Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Music in Summer Air Festival: there are other worlds out there

One press release about a music festival on the other side of the world triggers all manner of questions about a little known subject

At (yet another) febrile moment in the UK’s politics when a remainer Prime Minister clings on to power in a desperate bid to get her questionable Brexit deal over the line and cast the country off into the brave new world of global trade, news from China has piqued my interest.

Earlier this week International Trade Secretary Liam Fox sought to demonstrate his efforts in selling the UK’s strengths to the world with an announcement about how British music was ..

And yesterday, an announcement that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s 10th Music in the Summer Air Festival (2 – 15 July) featuring a selection of high profile UK classical music brands are venturing east to put their best foot forward.

I’m intrigued by the announcement. Not cynical. Obviously.

It’s more evidence of a strategy people were trumpeting at the ABO conference in Cardiff back in January 2018. Whilst most were picking over the various permuatations surrounding Brexit (they were, inevitably, doing a similar thing this year and will no doubt next year too), some management types were encouraging their peers to look further afield.

At the time this challenging outlook appeared pragmatic. Now I see it realised in another China-related announcement, its less of novelty and more of a thing that’s actually happening.

What raises my eyebrows is the way the existence of an familiar market on the other side of the world challenges my assumptions about classical music audiences across the world.

For all the understandable worry and lobbying around the catastrophic impact of Brexit, there are some in the industry who have done the only thing they think they can and seized the opportunity that greets them. What I’m interested in is who the audience is that the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony are pursuing out in China.

What is it about that market that is so appealing? Is it altruism? Is culture being used to deepen international relations? Or are there financial gains to be made, channels to be dug, and new audiences to be tempted? And what does the appetite for western classical music in the East say about the popularity of the music that originates from China? Where did that appeal originate? And what is Chinese symphonic music? Who are the people who are attending these concerts? What is the appeal to them? And how does the appeal they perceive for the music in China help compare to the classical music world here in the UK and the US, for example?

The NY Phil and the BBC Symphony aren’t the first of course. Far from it. The LSO went to China last year (albeit with a considerable array of developmental partners, suggesting that a tour of China is far from a cash cow). So too the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Halle. The London Philharmonic was the first to visit China in 1973.

These are the kind of questions that fly around when another press release arrives in your inbox referencing China at the same time the UK is vacillating over a European outlook versus the supposed tantalising opportunities presented by free trade deals across the world. It’s probably a podcast. Or at best a series of interviews. Who knows, even an article for someone.

Music in Summer Air marks the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra‘s 140th anniversary and features a series of concerts given by China’s oldest orchestra, many of which will be in the Shanghai Symphony Hall which, now I search for pictures of it on Google, appears to be utterly gorgeous.

Very pleased to see composer Raymond Yiu making an appearance on the programme with his work Xocolatl in what amounts to a Last Night of the Proms-esque type programme with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Davis. Also good for Colin Currie and his band of merry percussionists taking Steve Reich to Shanghai.

The programme as a whole isn’t going to scare the horses. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mozart and Britten.

My attention is particularly drawn to the Shanghai Youth Orchestra appearances, because its there that some of the answers to that stream of questions could be found.

Music in Summer Air runs from 2nd – 15th July 2019 in Shanghai, China

The curious case of composer Alexey Shor

How a former mathematician’s curiosity shines a new light on the process of composing

“Music was always around me. But, as far as playing music was concerned, it was never on the cards. As a kid I was a maths prodigy. It was always assumed I would grow up a scientist, or a mathematician, or at worst a physicist.

Composer Alexey Shor speaks matter of factly about his transition from ‘prodigy mathematician’ to composer when we meet during the Malta International Music Festival.

“I started writing music very late in life and mostly for my own entertainment. And then by pure accident it got noticed by David Aaron Carpenter and he started playing it in all of his concerts and it went from there.”

He speaks softly, with a mildly percussive edge. There’s a simplicity to his tone. Dark eyes and a half smile give him a childlike look – someone curious about a new world.

He leans in to speak into the microphone. I do the same.

His ability to learn a new discipline quickly set him on a new career path six years ago.

“I always loved music. I’m a concert junkie. I probably go to two concerts a week when I’m in New York. At some point I was curious just to see how it is that music is written down.

“You go to a concert and its like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book. So, I wrote variations on a theme of Happy Birthday. It was so new and so entertaining to me that I could actually create music that I kept doing it without any ambition to be professional.”

