News announced today that conductor Steuart Bedford has died at the age of 81.
Those outside of classical music won’t necessarily recognise the name. Those without a connection to East Suffolk may not recognise it either. But for those whom Aldeburgh holds a special place in their hearts because of the music, the composer who put the town on the map and the various musicians who gravitated to the place and were inspired by it, Steuart Bedford is synonymous with the place like Oliver Knussen, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten himself.
My memory of Bedford is vague. I remember him being a presence in the narrow corridors of the Festival Office on Aldeburgh High Street – part pseudo-administrator, part-celebrity – striding into General Manager’s Sheila Colvin’s office with purpose and resolve.
Personally, I can’t quite remember for sure which productions he conducted I worked on with Britten-Pears. I’m fairly confident that my connection with him was when I worked on the Britten-Pears School’s production of Albert Herring in Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall back in 1997 as orchestral manager and production runner.
I remember feeling awkward in Bedford’s company. Bedford was affable and accommodating. Very matter of fact. But as a relatively young arts professional, I often felt like his knowledge, experience and his position in Britten history gave him an otherworldly aura. Those of us not doing the singing or the playing felt distinctly lacking. His authority and eccentricity fed into an evocative sense of history that smelt of stripped pine and was underpinned by the sound of reed beds wafting in the wind. Even twenty years after Britten’s death Bedford’s presence in and around Snape Maltings seemed to make Britten a still tangible force in the locale. That created a sense of mystique in both him, Britten, and Aldeburgh.
One interaction particularly comes to mind during the production of Albert Herring.
In anticipation of transferring the small production from Snape’s rehearsal to Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall, an early recce revealed the need to expose the lesser-used orchestra pit built under the stage. This was a considerable undertaking in itself uncovering a much deeper pit (approximately 8 feet) than any of us had anticipated in the planning stage.
“Well that’s just ridiculous,” he cried out, standing in the bottom of the pit looking up, “I can’t even see the edge of the stage let alone anyone on it.”
I remember this seemingly innocuous retort as being a signal for even more incoming stress necessary in order to bring the production to life. Looking back, I think his eccentricities were more a manifestation of how at ease he was with himself, an expression of his quickness and focus. Why waste time talking around a subject when what’s necessary is getting straight to the point? A lesson for us all there.
Perhaps that unease was also down to the times we worked together. Now I come think more about it, I’m reminded of the first concert series we produced – a recording for Classic FM of an outdoor concert an Minster Court repeated the following day at the Chinese Embassy near Portland Place.
Both were strange concerts arranged by a development director who really should have known better, both events staged in demanding locations. The first outdoors where the wind blew strong and the sound didn’t carry, the second in a function room where the parquet flooring was so polished and the grand piano so lacking in usable brakes, that whenever the soloist played a fortissimo chord the instrument veered off in the direction of Bedford’s podium. Maybe what all of this is saying is more about me than it is about him.
When I returned to Aldeburgh for the epic ‘Grimes on the Beach’ which Bedford had conducted with the Britten-Pears Orchestra in Britten’s centenary year, it felt like returning home to see a familiar much-loved face. Bedford had by that time become so embedded in both the landscape and in my personal history as to make returning ‘home’ something akin to returning to a school for a trip down memory lane.
I went to bed first. At 11pm. I was really tired. Drained. Exhausted.
It’s only Monday for crying out loud. I’ve had two days a relative peace and now one day of the working week and I’m ready to pull the duvet over my ears and ignore the rest of the week. These are weird times. Even for me.
I was definitely sleepy when my head hit the pillow. But our ageing cat stretched out across the foot of the bed made for significantly reduced foot space. And there’s something swelling underneath my jaw that is making it difficult to swallow. Its all very difficult to relax even though I want to sleep. Now my partner is snoring. And still the day buzzes around in my head intent on keeping me awake. Even the most robust of sleep strategies can’t tackle this one.
So I find myself awake, sat at the kitchen table draped in a blanket with obligatory mug of chamomile tea.
