Jess Gillam's Virtual Scratch Orchestra Logo

Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra set to record Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride

News this week that Jess Gillam is launching another lockdown virtual scratch orchestra brought a smile to my face.

As role models go Gillam’s activity throughout 2020 in response to COVID has been impressive, acting as a beacon for young musicians and amateurs alike.

That along with her obvious industry, determination and spirit, not only maintains Gillam in the education and entertainment worlds, but also injects a little bit of hope and sparkle at a time when its needed most. The Let it Be mashup from a few weeks ago, even if you assume the lockdown style won’t be compelling on a first glimpse, does tickle the tear ducts come the final chorus.

Her latest project calls on musicians across the world to submit video recordings of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride using music downloaded from the Virtual Scratch Orchestra website. All audio will be used in the final mashup, along with some of the video.

Set against the global pandemic and the economic crisis its brought about, Gillam’s marketing narrative in 2020 has shaken off the initial record-label fuelled contrivance it seemed to have pre-COVID. Her education work makes her relevant and relatable, just by virtue of it being needed and appreciated right now.

This combined with her second album released this year – Time – featuring a carefully selected running order of music suited to her instrument illustrates Gillam’s increasing maturity as a musician and an educator.

For more information on Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra visit her website.

My new pal: Beethoven’s violin concerto

Meet my new pal: Beethoven’s violin concerto. I was originally a little unsure of it when I first came across it. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky. Or Mendelssohn. Or Brahms. It seemed heavier, laden with I don’t know what. Much deference seemed to be paid to it. And it was long. Very long.

Something has changed in the intervening years.

It’s still epic. Other worldly. Beyond comparison. The only difference now is that the way it basically shits over everyone else’s concerto, makes it the go-to work. The preferred work.

A lot of that is down to perhaps the most powerful insight I acquired during a symposium I attended in Oxford last year (or was it this year?): that Beethoven is the master of variation.

Right up until that point it hadn’t even dawned on me that at its heart, put in its simplest terms, Beethoven takes the smallest musical idea and runs with it, ringing as much out of it in as many permutations as he can possibly muster. And, when you stumble on that its very difficult not to see that every time you hear anything by Beethoven. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is confirmation bias. Yay.

The London Mozart Players performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto directed by soloist Jonian Ilias Kadesha was a daring endeavour it seemed to me. Such an epic work surely demands more than chamber forces and insists upon a conductor to ensure cohesion?

Not so it seems. Such slavish attention to convention in terms of orchestral forces is a reflection of the very deference rife in the classical music world which perhaps will in years to come be seen to have been eradicated by the pragmatism stoked by a pandemic-driven economic crisis.

Kadesha’s topline strategy was making a virtue of these reduced forces, utilising extreme dynamic contrasts to draw the listener in closer and closer to each individual statement. Placed deep in the heart of the strings (far further back than would normally be the case in a performance with a conductor), sometimes it felt like we struggled to hear Kadesha.

No matter. Kadesha’s secret weapons were his cadenzas. The first: a sort of rock odyssey pulling in various composers (Tchaikovsky’s concerto was without doubt referenced, though the rest moved so quickly I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were). The second (in the third movement): amounted to new material with inventive orchestrations for the upper strings that widened the eyes and delighted the soul.

Kadesha and the LMP’s performance was exactly what was needed. Cruelly well-timed too. Before the concert (which also included a cracking Coriolanus Overture by the way) LMP director Julia Debruslais stood up to speak to the small but perfectly formed audience, who informed us of one subscriber who had, in the weeks since buying her ticket, died.

Jonian Ilias Kadesha’s performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto with the London Mozart Players is available to watch from 15 November 2020. Ticket and season subscription access information available on the LMP Classical Club website.

Listen to a Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast with violinist Maxim Vengerov.

Some thoughts on the new wave of digital classical music concerts

Over the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed watching a host of new concert series online. I wanted to use this blog post to document what I’ve enjoyed, why I’ve enjoyed it, and share some thoughts on what could do with being improved a bit.

What follows isn’t exhaustive. There’s a problem when you start scribbling about what you think – it triggers further thoughts which need to be thought through and documented.

If you’re in a hurry, these are the main points I’m exploring in this post:

  • What’s been good in the digital realm over the past few weeks?
  • Why has it appealed to me?
  • What needs to change?