Since then the American-Maltese composer has had his music recorded by various orchestras and now features on releases on Warner Classics with viola player David Carpenter.

Shor epitomises the on-demand information age we now live in: curiosity-driven learning that highlights the rarefied regard in which we hold the creation of art. There’s usually an answer to be found on the internet for any challenge we might be posing. A shortcut perhaps.

Using a book to crack the musical code seems in comparison like a retro-approach to feeding that curiosity. But there are plenty of other composers who have spent years studying and practising their craft, following conventional learning paths who, for one reason or another, give up on their craft. Has Alexey Shor found a different way of learning the creative process?

Possibly. What he also illustrates is a scientific perspective on the process of composing.

“What really surprised me is how coherent music theory is. It’s not created by scientists. It’s not created by people who since the age of five are being yelled at for every single logical mistake. There’s a body of good music written by some people, and then other people try to formalise it and turn it into a bunch of rules. That sort of endeavour by itself seems doomed to failure.

“You have a large body of work – take Shakespearean poetry. Then you tell someone who is nowhere near Shakespearean talent – take that poetry and work out how to write in that style. Probably nothing good is going to come out. But music theory is a good product. These people who were not Bach, they did formulate rules. You follow those rules and music comes out. It may be good music or bad music, but it is tonal music. I think it’s amazing that music theory exists.”

This different perspective challenges my own path to understanding and appreciating music and music history. Is there, it now dawns on me clawing for a well-worn British phrase in my head, more than one way to skin a cat.

“People who wrote the best music ever – like Bach – he was not aware of these rules. We don’t know what was in his head. Somehow people distilled his work down into a bunch of rules. Usually when that happens you end up with something like ‘Here is the rule but there are hundreds of exceptions, and even if you follow it nothing good will come out.’ But music theory does work. Chord progressions sound like they go somewhere. You can hear proper counterpoint versus wrong counterpoint. I was just amused and amazed that such a thing exists.”

“Do you consider yourself a rebel?” I ask Alexey.

“No.”

Challenging definitions

Unlike other living composers, describing Shor’s music is by comparison unusually demanding. Comparisons often used to help prepare newcomers to a musical genre – a way of preparing the ear for something unusual to come. Music is either judged by its popularity or artistic merit, with popularity held in less regard. In an increasingly fractured on-demand world, labels have become a necessity. That labelling is problematic because of the conventional history of music we assume: one of ‘progression’. Progression is the is the story humans understand. But when the music seemingly subverts that story of progression by what has gone before to create something that appeals to as wide an audience as possible now, describing it isn’t just difficult but risks judgment.

You go to a concert and it’s like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book.

Shor’s music is rooted in tonality. It’s melodic. It’s easy on the ear. It follows convention. And it also sounds familiar. When I first hear it I can’t quite determine whether I connect with it or not. And that makes writing about it challenging.

Shor is forty-eight years old. Before that he was a mathematician, the son of two scientists in a family of non-musicians. His mother was reportedly shocked when he turned his back on science.

“My Mum said that when I was a kid she could have named twenty things I could have potentially been good at but music wasn’t on that list. Everybody was so used to the idea that things technical came easily to me and I enjoyed them. So given those things why would I do anything else?”

What was her reaction to the variations?

“She was amused. She was like ‘OK, so he has read another book and he’s remembered another bunch of things.’” Does that reaction bother him? “No, nobody expected it to go any further.” And when it did go further? “Then they were surprised.”

The turning point for Alexey was the discovery of his music by viola player David Aaron Carpenter who sought out the composer and asked him to arrange a piece for viola and orchestra.

“I couldn’t do it, but me and a friend did it together. David kept writing from the tour that he played the music on that it was going well, and that it was being asked for two or three times over, and that there were standing ovations.

“I thought, like, ‘OK, musicians. They’re prone to exaggeration.’ So, me and my parents went to one of David’s concerts at the Metropolitan Museum. Once he played that one piece of mine – he calls it his ‘replacement Cazardas’. It was a little shocking to me and my parents. That was the moment when it dawned on me, ‘maybe this isn’t a joke, maybe I should take it more seriously. It’s an amazing thrill to this day that my music is played.”

“I love writing for the orchestra. You’re not limited by anything. The orchestra can create all sorts of sounds. Whereas even if you’re writing for a piano, you’re still limited by what a human can do. I love the variety you can get out of the orchestra. I don’t know I would call it a machine like you say or a spectacle. It’s more the infinite variety I like.”

“Melancholy is very common for my music. Some kind of sadness is present in my music and life in general. This is all wonderful but this is all going to an end – that’s always in the background.”