Earlier this evening (before I went to bed) I learned from Facebook that an old school associate had, after an extended period of grief brought on by the loss of her husband, found love again. They both looked blissfully happy. And it is oh so uplifting to hear. The thing we all feared may not happen ever because of her pain, has only gone and happened. We all need to hear more that lifts the soul.
A few hours later (even though I should know better) as the bed rumbled gently, I’d reckoned with myself that looking at my phone might be a strategy that would help me get to sleep. It really doesn’t. And tonight during my last ditched attempt to get back to sleep I scroll past some heartbreaking news. The husband of a colleague who I worked with at the BBC Press Office has died. It makes me gasp as I read it. They were around about the same age as me. I had only messaged the colleague a week ago to check in with her. “Still battling on. It’s not looking great. Still battling on.”
I didn’t know him, only her. But I know they were devoted to one another. Avid birdwatchers. I worked with her and frequently found myself supported by her considerable generosity and warmth, not to mention her eye for detail and love of numbers which often compensated for mine. Her easy conversation. Her sincerity. To think of her now knowing this news I’ve just discovered on my mobile phone is to think of her alone, abandoned.
The sorrow of her loss made more intense by the loss of freedom, the uselessness of video communication, the strain of constantly trying to work out what will happen tomorrow, next week, next month or even beyond. The idea that I can’t reach out to her easily to provide her with the simplest of physical gestures makes the empathy one feels all the heavier.
It isn’t that this period of time encourages or validates squatting in amongst other people’s drama, loss or pain. Instead, it is that the loss of physical connection we’ve all been subjected to makes the yearning for it, especially in a moment of need for someone for whom you care about, all the greater. In some cases too much to handle. Empathy is a bastard.
I scrabbled around for something to listen to. Schubert Impromptus unexpectedly too rich. Haydn Piano Sonatas from Leif Ove Andsnes too percussive and perhaps even hectoring.
I ended up with the opening of Bruckner 4 of all things. A shimmering beginning, distant calls from the horns. Lots of depth. Weight and strength. A sense of an epic struggle, and a sense of joyous defiance. These are not objective descriptions, only what I hear and respond to in this moment. There is a steady persistence in the repeated chords and triumphant fanfares that conclude the movement. This is an uneasy conclusion – there is more to the journey yet to go on. But maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.
I estimate I must have been snoring at 1.55am. I was awake at 2.00am. I’m now sat downstairs in the kitchen looking hopefully at a small mug of camomile tea in the hope that the contents combined with the process of writing will clear my head and ready myself (for the second time tonight) for much-needed sleep.
My mind is buzzing with thoughts, words and pictures, buffeting around like the rough-cut of a second-rate TV drama. They are relentless. This combined with the human brain’s incessant need for certainty means unless action of some kind is taken, I am doomed to lay next to my snoring partner until the sun comes up.
Outside the wind is all pompous and blustery. Leafless branches sway and bounce. Gusts pass through the cat-flap. The kitchen clock regimentally does its thing.
This feeling I have right now is unbearable. It’s familiar too.
First, the intense disappointment of being even wake at this hour feels like a dead weight. Next, the thought that the world we are experiencing right now looks set to continue for what feels like a lifetime. There’s a bland kind of horror associated with this feeling – a sort of middle-class banal-looking doom. A GP’s waiting room kind of inevitability to it, complete with well-fingered magazines and page-turners that go unread.
Our understanding of the world around us is shaped by that which we see on the television. Additionally, our perception is also shaped by the now commonplace video communication. The idiosyncratic behaviours of our immediate network are displayed in a series of thumbnail shots brought into our daily lives through video communication.
The outside world is forced down an imaginary pipe into our homes. Nobody invited that world in – it just arrived with an insistent look on its face as though it was look for a spare hot-desk and somewhere to plug in its laptop. It never told us how long it would be sticking around either. And its still here, strewing good stuff and bad stuff around.
The immediacy of video communication and its on-demand nature makes its a highly intrusive medium. And as it comes and goes it leaves unhelpful deposits on our mental cognition that would normally be washed away by the everyday distractions of a commute home. Now, the lack of distractions embed them. They’re not far below the surface. It only takes a partner to ask you to roll over on your back because you’re snoring for the eyes to suddenly open, the thought patterns to start up and the deposits from yesterday to pop up once more.
