My new pal: Beethoven’s violin concerto

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

Something has changed in the intervening years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fractured sound

Earlier this week I took a trip to Henry Wood Hall in London to hear Jack Liebeck recording Ysaye sonatas for Orchid Classics.

I was only there for an hour, but hearing fractured sequences of a vaguely familiar created a moment that seemed to go on for ever.

The audience experience is a distant memory. The crisp bright sound of skin on skin underpinned with the deep gentle roar of appreciation is an unreachable recollection.

The substitute is hearing live sound – human-powered unamplified sound ricocheting around a space, witnessed by a handful of people.

There were six of us – students of Liebeck, a PR person, and me – in Henry Wood Hall, plus the videographer and the musician. It was as though we were watching a scientific experiment: the very beginning of sound. The lone musician focussing on his craft, exposing not only the complexity of the music, nor its beauty, but the miracle of it.

There was power, grit, defiance and determination in that sound. An instrument compensating for an orchestra that can’t convene. One musician against the world. Stirring. Uplifting. Determined.

Liebeck’s recordings of solo music for violin by Ysaye is scheduled for release by Orchid Classics in 2021.

Burnout and Copland

Sunday mornings are best. Cushioned escapes from the week gone by, all wrapped up in a fluffy dressing gown, sipping coffee from a mug. Outside, bushes flail around in the wind, and if I’m not mistaken there’s a little bit of drizzle too.

Such wistful descriptions identify where I am at the present time, not just geographically but emotionally.

All burned out

Over the past few weeks I’ve experienced an unusually high and persistent level of fatigue. In the resulting vacuum, obsessive thinking has taken its place.

Lower energy levels have resulted in a drop in motivation. The end of the tether has been discovered and it appears rather frayed too.

An old friend gave me some sage advice recently after I admitted that things had become a bit of a struggle: make sure you take a moment to check in with the physical surfaces around you.

The technique of getting yourself out of your head and into the present is simple and effective. It’s also one I’d forgotten to draw upon in recent weeks. The sight of the world outside the lounge windows has the same effect.

As I write, I’m reminded of the way music has been absent recently too.

Ottensamer’s Copland

I’m currently listening to a review copy of a forthcoming Signum release of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with Richard Stamp and the late great Ernst Ottensamer, watching with wonder as the first movement melody gently meanders around an imaginary expansive landscape in front of me.

Aside from the brilliant efficiency of Copland’s writing, there’s something about the opening movement that creates the feeling that me, Copland, the Royal Scottish Northern Sinfonia and Ernst Ottensamer are engaging in one long much-needed breath. My chest expands. Air rushes in to fill a considerably larger cavity than I realised I had.

Leave the rice pudding be

It has been a strange few weeks. A recent doctor’s visit – the second of the week – confirmed that burnout was probably the right label (even if its not an official diagnosis) that helped explained the sudden onset fatigue and fragile emotional state.

Somewhere under the surface something previously been hidden had been exposed: an odd and inexplicable sadness or bleak outlook, closer to the surface that I’d realised.

It all became apparent a couple of weeks ago when I went away for a few days in Brighton. On arrival in our hotel room, I laid out on the sofa and slowly became aware of just how exhausted I was.

Brain fried. Deep set eyes. The heaviest legs. And the return of the most remarkable ruminations and obsessive thinking that I’ve not experienced for a good twenty five years.

Fortunately, I’m far better equipped to ‘tackle’ this state of mind compared to my twenty-two year-old self.

Think of a rice pudding with a skin on top. Just out of the oven, the rice pudding is just cooked. The skin looks strong. But, give the pan a gentle shake and you’ll feel the extent of the mass underneath the skin wobbling. And you know looking at it that the contents are way too hot to even taste right now. And come to think of it, you also don’t want to break that delicate skin. Just leave it be for now. Leave it to rest. Come back to it later.

Don’t overlook the obvious

Awareness is the first step. Recognising what is going on by taking a few steps back and piecing together the key evidence. This helps take the immediate sting out of things.