What’s been good recently?

Be sure to watch the London Mozart Players from Fairfield Halls playing Mendelssohn’s Italian. The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Marquee TV series has packed a visual punch – the Messiaen (Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum) from last week was stunning. Music at Malling‘s excellent Classical Kicks pre-record fronted by the brilliant Lizzie Ball is compelling. And without doubt, City of London Sinfonia’s utterly charming Goldberg Variations from Southwark Cathedral is definitely worth a look. Also take time to experience Opera Holland Park’s video on demand option – the distribution method makes for a seamless user experience.

These aren’t billed as critically acclaimed performances necessarily – more examples of the kind of content I’ve appreciated over the past few weeks.

Why has it been good?

These experiences have been satisfying because they’ve appeared authentic and sincere. They’ve not tried to substitute live performance, but instead striven to create a digital experience.

A lot of this is down to polished videography (angles, lighting, editing techniques, and sound mix), but its also down to the presence and plausibility of those people that appear in it.

Put very simply, everyone is in the business of making TV now. Those who actively choose simplicity (not in itself an easy thing to design) are delivering a quality experience that creates value for money.

What needs to change?

Again, for busy people, here’s a summary of thoughts:

  • Build the digital experience from the idea of it being something translated, rather than pretending it’s a direct equivalent of the live experience.
  • Visuals and storytelling are central to maintaining attention digital concerts throughout
  • Reflect the small details of the live experience in vision – these will trigger memories of live in the audience (the video equivalent of short story writing)
  • Administrators need to shift their thinking and overcome resistance – digital concerts are opportunities to experiment with storytelling
  • Audiences need to adjust their expectations: compelling digital concerts aren’t intended to be substitutes for live, they’re a different offering
  • Marketing and communications need to create stories around the release of these recordings that create a sense of occasion around virtual
  • Pay close attention to the user experience and user journey
  • Confusing labelling creates barriers
  • Strive for the seamless, simplest, and quickest user journey
  • Sector-wide collaboration on a uniform experience

Think of it a translation not an equivalent

Part of the resistance to digital streams both from a production and consumer perspective is down to an assumption that digital is a trying to be an acceptable like-for-like equivalent to the live classical music experience. This sets up an expectation that will never be met. Digital concerts (like TV) aren’t the same as live. Why are we trying to make out that they are? Why does anyone think they are? The two are different containers for the same music. What is delivered via a digital concert is different from what is experienced in the concert hall, just as radio is different to TV. Because that expectation is there, disappointment will always follow. Resistance sets in. On the production side that results in people either not embracing the storytelling opportunities; on the audience side that results in people experiencing disappointment when they do sign up and watch a digital concert, assuming they sign up at all.

Visuals and storytelling are doing the heavy-lifting

As an audience member who longs for the live experience to return, I figured I would end up in that resistance camp. However, I’ve been surprised about how quickly I’ve adjusted to looking out for different details in pre-recorded digital content. This means that the visual element needs to delight the eyes in terms of visual design, direction and storytelling.

The LPO does this well capitalising on the interior front of house shots to set the scene, bathing the interior of the Royal Festival Hall with light to create a cinematic feel to the finished product. Slow-motion introductions of conductors walking to the stage set the tone, reduce the heart rate, creating a sense of anticipation in the viewer. This, for me, is the digital equivalent of walking in through the venue doors, up the stairs, handing my ticket to the usher and heading to my seat. The language necessary to convey a sense of occasion has adapted to fit the size of the aperture we look at the content through.

Look for the detail on stage

A wide side shot of an orchestra isn’t the primary shot anymore, the cutaway is. I found myself looking out for detail that elevates my perception I’m present in the space – small detail in shots which give a human quality to the experience. Over-the-shoulder effortlessly achieves this, so too capturing those moments when players exchange glances with one another. More demonstrative players (so long as they’re authentic and sincere in their movements) help drive energy too and hint to me that even though all of this is a bit weird for everyone at the moment, the performers I’m watching are in the moment, are doing the thing we’d expect of them. The London Mozart Players have achieved this well working with Apple and Biscuit on their video production. Similarly, the Philharmonia’s Benedetti/Classic FM production from Battersea Arts Centre. Authentic expression translates well on camera.