Shifting perspective

Miran Vaupotic conducted the final gala concert in the Malta International Music Festival. We met shortly before the concert.

“Alexey’s music lacks pretension,” he explains. “It’s music people enjoy listening to. And the musicians who play it recognise that the audience are enjoying it.”

Our brief exchange about Shor’s work marked an important shift in my thinking. Classical music lovers and performers strive for a listening experience where a connection is established in the moment. Implicit in that hope is the expectation that establishing the connection will require active engagement in the art. Once the connection is established the pay-off is rewarding for both parties.

What if an audience member isn’t striving for a hard-fought emotional connection? Material that creates a connection between performer and listener that takes the latter where they want to go as quickly as possible seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition. It’s good business sense too. Live performance doesn’t necessarily mean being transported to another astral plane every time, does it? I know plenty of live performers whose repertoire pays tribute to particular genres or bands. They play to sell-out audiences, rocking, tapping, or fist-slamming. Why should classical music be any different?

Shor draws on the music he responds to and composes in such a way that evokes all of those styles. The first music I heard by him mid-way through the festival had a curious quality to it: melodic material that conjured up multiple eras all in one cell – the musical equivalent of a video jump cut. It worked, even if instinct suggested otherwise.

Compositional process

Later in the interview, I ask Alexey about his compositional process. I feel uncomfortable being quite so nosey. If anyone asked me how I wrote a blog post in an interview I’d feel slightly put out.

“Sometimes I have a lot of clarity about what it is. Sometimes I’ll have a musical idea and I don’t know what it is. Maybe a day or so later I look at it again, and most of the time I just delete the file. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think maybe this should have a life. In some way I write for an audience of one which is me. I imagine myself in a concert hall and think, ‘if I heard this would I enjoy it? Would I ever want to hear it again?’ If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then maybe this piece has a future.”

I can’t argue with this logic. I adopt the same stance myself in my creative endeavours. If the output doesn’t satisfy you as an audience member, then who will it satisfy?

But Alexey’s compositional process exposes another outdated assumption I hold about creativity: creative ideas are seemingly only valid if they exist initially on paper. Despite knowing that composers use Sibelius and other music-writing software, I’m aware that I’m making an unconscious judgment about those who do. Why can’t writing music be approached in the same way as a recipe, or writing computer code?

Members of the Trio Wanderer – three Parisians on their first visit to Malta performing a programme of Schubert and Saint-Saens – help me contextualise Shor’s writing with reference to the seven-piece Trio they were playing in the concert.

In the last movement – Schubertango – Shor takes familiar Schubertian melodies and gives them both a Latin American feel. Every now and again, melodies I recall from my student days seem to bound and flash around like a television being tuned from the 1960s.

“It’s an odd thing,” I say to pianist Vincent Coq after the Trio’s rehearsal, “I hear the melodies and it’s almost like as soon as I’ve heard them they’re snatched away from me again. It makes me want to reach out for the original. I can’t put my finger on what it is.”

“We hear it as a musical joke,” replies violinst Jean-Phillipe. “The composer is taking fragments of melodies he likes and playing with us. It‘s very effective. I think it’s an homage to Schubert. An homage to all the composers Shor likes.”

The word ‘homage’ resonates with me. A sort of musical fanboy creation. The kind of creation that perhaps we don’t get to hear in the UK classical music scene. Suffocated before its given air to breathe.

There is an evident resourcefulness to Shor’s methodical and process-driven approach. Throughout the Malta International Music International Festival, we’ve heard not only musical references to composers of the past, but repurposed material by Shor himself.

The first movement of the ‘Seven Pieces for Piano Trio’, for example, entitled Addio – a tender melody exchanged between violin and piano – becomes a heartfelt pang for soprano and orchestra. Whilst the Trio Wanderer’s expressiveness created character in the melodic lines, the orchestral setting in the gala concert gave a fuller, more satisfying feel to the end product.

Indeed, in most regards the larger the forces, the easier it is to discern the intent, material, and the form. Another song in the gala concert – Natalie’s Waltz – part Viennese, part Italian Verdi-esque cast an unexpectedly captivating spell over the audience at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. Sweet and touching, if you’d have looked at the list of programme listed in the programme and seen Shor you’d be forgiven for thinking he was alive at the same time as Verdi.

And that surely is the rather astute thing.