Next, deploying strategies – desktop shortcuts if you like – in order to reduce the rumination. A lot of the time during the four days we were away in Brighton, this was about maintaining a sense of curiosity to what was going on in the moment, whilst striving to avoid ‘engaging’ in the thought processes. It feels clunky, ineffective to begin with, but with practise it becomes second nature. Space is reclaimed. A new mid-long term strategy can be put in place.

What remains are the insights about what has occurred over the past seven months, and the damage it has had.

I’ve been reminded how I have a habit of overlooking the significance of events I’ve experienced in the past, comparing those events to those suffered by other people and concluding that mine are somehow insignificant. I tell myself I don’t have ‘permission’ to see my experiences as negative, damaging or challenging. A sub-script emerges, explaining away present-day challenges as a failure of personality, lack of knowledge or skill. And yet, take a moment to acknowledge the impact of things in the past (even the past seven months) and that self-judgment lessens and pressure is release.

What other things do we all overlook that contributes to a weakening of our mental health? Because surely, if I do this, other people do it too. They just may not realise they do.

Acknowledging that the past seven months have brought a significant shift in our day-to-day life is the first thing I have to remind myself about why I am where I am. We’ve collectly told ourselves that because working at home is a relatively easy adjustment to make (assuming we’re lucky enough to have work), that we don’t really have anything to complain about.

What we overlook is the extent to which prolonged use of video communication where software naturally draws our eye to our own image, drains the system of energy.

Every video call is to a greater or lesser extent a kind of ‘live two-way’ demanding a level of energy for performance I wouldn’t normally bring to a face-to-face real life interaction. And depending on the intent of the individual, video has the same power to amplify an individual’s core energy (good or bad) in the same way social media does. We forget that. I’ve forgotten that. And prolonged exposure to that kind of energy is draining and ultimately damaging. There are some video calls I dread, preceded by the usual tussle about whether or not I’m switching on the camera or not. That is a strange thing.

And who’s in your network?

There is a coaching exercise often deployed in sessions in order to help develop resilience. The client is asked to make a list of the five people they most interact with on a weekly basis. After that the client is invited to describe what qualities (positive and negative) those interactions bring out in him or her. After that the simple question is asked: if you could choose who was in your list of five at the end of next week who would choose? Who would the people you would choose to be in that list who would help you be a more resilient version of the person you are now? Sometimes the exercise is developed to include those five people who are in the client’s thoughts or who they interact with most on email, not just face-to-face.

Heading to a different place

A cadenza links first and second movements of the Clarinet Concerto. Youthful curiosity, instinctive investigation and wide-eyed playfulness leads the listener on somewhere entirely different. Copland’s writing isn’t simple, but the path it lays out is difficult to resist following. The work transports us to a different place – not far from where we started, just somewhere a little better for body and soul.

But listening to Copland – Appalachian Spring Suite is also included on the forthcoming Signum Release – there’s another unexpected insight to capture: listening to classical music in an active and mindful way (by which I mean with intent and curiosity) is not something I’ve been doing in recent weeks and perhaps even months.

As I listen to the textures in Copland’s orchestrations, there’s a sense of being someplace else. Or perhaps even having a stage created in front of me on which I can step and explore musically where I can best occupy my place on it: a musical language which helps translates a mental state, by inviting focus to rest in a variety of different locations.

With everything on this album (and predictably with a lot of Copland’s music) it is texture which is the gateway or ‘bridge’ to the stage I’m referring to. And specifically its woodwind textures – the combination of flute and clarinet knitting together long sustained chords in the strings is very welcome. And in faster movements, a spirited guide leads the way with resolute optimism.

What links the Appalachian Spring Suite and the Clarinet Concerto is a perception of Copland based on the musical language he uses. And the overriding sense listening and exploring is a sense of humility, strength, honesty and resolve.

Half-way through the fifth movement of Appalachian Spring Suite, a sequence of three chords repeated twice creates a blissful state of release, preparing the way for the Shaker tune the ballet is best known for. The three chord sequence has the effect of pivoting the mind, inviting thoughts that take us in a different more sustainable direction.

Closer to home that means letting go of certainty, shoulds and musts. The need for certainty and security drives all of our thinking. Shoulds establish obligation and, when the obligation isn’t met, a sense of judgment. Self-criticism usually follows in abundance. Musts have much the same effect.

