Oliver Dowden in the Evening Standard

I’m a little late to the Dowden interview in the Evening Standard.

This late discovery doesn’t change the view expressed in the previous post. If anything the interview only backs it up.

Julian Glover’s interview is a positive profile piece, seeking to project Dowden as the nice guy. The kind of Everyman the arts world strives to appeal to itself.

Quite why the DCMS brief would be described as a ‘backwater’ pre-COVID is lost on me. In the hours after Johnson’s election win last year, there was plenty Brexit-related in the arts world that demanded urgent attention. Culture and sport was at that time far more than just free tickets.

The point of the role is advocacy, surely. Loving football nor any of the other activities in the portfolio isn’t a requirement: understanding how the cultural economy functions and what the needs of its key players are is. You’re required to bang the drum. Loudly. To do that you just need to understand how the system works. You don’t need to love football, nor love opera or classical music. Bottom line: be curious how the ecosystem works then defend it and advocate it with all your heart as though your life depended on it.

And whilst there are good noises made about museums, there’s little of substance offered to live performance venues meaning Dowden has little wriggle room until the 2m rule is removed. I find the line about nobody in the arts world wanting to be paid to do nothing troubling. But hey, maybe that’s what most arts managers are thinking. Maybe I’m speaking to the wrong people. The ones I speak just don’t want their organisations to go to the wall.

I’d hoped for something a little feistier, truth be told.

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

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

Higgins lays it on the line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The (kind of) 2020 Aldeburgh Festival

If memory serves me correctly, 2020 is the first time the 72-year-old Aldeburgh Festival won’t be going ahead. No surprises why. COVID.

This is notable because of the oft-told story of Benjamin Britten’s annual jamboree.

Fire at Snape Maltings Concert Hall back in 1967 on the eve of that year’s festival might have threatened proceedings. It didn’t. Triumph over adversity, etc.

Given the Maltings proximity to the North Sea there were countless occasions when flood could have brought things to an unceremonious end. It didn’t either.

Pestilence? Well. That’s a different story.

It’s easy to focus on the venues and events and the people I know who bring the thing I love to life in London. But when you receive a press release about your second home (I can’t afford a property there – I’d just like to think that at some point I might be able to) telling you what’s planned in the gaping hole created by its festival’s absence, then you’re going to stop, pause and reflect a bit.

Aldeburgh has like a good many other festivals this year, opened up its archive, reached for its digital platform and called upon its friends, associates and former colleagues to help keep the flame alight this year. There are programmes on BBC TV including, finally, a broadcast of Grimes on the Beach from a few years back (if you’ve not seen it YOU MUST), a trawl through the BBC archives for Britten on camera narrated by James Naughtie, and an intriguing invitation to recreate an artwork by John Cage from a few years back where visitors to the town got to hear multiple pieces of music all played at the same time. How delightfully John Cage.  There’s even the opportunity to submit your own memories of the festival for inclusion in a special digital timeline.

That these things are on offer is a lovely thing because they only serve to emphasise how important East Suffolk is to me. The yearning is way too much to bear (without a car to my name I can’t even justify to myself visiting my parents in their garden in West Suffolk, let alone heading to Aldeburgh Beach).

So, these warm gestures, alongside six broadcasts from yesteryear festivals, as well as the epic 1997 Radio 3 broadcast of the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano I have on cassette in my office, will have to suffice.

The Aldeburgh Festival 2020 begins in the hearts and minds of those who miss it on 12 June and runs until 28. Highlights include an ‘Opening Night’ broadcast of Britten on Camera on BBC Four followed by Struan Leslie’s Illuminations – a staging including circus performers of Britten’s Les Illuminations – seen for the first time on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube Channel, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available on BBC iPlayer later this month, and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast six archive performances from Aldeburgh Festival between 19 – 26 June.

More about the Lockdown Wigmore Hall Concerts

I was originally going to write at length (again) about the Wigmore Hall concerts this week. But, you’ll be relieved to read that I won’t.

There isn’t too much more to say, other than how the mere experience of them as a viewer after an extended period of time denied access to high quality live performance virtually, digitally or in person triggers all sorts of thoughts and feelings in response.