In an ever fractured on-demand world audience requests are demanding ever more specific requirements and more quickly. If the existing ‘standard’ repertoire comes with a perceived knowledge requirement, maybe it’s perfectly pragmatic and eminently business-like to write music in a language that appeals to audiences quicker. Perhaps the answer isn’t that marketers need to find the answer to the impossible question of how best to sell high-art music to the newcomer, but instead commission and perform music that the newcomer is most likely to enjoy and pay tickets to listen to.

And that’s one aspect of Alexey Shor’s ability that I admire and am possibly a little jealous of too. Just like the peer at school who was able to listen to a piece of music and play it from ear, Shor possesses the ability to capture the characteristics of a genre, mechanics of a framework, or the style of a melody, and recreate it in a format that audiences will respond to.

If there are people who want to enjoy an orchestral experience but want the music they hear in it to get to the point quickly, then there’s a need for composers to write in a style that’s accessible for just the right amount of time. The skill is delivering the right product under those particular constraints. That’s just what composers of British Light Music achieved in the 1940s and 50s. Why not now?

Dreams and aspirations

“Where would you like to go next?” I ask Alexey.

“It would be nice to write an opera, but even if I had an offer, I’m not sure I would take it. If you mean dreams then opera is an amazing dream to have. It may never happen.”

I ask him about what the motivation is behind that dream. Is it about scale or legacy?

“I love opera. I love the sound of human voice. At the same time, it is much easier to sit down and write an orchestral piece, than write a collaborative work. That’s why it’s more of a distant dream.”

He continues.

“There are a lot of things that need to happen before an opera can happen. If I was in this world for 50 years as opposed to 6 then chances are I would have all sorts of friends amongst whom there would be a librettist with whom we see eye to eye. Then there is a question of language. Italian is an amazing language for opera, but I don’t speak Italian.”

Recalibrated

On my journey home I’m reminded of something else conductor Miran Vauptic mentioned in my interview with him. We raised the point about how if Alexey Shor was writing film music then I wouldn’t feel the need to ask how others should be categorising his output. “What he needs next,” said Vauptic, “is a commission for a TV soundtrack.”

When the plane touches down at Gatwick Airport, a message pops up on my phone. A tweet from Scala Radio, advertises their chart show rundown on-air later in the morning, featuring “classical and classical-inspired music”. Is this the label I’ve been looking for all week?

Quotes from this article are taken from a podcast recorded with Alexey Shor on Wednesday 7 May 2019. The full podcast interview will be released as a Thoroughly Good Good Classical Music Podcast in the coming weeks.

Post-BBC Proms 2019 Launch

It’s still a little weird grabbing print from a BBC event.

I look at it and think about how I should be feeling – how I remember feeling.

Then there’s a jolt and I’m reminded how I feel seeing it now – an odd mixture anger and disdain. To explain the difference would be massively dull and boring to read. So you know, consider yourself saved.

What’s key here is the unexpected experiences had at this year’s launch event: people coming up to say hello, to introduce friends and colleagues, and to ask when camera rehearsals start for the TV coverage.

Fools.

One or two still don’t realise it was an April Fools Joke; those that did just remind me how much I want to do it.

No matter – that ship has sailed.

I started the day dismissive of this year’s #BBCProms season.

I end the day (with a few glasses of wine inside me) feeling a little more warmly towards what is a fundamentally dull offering.

“It’s the money,” said one orchestra bigwig, “there’s no money for the interesting stuff. Not anymore.”

There needs to be more money for it in future. This year we’re selling the genre short.

First glance at the BBC Proms 2019 Listings

My worst fears are confirmed: I’m not the archetypal Proms audience member. At least, not anymore.

Nearly all of the hopes and dreams listed in my previous blog post have now had line drawn through them. I fear I’m no longer the Proms ideal audience member.

But, because the Proms is an old familiar for me, I’m going to have a scoot through the this year’s events for anything that takes my fancy and share them in this post.

Other associated thoughts and feelings included as you would expect and, as others will no doubt roll their eyes at.

Can a seemingly bland season transform itself?

There’s a good reason for taking this systematic approach to documenting thoughts and feelings in response to the Proms.

In my experience – this will be the fifteenth consecutive year I’ve blogged about the ‘classical music’ festival – my enthusiasm builds between launch day (today) and First Night (mid-July).

In that way I’m anticipating there will be a change in my thinking about the season (its happened most years).

I’m interested in tracking how that enthusiasm changes on the day of launch, from reading a press release online late at night, to scrolling through the listings first thing in the morning. Does a launch event (this evening) change my outlook? What about when I have the brochure in my hand? And come July, will the words on the page have turned into an uplifting sense of anticipation?