Being driven by certainty, shoulds and musts in the middle of an economic crisis powered by a global pandemic is understandable. That alternative path – one of letting go by taking the plunge and creating new opportunities – presents itself as foolhardy in present times, doesn’t it? But what if that path was more meaningful, helped shore up resilience, and in the long-term created a more solid kind of happiness?

And achieving that means focussing attention on endeavours which are more meaningful, activities which create a longer-lasting sense of resilience, and are more aligned to my values. Deciphering what that is during an economic crisis is of course the challenge. But who doesn’t like a challenge?

Postscript

I recently wrote about memories of bullying on my Facebook page and how, at 48, I still couldn’t understand why anyone who was doing it wouldn’t realise what they were doing, have a meeting with themselves, stop and make amends.

It prompted a slew of comments from people, some sent privately, sharing their own memories of being bullied at school – the same school. Most reported how they hadn’t thought about their own experiences until I’d posted about mine.

It would be easy for readers to respond to this post by interpreting what I’ve revealed as some kind of cry for help. Not a bit of it. To do so is to cram mental health in a box with a whole host of unhelpful assumptions with words like delicate, cotton wool, or sad.

More than this I think there’s also an opportunity to take the usual platitudes about normalising mental health and going a stage further. If we are to normalise it – take the sting out of the subject – then talking openly about what’s going on when what’s going on if a little out of kilter with normal service is vital.

Some thoughts on the new wave of digital classical music concerts

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

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

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

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

What’s been good recently?

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

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

Why has it been good?

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

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

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

What needs to change?

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

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

Think of it a translation not an equivalent

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

Visuals and storytelling are doing the heavy-lifting

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

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

Look for the detail on stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its Marcomms’ moment

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

Pay close attention to the user experience

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

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

Confusing labelling creates barriers

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

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

Strive for the simplest, quickest, and seamless user journey

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

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

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

Join forces to create a uniform user experience

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

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

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

Arts Council England announces Round 2 recipients of Culture Recovery Fund

Round 2 recipients of the Cultural Recovery Fund were announced on 17th October – a total of £76m bringing the total given out so far to £334m.

Classical music organisations, music education, ensembles and venues who received grants from ACE are listed below. For a full list visit the Arts Council website.

For a list of Round One recipients see this blog post from Monday 12 October.

Britten Sinfonia £197,810
Bromley Youth Music Trust £213,000
Chapel Arts Centre Ltd £55,827
Chiltern Music Therapy £118,552
Drake Music £84,650
Faber Music Ltd £130,000
Ikon Arts Management Limited £58,000
Gilbert and Sullivan Festivals £120,000
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival £50,000
Kingdom Choir Recordings Limited (KCRL) £150,000
Kings Place Music Foundation £562,000
London Contemporary Orchestra £50,000
Military Wives Choirs £92,057
Music for Youth £109,000
Music in Hospitals & Care £248,570
Oxford Philharmonic £210,639
Paraorchestra and Friends £156,000
OperaGlass Works Ltd £70,000
Pro Corda Trust £60,000
Voces Cantabiles Music £115,000
Yorkshire Youth and Music £55,000

Royal Phiharmonic Society Awards 2020 shortlist announced

The RPS Award shortlist has been announced this evening. It’s a compelling list – a signpost or spotlight for those creative endeavours and individuals that tell a vibrant story of the classical music scene. The shortlist is included below. The winners are announced on Wednesday 18 November at 7pm on the RPS website.

Listen to RPS Chief Exec James Murphy on the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast discussing this years awards shortlist.