What digital has to do is look for those elements in the live performance which can be translated into a digital experience. We’re not pointing the camera at the stage in order that a wide angle shot will capture the experience, but instead creating a version of that ‘as live’ experience for consumption within the context of the digital world. Digital video is graduating: everybody is expected to make TV now.

Audiences need to look for a (digital) sense of occasion

What is clear to me is that audience expectations need to shift too.

The sense of occasion created by a visit to the bar, a meal or a chat with friends beforehand isn’t going to be easily translatable into the digital world. But I’ve been surprised by how quickly I’ve come to accept the idea of a concert’s premiere time as a kind of broadcast time. I know whose concert is available on what day and, although it might sound a bit quaint to admit it, I look forward to those moments. If I can’t watch then, I will and have ended up setting aside a block of time when I can watch it on the TV at the weekend, for example. And what’s interesting for me is that this is a deliberate choice – time I’ve actively blocked out for me. I don’t normally do that. It’s not a substitute for the joy of going to a concert hall – no one is suggesting otherwise – but for the time being its bringing me closer to a series of ensembles and their seasons. And in some cases I’m perhaps even more aware of what each orchestra has programmed because I have it at my fingertips.

This idea of ‘digital occasion‘ maybe a difficult concept to embrace, especially if an assumption is held that what’s being created is attempting to be an equivalent. As an audience member I recognise the experience isn’t comparable, but it is an alternative I’ve unexpectedly grown accustomed to.

Its Marcomms’ moment

Creating that sense of occasion is the work of marketing and communications. Now more than ever before comms professionals are playing a key role in creating a sense of anticipation around a virtual event. Announcements need to underpinned by a sense of self-belief and self-confidence. Language must have any hint of self-doubt edited out. A sense of continuity needs to be maintained – normal service has resumed, even if the delivery and product has adjusted somewhat. Some organisations and individuals are already doing this – the communications for Snape, LMP, LPO are good examples, though this list isn’t exhaustive. This isn’t in itself a massive shift in practise I don’t think – by and large marcomms professionals have been doing this for years with album releases and TV PR. The point is that for this present time more PRs are having to share announcements about audio/visual recordings. Finding the potential news line that command attention is the challenge. Marcomms have the biggest challenge right now.

Pay close attention to the user experience

The Marcomms challenge will be made easier when the end-user’s online experience is made more uniform, and aligned to other digital entertainment experiences. Failure to do so will mean the digital concert experience won’t be a viable option for classical music fans and UK orchestras will end up relying on conventional distribution methods.

I’ve experienced a range of user experiences over the past few weeks. Very few have been seamless.

Confusing labelling creates barriers

It’s seemingly small detail like button labelling, user journeys, page load times, website navigation bars, and search functions that create resistance. Same principal as website design. I’m also including hardware connectivity in this too, that is what device is the user watching this on and how easy is it to connect it to an external device like a TV?

Those who class themselves as early adopters will be the most at ease with purchase experiences on the internet. Those who followed will now be accustomed (without even realising it) or the steps one goes through to buy a book, or order online supermarket deliveries, or select something to watch from Netflix or iPlayer. These repeat experiences set up expectations in the mind of anyone who is using the internet, such that as users we look for recognisable signposts which not only signal what we need to do next to get the thing we want, but also to reassure us before we’ve even embarked on the purchase process that this is something we’re prepared to commit to in pursuit of the product we think we might want (in this case, a digital concert).

Strive for the simplest, quickest, and seamless user journey

A poor user experience creates barriers to the end goal – access to the concert. If there’s already a perceived resistance to engaging with the concert because we assume that it won’t be the same as being there in the concert hall, then those barriers appear even bigger in our perception.

If the user you’re targeting is in an older demographic and has little or no experience of using the internet let alone connecting their mobile device or laptop to a TV, then the barriers are going to present themselves as some kind of mountain range.

That means that purchase experiences for these digital experiences need to be uniform. Users need to have a rough idea of what they can expect before they embark on the process. The barriers need to be removed. Prior to COVID the classical music world was tying itself in knots trying to address the perceived barriers of access to and appeal of the physical space and content. Now some parts of the sector need to address the digital barriers which are stopping users from completing the user journeys which will deliver the revenue they’re looking for. This is before we get onto the subject of pricing.