You can’t fake it if you don’t believe it

I’m with Andrew Clements on this. I never really thought I’d say that. I normally kick against what’s said in the ‘mainstream’. But there isn’t anything here that excites or delights me. There’s little intrigue. And very little to fuel curiosity. Most programmes feature standard repertory (good for the newcomer to the art form), and whilst there is key performing talent dotted throughout the season, there’s nothing that leaps off the page as a must-attend event. (Well, maybe Rattle and the LSO. Maybe the Vienna Philharmonic.)

If I was coaching for performance, I’d say ‘fake it until you make it’. Here, I’m of the mind that you can’t fake enthusiasm if you don’t genuinely feel it. And so far at 9am on the launch day, I’m not sensing the enthusiasm yet.

Alternative perspectives

Some of this might be down to any number of alternative perspectives I’m pondering (which are also worth throwing into the mix here) – questions and statements which genuinely fascinate me.

I’ll list them. It looks neater that way.

  1. Have I grown out of the Proms?
  2. Was the Proms always ostensibly a gateway to the classical music world only I didn’t realise it 15 years ago?
  3. As I’ve become more familiar with the repertoire, different genres and performers, has the Proms served its purpose for me as an audience member?
  4. The BBC Proms has to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to meet is public service mission.
  5. Am I basically an impossible audience member to serve? I imagine the BBC Press Office would concur.
  6. It’s all about the young people. I’ve moved into the older bracket now, only perhaps I just hadn’t realised it.

Part of a wider strategy

There’s also a line of thought that says that the Proms season is just another ‘content block’ which provides the BBC with an opportunity to align what’s broadcast with its BBC Sounds app strategy.

I’ve written about BBC Sounds app before and how, broadly speaking, its a technology-based way of changing the way audiences perceive the BBC.

Radio networks will, as far as I can make out, be phased out, and in its place people will come to the BBC Sounds (or whatever its called then) in search of themed content around programme brands, according to mood, or genre. In this way, building concerts around themes that appeal to a wide audience base is key (this being different from theming concerts around an anniversary or artistic vision). That’s valid, of course. That’s the BBC ensuring it reaches the most people not just, as in the case of the Proms, those inside the concert hall.

And I can see how if on-demand content is available via the BBC Sounds app, how it would be possible should the need arise in the future (say when the BBC charter is next reviewed) to start charging a subscription for on-demand, leaving live broadcast free-to-air.

The Proms provides a testing ground for the carving up of broadcast content in such a way as its appeal is optimised via the BBC Sounds app and the rate of audience engagement with it is increased.

The impossibility of the Proms

And this reminds me of another point. The now impossibility of the Proms. It has to sell tickets so that the Licence Fee season subsidy doesn’t increase. That subsidy can’t increase. If anything it’s going to go down.

In this way the BBC Proms needs to be even more of a commercially-rooted proposition. It has to strive to stand on its own feet more than ever before. That means guaranteeing ticket sales. That also means programming concerts that people want to buy tickets for. And its got to be content which people want to listen again to because of the content itself, not because its the Proms. Because, the biggest gains are to be found by reaching the majority who aren’t like me or my classical music-loving peers.

If you were trying to set up the Proms for the first time today, you probably wouldn’t do it. That’s the impossibility of it. Maintaining the brand means reflecting shifting audience curiosities. And because reach is all important, those shifting curiosities are going to be entirely different from mine.

Good stuff

All this said, my initial scoot through the programme has been via artists rather than running orders. I’ll revisit the brochure in weeks to come and post on the blog accordingly. In the meantime, a handful of things which has caught my eye (just).

Martha Argerich
Legend. I’ve seen her at the Barbican in chamber music. I’ve seen the Netflix documentary made by her daughter. She is a terrifyingly brilliant woman. I’m placing a bet on her concerto appearance being a pre-season artist change.

Leif Oves Andsnes plays Britten’s Piano Concerto
Second only to Steven Osborne playing it at the Proms twelve years ago (thereabouts) Andsnes’ recording of Britten’s concerto is rip-roaring fun.

Conductor Jessica Cottis
She’s featured on a Thoroughly Good Podcast episode over the past few months. Therefore I’d quite like to go along.

Joyce DiDinato singing Berlioz Le Nuits d’Etes
Watched her talking about Le Nuits d’Etes in John Bridcut’s brilliant documentary about Dame Janet Baker. I was sold.