AwardShortlist
Chamber-Scale Composition supported by Boosey & Hawkes in memory of Tony FellLiza Lim – Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus
Naomi Pinnock – I am, I am
Raymond Yiu – Corner of a Foreign Field  
Concert Series and Events supported by PRS for MusicBeethoven Weekender – Barbican
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
Ryedale Festival
Venus Unwrapped – Kings Place
Conductor supported by BBC Music MagazineDalia Stasevska
Jonathon Heyward
Martyn Brabbins
Ensemble supported by Schott MusicCity of London Sinfonia
Manchester Collective
Scottish Ensemble
Impact supported by ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music)Across The Sky – Cheltenham Music Festival
RPO STROKESTRA
Sound Young Minds – City of London Sinfonia
The Lullaby Project – The Irene Taylor Trust
Instrumentalist supported by ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians)Lawrence Power – viola
Sean Shibe – guitar
Yuja Wang – piano
Large-Scale Composition supported by the Boltini TrustDavid Sawer – How Among the Frozen Words
Errollyn Wallen – This Frame is Part of the Painting
Frank Denyer – The Fish that Became the Sun (Songs of the Dispossessed)
Oliver Vibrans – More Up
Opera and Music Theatre supported by Sir Simon and Victoria, Lady Robey OBEOpera Holland Park
Nixon in China – Scottish Opera
The Turn of the Screw – Garsington Opera
SingerLise Davidsen – soprano
Natalya Romaniw – soprano
Nicky Spence – tenor
Storytelling‘Bright Stars Shone for Us’ by Tama Matheson
Our Classical Century – BBC Radio 3
‘Rough Ideas’ by Stephen Hough
Young Artists12 Ensemble
Sheku Kanneh-Mason – cello
Timothy Ridout – viola

Figures over sentiment

Arts Council England’s announcement about the first recipients of the Cultural Recovery Fund earlier this week has generated a bit of noise. In particular, much ire appears to be levelled at ACE and DCMS for ‘stipulations’ attached to receiving the award, manifest in a requirement that organisations extend thanks, use the hashtag “HereforCulture” and, outline how the money will help bring live performance back and support freelancers.

This in addition to the hushed exchanges and furrowed brows about why some organisations received the funding and others didn’t.

The noise has continued today with some arguing that the requested statements put out on arts organisations social media accounts left an Orwellian taste in the mouth – a kind of hand-wringing appreciation for funds some regard as less of an award and more of a necessity. To extend heartfelt thanks so publically and uniformly could be seen a gratitude for legitimatisation and validation by a government body, when the money is instead a ‘life-saving’ response to a critical situation.

To say thanks for something which will play a crucial role in the survival of an organisation or endeavour seems like a thoroughly decent thing to do – an easy win for a sector which has at its heart a belief that its work promotes a sense of wellbeing in the individual. Wellbeing extends to courtesy too. And if you can’t demonstrate your values in your activities and utterances then you’re very quickly going to lose the very audience the money you’re asking for is there to protect.

But what the resulting ire highlights isn’t so much a fawning sector, nor an Orwellian government, more an ill-thought out (and probably hurried) digital campaign.

To ask everyone to basically say the same thing (and then engage with those accounts) shows an editorial strategy built on figures (reach, impressions and engagement) rather than sentiment. Figures won out over sentiment. Some organisations framed their statements in a tone of voice which suited them. Others copied and pasted. The intent was sound. The originating direction could have been a little more sophisticated.

Arts Council England and DCMS announce first recipients of Cultural Recovery Fund

A selection of recipients (classical music/venues) of the first tranche of ACE/DCMS Cultural Recovery Fund. The complete list of data is available on the Arts Council England website.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra secures £834K

In response to its £834,000 grant from Arts Council England, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra issued the following statement:

“This grant from the Culture Recovery Fund – along with support from donors to our £12.5 million Sound of the Future fundraising campaign – allows us to return to giving live concerts in a safe and Covid-compliant way: we have just announced a series of ensemble concerts at CBSO Centre, and we are working towards restarting larger-scale concerts at Symphony Hall.   The funding also enables us to share more of our work on digital platforms, and to increase the reach of our community work at a time when many people may find it hard to attend concerts in person.

By getting back on stage, we will be able to start engaging freelance musicians and guest artists, and we will also help other parts of the live music sector – agents, publishers, venues and other suppliers – to start earning as well.”

Mozartists secure £99K

Mozartists CEO Debbie Coates said in response to the ACE Grant:

“These have been uniquely difficult times for our industry, and the knock-on effects both to our organisation and our talented freelance artists have been horrendous. This grant provides some light at the end of the tunnel, offering us a lifeline so that we can resume the presentation of world-class performances and generate vital work for our artists. We are immensely grateful for this show of support and confidence in our work.”