Amid all of the noise, and the faces of the people I feel I know but don’t all seemingly partying in my head with so much as a mask or any concept of the two metre rule between them, I look on an a frustrating incongruity in the world right now.
We are people who need contact with other human beings in order to function. Even if we don’t speak to them, we need to sense their contact in the same physical space as ours. We can see loved ones in a two dimensional form whenever we like, in the same way we can pull up mostly anything from an archive of on-demand TV whenever the need arises. But it is the physical presence of others that is missing.
This seems odd on the face of it. I live with someone I couldn’t be without. My rock. But it is others I also need to be able to be sense (if not actually touch) in order to reassure me that the world is OK, that reality is around the corner, and importantly that the world will be returning to a kind of normality sometime soon.
But, as my friend Becky has pointed out to me, the odd thing about the fact that we can if we so wish step out into our roads and see others. Yet this lockdown and the winter months builds a perception of distance. On the one hand we recall we’ve ‘done this’ a year ago, On the other hand, its difficult determine when we ever had a let up in the lockdown restrictions. This is worse in the small hours of the morning when the wind gusts through the cat flap. In these lonely fearful moments, unwelcome thoughts and feelings give oxygen to the unhelpful deposits electronic communication left behind.
There is a darkness to this experience. It’s lonely, for one thing. The early hours of the morning are the best time for panic to set in I find. Panic is such a loud insistent thing. Not unruly in its use of language. It doesn’t holler. It is instead pressing. Urgent. Strong. Wilful. It is liable to leave an impression if the pressure isn’t released.
Awareness is the double-edged sword here: a great skill to possess (and one to develop too), but it’s only as good as your ability to channel it in such a way you can observe and describe what’s going on in your head, and calm the party down a bit. Such a process demands the individual takes his or her own responsibility for identifying what’s going on and what needs to be done. With greater awareness comes a greater need to deploy ‘corrective’ behaviour.
I don’t remember anybody telling me this stuff (aside from the basic principles around self-awareness in coaching conversations for example). There seems to be no manual to help us get acquainted with the mind and manage in the way that sustains us as self-determined individuals. There is still shame, I think, in even talking about it (which is perhaps why I feel the need to write about it even more).
We are instead introduced to the joys of various activities designed to distract the mind (wellbeing and ‘wellness’) in the belief that distraction subdues and extinguishes. It doesn’t. I know this as a middle-aged homosexual when I recall the period of time I was in denial about my identity. Distraction doesn’t change things, it only delays change. Delay increases the pressure on the mind. It is only by observing a situation and confronting it that we’re able to move on from it taking ourselves to a place where we need to be.
He puts up with a lot of course. He possesses a good listening ear and, like any good coach’s husband, has mastered the art of listening without judgment. But every now and again when energy is low he’ll helpfully point out one of the major differences between us.
For him, Lockdown 3 isn’t really that much different from arrangements for Christmas, or indeed our day-to-day habits since we returned from Brighton truth be told. For him the announcement of something approximating a complete lockdown had no impact on him.
I on the other hand often overlook how things are the same day to day, and look at the potential implications of an announcement. I predict the future based on my own life script. In coaching parlance this is ‘catastrophisation’.
This is from a writing perspective quite useful, because it means I can take two things that crossed my day to day experience in a week (the touring musicians Brexit trade deal fuck-up and the disappointing news about Sir Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO) conflate them and build them into a reasonably interesting piece of copy that serves me cathartically and might even drive a little bit of traffic in the process too.
My husband on the other hand, observes a kind of connection between these two things but refuses to move from the now to imagine a future where these events have contributed to a situation where musicians and their work have been irrevocably devalued. We often joke about this in lockdown when I point out to him that I think I’m a thoughtful, sensitive, empathetic kind of soul, and that he’s a cold-hearted bastard.
Brexit ‘deal’ for touring musicians
Never underestimate how much ignorance and ineptitude can bring about a fuck-up.