Join forces to create a uniform user experience

I believe there’s a need for arts organisations to collaborate to create a uniform user experience, one that is aligned with that experienced on the likes of Netflix, Amazon or the BBC. There needs to be uniform archive strategy of content too which, combined with this improved seamless user experience will serve up assets to consumers and drive up revenues as a result. That doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel, but instead pooling resources, drawing on development already made in other parts of the entertainment industry, in order to create a uniform product.

When this is addressed, then adjusting to an additional ‘concert’ experience is something the user will do (even without even realising it). At that point it makes the work of marketing and communications not only easier but ever more important in drawing attention to new products.

It would be all too easy to dismiss digital streaming as a poor substitute (as I’ve seen a few other commentators do right now) for the live experience. I don’t think anyone should thinking of this process as trying to create a subsitute, but instead the beginning of a journey where an enhanced digital experience is the end goal. Orchestras, ensembles and other arts organisations are at the beginning of this journey, their hands forced by the impact COVID has had on the most obvious way they connect with audiences. That so many have readily and swiftly pivoted is a real testament to the kind of resolve creative individuals are renowned for. But the next stage in development is vital if digital audiences are going to join arts organisations on the journey.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2020

Finally. Amid a global pandemic, the audience gets the credit it deserves.

It’s not the same. Not by any means. But, still the opening night of this year’s highlights-driven Proms season arrived with some sense of anticipation, signposted at the top of the day with a Facebook-generated memory of me pictured in the arena waiting for the First Night to start in 2009.

Later, an unexpected invitation to preview Ian Farrington’s fun-filled Beethovenmania – a season-opening commission that mashed-up all of Beethoven’s best-loved melodies. It’s a gorgeous thing to watch (you can see it on BBC Four on Sunday 19 July 2020) which depicts 350+ musicians and singers trapped in their lockdown view playing the music whilst two dancers rip off their masks and gig about to the music. It’s a tear-jerking thing which unexpectedly got me in the mood.

Come the actual First Night broadcast some of that infectious energy was inevitably lacking. Georgia Mann and Petroc Trelawny valiantly compensated with to and fro, plus some contributions from performers ‘down the line’.

But, in its place a strange unexpected feeling as a listener: a perception driven by a moment in a radio schedule – a day, a month, perhaps even the air temperature; the idea that Proms regulars are all coalescing around speakers to relive a shared memory.

Why else would I look forward to listening to a series of pre-recorded links and archive broadcasts, if I knew none of it was actually going on up the road, if not to reconnect with a cavalcade of broadcast-related memories?

In the absence of the actual event, memories were driving me to listen. The warmth in the listening experience wasn’t only down the content (the music) but the way the contrived event stirred concertinaed memories and recollections.  

Ian Farrington’s Beethoveniana

Farrington’s commission was a rip-roaring joyous musical celebration of all things Beethoven, neatly capturing recognisable melodies and subverting them with a series of musical theatre and movie medley style variations and settings. There was a whiff of Nigel Hess’ mastery in Farrington’s score. I also heard bits of former BBC music director Victor Hely-Hutchison’s harmonic style too. There was something effortlessly pleasing about the whole thing that got this rather odd year underway with a much-needed flourish. Jaw-dropping efficiency. Watch out for the choral element – those harmonies tickle the melancholy gland.

LISTEN TO IAN FARRINGTON’S BEETHOVENIANA

Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 / Igor Levit / 2017

What became obvious pretty quickly to me during Igor Levit’s taut and electrifying performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was the sound world of the Proms-world. Regardless of whether you’re one of those tiresome purists who relishes a debate about the declining quality of Albert Hall sound mixes and the like, there is a distinct Proms ‘live’ sound. It’s different from studio recordings and live concert captures. What I hear on the archive broadcast is the ‘space’ of the Royal Albert Hall, itself a contrivance. And yet it transports me in an instant. There is in that imagined space a grand sense of occasion, inclusion, warmth and acceptance. A projection of a kind of egalitarianism. And I miss it (we’ll go into that in later posts).