London Philharmonic Orchestra statement

David Burke the LPO’s Chief Executive, commented:

Everyone at the London Philharmonic Orchestra is grateful for this grant from the Culture Recovery Fund as it will enable the Orchestra to continue to bring the wonder of orchestral music to global audiences. We also acknowledge that the plight of freelancers, in particular, needs to be constantly reviewed and all of us who care about the arts need to remain vigilant to ensure that the many thousands of freelancers are able to continue their vital contribution to the country’s economy and well-being.”

Watch the LPO’s In The Stream of Life on Marquee TV

Wigmore Hall

John Gilhoolly, Wigmore Hall:

“We are working very hard to bring artists and audiences back to Wigmore Hall and this government injection of funds is a great first step for our national cultural life, so much part of our national identity. However, this crisis could go on and for the arts. There is no end yet in sight and further help will be needed right through the UK, and especially for freelance musicians and artists who have lost so much.”

Saffron Hall, Cambridgeshire

Chief Executive, Saffron Hall Trust, Angela Dixon said:

“We are delighted and relieved to receive this money from the Cultural Recovery Fund. These funds will contribute towards the survival of Saffron Hall and allow us to support other arts organisations and freelancers locally and nationally through to March next year as we continue to build a safe environment in which to share music. 

We do not know how long this crisis will last, but over the last seven weeks we have welcomed 118 musicians to our stage and over 1,380 audience members to our reconfigured socially distanced auditorium and we are determined to keep going. 

Many thanks to the brilliant Saffron Hall team, the board of trustees, our amazing volunteers, our members and supporters and Saffron Walden County High School.”

Classical music organisations (venues and ensembles) in receipt of the Cultural Recovery Fund

Blackheath Conservatoire of Music and the Arts Ltd £228,000
Chineke Foundation £300,000
City of Birmingham Symphony orchestra £843,000
City of London Sinfonia £75,000
Classical Opera & The Mozartists £99,452
English Chamber Orchestra £102,034
Ex Cathedra Ltd £114,078
Hampshire Music Service £249,000
IMG Artists (UK) Ltd £100,000
Intermusica Artists Management Ltd £198,000
Halle Concerts Society £740,000
London Contemporary Voices £50,000
London Philharmonic Orchestra £650,000
London Symphony Orchestra £846,000
Manchester Camerata Limited £229,000
Manchester Collective £156,174
National Youth Choirs of Great Britain £170,000
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain £250,000
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment £75,000
Orchestra of the Swan £130,000
Orpheus Sinfonia £69,966
Philharmonia Limited £967,413
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic £748,000
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Ltd £996,702
Saffron Hall Trust £245,000
Sinfonietta Productions Limited £80,990
Snape Maltings £950,000
St John’s Smith Square £227,147
West Suffolk Council £250,000
Wigmore Hall £1000,000
Wiltshire Music Centre Trust Ltd £188,158

Back Home

My mum used to run a newsagents shop back when I was a kid. The Corner Shop stood triumphant where Brandon High Street and London Road intersected. The business that resided there – newspapers, sweets, toys and ‘fancy goods’ – vacated the premises back in the 90s. The night before the transfer of power, I headed off to the place I’d spent as much as time in as my own bedroom to ‘say goodbye’.

Being there that night – around midnight as I recall now – was a bit weird. A visually familiar space that triggered memories and emotions. These memories seemed in the moment to be slipping through my fingers. I remembered then, as I do now, few especially fond memories about the place. If anything, my memory of The Corner Shop was that it had displaced family time. Perhaps I held a sense of bitterness about the place. I’m not sure.

What I do recall with clarity was the need to be present in the space the night before new more confident owners breezed in with the resolve prove good on their promise of transformation. One last goodbye, toasted with a grubby glass of luke-warm lemonade ‘pilfered’ from the shop fridge.

There were echoes of that experience last night stepping into the Festival Hall. I was last there seven months ago. Since then the place has been shut. Staff have (first) been furloughed, then made redundant. It’s none of it been pretty. The Southbank Centre is in a sense a monument to something rather brutal for a whole variety of reasons.

I was there to watch a recording of the LPO’s In The Stream Of Life – Sibelius, a Lindberg world premiere, and some Schubert I’d never heard before.

