant support
– And from now until the moment where they can viably open, we still need to be making music for people, wherever that may be. What about licensing agreements to perform in car parks, warehouses, parks, etc.?

What Sir Simon Rattle said DCMS’ Oliver Dowden on post-lockdown orchestral life

Sir Simon Rattle said: “Orchestras need to play and play soon. Like dance companies or footballers, we have to train. We are a collective. We can do a great deal even before we are back in public, but even then, we have to be match ready! However, without workable distancing plans, an orchestra as such will not be a possibility.

On this subject it has been a surprise even for us how little aerosols or droplets are emitted while playing wind instruments, considerably less than normal conversation, for instance. We would ask that wind distances are a generous two meters maximum, and strings just one meter. In this way some kind of return to playing would be practical. The latest Danish scientific calculations suggest 0.5 meters for strings and 1 meter for winds as a perfectly safe arrangement. 

Over the last two weeks I played my first orchestral music in over three months in two European cities: first in Munich, in a studio, very distanced, but with a whole string section followed by a wind section of 13. The winds were 3 metres distant from each other which was like sending smoke messages between mountains: but we played! In Prague we played with a full orchestra, not distanced as everyone had been tested in the previous three days. There was an audience of 500, all masked but sitting together, and most shockingly of all, we shook hands on stage, something I had almost forgotten how to do!

Two different cities with different solutions: but both with scientific underpinning and immense care. And although both cities are further in their COVID journeys, the science remains the same. The aerosols move in the same way wherever they are in the world, which is why I would beg the UK to take note of the very thorough investigations from all over the world, rather than starting from the beginning. In other words, deal with the necessities of orchestral distancing not just the superstitions.

Orchestral rehearsal venues are willing and ready to transform into modern film and recording spaces which can follow the guidelines – but only if the guidelines are not impossible.

And finally, we will need some extra support over the next 12-18 months while we start performing to necessarily smaller, distanced audiences, and transition towards whatever our new world will be.  On the other side of all this, we will be alive and kicking and ready to take on new challenges once more.”

The resilience, work ethic and tenacity of people working in our industry is bountiful and deeply moving.

We really, really do not want to be left behind here, and have our world-class industry fall by the wayside whilst European cultural institutions are being protected.

We shouldn’t be penalised for our increased autonomy and our commercially viable business models. 

We don’t want more money for nothing. We don’t want our lights to stay dark. We want and need cash, support and guidelines in order to GIVE. To give to the public, to help people, to provide solace, comfort, uplift and art.

Fundamentally, we want to work with you. We don’t want to sit and complain and moan. We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs – but to also help lift people out of this awful situation.

Oliver Dowden in the Evening Standard

I’m a little late to the Dowden interview in the Evening Standard.

This late discovery doesn’t change the view expressed in the previous post. If anything the interview only backs it up.

Julian Glover’s interview is a positive profile piece, seeking to project Dowden as the nice guy. The kind of Everyman the arts world strives to appeal to itself.

Quite why the DCMS brief would be described as a ‘backwater’ pre-COVID is lost on me. In the hours after Johnson’s election win last year, there was plenty Brexit-related in the arts world that demanded urgent attention. Culture and sport was at that time far more than just free tickets.

The point of the role is advocacy, surely. Loving football nor any of the other activities in the portfolio isn’t a requirement: understanding how the cultural economy functions and what the needs of its key players are is. You’re required to bang the drum. Loudly. To do that you just need to understand how the system works. You don’t need to love football, nor love opera or classical music. Bottom line: be curious how the ecosystem works then defend it and advocate it with all your heart as though your life depended on it.

And whilst there are good noises made about museums, there’s little of substance offered to live performance venues meaning Dowden has little wriggle room until the 2m rule is removed. I find the line about nobody in the arts world wanting to be paid to do nothing troubling. But hey, maybe that’s what most arts managers are thinking. Maybe I’m speaking to the wrong people. The ones I speak just don’t want their organisations to go to the wall.

