Be authentic, be accurate, and be forgiving

What the big challenge is for a social media producer operating in a field of expertise and what leaders have to do to support them

A well-known brand issued a tweet yesterday celebrating the 88th birthday of John Williams, conflating the lives of both a film composer and a guitarist into one glittering career.

Oops. The classical music world identified the error, some leading on ridicule, others following up close behind with empathy and forgiveness.

The tweet was deleted soon after, but the screengrab lives on.

I work in this field – (digital) content – and have done for 13 years. In that time I’ve been at the wheel during a couple of accidents: I’ve been responsible for prematurely announcing the death of a celebrity on a BBC account (it later turned out that my source – the celebrity’s wife – wasn’t a reliable one given that she was a dementia sufferer). This only came to light because it emerged the exclusive for the announcement had been given to a tabloid newspaper and the editor there was a little disappointed to discover a verbal agreement had apparently been reneged on.

And I’ve also tweeted a link on a different BBC account to my own blog believing it was directing users to a press announcement about job losses. It took the then the Head of the BBC Academy to point out the error to me.

Both of these experiences saw me experience inordinate amounts of shame to the extent that I was convinced everybody around me knew of my error and it wouldn’t take long before I was frogmarched out of the door. (That never happened, obviously.)

The John Williams tweet reminds me of those experiences and the effect they had on me as a creative. Powerful creativity comes from a place of trust. In return for trust those who delegate content creation to others rightly expect accuracy in addition to spirit, energy, and hopefully engagement. When that trust (external or internal) is damaged then confidence is given a knocking. Self-doubt creeps in. Content suffers.

Accuracy is vitally important in the classical music world. Different endeavours seem to reach out to different audience groups with differing levels of knowledge or expertise. Accuracy may not be a requirement for the target audience but it is vital for those who could endorse your product, especially if those same people (even if they’re not in that target group) could berate you in the event you get it wrong. The reality is that we’re all self-publishers. That means we’re accountable to considerably more people who have an opinion.

The JW tweet highlights a greater challenge for any content producer in the classical music world however. Knowledge, expertise and experience is of course important. Being able to articulate that in a way that connects with your target audience using a language that honours the experts at the same time as promoting curiosity and ongoing discovery is phenomenally challenging for the individual with knowledge. Being aware of what you know at the same time as knowing what your audience doesn’t know is the biggest demand placed on a social media producer. And rightly so.

There is another aspect to this which triggers the leadership coaching part of my brain: that of empathy and forgiveness. Somewhere someone who thought they’d done a good thing on Friday now thinks they’ve messed up. They think that probably because of the replies they’ve seen. Their weekend has been ruined because of a mistake. Nobody seeks to make that kind of error, but sometimes they happen.

What I always wanted in those situations was for someone in authority to seek me out face to face and check in with me. I wanted people to feel able to say, “This wasn’t great, and we know you know that, but we want you to know that it’s OK and you’re still very much valued. We’ll do better to support you in future.”

It takes a strong leader confident in their own skin to be able to say that, I know. Only two have been able. Those that don’t, can’t or won’t unwittingly reveal far more about themselves than perhaps they would like. I’ve always strived to say it to others. Done well and it can be transformative. It ensures trust is maintained and most importantly of all ensures creative aspirations aren’t extinguished.

Beethoven 2 & 3 from Norrington and the OAE at the QEH, and the Beach Boys

On the one hand theres an element of guilt writing about a concert four days after it happened. Details can be lost; a reputation, such as it is, withers. People will roll eyes, probably even tut.

Not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however. They’re a groovy bunch. Always have been. They’ll know, just as I am reminding myself now, that there are no rules and, just as not all orchestras are the same, not all writers are the same.

A few days distance on the OAE’s electrifying concert with Sir Roger Norrington, thoughts have crystallized. These thoughts develop my thinking about Beethoven, about the second and third symphonies we heard on Tuesday night, and perhaps most interestingly for me, about communication.

Taking a break with recent posts, I’m going to section each observation off into a handy list. It’s easier like that, for me and, I suspect, for everyone else too.

Roger Norrington is a beguiling conductor

Norrington is 85. He shuffles gingerly onto stage with a protrusion from a light-fitting blouse, reaching for musicians to guide him to the podium where a swivel chair awaits. There is a glint in his eye, a flirtatious smile, and an unapologetic willingness to collude with the audience. ‘Clap when you want, perhaps after the funeral march will be a little tricky, but clap whenever you would like,’ was his instruction, or something along those lines.

