Vaughan Williams 5, culture wars, and the language we use to talk about music

My latest musical squeeze is inspired by the NDR Philharmonie/Manze Beethoven extravaganza I wrote about in the previous post.

Vaughan Williams 5 (and 6) from the RLPO conducted by Manze released 18 months ago demonstrates the conductor’s love of detail which, coupled with similarly forensic production techniques, brings out silky smooth string textures, ensemble staccatos that gently but efficiently puncture the score like a staple in a 50 page document, and precision pianissimo articulation that brings me out in goosebumps all over.

The third movement lento is a particular favourite – what sounds like a love letter to someone that triggers a sense of pride, warmth, and solidity. The woodwind tuttis are the kind of creations that make me want to reach for my clarinets and find the nearest band with VW 5 in its music pad. The cor anglais is to die for. A ravishing thing.

I hear the third movement as roast beef, stinging nettles, ploughed fields, and hedgerows. It’s not sentimental or nostalgic. The character isn’t easy to read at first, but its the complexity that makes that character beguiling. Introverted for sure. There’s a whiff of self-doubt in there somewhere. But, on the whole, the character holds his or her head high throughout, self-belief growing with every dynamic swell in the score. There’s a sense of hope stitched into the score that elevates the mood, building on that innate personal resilience. And come the final almost imperceptible chords there’s a hint of resolution, as though something has been aired or laid to rest.

Questions questions questions

And there in lies the answer to the year-long question I’m posing myself: where, when and why do I interface with the art form? What effect does it have on me? And what does that say about my mood or my needs?

In the case of VW 5 even as a whole, it appeals right now because of it’s relative newness to me. I’m sure I’ve heard the work before, but I wouldn’t have been able to recall it. Hearing it this week in a recording that leads on detail and texture, it is the immediacy of the writing that appeals the most. It as though VW’s score is written in a ‘clean’ musical language that surfaces nuanced and sometimes conflicting emotional responses.

The optimism that exudes the work, coupled with that experienced discovering and responding to it over the past 48 hours is tinged with an observation about the way we talk about classical music, and the way those who talk about it talk to one another.

Over the past few months I’ve connected with a variety of organisations that seek to reach out to newcomers – online, on-air, and via the live concert experience. Common to all of these connections is the pervasive view that classical music is like a prickly bramble to the uninitiated. And beyond classical music, the idea that a deeper appreciation of music as a whole – how it works and it’s effect on us – is anathema to achieving the widest reach.

I see it in pop and rock music too. I’ve spent twenty two years living with a serious music lover whose gateway is lyrics and who revels in country, rock, and musical theatre. It’s not unusual for the pair of us to spend a long Friday night listening to comparative recordings of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park, for example. Different recordings bring different insights, forging different personal connections both with the music and with another.

Avoid detail at all costs

I am beginning to wonder whether this is the exception to the rule; that the vast majority don’t consume music in this way; that to acknowledge the impact music has on us is to set us apart and even unwittingly elevate people like me from the masses.

Is that how a love of music in all its constituent parts is seen by others? I fear it is. And if it is, one wonders whether there’s much point in trying to advocate the artform as a map accompanying a journey exploring the self.

Put another way, how do point people from music as entertainment towards the place where music has a deeper impact on the soul? Or at least point them in the direction of where music can have a deeper impact on the soul?

This isn’t a question of good and bad music (whatever that means) or making a value judgment of one genre of music or other. All genres have the potential to touch the heart in the way that VW5 has done on me this week (just in other ways for other music heard by other people). But there is undoubtedly a resistance to go deeper.

To go deeper is to hint at superiority it seems. That saddens me a great deal. Because that means the bigger challenge isn’t about writing about a particular genre in a ‘more accessible way’ in order to avoid ‘alienating the audience’. It means that the challenge is to support consumers of music as they understand the impact their chosen music has on them at a particular time. No one seems able or willing to do that.

The view from the steering wheel

Those that do feel comfortable discussing music in these terms find themselves in the middle of a culture war. No surprises really. That culture war is going on everywhere. That’s why its a culture war. Viewed from my metaphorical steering wheel, I see some questioning whether those with privilege dead or alive have the authority or right to advocate the value of music education for all. Some even question whether advocating music education for all is to deny the greater need of a ‘fair’ education for all. I’m a rabbit caught in the headlights when I consider the permutations for this particular question.