According to the Independent in a story published on Saturday, it turns out that post-Brexit musicians will, despite reassurances made by the Government throughout 2020, be denied exemption from touring visas and instead be required to complete a dizzying array of paperwork to be able to continue their international work – this from an ‘EU source’ who said that the U.K. was offered a standard exemption package as part of trade deal negotiations but turned it down.
Caroline Dinenage MP responded saying the story was incorrect because the story was based on an anonymous EU source (like the U.K. Government never briefs with anonymous sources). Cue: arched eyebrows. Note: it had taken nearly 24 hours for anyone to rebutt the story.
The rebuttal is rooted in how the failed arrangement came about. The question for me isn’t how this happened, but why did you let this happen?
The answer is down to not thinking about the bigger picture – not thinking outside of the Brexit bubble and thinking about the implications of a decision or non-decision on a section of society.
If you’re invested in what happens to a particular part of the economy then you’ll fight for it. Or you’ll think about the implications of it and find a work-around. That’s where a sense of trust begins – when you know that someone has your back.
There is no trust. The arts doesn’t believe the Government recognises what the arts and culture brings to this country. The Indepedent’s story confirms what I learned a few months ago, that even with a Secretary of State representing the cultural economy, bringing about change depends on the people he’s speaking to being willing to listen. They’re not. Because they either don’t instinctively see its value or they haven’t looked at the relevant line in The Spreadsheet.
Why, for example, commit the money the Government has to the Culture Recovery Fund at the same time as cutting off a valuable source of revenue for the same sector? It’s not joined up. That lack of connection is either deliberate (which would suggest a strategy being followed) or its ineptitude. Often the simpler explanation is the right one.
It’s hardly a surprise. The person who banged the drum for Brexit back in 2016 hedged his bets, drafting columns for both sides of the argument. And throughout the pandemic has said one thing only to implement and endorse policies that do the complete opposite. Why would anyone trust a man to lead a team that manifests trust, when you yourself can’t be trusted? Johnson is a failed leader (assuming you thought he was any kind of leader in the first place), so little wonder the people he entrusted to do the job on his behalf can’t be trusted either.
According to The Charlatans Tim Burgess‘ impassioned response in The Independent underlines what’s at stake: in 2019 UK touring musicians and their support teams brought £2.19bn to the UK economy.
That figure will shrink dramatically when bureaucracy impacts the smaller artistic concerns who along with the big-name brands help shore up our dwindling global reputation.
I know a significant amount of people whose livelihoods are assumed to be able to withstand any change brought about by increased bureaucracy. That’s because, I think, people equate that musicians because of their elite ability, or their high-level of success will be able to absorb administration costs as inconsequential lines in a budget.
The reality for rock, pop and classical musicians is that bureaucracy will stop opportunities coming their way, and the business they run (rock bands, pop groups and orchestras for example are all businesses) will be denied lucrative trade opportunities.
People predicted this would happen. A negotiating team promised it wouldn’t. And now it’s happened. Few in power have music and musicians backs.
Rattle leaving the LSO
Rumours surrounding Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO emerged a few weeks ago, corroborated by various sources of mine. My post on Twitter about it triggered one or two people to ask me privately what I was talking about and, when I explained to one LSO person, it was suggested that this was all very unlikely. Just rumour, nothing more.
Yesterday, the LSO’s statement confirmed the news broken the night before by the Times’ Richard Morrison. Now today, Morrison has expanded on the reasons for Rattle’s departure – a heady combination of Brexit, the pandemic, and the UK’s ‘indifference’ to classical music as manifest in the halted development of London’s newest concert hall.
The arts doesn’t need Rattle per se, but his departure is a blow, and the timing of the announcement serves to highlight the fragile state of things. Most reasonably well-informed individuals predicted that taking control of our borders would have a negative impact on the arts ability to thrive on the world stage. COVID has compounded that and provided the Government with some bargain bucket blister pack of smoke and mirrors.
Back to the catastrophisation
In some respects my husband is right. These developments do not directly affect me. To think about them in the way that I do illustrates how I still see some drama to be mine. Social media has a habit of doing that. I’m a sucker for glomming-on.