James Ehnes, Royal Academy of Music, Juillard School
I’m including this for four reasons: first, it’s James Ehnes whose playing I fell for at the Verbier Festival a few years back; second, he’s playing Britten’s violin concerto; third, I like the idea of the Royal Academy and Juillard coming together in a concert; and fourth, the Royal Academy were the only organisation to send an embargoed press release about their appearance in the Proms ahead of the season launch (the BBC didn’t – at least not to me) which meant their event gained greater (and well-deserved) prominence as a result. Nice work Royal Academy of Music Press Office. Take tomorrow off. My treat.

Nora Fischer
I’ve interviewed Nora for a Dutch Centre/DG promo last year. She was fascinating. And the album she was promoting then – Hush – remains on my regular playlist. I haven’t seen her in the concert hall before.

Pekka Kuusisto
This might sound a little odd to say, but Kuusisto is the only musician around today who when he plays – no matter what he plays – a charge goes through my body. He is the hottest player with a captivating madness about him I absolutely adore. He could play a C-major scale and I’d be enthralled.

Solomon’s Knot
Under the embarrassing sub-header ‘The Will-It-Go-Wrong-Prom‘ Solomon’s Knot’s are described as singing from memory, people who look you in the eye when they perform and, according to Proms director David Pickard, “They’re a young baroque group, who’ve just sprung up but have quite a big following.” My understanding was that they had been going for quite a few years, and had worked hard to build their audience because of their distinctive and energised approach to performance. Maybe that kind of copy doesn’t really work for the curious audience member. Even so. Solomon’s Knot are brilliant. Saw them last year in Guildhall.

Ulster Orchestra
Good to see the Ulster Orchestra back at the Proms.

Tenebrae
And because I’m a fanboy, seeing Tenebrae doing a Late Night Prom (now renamed as a ‘Late Night Mixtape’ with music that will ‘calm the mind) feels like something I might consider going to. If not, I’ll listen on the radio. Tenebrae are brilliant.

Pre-BBC Proms 2019

Big night tomorrow night. Kinda. I’ve already received one embargoed press release about the BBC Proms (I haven’t read it yet by the way).

So, assuming I might receive another before midnight (unlikely), I figured I’d list my aspirations for this year’s season. They don’t care, obviously. It’s too late to change anything anyway. They’ve not only gone to print but the printers have almost certainly gone to bed.

This year, I’d like the BBC Proms to …

1. Be like it used to be in the Kenyon days

Surprise me. Delight me. Challenge me. Give me stuff to rail against. Don’t make it easy.

2. Not do any cheap tie-ins with record labels or BBC properties

The Proms shouldn’t be about cheap promotion.

3. Tell inspirational stories about the value of classical music

Don’t just say it’s amazing, show how it is. Journalism not marketing. Marketing is boring.

4. Introduce me to something niche

Go on. I dare you.

5. Stop overlooking the likes of me because you think the only way to secure the next generation is to put the next generation on screen

Maturity has value. Heritage counts for something. You saw the Briduct/Baker doc didn’t you?

6. Restyle the Last Night

It’s an embarrassing own goal. An anachronism.

7. Make me feel a part of the Proms again

This one is difficult for the Proms. It’s not all them. It’s partly me too. But for a few years now I’ve felt like a kind of an irrelevance. It’s made me wonder whether you’ve lost touch.

8. Stop assuming that criticism of you as a brand is personal criticism of your team

This. Isn’t. New. Only last week a ‘BBC REPRESENTATIVE ON THE PAYROLL’ took me to task about a tweet I published. I was mortified. It was a very awkward conversation. And it’s the second conversation I’ve had of that ilk. The one behind was about my comments concerning the Eurovision. I shit you not.

The stuff the Proms puts on is not about the people who put it on, it’s about the art. And the art should be open to comment. Because if it isn’t, it’s not really art.

9. Know that the wine (when it’s free) can be mediocre, because that’s not important

Spend the money on the artists. That’s what’s important.

More buzz please

LSO’s performance of Gruppen at the Turbine Hall demonstrates a rare thing in the classical music world we need more of: buzz

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in. 

Remembering the Somme

I’ve always had what I thought was a weird fascination with acts of remembrance.

Early on I assumed I was drawn to the theatre of death. That may well have had something to do with school chapel choir: all the swishing gowns, the heads hung low, everyone striving for stoicism.