On the other side of the steering wheel I see commentators still arguing the toss amongst themselves about who is the authoritative source regarding the commentary on music. Some journalists under threat from a dwindling editor’s budget (because no one will pay for content) continue to posit that the unpaid self-publishing writer cannot be compared to the proper paid journalist in terms of knowledge, experience or connections. The ‘amateurs’ respond (understandably) indignantly. Just at the time when you’d think we’d all be united, the cheerleaders paid or otherwise are eating one another alive.

Warning: two metaphors in one blog post

I’m mindful of expressing any stronger view than that. Those who know me well will know what part of the fence I sit on and, given that the undergrowth below looks a little rough underfoot with a great many nasty looking barbs, I’m inclined to remaining sitting where I am. But what I see seems on the one hand utterly ridiculous, and the other infuriating. Everyone who talks about the way we talk about music adopts a defensive stance whenever anyone celebrates detail or dares to look under the bonnet. Expertise and passion has been demonised.

One can either argue each point (where did that get us over the past four years?) or we can go back to the core offer: the music. As I write VW5 is drawing to a close. A final call from the woodwind is passed on the strings.

The last few bars of harmonics in the first violins underpinned by a pillow of violas, cellos and basses leads to a conclusion: being resolute, and living true to our personal values is the best we can possibly hope for. Maybe, just maybe, like-minded souls will join us.

Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify

Classical music in modern life?

Two things dominated yesterday: the resurrection of the bloggers vs. ‘proper journalists’ debate, and the values that drive the Benedetti Foundation’s music sessions running in London this weekend.

I’m not going to link to the tweet that reignited the discussion about bloggers versus journos, nor mention the author. That’s not cricket or helpful. But quoting it is necessary.

Specialist classical music critics are proper journalists whose criticism we may not like but we grudgingly accept because they write well with education and experience. Self-appointed bloggers who publish criticism with no such background are a plague on our houses. Discuss.

The divisive message was oddly hurtful. Masking behind the guise of a discussion the underlying comment was clear: proper journos are the useful ones people should take notice of; the unpaid writers, influencers and commentators aren’t at all.

It read like a bit of an insult (though I did wonder I was making an assumption that it was referring to me and my considerably more active peers) – a sweeping dismissive statement which even when challenged appeared to achieve no more than the other party doubling-down on her original meanness.

It is that this was a discussion generated by a member of the classical music fraternity aimed squarely at those that seek to celebrate the art form that cut so deep. And more personally (and this is a common trait with me) the idea that even when evidence is shown of an injured party, that the response is to ignore as though to convey to people like me are those who are to blame for this exchange in the first place. Meanness with an extra dollop of gleeful meanness. Classic passive aggression. There’s a lot of it about.

What’s important isn’t so much my feelings during the exchange with the singer, rather the stark contrast with the other experience of the day: visiting one of the London sessions of the Benedetti Foundation’s current music education project.

Thursday night’s press conference featuring Nicky Benedetti discussing the Foundation’s vision and activities had already succeeded in bringing a lump to my throat. I’m an emotional sort at the moment anyway, but the sound of Benedetti’s spirited and impassioned detailing of what the Foundation is committed to (embedding music education back into the curriculum by making the experience of making music as universal as possible and as diverse as possible in terms of age, ability, and class) was powerful. So too the demonstration given by one small group of primary school kids illustrating how a series of simple participatory exercises can introduce the principles of movement, ryhthm, and pitch in a relatively short space of time.

None of what we saw in this demonstration was new to me. I recall experiencing the same thing as a kid thirty odd years ago.

It also triggered memories too of wanting to train as a teacher after I completed my music degree so I could give some of that joy back. It wasn’t to be thanks to one faceless wonder at the Department for Education back in 1991 who deemed the sexual assault I suffered as evidence that I would be a threat to children. Little wonder I still to this day have an issue with injustice.

On a broader level what has changed between then and now is the systemic destruction of music’s reputation in the curriculum, deeming the likes of the Benedetti Foundation not a nice-to-have but a necessity.

“That’s enough to get me angry,” I blurt out to Benedetti during the Q&A after the press conference, “Do you experience that anger? And if so how do you channel that into the obvious good of the Foundation?”

I can’t remember the exact words Nicky Benedetti responded with. Shoot me. I’m obviously not a proper journalist. But it was something along the lines of an admission that the emotional experience was the same, but that the challenge was to channel that into a sense of motivation that served the purpose of the endeavour. Showing best practise rather acting from a place of anger, bitterness or resentment.