The elegant simplicity of Wigmore Hall’s live stream video presentation makes the story that emerges from the gaps in the concert experience electrifying. This week I’ve been obsessed with the things I can’t experience first-hand and the way my imagination leaps in to fill the resulting vacuum.  

I’ve spent most of this week watching the YouTube stream wondering about how WH Chieftain John Gilhooly, presenter Andrew McGregor and the assembled musicians say to one another on arrival at Wigmore Hall. Nobody hugs, I’m sure. But how do they greet each other? Do they smile apologetically? Do they jump up and down with excitement? Do they, like I think I’d probably do, sob in front of one another? Or do they just shrug their shoulders and resolve to just get on with it?

The theatre of the visuals only adds to the pathos. Concert producer, concert presenter and performers appear ‘in vision’ – without an audience what we see is a sort of laboratory version of music-making.

As an audience member I find that difficult, on the one hand, though not necessarily for the reasons you might at first think.

Classical music actually does poignancy really well. We can create an unifying event with music, especially when it’s been denied for a while. You only have to look at Menuhin and Britten in the aftermath of the Second World War, or Barenboim and du Pre in the sixties and seventies to see that classical musicians have an enviable range of repertoire at their disposal to help heal wounds and map out a path.  

So, when I see an empty auditorium I don’t think that me and others like me should be there. I see a narrative in flow: that those on stage are keeping everything warm for us the audience member.

There was a sense watching Nicholas Daniel, and pianists Pavel and Sampson that they and others like them would continue to play for as long as they needed or wanted to. That they would play – patiently, resolutely – until we the audience returned.

Musicians right now whether it’s in locked-down concert halls or playing live from their front rooms and giving us the audience a call to arms. The rest of us are waiting for the barriers to be dismantled. And they will. Eventually.

Stephen Hough at Wigmore Hall during COVID19

I can’t remember the last time the words ‘a live stream’ had been quite so an exciting prospect. In the run up to it I wasn’t entirely sure why, but it was exciting enough to insist of moving my laptop, phone and notebook to the sofa to watch on the ‘Big Screen’ downstairs in the lounge.

I sat in considerable anticipation, staring at the screen, leaning in to what I thought I heard as someone bashing at a laptop keyboard. Had there been some kind of technical error? Was there someone there? Was this all just another pre-recorded YouTube premiere, or were we going to see Stephen Hough on stage at Wigmore Hall playing something or other?

When the shot did change to reveal an empty Wigmore Hall I admit, for no reason I can immediate explain, I cried a bit. I miss the sense of occasion. I miss the people. I miss the escape. As lovely as it is to experience something ‘sort of live’, it all seems cruel. Here, a gift from the classical musical world to those who feel most at home in it, we’re reminded of the ineptitude, double talk, lies, and deceit that means the thing we love will remain out of our reach for all too many months to come.

Look at it this way. Hough’s Wigmore recital was the present-day digital manifestation of the Tristan chord: yearned for but ultimately destructive.

Hough’s performance was both electrifying and crushing. Uplifting and cruel. The wait is too long.

I miss the people who make this kind of magic come to life. I miss the peers who clap excitedly in response to it in the same way I do.

But we have (effectively) a month of daily performances like this to follow. Thank fuck for that.

BBC Proms 2020 season unveiled – live performances late summer plus a treasure trove of archive delights

I have line of sight of the BBC Proms season for 2020. And you know what, as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be quite happy: archive broadcasts on radio, and BBC iPlayer, plus a cut-down selection of live performances towards the end of the season.

The BBC Proms press release doesn’t reveal too much in writing. No great surprises because .. jeeze .. look what everyone’s grappling with right now. But some stops have been pulled out and in a strange kind of way that makes the summer seem less of a barren landscape than sometimes it does when I try and think beyond today, and tentatively into next week.

For the avoidance of doubt on the part of anyone at the BBC Proms: I’m saying thank you here. I appreciate your efforts.

Live concerts, pending Government direction (don’t hold your breath – that direction hasn’t been great to date), will start up for the end part of the season, including what is billed as a ‘poignant’ Last Night of the Proms to conclude proceedings. Marvellous.