Audience as unlikely but valued artists

And there are coughs. And warm applause. I can hear evidence of real life in between the first and second movements of the Beethoven. Never in my concert-going and listening experience have I wanted to hear more coughing, not less. The sound from the audience reminds me what we’re striving for: a viable return to live performance.

From this delicate almost painful soundscape emerges a hard-fought opening chord at the piano at the beginning of the second movement. The response from the orchestra sets the mood in a fragile state. There are moments when I imagine myself inside the Royal Albert Hall listening to it there, at which point it all gets a bit too raw and I have to back away.

Such passion and enthusiasm is the enemy of accessibility

This is all tempered by the thoughts and feelings I’m still grappling with. I’ve spent way too much time in the company of people for whom wax lyrical about why music moves me is evidence of me being elitist. As though my passion and enthusiasm and joy at responding to the music I love is the very thing that is casting a shadow over them. I find myself feeling guilty at wanting to articulate the enormous joy I experience in the moment hearing all of these textures in this contrived aural ‘space’. That’s gaslighting. Isn’t it?

I’m struggling with it now as a I embark on 6 weeks of listening to archive Proms broadcasts. Advocacy is seen by some I know as a threat. A danger. How can something that brings joy even in the darkest times for whatever reason be such a threatening thing? And why am I still feeling guilty about it? Unless of course it’s because you feel jealous.

In praise of the London Mozart Players

This weekend feels like one of those important transition times. This partly down to the government eagerness getting us back to the good-old-British-pub, the busy-ness of the nearby South Circular, and the comfort our neighbours display welcoming a considerable number of pals into their garden this afternoon, people who are quite happy hugging and stroking one another – people I’ve not seen from my office window over the past three months. This is the kind of person I’ve turned into. Give me six months I’ll be reading the Daily Mail and ringing the police on a daily basis.

Others have moved on. I haven’t. Because in my head there are some who feel a little left behind. Friday saw Johnson tease a timeline announcement. Might there be hope? Maybe. As I’ve said before, when the people I care about – the art form I depend on – return to something like a solution for working, then I’ll feel more at ease with this idea that we’re ‘emerging’ from a global pandemic.

Until then, classical music is dependent on the videographer, digital content producer, marketing person and PR.

Not a bad segue as segues go.

It’s worth flagging the efforts of London Mozart Players in all of this. I think their efforts may well go overlooked, possibly because of their scale. I want to write about their achievements because I think that they are one of a handful of classical music endeavours who have amidst all of this craziness consistently surprised me.

My connection with them is (in my head) quite loose. A few years back I interviewed Howard Shelley for a podcast. He was charming and a captivating contributor. Since then, I’ve received emails from LMP’s lovely PR Jo, interviewed some players and former conductors, and three months ago set up a content partnership with the band for Scala Radio Online as they headed into lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong. Not exactly an earth-shattering strategy. More like working with people to capture a moment in time from the perspective of those who were experiencing it.

At the same time, I was impressed by their nimbleness as an organisation. It was almost as though they had anticipated the sudden change in fortune. Someone had made plans for a variety of different digital treatements whilst the orchestra’s core talent – the players – were denied a platform to play together.

They weren’t, of course, the only organisation to do this. But they were one of only a handful who appeared to respond quickly – pivoting effortlessly – delivering a broad range of content digitally.

Part of that willingness, I think, comes from a determined spirit rooted in the band’s psyche. Listen to the interview with Exec Director Julia Desbruslais in the Thoroughly Good Fairfield Halls podcast to get a sense of that unshakeable determination.

Where’s my evidence? It’s anecdotal, predictably. It’s to do with the responsive of individuals, the readiness to meet the needs of various third parites. Willingness. Determination. Spirit.

I interface (sorry, I can think of no other word that helps here) with one individual for LMP: their PR, Jo Carpenter. What many PRs forget is that they are as much the face of the organisation they represent as the organisation themselves and their output. That means that as someone who could write about the organisation they represent, they need to epitomise it. Something magical happens when the right PR is aligned with the right organisation. There are others (in case they’re reading – Rebecca J, Kenny, Tessa, Rebecca D, Nicky and George). Rapport is what drives this key relationship. I will, assuming I’m of value, as a content producer do whatever I can if the rapport is there. In this world, where everyone is thinking they need to cut back everything, remain convinced that the PR is vital to raising awareness of an arts organisation’s activities, strategies, and success.