I have over the past few weeks been unexpectedly challenged with a lot of things. Some of those things have pushed me to revisit difficult memories of the past in order to understand something of the present. Other challenges have brought on the anticipation of grief and all the associated feelings associated with it. And then there are the phenomenally challenging conversations where emotion needs to be left behind in order to mine for information. Such fierce conversations (meant in the context of the book of the same name by the way) are in themselves incredibly demanding both in the moment and afterwards.

But what links all of those experiences with what Benedetti said during her press conference is this idea of having to keep an eye on the goal, and aligning our thinking, feelings and actions with both our core values and the end goal. I don’t always do that. But I’m inspired to try harder at that because of Bendetti’s vision.

And the point of explaining all of this is because of the stark contrast between the two exchanges had on the same day.

The first triggered negativity, fear, and defensiveness. It was aggressive, accusatory, and disrespectful.

The second revealed a greater sense of purpose underlining the responsibility we all have to meet the challenge we all experience to channel our darker thoughts into a positive force: to draw on passion, to look with kindness, and to share.

What I’m struck by is how an unequivocal sense of purpose as articulated in the Benedetti Foundation which is in itself something intended to go beyond classical music, has at its heart a value that goes beyond classical music too. But that the only reason I’ve learned of it this week is because of classical music.

That is the power of classical music in modern life: music whose exponents are able to convey a message of hope that transcends the art form itself.

Whilst penning this I listened to clarinettist Mark van de Wiel playing Joseph Phibbs and Mozart’s clarinet concertos with the Philharmonia and London Chamber Orchestra.

Be sure to listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring Nicola Benedetti and Foundation tutors Jo and Elsa Bradley.

What role will music play in 2020?

Poking through the gaps in the steamed up bathroom windows, the new year presents itself. I’m struggling to make out what 2020 is offering.

Revellers wide smiles, and the midnight fireworks shrouded in smoke I saw on TV at midnight – contrived, meaningless, and wasteful – are a world away from what I see now.

This New Year morning is like no other. I am unable to locate the familiar sense of fresh start. Things are the same as they were 24 hours before as far as I can make out. No excitement, just a mild sense of dread.

Where does music fit in all of this? Can it lead me in a new direction? Should it compensate? Do I need it to articulate how I’m feeling, or challenge me to think or feel differently?

Or does the Vienna Phil from the Musikverein this morning point to how I might better seek music out in the short term?

My views on the New Years Day Concert have changed in recent year. The concert from the Musikverein is music as entertainment, it’s presentation distracting us with a musical reenactment of a nostalgic age none of us have experienced. All gilt edge and lavish blooms, surrounding an orchestra steadfastly refusing to install a diverse and inclusive workforce; a usually vocal passionate audience equally uninterested in clamouring for change.

Diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities are all well and good it seems, just as long as some of the traditions are kept firmly in place.

Was it ever thus?

Why should such an inconsistency be allowed to continue? Why is such an event made available to so very many without even the discussion being had? Or is it that social politics and classical music doesn’t mix?

I digress.

Unlike some other commentators who seek to position themselves alongside the ‘best’ concerts of 2019 (whatever that means), or right at the heart of the stories they think everyone should be thinking about in the coming year I, predictably, prefer to think of the year ahead from a personal perspective?

What role will music play in healing divisions? What recordings and live performances will engender a sense of hope? How will music guide us from the darkness we’ve experienced over the past few years? Where will it take us? What will that music be? Where will it be heard? How will the experience be transmitted?

Some of it will almost certainly be written by Beethoven (which I might add is a good thing because for some this year will be the year they ‘discover’ Beethoven. But what of the rest of the music of this year? What will help contribute to a collective experience?

Something to keep an eye on. Me, not you. You can decide on your own editorial strategy for the year ahead. This one’s mine.

Vox Luminis performance style demonstrates a special kind of leadership

Just recently I’ve noticed a significant reduction in the number of live performance I’ve attended.

I know why that is.

Since stepping back into an office environment at Scala Radio, working on digital and on-air production, headspace has been completely surrendered to projects and opportunities that fulfil personal ambition.

The wide-eyed joy experiences securing this project was rapidly replaced by a different kind of thinking. one that demanded an unexpected amount of energy.

In case anyone thinks I’m being snarky, I’m not. The past eight weeks have been incredible. Exhilarating. Rewarding.