Up until then, the Proms truly is a broadcast festival starting on Friday 17 July, and running until Saturday 12 September. The ‘First Night’ will include a commission by Iain Farrington for a BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

And given the news from the Southbank earlier this week, the Proms may well serve another more pressing need: to reiterate to the naysayers or those who don’t especially care about live music that it remains a critical force in our cultural life and the country’s economy.

It won’t be quite what we’re used to, but it will remind those who need it spelled out, that this cultural experience is not something we can afford to throw away.

Which, now I come to read the press release, is actually what David Pickard, Proms Director thinks too. Great minds think alike.

“These are challenging times for our nation and the rest of the world, but they show that we need music and the creative industries more than ever. This year it is not going to be the Proms as we know them, but the Proms as we need them. We will provide a stimulating and enriching musical summer for both loyal Proms audiences and people discovering the riches we have to offer for the first time.”

BBC Proms 2020 runs from Friday 17 July until Saturday 12 September.

Southbank Centre announces closure risk until at least April 2021

I cannot remember the last time I’ve scrolled through my emails all bleary-eyed in bed only to discover in a split second, reading the header for one incoming press release, that I need to get up immediately, reach for the laptop and start typing furiously.

The top-line messages make for stark and depressing reading. The Southbank Centre has announced it is at risk of closure until at least April 2021, noting that since its closure on 17 March (my that seems like a life away) and despite furloughing the majority of its staff, its reserves have run dry as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19. They expect to face a deficit of £5.1 million at the end of the financial year in 2021.

The Southbank Centre estimates hosting 3,500 events a year, a significant number of which are staged in the Royal Festival Hall – the last remaining iconic symbol of hope from 1951 Festival of Britain, the post-second world war celebration for the nation.

It’s home to eight orchestras, an extensive creative learning programme that reaches young people and families, and supports a variety of communities in need in the surrounding area.

It gets 37% of its income from the Arts Council. The mandatory closure of its revenue stream – the venues, bars and restaurants – has resulted in a loss of 60% of its income. 

The timing of the press release is quite something coming hard on the heels of the most spectacular car crash of a press briefing given by the Prime Minister last night.

Despite calls (even from Brexit Fanboy Steve Baker) for Johnson’s special adviser Lord Voldemort Dominic Cummings to be fired, the Prime Minister doubled-down saying that in driving up to Durham with his family whilst his wife was infected with Coronavirus Cummings was doing his bit to stop the virus spreading.

The event confirmed for nearly everyone in the country with half a brain cell that the instruction to stay home, save lives and save the NHS, didn’t apply to all of us after all, and that despite flagrantly breaking the rules, Boris’ crutch could still stick around and the guidance doesn’t need to change.

We have a leader who is a leader only in name, unable to take decisive action, who is himself being led by a complete fool.

What hope for the arts? The Southbank Centre’s call for urgent government support depressing because of the stark reality that is now before our eyes.

Because if the Prime Minister can’t fire a man whose arrogance and entitlement looks set to undermine a public health campaign at a moment in time when the economy is screwed and shows little sign of recovering anytime soon, then what hope does an arts organisation (and the rest of the UK’s arts economy) have?

None.

The writing is on the wall. Our cultural economy is over, its rapid decline presided over by people who have no clue what they’re doing.  

Returning to writing, content fatigue, self-care in isolation, Vaughan Williams and Benedetti’s Elgar

It’s the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to write. So, please treat this post as a way of breaking myself back into the process. An attempt to order a jumble of thoughts. The first in a pre-paid programme of self-facilitated therapy sessions.

On returning to writing

Writing now triggers all sorts of different thoughts and feelings, some of which make the practise almost impossible. A list of those thoughts presents itself.

  1. There’s nothing to say about classical music right now
  2. Your copy will ramble
  3. Your copy always rambles
  4. You bring way too much of yourself to your copy
  5. You make everything about you
  6. You take ages to get to the point
  7. There is no event everyone is coalescing around
  8. People don’t want to be reminded of what they don’t have
  9. You have an over-inflated idea of your own importance
  10. Shut the fuck up

There are some truisms in here. Even in the first two paragraphs points four, five and six are borne out. Watch the detractors rub their hands together with glee at that one.

Importantly, is the question of where these thoughts originate and what their effect is.