What LMP has demonstrated to me is that self-confidence, determination, and knowing the right people will pay dividends. Also an understanding of the impact storytelling can have on a digital platform.

Because really, the sight of a group of masked string players (the full concert comes with a co-partnership with another radio station, though 360 Elgar with Tasmin Little is a Scala Radio digital promo), the majority of them women too (one in the eye of anyone who reckons classical is pale, male and stale), is nailing a number of different messages: we’re here; we’re getting on with it; we won’t be beaten by your nonsense – not any of you; and when the time comes we can charge for tickets we’ll appreciate the money you part with.

Borlotti Buitoni’s deft piece of comms

An unexpected delivery today through the letterbox. A spongy brown envelope in which was a tote bag and a face mask.

Inventive marketing I thought. Arresting communications, as I retrieved the Borlotti Buitoni Trust branded mask and bag.

I’ll admit that I still don’t like wearing a mask. It’s dehumanising. I hate not seeing other people’s smiles. Face masks feel like prisons. Middle class prison.

But it’s a punchy medium. Imagine having your key message emblazoned across someone else’s face. What would that message be? What would you say to others?

The bag was on reflection a far more sobering experience. I peered at the names printed on either side. A handful were familiar to me: previous podcastees; previous discoveries.

The inevitable questions arose. How are they faring? When will I hear them perform again? Will it really be next year at the earliest?

Yes. It will. And what I learned today is that there’s still a significant number of people who think that the money musicians earn from their craft is so small and insignificant as to not be worth banging the drum for.

That’s the next challenge. We need to go old school. We need to build more momentum. From the ground up. This campaign is a marathon not a sprint.

Ignorance, ineptitude, and inverse snobbery

I watched BBC Parliament Live today. I haven’t watched BBC Parliament since Brexit late-2019.

At one point the Leader of the Commons in his baggy double-breasted suit stood up to respond to Peter Bone’s (remember him?) nauseating platitudes about ‘English cricket’. If ever there was indisputable evidence of a gleeful sense of privilege and self-entitlement here it was.

Later, Rees-Mogg responded to a Conservative and then Labour MP about a call for a debate about how best to support the arts during the easing of lockdown. Twice came the response: “The Secretary of State is aware of the problems some areas of the economy are suffering.”

That’s all the arts gets in response to its present situation.

Elsewhere this week I’ve been reminded of the spectacular inverse snobbery that exists in the classical music world. For those keen to introduce the classical music canon to those who assume its not for them, there persists a view that being an advocate who knows anything about the classical music world is in itself A Bad Thing. Yes, there are those who believe that the problem with classical music is those who love classical music.

Imagine it for a moment. You’re someone who loves the thing you advocate. But there are those on one side who judge you for not knowing enough (because you didn’t go to Cambridge or Oxford), and even more unaware individuals who judge you even more harshly for following your passion and sating your appetite in a particular chosen field. Self-knowledge and first-person advocacy is an even worse educational crime it seems.

Imagine transposing that situation onto a film buff. No one unsure what film to watch at the cinema would actively criticise a film fan en-route to purchasing their ticket for knowing ‘too much’ about the medium they’re passionate about. You’d have to be a complete arsehole to dismiss anyone who knew less than you standing in the same queue. Why is there significantly less snobbery about film, but so much persistent snobbery about classical music? And is that inverse snobbery classical music (and possibly the wider-arts) biggest problem? And if it is, when did that start?

And given the situation I observed this afternoon as I glared at Jacob Rees-Mogg postulating about the joys of cricket and goading his opponents over which county will win when the game does start up again, why is this ignorance so pervasive when so many musicians livelihoods are under threat? Shouldn’t even the most ignorant and inarticulate have worked out by now that regardless of what music you play, the fact that you play music for money means its the economy you exist in that is worth supporting?

It seems not.

I am rudderless. Disconnected. Unrepresented in the present climate. And the focus of my attention seems still focussed on Westminster.

Earlier this week I trialled a coaching workshop – a session to help managers and those they interact with communicate more effectively face-to-face. I worked with a musician friend of mine to introduce the basics of coaching to friends and associates.