In between each movement of the joyous and uplifting second symphony he swung around triumphantly to greet and thank, before moving on. And when the moment allowed during the third, he did the same perhaps revealing a little more of how taxing a work this monument to composition really is to both conduct and play.

Sometimes the signalling to the audience at the end of every movement became a little tired. But there can be no doubt that Norrington still illicits a great deal of enthusiasm on stage, his poise, delicacy and detail are a joyous thing to observe. He maintains a youthfulness of spirit which is utterly adorable.

He is too, speaking personally, the last of the rock stars – him referencing the London Classical Players took me back to Denis McCaldin at university introducing the notion of ‘authentic performance’ with the first recording I’d ever heard of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on period instruments. It seemed like an another world when I heard that. Any opportunity to see in the flesh the man who I regarded then as a bit of an iconoclast is going to be a must-see.

Beethoven symphonies reveal stark contrasts and commonly held assumptions

We think we know Beethoven’s music because – certainly in the case of the most well-known works – the melodies are familiar and engaging. But take a historically-informed band conducted by an octogenarian who resists any attempt to wallow, and suddenly the detail is exposed – multiple layers with eye-popping detail brimming with dissonance, tricky counter-intuitive rhythms, and unexpected textures. When you lean into Beethoven 3 and listen attentively the detail is remarkable.

Shameless Beach Boys comparison

It’s the same with the music of the Beach Boys. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, or Sloop John B from Pet Sounds are a case in point – seemingly simple infectious melancholic mid-tempo ballads, the pleasure of which eclipses the multiple layers of seemingly incompatible and utterly bizarre individual tracks that make up the whole.

Not written, forged

The detail in Beethoven 3 challenges our unwitting assumptions about what Beethoven’s music is. And when we’re confronted with what it really is then it comes alive there in front of us. And what the OAE achieved under Norrington’s direction was to present Beethoven as a progressive perhaps even fearsome creative and his third symphony as a creation forged in the white heat of the furnace.

To observe that or experience it or perhaps even momentarily see Beethoven 3 from that perspective, makes it impossible to listen to any performance subsequently in the same way again. Maybe.

Celebrating the man’s music is like one year-long Beethoven degree module

I went into this Beethoven 250 thing feeling a little daunted. Others sought to use the anniversary to embolden gender politics. Some others understandably and rightly used to continue to shine a light on the ongoing diversity of representation challenge. I realised quite early on that for a man that so many claim did so much to transform classical music, I appeared to be able to recall very little about him. And I had a music degree. And that seemed a bit strange.

Quite early on I now see Beethoven 250 as one long season of music that will challenge my assumptions, force me to research and remember key dates (they are important milestones which helped embed learning despite what any classical music marketer would have you believe), and help guide me in the discovery of a composer I possess very little knowledge about.

And I when I reflect on my knowledge starts and where I feel is moved on to just in the space of a month, I’m beginning to wonder whether most of our perceptions about Beethoven are to do with that damn opening of Beethoven 5 – a kind of musical trope that celebrates, ridicules, and pokes fun at the art form all at the same time.

Not too much and not too little

Which then brings me on to the writing insight. The past few months have seen me working on a project which seeks to evoke a positive reaction to the discovery of classical music in an audience wouldn’t normally consider listening to the art form. It’s what me and another journalist friend have discussed at length over wine as the classic challenge: needing knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with a particular subject, but having to find a way of communicating just a fraction of it in such a way that one entices but not alienates.

And the challenge isn’t just about fine tuning your own communication filter so that you’re not always reaching to look under the bonnet at the earliest opportunity. It’s also about recognising how commonly held assumptions, well-trotted out ‘factoids’, or the over-reliance on lazy historical tropes are in themselves damaging to classical music’s perception.

It isn’t for example, to merely say that one of the interesting things about Beethoven is that he’s suffered from a profound loss of hearing but composed anyway. That’s the starting point for understanding Beethoven and appreciating the impact of his music. And what’s challenging for me is professionally is understanding what’s sufficient information and what’s ‘too much’ for one blog post or article.  

Identifying the essence of what makes the discovery of Beethoven’s music a thrill and something to keep coming back to is the challenge in this 250th anniversary year. And every challenge brings with it a useful source of motivation too. Which is nice.

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.