But there has been a cost: a drop off in email response times; less ‘free’ time; less opportunity to connect with the thing that drives all of this – the music.

Vox Luminis’s St John’s Smith Square Christmas concert was a moment when I took stock of all this.

The sound, the swaying, and the dramatic slow-down of thought processes brought about by the music of Bach and Handel was like a holiday. Vocal textures, surprising harmonic complexity, and a touching sense of inclusivity in an area of London – Westminster – now democratically enshrined as the epitome of betrayal and alienation, created a much-needed sense of occasion. It was as though I had careered into a lay-by, jammed the handbrake on and started staring into the middle distance. Bliss.

A lot of that is down to Belgian baroque ensemble Vox Luminis.

Passionate, skilled and European, their sound was warm, edges precise but not domineering, and their inclusive approach to performance practise utterly compelling.

Direction comes from one person in the chorus, not a conductor or director in the centre of the stage. What this means is that the mechanics of the process are delivered by chorus member/director, whilst the collective musicality in the performance was brought about by an in-the-moment kind of consensus. Wizardry, basically.

And whilst, at the conclusion of the performance, the director did stand front and centre to thank, relate, plead and reassure us in the post-Brexit world fast approaching, the evening never felt as though it was about him, but rather everyone including the audience in St Johns Smith Square.

And it strikes me now reflecting on that special evening and listening back to Vox Luminis’s recording from 2017, that the performance appealed to me because that is the kind of atmosphere I thrive in as a creative in the workplace.

I seek out opportunities where I feel part of a team. I benefit from feeling as though my view helps develop thinking.

I like to direct. I want to direct. I always have done. Ever since the conducting studies at university helped pull me out of the darkest period of my life to date. But it is a direction which is a means to an end, rather than being the end in itself.

The direction can only work if everyone is heading in the right direction. And that’s a difficult thing to make happen.

Conducting back in 1994 was never about me. Not really. In fact, I look at the posters and programmes from 1993 and shudder with embarrassment seeing my name. It was instead about driving others to deliver of their best.

And what I was reminded of watching Vox Luminis this week was how the direction from the chorus captured that same aspiration both from the past, and help root me in the present.

And I’m reminded this evening that success doing that is dependent on trust.

If there is no trust then the aspiration won’t become an ambition and the ambition won’t stand a chance of being realised. And establishing trust takes time, respect and commitment, which is what makes Vox Luminis’ (and others like them like Solomon’s Knot) achievement all the more pleasing (even if there is a dribble of envy mixed in too). And the feeling that accompanies a perceived lack of trust is dark, lonely, and perhaps even a little bit frightening.

Professional criticism needs to get over itself

Recently classical music writer Charlotte Gardner appeared on Radio 3’s Music Matters to discuss professional criticism and its present demise.

A quick summary for those who either don’t know or wouldn’t otherwise care about professional criticism in the classical music or operatic world.

Simply, there’s little money for content in the print or digital world, a perceived lack of appetite for professional criticism too. Opportunities are drying up. Professional critics are withering and dying on the vine. The world is coming to an end. Bring out your dead.

The irony is that much of this current discourse about the state of music criticism has been triggered by the ENO’s recent announcement inviting new writers (let’s not call them novice – as terminology goes that’s massively condescending) the opportunity to develop their written responses to the operatic form, and for their copy to be published on the ENO website.

In digital marketing terms this is what’s referred to as ‘owned content’: a personal response to an ENO production published on the ENO website. A marketing boon for ENO.

It’s work which is unlikely to flirt with any journalism awards. Because it isn’t journalism. It’s marketing. It’s a way for ENO to get personal accounts of the work they put on. In the process the people doing it learn stuff about how to write about opera. And they’ll probably write about the opera in a different way from those who have hitherto written in (sometimes) codified terms about the art form. The end product is people writing favourably (presumably) about an ENO production so that other potential audience members might feel more inclined to attend said opera. The principal of endorsement or advocacy. It’s exactly the same as Waterstones staff promoting individual books on small cards positioned directly underneath the book they’re recommending. Those recommendations are there to sell books. I don’t hear any book critics wailing about missed opportunities because Waterstones staff are telling potential customers what books they might consider reading.

Charlotte’s blog on the Society of Music website hints at the conflict of interest in ENO’s proposed route. The scheme (like a lot of ENO recent developments) is also a useful punchbag for the issue around professional critics no longer receiving a ‘plus one’ ticket for their criticism work. Dear God hasn’t there been a lot of bleating about that one recently. Critics can’t do their work alone, it seems. A great many other considerably more animated and seemingly self-entitled men and women have said the same.

