21 June. So, that’s all good then. Or is it?

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra responds to PM’s announcement about easing of restrictions

I will happily admit that I have, as a punter, found Boris Johnson’s announcement in the House of Commons this afternoon about the stages leading up to the doing away with social-distancing giddy-fying.

17 May for socially-distanced audiences in places like theatres (and presumably concert halls). 21 June for the removal of social-distancing.

June feels like a long way off. At the same time, there feels as though there is an endpoint. Imagination runs riot. Hope springs up perkily. The unthinkable might just end up happening after all.

The RPO doesn’t agree necessarily. In an official statement, they voice a note of caution.

“We welcome today’s announcement as a positive first step in the process, but more detailed information is required if performing arts organisations are to be able to plan for the future with any certainty.

“Opening concert venues for a handful of audience members is not economically viable without further government support.  The focus of the discussion should be on when we are likely to see venues return to fuller capacities.

“We are still completely in the dark as to what conditions and criteria will be required in order for this to happen. Until we have this information, it is difficult to find a way out of the situation in which we find ourselves.  

“During the course of the pandemic the RPO has regularly tracked the public’s views on music and the tangible role it plays.

“Seven in ten (71%) people who listened to orchestral music during isolation cited tangible and lasting positive impacts on their mood and wellbeing, while 41% of people regard music as among Britain’s greatest exports to the world.

“The performing arts will continue to play a valuable role long after the pandemic has passed, and it is vital that everything is done now to bring the industry back from the precipice and ensure its long term future.”  

London Mozart Players and Howard Shelley play Saint Saens Piano Concerto No. 2

London Mozart Players introduces the seventh series of LMP’s ever-popular Piano Explored series

The London Mozart Players have consistently demonstrated themselves to be a nimble tenacious organisation, brimming with energy, with an infectious kind of tenacity.

LMP’s second series of digital streams – this time focusing on pianist and conductor Howard Shelley’s captivating Piano Explored series – starts on Thursday 18 February 2021.

Recorded at St John’s Smith Square in London in February and March 2021, the seventh series of Piano Explored supported by International Piano will feature five hour-long programmes, with Shelley giving an entertaining and insightful introduction to one or two famous or not-so-famous works for piano and orchestra, before performing them in their entirety with the London Mozart Players. Tickets for the online concerts will be a very reasonably-priced £8.00.

I attended the first episode recording a few weeks back. It was the first time I’d heard live music in many months. The present UK-wide lockdown has starved the ear of a live performance listening experience such that when I heard the first chords in the Saint-Saens the effect was highly emotional, at times overwhelmingly so.

Some of that emotional response is down to the acoustics which supported a clarity of listening I’d almost forgotten about at St John’s Smith Square. To hear so many different textures and orchestration details was a treat, not unlike the experience of hearing after having your earwax removed.

The rest of the emotional response in the moment is created by the energy LMP consistently brings to their performance – charmingly unpretentious but fiercely authentic. Smiles all around and appreciative glances in response to Conductor Laureate Howard Shelley’s direction.

What was the lockdown recording experience like compared to last year?

Interestingly on this occasion the lack of audience wasn’t quite such a painful feeling as it was during the summer of last year when I attended the LPO Summer Session recordings at Henry Wood Hall. This didn’t feel like a ghost event in that respect. Shelley’s easy charm, uncomplicated but passionate explanations and annotations combined with his effortless ability to look straight down the barrel of the lens whenever he talked to the camera had the effect of tricking me into thinking there was an audience in St John’s Smith Square. There’s only one other musician I’ve seen carry that kind of delivery convincingly – violinist Lizzie Ball.

Emphasising the USP of live performance and active listening is key

Most markedly for me was that returning to a live performance experience reinforced the need to be talking about listening. We so rarely reflect on the audience experience of listening, pre-COVID believing that potential audience members were more concerned about dress code, when to clap, and where the toilets were.

Now mid-pandemic we’re thinking about what changes need to come into effect to shake up the classical music experience. Change may well be necessary in some areas, but the opportunity that presents itself now is articulating what the experience is of active listening. To promote the idea of listening for textures, to reflecting on the emotional impact a series of sounds has on the audience member, is to promote the idea of mutually understood language underpinning a communal experience.