Everything sounded tight. The upper strings sounded – forgive the descriptive term – lush. All on stage demonstrated the kind of attention to detail in recording that makes for a standing ovation.

There were twelve of us in the audience, distanced close to the back wall of the stalls. I’ve never sat there before, god only knows why not. The sound was incredible. For this studio recording – an empty auditorium stretching out in front of me like blank forgotten tomb stones – were the premium seats.

I struggled with my own internal dialogue, I’ll confess. My socially distanced buddy revelled in the joyous soundworld of Lindberg’s new cello concerto. Conductor Joshua Weillerstein bounced around, whilst I reflected on how incredibly grateful I still feel to so many generous people for granting me access.

Advance notice, if you will: live music still sounds good, and when the full auditorium hears it themselves they will go wild. Certainty.

But it was tinged with sadness.

Whilst waiting for proceedings to begin in what has become a TV studio experience I remember well from the BBC, suggestions were made by my handler about timings, toilets and various other logistics. “You can only use the toilets on this floor, and you’re not allowed to go any further.”

Outside the gents on the third (?) floor I caught sight of the Skylon restaurant below devoid of table coverings, staff or punters. Below that an inky blackness. Don’t go there, even though seven months ago you’d have been allowed to go anywhere in this glorious building I call my London Home.

There was a whiff of midnight prohibited access about the whole thing that dominated the music-making as a result. Regardless of where you stand on lockdown, transmission rates, or the ineptitude if the government, public spaces like these for people (privileged) are sorely missed. And I will do everything I can possibly do to hasten the return of that experience.

Watch the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Joshua Wellerstein on Wednesday 28 October on Marquee.TV.

For more digital streams from UK orchestras, be sure to bookmark the Thoroughly Good Digital Concerts page.

Being in amongst the tribe

It has been quite a day. There was occasion (much-missed these past few months); an unexpected shared sense of purpose; a sense of personal responsibility; and possibly even a feeling of vindication too.

I suspect I’m a bit of a shit journalist. That’s what I thought when I headed back from the freelance musicians demonstration in Parliament Square at lunchtime. Reason: I hadn’t captured any opinions. I had no personal stories. I had little ‘evidence’. I’d only captured visuals.

What I also struggled to capture was the efficiency of the protest. That’s a very musician thing I think. Perhaps not especially surprising: people who have for their whole careers been called upon to do – to be at a certain place at a certain time to play a certain thing, do just that and then pack up and go home. That’s their thing. They did it reliably well.

For me, it was nice to be in amongst them.

Instinct kicked in as it often does in this situations. Just because the email comes in ‘late’ doesn’t mean it’s something that isn’t worth clearing the decks for and prioritising. Sometimes there’s a conversation one needs to be a part of. Sometimes the story presents itself as a story that must be told. And just because you only have a Canon EOS M50 doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to do what the people with the big cameras are doing. You’ve as much ‘right’ to be here as anyone else.

I was amazed that two people recognised me even though I had a mask on. One waved for the camera, the other took me surprise and complimented me on the podcast. Was there ever a moment when the value of what music can bring was illustrated so gently and so very urgently. Music had made one member of the audience feel part of the music community. What kind of Government wonk can’t see how music benefits society? A privileged one who hasn’t suffered depression and never thought to pick up a musical instrument probably. Why? Because money.

I went home. Looked at the footage. Listened to the audio. Spun it together and slapped on some graphics. “It’s making my skin go all goosebumpy,” said the OH, “Look!”

For me, I’m a bit amazed that it’s got the engagement it has (small in comparison to Benedetti). But, if you’ll forgive me for indulging in a spot of ‘naval gazing’, it also makes me rather proud. Because the work of these people and others like them is what regularly makes me feel alive and what has sustained a lifelong friendship with a musical genre that is generous, nurturing and constantly fascinating.

This is the very least I can do. And it does feel rather paltry in comparison to what they and rest of the sector needs right now. One orchestral administrator this week told me that the band he worked for probably had until Christmas until it folded. It employs many of the people I saw in Parliament Square. People who were playing to cling onto their livelihoods.

A message to them. To you. We’ve got your back. Promise.