The irony is that the more people bellow and moan about the state of professional criticism the more ENO’s oft-criticised scheme is given more light. For something that classical music writers are so dismissive of, everyone is doing quite a good job of giving it more oxygen. A scheme that could have been announced in an emailed press release and forgotten about in amongst a slew of others, is known by mostly everyone in the small world I frequent because a lot of people are worried about the loss of a ‘plus one’, and what it means for the lexicon used to describe the art form we all hold so dear.

It’s important to emphasise that Charlotte’s blog isn’t a complete summary of what happened on Radio 3’s Music Matters, only her perspective. As a digital content producer, strategist and editor, I know the pitfalls of the digital medium reasonably well, and appreciate that whilst a discussion in the context of a radio programme sounds balanced, benign (and in some cases banal), when it’s summarised in digital form it can take on a whole other existence, triggering people like me into a rage.

But I take umbrage with one particular element in her blog post, which when I see her at a press event next and we sip on our free glasses of wine together I will challenge her on (assuming there’s sufficient time left in the interval).

The discussion pointed to the threat posed by amateur bloggers, how they don’t have editors to save them from themselves. How amateur bloggers don’t fuel their musical knowledge all day and every day because their non-paying jobs prevent them from doing so.

Whilst there are some extremely knowledgeable amateur bloggers, there’s no adequate substitute for total immersion. Every day as a professional critic I’m talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what’s interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can’t be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job.

Criticism Reviewed, Charlotte Gardner, 6 November 2019

I do all of these things too. Every day. It’s just that I don’t get paid for all of it.

I am an amateur blogger in the strictest definition of the word. I don’t get money for this blog (well, maybe $30 a month via Patreon but that’s it), and I don’t get money for the podcast either. I left the BBC in 2017 in order to devote more of my content production skills to the classical music world. What I discovered was that it was phenomenally difficult to gain a foothold in the classical music writing world. Many of the outlets relied on a handful of the same people.

Many online publications threw shade on my credentials, quibbled over how I was getting funding to go to international festivals, pointing to anything other than a self-funded trip as evidence of a potential conflict of interest. What I realised a couple of years ago was that the conventional classical music writers world felt threatened by someone like me and so creating and then manning barriers to entry was paramount. The irony is that many of those people who questioned my independence and how it might threaten their precious publication are the same people who travel to international festivals to write about concerts, trips funded by the festivals themselves or PR agencies.

There are gifts (plenty of them), dinners, free drinks, and launch events. Those experiences are there solely to sweeten the classical music writer. You can either avoid those opportunities in order to preserve your precious independence, or you can attend them, have the free grub, mingle with nice people, and then challenge yourself to be just as independent afterwards. I’d suggest that (and will when I next see Charlotte at one of those events), it’s exactly that challenge which has helped shore up my independence and make me a better writer.

‘Plus ones’ are not vital to writing independently about classical music or opera; they’re a gift, or a privilege.

I’ve written negatively about concerts I’ve had free tickets for, and I’ve written positively about them too.

But independent criticism whether its paid for or not, isn’t measured by negative writing nor whether or not you’re writing from emotional starting point. Its (partly) about the mechanics of how that art is produced, in addition to the evidence of whether it was a work of art (ie whether it triggered questions in the reviewer). I write about that too because I’m interested in that – a reflection of how art is helping me develop as an audience member (of which a critic is one type of audience member, one that happens to report on the event).

I didn’t always do that because I didn’t always have the confidence. I started years from an emotional standpoint because I regarded that as my unequivocal truth (which is different from ‘truth’ in the more global sense by the way): writing about how I felt in reaction to something meant that I knew I was being authentic as noone else would have the same reaction as me. That’s where my writing started.

Over time, I grew more confident about acknowledging what I knew. At the same time I recognised that there were a great many people whose music educations were very different from my own. In the past two years I’ve come to realise that there is an undoubtedly two-tier view of music training in this country: outside of the conservatoire system you either went to Oxford or Cambridge or you didn’t.

And when I began to realise that inherent snobbery in the classical music writing world I began to wonder how on earth it was possible that same snobbery couldn’t bleed into everything that was written about it – through editorial choices, word usage, knowledge and expertise and, ultimately, blocking opportunities. Convention reigns and an artform makes itself appear impenetrable because the gatekeepers still insist on making it so.