It was a collaborative experience. It was also dynamic in that I was responding to what was going on in the group (hence why often the best thing for a plan is for the plan to be left to one side). At its simplest level it was a teaching experience – an opportunity to share skills which I often take for granted. Skills which at the same time also have provided me with life-changing experiences. I was reminded at the end of it that I’d wanted to be a teacher.

I’ve written about why I wanted to be a teacher and why it didn’t happen in longer form in a previous post. For those that haven’t read that, it’s the pervasive thoughts about Westminster which are probably most relevant here.

A few weeks ago a colleague offered to facilitate an introduction to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson (this after I had explained to the colleague, and on a blog post, how a Department for Education wonk back in 1994 had judged me unfit to teach children on account of being a perceived ‘threat’). I thanked the colleague for the consideration and the kind offer, later concluding to myself that Williamson’s politics made it unlikely I could even respond to an email from the man let alone expect a favourable review of my case.

The Wonk’s decision-making back in 1994 aligned with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s disdainful response to reqeusts for arts support meld into one ball of unmanageable vileness that I’m now, metaphorically speaking, throwing in the direction of Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I can’t and won’t blame him for everything. I’m not a complete arsehole. He’s, like Rupert Christiansen rather clumsily suggested earlier today, basically a good man.

But why do the things we cherish, the things we strive for, the things that make sense for all – why do they get trampled on so brutally?

What I conclude the day thinking as I try to wrestle with all of these seemingly disparate thoughts, is this.

People hate passion. They despise enthusiasm. They are threatened by it.

In the face of these seemingly intimidating traits the majority devolve personal responsibility, reaching instead for tired tropes or misformation to mask their own ignorance and insecurities. The things that bring us long-lasting meaningful pleasure – the thing we want others to experience in a similar way to us – are the very things that the majority look down their noses at because they think its more difficult to experience than it really is.

Why should I feel guilty for that?

As long as that view is prevalent there is little point in trying to get people to experience the arts or even entertain the idea of it: the people who make the decisions will trample on the very thing we hold dear.

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.

UK orchestras in a post-lockdown world: a warning shot from The Guardian, and a hint of resilience and determination from The Times

Charlotte Higgin’s article in The Guardian “‘We could go to the wall in 12 weeks’ – are we just going to let classical music die?” makes for grim if not entirely unsurprising reading. It also makes the prospect of any series of concerts broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall in late summer look a little like the UK orchestral’s scene a macabre kind of last hurrah, especially if as the Royal Albert Hall and the Southbank Centre have signalled recently, their days are numbered if action isn’t taken soon.

Higgins lays it on the line:

“There is a deep contrast beginning to open up between the UK and much of continental Europe. For our neighbours, public investment in culture is much greater, and organisations are less reliant on box-office income, so the Covid-19 crisis is not an existential one, as it is in the UK. And there has been silence from the upper echelons of government.” 

There is an irony to the timing to the piece (or maybe in reality it was in reaction to last week’s much-needed circling around DCMS Secretary of State tweet quoting a rather meaningless statistic about young people listening to orchestral music).

Dowden said: “Our culture and creativity are Britain’s greatest strengths so I want them to be open to all. Really encouraging stat from @BBCArts. #CultureinQuarantine about how younger people are turning to orchestral music during lockdown.”

You’d think that someone with a portfolio like Dowden’s would think twice before putting a tweet out like that (or that whoever is running his social media for him would make sure both they and him are across his brief). Quite apart from the fact that the figure appears not to be attributed to anything or anybody, the story that isn’t told by the spectacular grandstanding here is that orchestras can’t perform if the venues where they can drive revenue can’t open.

But of course, they can’t because no one in government really gives a shit.

Elsewhere in the press, Neil Fisher from The Times reports on Grange Opera and highlights a finer point which may be overlooked by a lot of people, the challenge presented by venues being in the locations they are and the impact that has on the willingness of audience in a post-lockdown world to travel there.

“Concert halls may have the infrastructure, and the BBC the players, but their very location in city centres works against them. “How are people going to get to a theatre in the middle of London?” asks Brabbins, thinking of the Coliseum, the home of English National Opera (ENO). Which is why the Theatre in the Woods may present at least an interim solution. There are no public foyers for dangerous mingling, there are ample car-parking spaces and it’s only about an hour’s drive from central London.”