It’s only recently I’ve come to see those acts of school-time acts of remembrance for what they were: educational. From an early age, the Sunday morning church services, the gathering around the memorial, and the wreaths were in fact fulfilling a need I hadn’t acknowledged as a teenager.

It’s obvious to me now. Remembrance and, in particular, those occasions when two minutes silence are observed, offer a collective moment to gain private perspective.

These special moments that have, as far as I can make out, arisen because of the carnage of the First World War, and the trauma it inflicted on the families waiting for their loved ones to return.

But as the years pass so it becomes more and more difficult to find the triggers that help those reflective moments mean something. As a teenager, it was the music of remembrance. John Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man still transports me. Good or bad, John Rutter’s Requiem is, as a result of numerous school events, inextricably linked with Remembrance Sunday. All bronzed autumn leaves, a stiff wind, and the threat of rain.

Today marks the centenary since the start of the Battle of the Somme. Two minutes silence at 7.28am and a day of commemorative events in France and the UK. I’m embarrassed to say that work got in the way. Proceedings played out on screens all around me at work, but I didn’t once look at what was going on. Present-day self-inflicted dramas seem to be dominating my thinking. Forgivable, I think.

I suspect I’d prefer to commit to remembering the terrifying loss of life when we commemorate its end. Marking the moment it started brushes up a little too close to a celebration. No one was triumphant. The Somme was folly. Arrogance masquerading  as strategy. Some things haven’t changed.

Britten’s War Requiem – a commission for the opening of Coventry Cathedral  in the 1962 – combines poetry by WW1 poet Wilfred Owen with the Latin Requiem Mass. It is a stunning creation: an unequivocal statement of Britten’s pacifism that still conveys the futility of war in our information-saturated present day world as being reminded of the total number of lives lost – 310,486.

Britten’s seminal work has been lacking from today’s events. Maybe that’s not surprising. The timing may not be right. Might we see it at the end of the 1914-1918 centenary. I hope so.

In the meantime, this performance, of the Britten’s Lacrimosa recorded at the Royal Albert Hall ad broadcast on BBC Two in 1993, featuring soprano Makvala Kasrashvili and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, helps.

Walking along Aldeburgh Music history

A strong along a memorial boardwalk at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk

I visited Snape Maltings Concert Hall recently. Whilst I was there, I took a few moments to wander around the marshes. Buried amongst the reeds was a long duckboard stretching the length of the concert hall on which names of notable individuals have been engraved. A lovely walk through history on what was an unexpectedly hot day.

Kieran Cooper. Marketing and Box Office chap at the Aldeburgh Foundation. Spoken of in hushed whispers when I started there in 1995. Now immortalised on the walkway in the marshes, but in case anyone is wondering, Kieran is still very much alive.

David Heckels. Chairman of the Aldeburgh Foundation in 1995. Handsome. Charming. Fine hair combed within an inch of its life. Stalwart supporter of the Festival. Part of the landscape.

Rita Thomson. Britten’s carer. Key player in Red House history.

Alan Britten. Nephew of the composer. Smiley.

Sheila Colvin. General Director at the Aldeburgh Foundation when I was there between 1995 and 1997. Fantastic hair. Defiant walk. Imposing desk in an office with the best view over Aldeburgh HIgh Street. Enviable signature. Called me ‘Poppet’. Until today, I had no idea of her TV background.

An ostrich looking really fucked off

Gripes

Following a rant today on Facebook about workplace everyday-isms which really get my goat, I figured it might be useful to document those things which rub me up the wrong way.

Ta Da.

This blog post will be updated from time to time as more gripes come to mind, and linked to when the need arises.

So, if you want to ensure your communication assistance illicits a ‘yes’, best avoid the following.

Of course, publishing this list may well invite people to use them anyway. If you do, then I’ll know what kind of person you are.

In some cases, I’ve felt the need to offer an explanation.

1. Deffo

Just say definitely. It’s better that way.

2. Happy Days

3. Oh My Days

Just swear. It has far more weight if you actually swear.

4. Exciting or Excited

If you’re using either word you’re almost certainly not feeling either.

5. Exclamation marks

Only use exclamation marks for serious warnings. Using them is trying to force a sense of excitement on the reader and invariably draws attention to the fact that you can’t think of another word to better express yourself. Combining exclamation marks with the word ‘exciting’ or ‘excited’ and the intended effect is diminished.

6. Hope you’re well

No you don’t. You don’t really care whether I’m well or not. If you did care, you’d actually ask whether I was well or not, and you’d use a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Best not ask, because I will tell you in my response and it will invariably leave you wishing you hadn’t asked at all. Real life isn’t peachy and the depressing inevitability of it all cannot be overcome by the phrase “Hope you’re well”.