I was recently invited to attend an opera in Norway. The festival were paying for the travel and accommodation. I’d never been. I was flattered to be asked to go by another journalist. I pitched a review – my first opera review – to a well respected magazine. I read reviews of other operas written by other journalists before I wrote my own. I watched the opera in one performance – it was in French with no English surtitles. And in the airport waiting to go home I wrote my review. I published it on my blog first, alongside the podcast I’d published, after which I sent the review to the magazine editor. I received one set of suggested edits. It was published a month later. I received some money – enough to cover the opera ticket (if I’d had to pay). I don’t really care about the money by the way. And as it turned out, I didn’t really revel in the legitimacy a paid writing gig gave me. It made no difference. What was important was being able to write the copy in a way that suited the publication. And it appeared the money confirmed it: I could.

There is to me little difference between what I do, what others like me do, and what Charlotte does. We are all writers who spend a lot of time advocating the art form we love. Some are better than others. And then there are those who just copy and paste press releases or distribute unchecked gossip desperately trying to convince the rest of us that its news.

Everyone rolls their eyes whenever anyone bemoans Norman Lebrecht’s blog – “That’s just Norman,’ they’ll say with a smile and a wink. No one ever complains about his dubious output. But they’ll happily complain about the amateur bloggers. No one will condemn his errors or his bias; they effectively condone it. Yet if an amateur blogger creates content that compares well to anything a professional writer is churning out, its the delicate classical music writing ecosystem that’s in danger of extinction. There are some in the sector who think that may well be the best outcome.

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Review: Matthew Whiteside’s ‘Entangled’

For someone who spent his formative years non-plussed by the prospect of All Hallow’s Eve and irritated by its commercialisation in the years that followed, even I’ve surprised myself in 2019 by my curiosity for this odd time of year.

I’m reading Dracula right now. Never read it before. I actively sought it out because I actively wanted to be disturbed. For context: I have a partner who’s go-to cultural experience is high-budget TV drama. Reading an actual book is the perfect foil for the tyranny of the 68 inch 4K screen that sits in the corner of our living room.

Stoker’s Gothic horror is a cracking read. Fast-paced storytelling. Evocative language. It’s taking me time to read (because I’m a slow-reader) because I discover to my great surprise that its a world I want to spend a little time in. That means extending Halloween beyond 31st October. A new tradition is forming itself now that GMT has been ushered in, followed by the various other habits and pastimes we all unwittingly indulge ourselves now that the night air descends after half-past four.

Such a long introduction for this review for Matthew Whiteside’s Entangled is if you haven’t listened to it already appropriate. Listening to it at this point in the year a few days after its general release, the horror and terror that exudes from Whiteside’s experimental writing sits well with what’s going on in my imagination. It is as though Entangled is the soundtrack for an extended Halloween, extended for those who are currently catching up on their youth.

And yet there’s a contradiction. The sleeve notes, the press release and the accompanying development blog suggest an entirely different creative impulse.

The title work Entangled is a three movement quartet showcasing the brilliant Aurea Quartet. The work is a creative response to the physical phenomenon of ‘entanglement’, a theory proposed by Einstein and proved by physicist John Stewart Bell in 2013 that states groups of particles influence each other, even if they are at a distance from each other in space. A paradox in science, apparently.

No, I can’t believe I’ve actually written that either. And to be completely honest, I didn’t write all of it. Some of that previous paragraph was contained in the press release. But really, why reinvent the wheel? Time is money.

My point is this. I’ve really enjoyed Entangled. Regardless of its intent, the creative impulse for the tracks on the album, or how I contextualise it as a listener, there remains a narrative arc to Whiteside’s creation that pulls me in. He creates something fresh without pushing me away. The sound doesn’t jar with what I’m experiencing at this time of year but enhances it.

This may not be what Matthew wants to hear, but Entangled is the perfect soundtrack for the Halloween newbie. The third movement Spinning from quartet no.4 of the same name is a blissful creation for the imagination. The second movement of the fifth quartet is a masterful creation too. Loved all of it.

Listen to the Aurea Quartet on Matthew Whiteside’s new album ‘Entangled’ on Spotify
There are development notes available to read on Matthew’s blog
here.

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Review: Opera Holland Park’s Into the Light

I’ve watched Opera Holland Park’s latest social action doc Into the Light a few times over the past few week in production, and when it went live on YouTube today.