The article confirms what I’d thought a few months back that there will be a critical point in the narrative when classical has a different story to tell – the struggle to get back to their normal – and the opportunities that offers for various different ensembles (and their PR staff) to tell a story and raise awareness. Abbey Road Studios were first out of the traps last week with a strangely uplifting selection of social media posts which gave a little hope for the future.

Grange Opera’s coverage from Fisher essentially promos a video production of a performance for streaming on the internet later in the month – part of its ‘Found Season’ substituting its postponed 2020 season (similar then to Aldeburgh’s endeavour announced yeserday).

But The Times article leads on arresting visuals of a socially-distanced orchestra and an isolated audience member. It’s evocative and perhaps even gives a false sense of hope. It’s intended to communicate a sense that the classical music world has a hard-edged kind of resilience with a spirited determination – a view reminiscent of the war-related tropes handed out like candy when Boris Johnson was in hospital with coronavirus.  

Both remind me that advocates like me need to be in this for the long game, looking out for the innovation, as well as supporting the artists, ensembles and organisations which are having to adopt a long-range strategy and cling-on in the meantime. I’m veering more on the negative side like John Gilhooly in Higgin’s Guardian article: between now and the end of September, we’re going to start hearing about venues and ensembles completely shutting down. That’s going to be a painful series of posts to write.

On Schiff and the guilt of knowledge

News: Sir Andras Schiff has a book out. They’re memoirs. They’re published by Orion Books. He’s not written the book himself. He like a great many other non-writers has dictated his thoughts and feelings to a writer who has shaped them into a manuscript, and persuaded someone to publish them. After that, a PR has sought to get coverage for the forthcoming release by highlighting some of his key messages, those in particular most likely to curry favour, divide opinion, and entrench camps.

Schiff’s views aren’t new, nor are they especially radical: audiences don’t really understand what they’re listening to and a lot of that is down to music education being a pile of shit.

How you respond to his points denotes what side you’re on in the present cultural war. PRs and publishing houses know that – that’s the whole point of the ‘story’ in the Telegraph, that’s the reason its been published in the Telegraph, and that’s why I’m writing about it at 6.30am on the DLR into London.

I don’t especially care what Schiff thinks about whether or not me and others like me understand what a good performance or a poor performance is. The experience of listening to a live performance isn’t solely about ‘observing’ the instrumentalist as though they’re in a gilt frame hanging on a wall. Listening is about reflecting on how I respond in the moment to the music I’m listening to.

Music is art. The musician is an interlocutor. Musical experiences then depend not only on the music and musician, but the receptiveness of me the audience member. My knowledge or lack thereof is of little consequence. It’s my self-awareness in the moment that is important.

What saddens me is not what Schiff says nor the fact he said it. Rather, its the way a statement like this reminds me of the way classical music is weaponised. In Schiff’s case, its the judgment made about apparent the lack of classical music knowledge and the way it fuels the snobbery and superiority over those where knowledge is found to be lacking.

In other areas of my life, I see the reverse happening. Those with knowledge and experience of repertoire like me are regarded with suspicion. Expertise is sometimes seen by those who themslves recognise their own lack of knowledge, as a threat to the accessibility and universal appeal of the genre. Expertise is projected as barrier to universality. And anyone who points that out is regarded as a self-appointed gatekeeper who is part of the problem.

It’s tiresome. I end up feeling guilty for my ongoing fascination with a musical genre which helped reclaim me from depression and suicidal thoughts – a genre and sector which continues to surprise, delight and excite.

The very studies which might make Schiff nod with approval, are the very studies that make others regard me as ‘too Radio 3’ or, if you speak to some at Radio 3, ‘not Radio 3 enough’. I often feel as though I am caught in the middle where it feels surprisingly lonely, chewing at my nails hoping the sense of guilt will disappear a little more quickly this time around.

I don’t believe there will ever be a time when this argument – triggered by the digital utterances Schiff’s forthcoming memoir have provoked – will be a thing of the past. As long as that argument survives we will always need marketers and PRs to sell the thing we all care about so deeply.

I just hope I do eventually stop feeling guilty for knowing about classical music, and for not knowing enough about it.

Be sure to read Fran Wilson’s take on this for a different perspective.