I’d hoped for something a little feistier, truth be told.

The (kind of) 2020 Aldeburgh Festival

If memory serves me correctly, 2020 is the first time the 72-year-old Aldeburgh Festival won’t be going ahead. No surprises why. COVID.

This is notable because of the oft-told story of Benjamin Britten’s annual jamboree.

Fire at Snape Maltings Concert Hall back in 1967 on the eve of that year’s festival might have threatened proceedings. It didn’t. Triumph over adversity, etc.

Given the Maltings proximity to the North Sea there were countless occasions when flood could have brought things to an unceremonious end. It didn’t either.

Pestilence? Well. That’s a different story.

It’s easy to focus on the venues and events and the people I know who bring the thing I love to life in London. But when you receive a press release about your second home (I can’t afford a property there – I’d just like to think that at some point I might be able to) telling you what’s planned in the gaping hole created by its festival’s absence, then you’re going to stop, pause and reflect a bit.

Aldeburgh has like a good many other festivals this year, opened up its archive, reached for its digital platform and called upon its friends, associates and former colleagues to help keep the flame alight this year. There are programmes on BBC TV including, finally, a broadcast of Grimes on the Beach from a few years back (if you’ve not seen it YOU MUST), a trawl through the BBC archives for Britten on camera narrated by James Naughtie, and an intriguing invitation to recreate an artwork by John Cage from a few years back where visitors to the town got to hear multiple pieces of music all played at the same time. How delightfully John Cage.  There’s even the opportunity to submit your own memories of the festival for inclusion in a special digital timeline.

That these things are on offer is a lovely thing because they only serve to emphasise how important East Suffolk is to me. The yearning is way too much to bear (without a car to my name I can’t even justify to myself visiting my parents in their garden in West Suffolk, let alone heading to Aldeburgh Beach).

So, these warm gestures, alongside six broadcasts from yesteryear festivals, as well as the epic 1997 Radio 3 broadcast of the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano I have on cassette in my office, will have to suffice.

The Aldeburgh Festival 2020 begins in the hearts and minds of those who miss it on 12 June and runs until 28. Highlights include an ‘Opening Night’ broadcast of Britten on Camera on BBC Four followed by Struan Leslie’s Illuminations – a staging including circus performers of Britten’s Les Illuminations – seen for the first time on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube Channel, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available on BBC iPlayer later this month, and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast six archive performances from Aldeburgh Festival between 19 – 26 June.

BBC Proms 2020 season unveiled – live performances late summer plus a treasure trove of archive delights

I have line of sight of the BBC Proms season for 2020. And you know what, as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be quite happy: archive broadcasts on radio, and BBC iPlayer, plus a cut-down selection of live performances towards the end of the season.

The BBC Proms press release doesn’t reveal too much in writing. No great surprises because .. jeeze .. look what everyone’s grappling with right now. But some stops have been pulled out and in a strange kind of way that makes the summer seem less of a barren landscape than sometimes it does when I try and think beyond today, and tentatively into next week.

For the avoidance of doubt on the part of anyone at the BBC Proms: I’m saying thank you here. I appreciate your efforts.

Live concerts, pending Government direction (don’t hold your breath – that direction hasn’t been great to date), will start up for the end part of the season, including what is billed as a ‘poignant’ Last Night of the Proms to conclude proceedings. Marvellous.

Up until then, the Proms truly is a broadcast festival starting on Friday 17 July, and running until Saturday 12 September. The ‘First Night’ will include a commission by Iain Farrington for a BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

And given the news from the Southbank earlier this week, the Proms may well serve another more pressing need: to reiterate to the naysayers or those who don’t especially care about live music that it remains a critical force in our cultural life and the country’s economy.

It won’t be quite what we’re used to, but it will remind those who need it spelled out, that this cultural experience is not something we can afford to throw away.