Why do we still think there’s something wrong with the physical experience or hold the false assumption that knowledge is required, when the critical faculties that will elevate the experience is curiosity and awareness?

In this way, the London Mozart Players Piano Explored recording at St John’s Smith Square had a profound impact on me triggering my thinking as well as reacquainting myself with how it feels to be in the same physical space as another human being. To have been able to be present in that moment is very special and a manifestation of LMP’s generosity. What it also promises is that this, like similar projects by other orchestras last year, will in time act as potent musical triggers for a range of emotions and memories. And that means the same will be the case for audience members who set foot back into auditoriums, whenever that will be.

In the space of a year some orchestras have risen to the unprecedented challenge COVID-19 has brought about. Whilst many of us would regard filming a concert as a straightforward process, the appetite to do it not to mention the budget was lacking. Creating a audio-visual archive of activities wasn’t in the marketing strategy of many cash-strapped arts organisations. COVID has made digital streams a marketing must-have.

They’re not replacements for live performance, but as substitutes they keep musicians playing during this hiatus, keep the brand visible, and in some cases reach more pairs of eyes than orchestras play to in auditoriums. The really potent question we should be asking is whether digital streams will continue to form an integral part of an orchestra’s activities when the concert halls do open again.

How to watch London Mozart Players Piano Explored series

London Mozart Players Piano Explored with Howard Shelley starts Thursday 18 February at 1pm and is available online. Future concert recordings will be open to socially-distanced physical audiences government guidelines permitting.

Tickets for the online concerts will be £8.00, with films available to view
for six months via LMP’s website (except for the Shostakovich concert on 13
May – 30 days only).

Rattle, a trade deal gone wrong, and music’s managed decline

My husband doesn’t understand me.

He puts up with a lot of course. He possesses a good listening ear and, like any good coach’s husband, has mastered the art of listening without judgment. But every now and again when energy is low he’ll helpfully point out one of the major differences between us.

For him, Lockdown 3 isn’t really that much different from arrangements for Christmas, or indeed our day-to-day habits since we returned from Brighton truth be told. For him the announcement of something approximating a complete lockdown had no impact on him.

I on the other hand often overlook how things are the same day to day, and look at the potential implications of an announcement. I predict the future based on my own life script. In coaching parlance this is ‘catastrophisation’.

This is from a writing perspective quite useful, because it means I can take two things that crossed my day to day experience in a week (the touring musicians Brexit trade deal fuck-up and the disappointing news about Sir Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO) conflate them and build them into a reasonably interesting piece of copy that serves me cathartically and might even drive a little bit of traffic in the process too.

My husband on the other hand, observes a kind of connection between these two things but refuses to move from the now to imagine a future where these events have contributed to a situation where musicians and their work have been irrevocably devalued. We often joke about this in lockdown when I point out to him that I think I’m a thoughtful, sensitive, empathetic kind of soul, and that he’s a cold-hearted bastard.

Brexit ‘deal’ for touring musicians

Never underestimate how much ignorance and ineptitude can bring about a fuck-up.

According to the Independent in a story published on Saturday, it turns out that post-Brexit musicians will, despite reassurances made by the Government throughout 2020, be denied exemption from touring visas and instead be required to complete a dizzying array of paperwork to be able to continue their international work – this from an ‘EU source’ who said that the U.K. was offered a standard exemption package as part of trade deal negotiations but turned it down.

Caroline Dinenage MP responded saying the story was incorrect because the story was based on an anonymous EU source (like the U.K. Government never briefs with anonymous sources). Cue: arched eyebrows. Note: it had taken nearly 24 hours for anyone to rebutt the story.

The rebuttal is rooted in how the failed arrangement came about. The question for me isn’t how this happened, but why did you let this happen?

The answer is down to not thinking about the bigger picture – not thinking outside of the Brexit bubble and thinking about the implications of a decision or non-decision on a section of society.

If you’re invested in what happens to a particular part of the economy then you’ll fight for it. Or you’ll think about the implications of it and find a work-around. That’s where a sense of trust begins – when you know that someone has your back.

There is no trust. The arts doesn’t believe the Government recognises what the arts and culture brings to this country. The Indepedent’s story confirms what I learned a few months ago, that even with a Secretary of State representing the cultural economy, bringing about change depends on the people he’s speaking to being willing to listen. They’re not. Because they either don’t instinctively see its value or they haven’t looked at the relevant line in The Spreadsheet.