I hear there are future plans for its wider release. Good. Well deserved. Because OHP top dog Michael Volpe’s exploration of the impact of opera on army and navy veterans captured during this years season is a thing to behold.

Lovable contributors, heartbreaking real-life stories, jeopardy, pathos and redemption, all underpinned by the music of Tchaikovsky.

Crafted with an eye to the art form Volpe so evidently adores, it’s a must-see 30 mins heralding the impact opera has on the curious and open-minded. If you’re a living breathing human being who hasn’t already seen this then you must. Touching stories, unfussy photography, and effortless advocacy.

Every time I see it it makes me cry (a lot). In that way it has a much-needed grounding effect at a point in time when the world appears to have gone completely mad.

Watch it on YouTube before the masses pile in on it. If you don’t reach for a tissue in the first thirteen minutes then you’re a cold-hearted bastard.

Review: Der Freischütz conducted by Laurence Equilbey featuring Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, and Chiara Skerath

An inventive thought-provoking production with captivating contributions from Johanni van Oostrum, the Insula Orchestra, and one or two illusionists.

Terrific orchestral playing in a generous acoustic that supported the period instrument Insula Orchestra   in the production of lean string sounds, and evocative woodwind textures. Possibly the best live theatrical pit sound I’ve heard in a long time. Conductor Laurence Equilbey is a passionate and efficient director, combining a clear beat with a dynamic expressive range. Her energy and precision can be heard in a range of orchestral textures, and contributed to a number of electrifying moments on stage. 

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum shone the brightest in amongst an impressive cast with her Act III Scene 2 Cavatine Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle, sending chills up the spine with a rounded tone, silky smooth legatos and gossamer octave leaps. Hers combined with the voice of Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max, and the sometimes Mary Poppins-esque characterisation of Annchen by Chiara Skerath made for an exquisite first act trio Wie? Was? Ersatzen that didn’t quite muster the effort from the audience with the response it deserved. 

I’ve read some dismissive reviews about the stage direction and set design, drawing attention to the lack of shotguns in an opera about a shooting contest as being a creative failure. 

Seeing this year old production at its Paris premiere sat in the intimate art deco interior of Theatre des Champs-Elysees there was a sense that with the horrific events of recent terrorist atrocities still surprisingly fresh in the mind, that not seeing actual guns was a sensitive creative response. Whether this was an active choice when the production opened last year I’m not entirely clear. What the absence of guns resulted in however was a creative opportunity for the production, demanding more engagement on the part of the audience. The intent appeared to trigger (forgive the pun) the audience to use their imagination more, something that increased engagement. 

An array of illusions was deployed which met this dual aim of focusing audience attention on the hows and the whys. Sometimes the depiction of the magic bullets – white balls juggled, thrown and sometimes swung – distracted the eye, especially during Agathe’s Und ob die Wolke. 

At other times, the time spent perfecting slow motion movement whether powered independently or with a seemingly invisible wires really paid off, heightening the drama considerably. The conclusion to the Wolf’s Glen scene was a case in point when characters strained for Samiel’s fire only to fall back in the melee. So too when Agathe gets hit with the seventh bullet in the last scene – all very Keanu Reeves. Additionally, never has watching one dancer moving in slow motion accompanied by a cello solo on one note ever created so much tension. 

The use of dark light projected onto the stage created threatening shadows in the penultimate scene of Act 1 almost worked, although at times the movements didn’t quite tally up with the available ‘black space’ on stage. 

The use of figures projected onto gauze to create storytelling vignettes maintaining engagement during sequences of dramatic exposition, adding depth both to the storytelling and the perceived depth of the stage – a complex effect demanding continuity between pre-recorded and live performances. The depiction of a silvery sea complete with dry ice (or was it a hologram – I’m not quite sure) was a thing of directorial and design beauty. 

The best should really be left until last. The chorus provided a remarkable sound – a rich, sonorous and burnished colour that compensated for the grey uniformity in their near-totalitarian costumes. One other commentator have dismissed the chorus’ supposed lack of movement, though the simplicity of the lines complemented the stark stage design. There were some elegant movements in the final scene when Hermit and chorus moved in a collective slow motion. 

A concert performance of the production is staged at the Barbican on 4 November 2019.