Which, now I come to read the press release, is actually what David Pickard, Proms Director thinks too. Great minds think alike.

“These are challenging times for our nation and the rest of the world, but they show that we need music and the creative industries more than ever. This year it is not going to be the Proms as we know them, but the Proms as we need them. We will provide a stimulating and enriching musical summer for both loyal Proms audiences and people discovering the riches we have to offer for the first time.”

BBC Proms 2020 runs from Friday 17 July until Saturday 12 September.

Southbank Centre announces closure risk until at least April 2021

I cannot remember the last time I’ve scrolled through my emails all bleary-eyed in bed only to discover in a split second, reading the header for one incoming press release, that I need to get up immediately, reach for the laptop and start typing furiously.

The top-line messages make for stark and depressing reading. The Southbank Centre has announced it is at risk of closure until at least April 2021, noting that since its closure on 17 March (my that seems like a life away) and despite furloughing the majority of its staff, its reserves have run dry as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19. They expect to face a deficit of £5.1 million at the end of the financial year in 2021.

The Southbank Centre estimates hosting 3,500 events a year, a significant number of which are staged in the Royal Festival Hall – the last remaining iconic symbol of hope from 1951 Festival of Britain, the post-second world war celebration for the nation.

It’s home to eight orchestras, an extensive creative learning programme that reaches young people and families, and supports a variety of communities in need in the surrounding area.

It gets 37% of its income from the Arts Council. The mandatory closure of its revenue stream – the venues, bars and restaurants – has resulted in a loss of 60% of its income. 

The timing of the press release is quite something coming hard on the heels of the most spectacular car crash of a press briefing given by the Prime Minister last night.

Despite calls (even from Brexit Fanboy Steve Baker) for Johnson’s special adviser Lord Voldemort Dominic Cummings to be fired, the Prime Minister doubled-down saying that in driving up to Durham with his family whilst his wife was infected with Coronavirus Cummings was doing his bit to stop the virus spreading.

The event confirmed for nearly everyone in the country with half a brain cell that the instruction to stay home, save lives and save the NHS, didn’t apply to all of us after all, and that despite flagrantly breaking the rules, Boris’ crutch could still stick around and the guidance doesn’t need to change.

We have a leader who is a leader only in name, unable to take decisive action, who is himself being led by a complete fool.

What hope for the arts? The Southbank Centre’s call for urgent government support depressing because of the stark reality that is now before our eyes.

Because if the Prime Minister can’t fire a man whose arrogance and entitlement looks set to undermine a public health campaign at a moment in time when the economy is screwed and shows little sign of recovering anytime soon, then what hope does an arts organisation (and the rest of the UK’s arts economy) have?

None.

The writing is on the wall. Our cultural economy is over, its rapid decline presided over by people who have no clue what they’re doing.  

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra: first out of the traps

In years to come, the pictures capturing the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in front of a live audience will be something of an oddity.

The mask-clad safely-distant attendees will point to a time when things were odd. The pictures will either act as a signpost for when things in the classical music world took a dramatic change of direction, or they’ll act as a trigger for memories of a dark time when the thing we love reminded us how much we had taken it for granted.

Right now, images from that concert (live-streamed and seen by an audience of 2 million) offer a sense of hope: this will come to an end and classical music and opera will start on its road to live performance. It’s also a reminder of the amount of time its likely to take. The gig staged at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Hall was the first concert given to audience since lockdown began – that’s 110 days.

Just last week it was announced that cinemas, libraries, theatres and museums in China were permitted to reopen. That’s nearly four months wait, and even then its to a limited audience. That is how long this is all going to take.

On 23 May the Shanghai Symphony will hold its first concert with a larger ensemble and a conductor – 30-40 musicians playing works by Bartok, Barber and Piazzolla.