In coaching terms I know where those phrases originate. The effect is creative gas-lighting.

To bring oneself to ones writing – whether it’s literally using the first person in one’s copy, or drawing on first-hand experience or turns of phrase is for some a sign of weakness or exclusivity. I have over the past three or four weeks felt guilty for my go-to creative framework that is second-nature because of the very creative outlet – a blog – that helped develop my creativity.

One has to be robust. Rigorous. Recognise when the gas-lighting occurs and take steps to avoid it, so that what’s important is allowed the space it needs: advocacy whether it be in writing, audio, visual storytelling depends on knowledge, experience and emotional awareness. Bringing that to one’s creativity isn’t just a good thing, it’s a requirement. Otherwise, how do you connect with your audience?

Content fatigue? No, distractions

I read somewhere on social media that some considered classical music consumers were suffering content fatigue in response to the slew of digital endeavours embarked upon by various arts organisations amid COVID-19.

It’s true that there are a multitude of split screen lockdown performances which are very quickly blending into one another. One or two resonate more than others – the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Fairey Band’s Slane, and The Sixteen’s recent release.

These are successful not because they have cut-through, but because they have a narrative underpinning them or they anticipate and exploit an emotion experienced by a majority audience.

I remain convinced that offering free content like this is not detrimental to the music industry. It is a pragamatic and understandable reaction by a number of arts organisations and individual performers to unforeseen circumstances. This moment in time provides an excellent marketing opportunity and digital is king at raising awareness (even if it struggles to result in changed behaviours).

Raising awareness then is a baseline for arts organisations during this hiatus. But in doing this digital producers and artistic directors now (finally) appreciating what digital is for (even if they don’t understand its often contradictory complexities) need to remember that audiences (those that are lucky enough to work, as well as those interacting with family on handheld devices or over Zoom) are spending considerably more time at their laptops during this pandemic. Little wonder then that a bright blue sky, the warmth of the sun on your skin, or simple pleasures like plants, baking, or reading a book are compelling distractions over watching another video online.

It’s not that its content fatigue, it’s that there are bigger, more powerful and considerably more gratifying distractions right now. If you’re making content right now that content is competing with those distractions. That’s what you need to bear in mind.

Managing oneself in isolation

As the lockdown continues and will, let’s face it, for the rest of the year, some aspects of day to day life are coming more and more into focus.

Switching between tasks without the usual moving from location to location which marks out those different activities is, I think this week, as much a drain on energy reserves as being in receipt of a poorly phrased email, mean-spirited exchange on What’s App, or an extended video conference call.

My new personal canban – an experiment for managing a heavy workload

I was lucky enough to have lined up a month’s worth of project work for April which has now spilled into May. The to-do list is now getting reduced to a more manageable size which is a relief. At the same time I recognise I’ve been battling not only with the workload, but the intensity of it and the associated thought-processes (most of them negative) made more destructive by isolation-powered focus I’m working with.

Every-day now feels like a working day. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I never finish my day at the time I want to. I don’t really relax. I see how one could easily stumble into burn-out by continuing this way.

The C Major scale: bland as fuck

One of the solutions is to limit calls that interrupt the flow. My current bugbear is calls where things are just reported. It’s the meeting equivalent of listening to some playing a C Major scale – something I have to be present for but which doesn’t engage me as much as perhaps it does the person playing it. Isolation brings experiences like these into focus: our presence and participation in group experiences needs to be defined beforehand and ideally active too.

And the other thing that has become clearer for me in isolation is the need for empathy, praise and encouragement for others. Denied the serendipitous interactions with friends and associates, all of our exchanges are now pre-arranged, deliberate acts. If those are the only interactions you’re experiencing then the content of them needs to be well-intentioned, genuine, sincere, and long-lasting.

For the sake of everyone else’s mental wellbeing, we need to approach every interaction with positive intent. The great wave of compassion and empathy at the beginning of lockdown now feels like a distant memory. It feels as though we’re in danger of falling into the same habits we did before we were all locked away in our homes. Only the effect of some of those same habits is going to be more intensely felt by most of us because we have nowhere to escape to in response to them.