Why, for example, commit the money the Government has to the Culture Recovery Fund at the same time as cutting off a valuable source of revenue for the same sector? It’s not joined up. That lack of connection is either deliberate (which would suggest a strategy being followed) or its ineptitude. Often the simpler explanation is the right one.

It’s hardly a surprise. The person who banged the drum for Brexit back in 2016 hedged his bets, drafting columns for both sides of the argument. And throughout the pandemic has said one thing only to implement and endorse policies that do the complete opposite. Why would anyone trust a man to lead a team that manifests trust, when you yourself can’t be trusted? Johnson is a failed leader (assuming you thought he was any kind of leader in the first place), so little wonder the people he entrusted to do the job on his behalf can’t be trusted either.

According to The Charlatans Tim Burgess‘ impassioned response in The Independent underlines what’s at stake: in 2019 UK touring musicians and their support teams brought £2.19bn to the UK economy.

That figure will shrink dramatically when bureaucracy impacts the smaller artistic concerns who along with the big-name brands help shore up our dwindling global reputation.

I know a significant amount of people whose livelihoods are assumed to be able to withstand any change brought about by increased bureaucracy. That’s because, I think, people equate that musicians because of their elite ability, or their high-level of success will be able to absorb administration costs as inconsequential lines in a budget.

The reality for rock, pop and classical musicians is that bureaucracy will stop opportunities coming their way, and the business they run (rock bands, pop groups and orchestras for example are all businesses) will be denied lucrative trade opportunities.

People predicted this would happen. A negotiating team promised it wouldn’t. And now it’s happened. Few in power have music and musicians backs.

Rattle leaving the LSO

Rumours surrounding Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO emerged a few weeks ago, corroborated by various sources of mine. My post on Twitter about it triggered one or two people to ask me privately what I was talking about and, when I explained to one LSO person, it was suggested that this was all very unlikely. Just rumour, nothing more.

Yesterday, the LSO’s statement confirmed the news broken the night before by the Times’ Richard Morrison. Now today, Morrison has expanded on the reasons for Rattle’s departure – a heady combination of Brexit, the pandemic, and the UK’s ‘indifference’ to classical music as manifest in the halted development of London’s newest concert hall.

The arts doesn’t need Rattle per se, but his departure is a blow, and the timing of the announcement serves to highlight the fragile state of things. Most reasonably well-informed individuals predicted that taking control of our borders would have a negative impact on the arts ability to thrive on the world stage. COVID has compounded that and provided the Government with some bargain bucket blister pack of smoke and mirrors.

Back to the catastrophisation

In some respects my husband is right. These developments do not directly affect me. To think about them in the way that I do illustrates how I still see some drama to be mine. Social media has a habit of doing that. I’m a sucker for glomming-on.

On the other hand, these stories contribute to a growing fear I have that music is in trouble in this country. A crisis is being managed by people who don’t recognise the value that the arts brings to society, and the crucial role it plays in maintaining the health of that society. They understand only those things that generate big money. They overlook anything that appears to need subsidy. Music to them is something which is available on demand, in return for a subscription like say television. The mechanics involved in bringing art to an audience is of no consequence to them. The connection isn’t made between human beings creating art and human beings benefitting from it. So, ensuring that the arts is protected wouldn’t even occur to them. It’s not a priority.

If I’m wrong about that, then why would such a castastrophic error have occured in the Brexit trade deal negotiation? And why would Rattle have gone?

Without a thriving music scene there is even less incentive for future generations to engage with music-making. An economy will die, elected representatives overseeing its systematic decline.

And that does affect me. Something I care about, that I write about. Something I celebrate and advocate. Something I work in amongst is in crisis, because the people who can bring about change consistently and habitually overlook it.

International concerts for U.K. artists has been made more difficult for a significant number of the music-making industry at a stroke. Don’t think that music venues will be the first to reopen when all the vaccines have been given. Concert going and musicals and theatre won’t be like it was before. Programmes will be less daring because they need to be ‘safer’. And that will have a knock on effect for everyone who works in the arts.

I’d be better off being a cold-hearted bastard.

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.