As with the marketing dividend of sharing free content during lockdown, so there will be opportunities to exploit being the first ensemble or arts organisation to stage a concert. Those who catch the moment right and anticipate the audience will secure the prize (such as it is). And at some point when social distancing is no longer a requirement, so too the return to live performance as we remember it.

For now, a moment in history. The first people emerging into the sunlight. Nice work, Shanghai Symphony.

Pay it forward to St John’s Smith Square and give 500 free tickets to NHS staff

St John’s Smith Square are a nimble bunch. At least they always seem to be. They respond to the community that surrounds them, reach out to the people who visit them. They appeal to people’s good nature and generous pocket with a firm handshake and a warm smile.

I say that with certainty. That’s partly because of the people I know who work for them: generous of spirit themselves. The warmest of arts administrators. Salt of the earth types.

One such person – senior, important, knowledgable, well-loved – sought out my hand and shook it when we passed at an event a year or so ago. To be clear: I’m a nobody. At least that’s what I think of myself. The people who make things actually happen are the people with the contacts and the budgets. They’re the important people.

So I frequently look on St John’s Smith Square with that memory and other similar social experiences in mind. That’s why not being able to go to concerts is so very difficult now. They’re more than just venues: they’re the site of communities and personalities and connections.

St John’s Smith Square’s latest scheme is characteristically modest in scale, perhaps more realistic than most. It might even more about appealing to its core audience than positioning itself as a destination. Either way, the more I think about the idea the more I warm to St John’s Smith Square.

I think about the NHS friend of mine who works in social care and the other one who treats dialysis patients at Kings. Neither of them have (to the best of my knowledge) set foot in a concert hall, would never consider going to a concert either.

But I love the idea of them both experiencing something new and unexpected as a modest gesture in return for the sacrifice they’ve made and the risk they’ve taken. I can’t guarantee they’d be converted, but I do know they’d appreciate the gesture. Especially if I knew they were heading into a place I call home.

For more info and to give to the campaign, please visit the Crowdfunder page.

London Philharmonic Orchestra announce their digital content in response to COVID-19

The London Philharmonic Orchestra is responding to the COVID-19 crisis with a wide variety of free interactive digital initiatives via a new website LPOnline – Connecting through music.

Three strands feed into the website: a performance ‘space’ featuring live or ‘as live’ performances including short performances from members of the orchestra and the LPO’s Foyle Future Firsts Development Programme and the LPO Junior Artists.  

The first performance event is detailed below.

Thursday 26th March, 7.30pm

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Pieter Schoeman (violin)
Richard Waters (viola)
Kristina Blaumane (cello)

Beethoven ‘Harp’ Quartet (excerpt)
(originally scheduled for performance this week in the QEH)

The LPO are also planning to release playlists of the concert repertoire they were originally planning on playing – each concert will be introduced by a member of the orchestra giving a personal take on what listeners can hear. Audiences will then be able to interact with LPO musicians and staff on the LPO’s social media channels. 

On Saturday 28th March at 7.30pm Edward Gardner, the LPO’s Principal Conductor Designate, will introduce the first concert in this series.

The LPO’s Education & Community department offers a range of learning and experiential resources and activities for audiences, supporting instrumental and creative music learning, plus materials for schools, families and disability settings.

And, as you’d expect, the orchestra will also tap into the specialist knowledge and experience of its musicians, and provide behind the scenes insights of the experience of musicians responding and reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid the grimness of the current lockdown (lightened in Lewisham, London by the blue skies and warm spring sunshine) it is good to see orchestras (those with the resources) responding so resolutely to the crisis everyone is experiencing.

One wonders whether there will at the end of it be a greater appreciation of the role that orchestras and musicians play in the cultural life of this country, not just because so much content has been made freely available so readily and so swiftly. Such efforts also serve to remind us of the hole that could be left if that community – especially the self-employed musicians that are a part of it – was no longer supported.

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

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

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

Live Experience is highly prized

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 23rd March (Mozart Mondays)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.