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.

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.

A new URL for the Thoroughly Good Blog

Just recently the Thoroughly Good Blog over at www.thoroughlygood.me has been subject to a malware hack. It’s not massively serious, although it does make browsing around the blog a bit of a faff. Not ideal.

So, I’ve started to rebuild a fresh version of the blog here at http://blog.thoroughlygood.me.

There are some 1540 blog posts to migrate across to the new home. So it is going to take a bit of time.

But, seeing as I’ve been publishing on this platform since 2009, it’s probably a good opportunity to strip out the dross and revisit some of the good stuff.

I’m going to work on it week to week – you’ll see the archive posts appear in the sidebar, month by month.

This will be the blog’s new home from now on, with some of my other content production and training and development services coming online in the next few weeks.

Sorry for the partial inconvenience.

Until things settle down, its probably best to follow Thoroughly Good on Twitter or Facebook.

You’ll find the podcasts published on Audioboom and Spotify.

Jonathan Dove

Composer Jonathan Dove and Thoroughly Good Podcast contributor awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List

Well.

Would you look at the influence the Thoroughly Good Podcast has now.

Latest contributor – adorably excited composer Jonathan Dove – features in the Queen’s birthday honours list. He’s being made a CBE. Coo.

It was a pleasure to meet the man. All very last minute and a complete surprise, but an invitation I snapped up too.

Listen to the Thoroughly Good Podcast with Jonathan Dove on Audioboom.

Trombonist Kris Garfitt wins Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final 2019

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Guildhall School graduate Kris Garfitt secured the coveted Gold Medal (and a £15K prize) at the Royal Overseas League Final last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London with dazzling theatrics, charming modesty, and seemingly effortless musicianship.

His programme includeD pieces by Ropartz, Weber, and an entertaining showpiece by Folke Raba called Basta.

Chief judge (and the only man I know of who looks good in a spotty bow tie) Gavin Henderson led a considerable collection of eminent judges, and made good use of his platform before announcing the winner to draw attention to the ever-increasing demands student musicians face. A bleak future awaits those of us who take for granted the opportunity to peer at new musical talent year after year. The Royal Overseas League competition does much to fill the financial gap for a handful of the most talented.

My money was – no statement on the actual winner – on 22-year-old violinist Roberto Ruisi. Self-assured with a solid tone, out of all of the performers Ruisini took me on a journey throughout his unaccompanied Bartok sonatas. Some slips early on, eclipsed by remarkably focussed playing that come unassuming end left me hanging on a thread.

I enjoyed 24-year-old bass William Thomas thoughtfully put together programme, and in particular the opener, Brahms’ Feldeinsamkeit. Throughout his time on stage Thomas widened eyes and set hearts beating faster with a rich warm sound and precise delicate articulation. Sometimes his voice felt a little under-powered in the QEH acoustic and occasionally vowels sounded like they needed opening out at the top of his range. There warm a gratifying simplicity to his stage presence which made a possible contender for me.

Where Thomas built his programme around his strengths, pianist Joseph Havlat presented a programme which illustrate his personality as an artist. His was an unassuming presence on stage; expectations were subverted by Havlat’s dry humour in Poulenc’s playful Promenades.

The eye-catching performances of the evening were perhaps from those who had already won their categories, those showcasing whilst judges deliberated.

The Miras Trio are super-charged musicians who play with a mature kind of musicianship that belies their age. Electrifying as they were, it was The Hermes Experiment who stole the show. I’ve seen their continued rise on social media – evidence if raw talent, focus and enviable commitment – and assumed that they’ve already secured their position in the industry. I’m hoping that participation in ROSL helps widen their platform. Every performer brings an infectious energy to the stage and, speaking as a lapsed clarinettist, Oliver Pashley’s tone, articulation and all-round Pied Piper-iness is compelling. If you’re at one of their gigs and they’re asking for requests, be sure to ask for Meredith Monk’s Double Fiesta. Vocalist Heloise Werner is a marvel performing the Iberian-infused scat.

Overall this was well-produced event too. Speeches were short and punchy, with all but the most important prize winner left for the post-performance presentation.

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Music in Summer Air Festival: there are other worlds out there

One press release about a music festival on the other side of the world triggers all manner of questions about a little known subject

At (yet another) febrile moment in the UK’s politics when a remainer Prime Minister clings on to power in a desperate bid to get her questionable Brexit deal over the line and cast the country off into the brave new world of global trade, news from China has piqued my interest.

Earlier this week International Trade Secretary Liam Fox sought to demonstrate his efforts in selling the UK’s strengths to the world with an announcement about how British music was ..

And yesterday, an announcement that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s 10th Music in the Summer Air Festival (2 – 15 July) featuring a selection of high profile UK classical music brands are venturing east to put their best foot forward.

I’m intrigued by the announcement. Not cynical. Obviously.

It’s more evidence of a strategy people were trumpeting at the ABO conference in Cardiff back in January 2018. Whilst most were picking over the various permuatations surrounding Brexit (they were, inevitably, doing a similar thing this year and will no doubt next year too), some management types were encouraging their peers to look further afield.

At the time this challenging outlook appeared pragmatic. Now I see it realised in another China-related announcement, its less of novelty and more of a thing that’s actually happening.

What raises my eyebrows is the way the existence of an familiar market on the other side of the world challenges my assumptions about classical music audiences across the world.

For all the understandable worry and lobbying around the catastrophic impact of Brexit, there are some in the industry who have done the only thing they think they can and seized the opportunity that greets them. What I’m interested in is who the audience is that the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony are pursuing out in China.

What is it about that market that is so appealing? Is it altruism? Is culture being used to deepen international relations? Or are there financial gains to be made, channels to be dug, and new audiences to be tempted? And what does the appetite for western classical music in the East say about the popularity of the music that originates from China? Where did that appeal originate? And what is Chinese symphonic music? Who are the people who are attending these concerts? What is the appeal to them? And how does the appeal they perceive for the music in China help compare to the classical music world here in the UK and the US, for example?

The NY Phil and the BBC Symphony aren’t the first of course. Far from it. The LSO went to China last year (albeit with a considerable array of developmental partners, suggesting that a tour of China is far from a cash cow). So too the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Halle. The London Philharmonic was the first to visit China in 1973.

These are the kind of questions that fly around when another press release arrives in your inbox referencing China at the same time the UK is vacillating over a European outlook versus the supposed tantalising opportunities presented by free trade deals across the world. It’s probably a podcast. Or at best a series of interviews. Who knows, even an article for someone.

Music in Summer Air marks the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra‘s 140th anniversary and features a series of concerts given by China’s oldest orchestra, many of which will be in the Shanghai Symphony Hall which, now I search for pictures of it on Google, appears to be utterly gorgeous.

Very pleased to see composer Raymond Yiu making an appearance on the programme with his work Xocolatl in what amounts to a Last Night of the Proms-esque type programme with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Davis. Also good for Colin Currie and his band of merry percussionists taking Steve Reich to Shanghai.

The programme as a whole isn’t going to scare the horses. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mozart and Britten.

My attention is particularly drawn to the Shanghai Youth Orchestra appearances, because its there that some of the answers to that stream of questions could be found.

Music in Summer Air runs from 2nd – 15th July 2019 in Shanghai, China