Cast: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Max), Johanni van Oostrum (Agatha), Chiara Skerath (Annchen), Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar), Christian Immler (Hermit), Thorsten Gruumbel (Kuno), Daniel Schumtzhard (Ottakar), Anas Seguin (Kilian), Clement Dazin (Samiel)

Recommended recording London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Colin Davis, featuring Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews and Simon O’Neil.

Reccomended Insula Orchestra recording Beethoven Emperor Concerto

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A night at the Gramophone Awards 2019

The Gramophone Awards are an industry event which celebrates that which has been released the year before and, in the process of handing out the gongs, brings industry figures together in a spangly affair.

But, I’ve always struggled a little to understand where the Gramophone Awards sit in my classical music world.

Beyond the simple explanation I’ve always felt the Gramophones (and the magazine come to that) was another world – the world of recordings, expert assessments, probably a little bit of flannel here and there and, perhaps most importantly, a world where I’d be forced to confront how little I know of the current classical music world.

Perhaps there was even a thought when watching the Gramophones from a distance via a live stream in years gone by that the ceremony and its contents and participants didn’t necessarily represent me or illustrate my connection with the art form. Gramophone magazine was something for the grown-ups not for the frivolous light-on-detail person like me.

What the narrative, contextualisation and representation of the artform actually looks like for me has come into sharper focus over the past six months or so.

But, after a disappointing Proms season, taking to time to gain a deeper understanding of where commercial radio sits in encouraging and catering for a new and varied audiences for classical music, and now the Gramophone Awards, I’m getting accustomed to a more nuanced take on the sector.

Last night’s awards ceremony at the De Vere Connaught Rooms shone new light on the classical music world. A human one.

Jakub Józef Orliński. Counter-tenor. Model. Break-dancer. Skipped dessert.

Seeing counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński (someone I had no previous knowledge of – the shame) take up his seat at our table prior to proceedings getting underway provided an opportunity to observe the remarkable energy he exudes. To then see him leap to the stage to sing in a fascinating yet matter-of-fact way meant the mesmerising tone he produced when he sang was electrifying. One minute Jakub was someone sat a table, the next his voice was creating a moment of stillness. The magic of live performance highlighted once again, so too the wonder the human voice can have on other human beings in an instant. I think I’m right in saying that he skipped dessert too. So a lot of self-control there, because I wolfed mine.

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin had a similar impact. His stint at the keyboard (Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words No.1 if I’ve recalled that correctly) silenced the inevitable awards dinner murmurs, glass chinks and fidgeting ice-cubes to create a similarly electrifying moment: busy-ness tackled head-on with innate and immediate musicianship.

The awards also have the added bonus of signposting a path for future exploration.

Knowing that someone who was previously sat across from me (who I also didn’t recognise – the shame) and who I’d assumed was a marketing type but who later turned out to be an award winner made him an interesting character to know more about. That he then sat down at the piano and commanded perfection to emerge from it was one thing. That when he spoke into the microphone when collecting his award with breathtaking understatement and unfussiness made him all the more fascinating.

Double award winner pianist Bertrand Chamonoy. Self-effacing to a fault. Adorable.

A lot of this of course is down to the event itself, an entertainment format which, it strikes me, is unique in the classical music world. There is no live cabaret style event where audience surrounds the stage and music is interspersed with speech. We might hear an idea of it on the radio, but we don’t see it on TV. Not anywhere. And that kind of experience would do much to reveal the magic of the art form – intimate music-making for a wider audience where the musicians natural personalities shine as brightly as the music they make just by virtue of speaking from the heart.

Guitarist Sean Shibe. Award winner for concept album SoftLoud. Loving the musicianship, Less keen on the ruff.

The discoveries I made I’m committing to future exploration (with one or two inclusions on the first Thoroughly Good Classical Music Playlist) include Bertrand Chamayou who appeared surprised and possibly even choked when his recording of Saint-Saens piano concertos was announced as both Concerto of the Year and Recording of the Year. Albums recorded by pianist Denis Kozhukin, Víkingur Ólafsson (adorably self-deprecating), and counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński.

And a wildcard too.

Cardoso’s Requiem on Hyperion which secured the Early Music Award. Partly because of the arresting image on the cover of the album, but also because it was the Early Music Award I accidentally kicked as I squeezed past table twelve in search of Catherine Bott. No damage was done, but the look on recipient Pedro Alvares Ribeiro’s was momentarily distressing. Profuse apologies offered and accepted, and I managed to find Catherine Bott too.