Just get on and ask me what it is you want me to do. Far more efficient. “Hope you’re well” is widely regarded as an ice-breaker, a tone-setter or a softly-softly way to start an email, based on the falsely held assumption that not using it is somehow abrupt or rude. It is a redundant phrase, however. Getting to what you want to ask is not rude. It’s efficient.

If you must ask how I am, be specific. Don’t be open-ended.

7. Literally

8. Metaphorically

9. Figuratively

10. Telly

It’s television. Or it’s TV. Not telly.

11. Align or Re-align

Eww.

12. Optimise or Maximise

13. Going forward

14. Cut-through or pick-up

15. To be perfectly/completely honest

I expect that anyone I’m interacting with is honest with me. If you’re not, then we shouldn’t be interacting with one another.

16. My Bad

Oh, fuck off. Really.

17. Mad Early

A derivation of ‘stupidly early’ and so technically acceptable. Often used to denote coolness.

Don’t be a dick. Don’t use it.

18. Emoticons or Emojis

Don’t use emoticons in your messages to me. They’re childish, lazy, weak-willed non-communication. If you can’t send me a message without an emoticon then you need to spend a little more time planning what it is you to want to say to me first.

19. “I’ve got to jump on a call at 1230”

The time is irrelevant where this particular gripe is concerned. It’s the verb that infuriates me. You’re not ‘jumping on a call at 1230’. You’re either taking a call, participating in one or joining one.

20. “I’ll ping/shoot you an email.”

Stop using unneccessary langauge to increase the importance of your message and/or yourself. You don’t ‘ping’ emails to people, you send them.

21. “All things … [INSERT WORD]”

A phrase used to denote importance when elevating the status of an event, message, or function. For example, “I’m responsible for all things digital at [INSERT ORGANISATION]”.

Just give us your job title.

22. The ‘super’ pre-pend

Don’t use ‘super’ as a comparator. Far from actually underlining how wonderful something is, you’re actually distancing yourself from the very thing you’re trying to emote about.

Also, you sound like a twat when everything is prepended with ‘super’.

If you’re about to use the word ‘super’ to describe something, then having a long detailed executive board meeting with yourself and come up with some new ideas.

A stolen moment on the South Bank

The sun is hot. Very hot. There’s the smallest of breezes, but the excitement from the crowd here on the South Bank more than makes up for it.

The Festival Hall is the new must-go-to location in Central London. I’m sitting on concrete benches. Beside me is a lady drawing up her to-do list in her notepad. On my right, two well-spoken thirty-somethings friends sit and chat, meeting for the first time in many months. They share surgery stories. One of them says that a patient at the hospital nearly died today. That was his high point today. Both seem quite happy.

In front of me people lean against the wall, looking out over the river as they knock back the cans of beer they’ve bought at the nearby supermarket. Nobody minds they haven’t gone to the bar. It’s all quite bohemian really what with their long hair, canvas shoes and shades.

It’s lovely to be here. There’s a relaxed vibe about the place. And it’s much needed. The architecture – the concrete – has a surprisingly reassuring effect on me. It’s as though my mother has put her arm around me. “There, there chump. It will all work out.”

Do Mums really know that? Or is that the best they can say? Do they believe in themselves when they say it or are they just offsetting their own insecurities? We believed them when they said it back then. Why does it all seem so unbelievable now?

The South Bank resonates. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used that word ‘resonates’ this week. I’ve worked on the basis that the bigger the word the more successful I’ll be in securing my place in the big scheme of things. I can’t say I think it’s worked especially. I suspect I’ve ended up feeling more and more out of step with everyone else around me and those I come into contact with. I haven’t changed. So what’s happened to them?

Shit. I’ve digressed again. I’m sorry. I’m shit for doing that.

The South Bank. It’s a key place for me. I love it here. It feels like home. London’s version of style. My own personal version of 1960s Carnaby Street. An opportunity to watch people. To tap into conversations. To feel alive.

I came here for the first time in my early twenties, desperate to establish contacts with players in the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra to bolster my own little black book. Later I used to wander around here on weekend walks with The Chap. It was here I wrote about for my first writing assessment for the correspondence course I began nearly ten years ago. And it was here I was planning meeting up with my cousin I haven’t seen for nearly 20 years over the weekend.

It’s a special place. A moment of exquisite serenity. Something to savour.