One undoubted and unexpected boon was participating in a coaching learning session with some peers Friday. Within minutes of the call starting it was as though all five of us were participating in a big collective breath. Space expanded all around. Implicit permission given to explore the imagination, to identify present needs. This kind of work is powerful. And needed. Especially in lockdown.

Where my musical tastes have rested recently

I began writing this section of the post listening to Vaughan Williams fifth symphony again – a work I’ve been returning to a lot this past week. The third movement largo with its opening call to prayer from the cor anglais: a reflection on those in need; a statement of hope that we will be there for them as we’d hope others will be for us. It, like the coaching learning session yesterday, has the power to release great waves of emotion whenever I hear it. Listening to it is like plunging into a very deep pool, not realising you needed to until your skin hits the water.

And Elgar’s Violin Concerto –  Nicky Benedetti’s release on Decca this week. An intimate recording of an epic statement. It’s an album I’ve had on preview for a few weeks now but haven’t (for the reasons I outlined at the top of the post) not got around to writing about. And yet returning to it again this week has reminded of one of the work’s most compelling characteristics: it’s complex and rewarding narrative. Reflecting on that now makes me almost regret the comparative cursory attention when discovering new music in the past. Giving attention seems like a nice thing to do right now. Space and attention to delve into detail.

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra: first out of the traps

In years to come, the pictures capturing the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in front of a live audience will be something of an oddity.

The mask-clad safely-distant attendees will point to a time when things were odd. The pictures will either act as a signpost for when things in the classical music world took a dramatic change of direction, or they’ll act as a trigger for memories of a dark time when the thing we love reminded us how much we had taken it for granted.

Right now, images from that concert (live-streamed and seen by an audience of 2 million) offer a sense of hope: this will come to an end and classical music and opera will start on its road to live performance. It’s also a reminder of the amount of time its likely to take. The gig staged at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Hall was the first concert given to audience since lockdown began – that’s 110 days.

Just last week it was announced that cinemas, libraries, theatres and museums in China were permitted to reopen. That’s nearly four months wait, and even then its to a limited audience. That is how long this is all going to take.

On 23 May the Shanghai Symphony will hold its first concert with a larger ensemble and a conductor – 30-40 musicians playing works by Bartok, Barber and Piazzolla.

As with the marketing dividend of sharing free content during lockdown, so there will be opportunities to exploit being the first ensemble or arts organisation to stage a concert. Those who catch the moment right and anticipate the audience will secure the prize (such as it is). And at some point when social distancing is no longer a requirement, so too the return to live performance as we remember it.

For now, a moment in history. The first people emerging into the sunlight. Nice work, Shanghai Symphony.

Pay it forward to St John’s Smith Square and give 500 free tickets to NHS staff

St John’s Smith Square are a nimble bunch. At least they always seem to be. They respond to the community that surrounds them, reach out to the people who visit them. They appeal to people’s good nature and generous pocket with a firm handshake and a warm smile.

I say that with certainty. That’s partly because of the people I know who work for them: generous of spirit themselves. The warmest of arts administrators. Salt of the earth types.

One such person – senior, important, knowledgable, well-loved – sought out my hand and shook it when we passed at an event a year or so ago. To be clear: I’m a nobody. At least that’s what I think of myself. The people who make things actually happen are the people with the contacts and the budgets. They’re the important people.

So I frequently look on St John’s Smith Square with that memory and other similar social experiences in mind. That’s why not being able to go to concerts is so very difficult now. They’re more than just venues: they’re the site of communities and personalities and connections.

St John’s Smith Square’s latest scheme is characteristically modest in scale, perhaps more realistic than most. It might even more about appealing to its core audience than positioning itself as a destination. Either way, the more I think about the idea the more I warm to St John’s Smith Square.

I think about the NHS friend of mine who works in social care and the other one who treats dialysis patients at Kings. Neither of them have (to the best of my knowledge) set foot in a concert hall, would never consider going to a concert either.

But I love the idea of them both experiencing something new and unexpected as a modest gesture in return for the sacrifice they’ve made and the risk they’ve taken. I can’t guarantee they’d be converted, but I do know they’d appreciate the gesture. Especially if I knew they were heading into a place I call home.

For more info and to give to the campaign, please visit the Crowdfunder page.