On the other hand, these stories contribute to a growing fear I have that music is in trouble in this country. A crisis is being managed by people who don’t recognise the value that the arts brings to society, and the crucial role it plays in maintaining the health of that society. They understand only those things that generate big money. They overlook anything that appears to need subsidy. Music to them is something which is available on demand, in return for a subscription like say television. The mechanics involved in bringing art to an audience is of no consequence to them. The connection isn’t made between human beings creating art and human beings benefitting from it. So, ensuring that the arts is protected wouldn’t even occur to them. It’s not a priority.
If I’m wrong about that, then why would such a castastrophic error have occured in the Brexit trade deal negotiation? And why would Rattle have gone?
Without a thriving music scene there is even less incentive for future generations to engage with music-making. An economy will die, elected representatives overseeing its systematic decline.
And that does affect me. Something I care about, that I write about. Something I celebrate and advocate. Something I work in amongst is in crisis, because the people who can bring about change consistently and habitually overlook it.
International concerts for U.K. artists has been made more difficult for a significant number of the music-making industry at a stroke. Don’t think that music venues will be the first to reopen when all the vaccines have been given. Concert going and musicals and theatre won’t be like it was before. Programmes will be less daring because they need to be ‘safer’. And that will have a knock on effect for everyone who works in the arts.
Riccardo Muti’s short speech at the end of the New Year’s Day concert at the Musikverein in Vienna (watched by an estimated worldwide audience of 90 million) reasserted the crucial role music has in culture and society’s health, reminding those appear to have forgotten that music isn’t merely entertainment. It’s art.
And art helps us understand ourselves. Art sustains mental wellbeing. To be in a state of good mental health also helps our overall health.
I feel really strongly about the clarification. If we don’t maintain an awareness of those who create the art, or the impact that art has on us as we experience it, then we’re doomed.
Music isn’t the clothes we put on to make ourselves feel or look better. Music and the way we react to it is our very core as individuals. And the key to understanding that core is to appreciate that it shifts depending on what our mental state is at any one given moment in time. And my core is going to be entirely different from another person listening to the same music at the same time.
Muti’s words were undoubtedly made more impactful when combined with the potent imagery of the Musikverein’s empty auditorium and a tightly-packed Vienna Philharmonic on stage.
Here was powerful evidence that it was possible to have orchestras play without social distancing (the players had gone through a rigorous series of COVID tests similar to those on recent 2020 TV productions). Inevitable then that the sight of an empty auditorium at this annual event triggered all sorts of internal bargaining: will that sight look different in a year’s time? Could it?
As Muti spelled out:
“Music is not only a profession but is a mission. That is why we do this work. A mission to make society better, to think about the new generation that in one complete year has been deprived of deep thinking, thinking all the time about health – health is the first most important thing, but also the health of the mind. And music helps. So my message to the governors and presidents and prime ministers everywhere in every part of the world: consider culture always as one of the primary elements to have a better society in the future.”
I have a habit with social media of scrolling and bookmarking. Its instinctive. There is no bookmarking strategy as such. I only really noticed I did it around February 2020.
As it’s the end of the year I figured I’d take a look at the tweets I’ve bookmarked. This selection isn’t trying to be representative of the year, other than a record of the kind of things I’ve responded to in the moment.
Just a warning: there are fifty media-rich tweets in this blog post. So it does take a bit of time to load!
I’m particularly interested in the subjects which have resonated for me, especially discussions around workplace bullying, the advice from Phoebe Waller-Bridge about writing. These two things in particular were clearly dominant themes throughout the year.
Nearly all of the tweets I bookmarked featured video which I think also reminds me of where my thinking has been in terms of content creation strategy, and specifically work. This combination of videos creates a story that I find compelling, reminding me in some cases of pre-COVID news and its impact, in particular the suicide of Caroline Flack which hit colleagues hard.
They’re also illustrations of how thinking has changed throughout the year with regards to the pandemic. The Royal Albert Hall Organ was genuinely funny at the time when the pandemic was beginning to impact UK life. I’m just not sure one would post that now.
Seeing the Imogen Holst post again reminded me how when my mood was low the nostalgia contained within previously unseen footage created an emotional uplift.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s advice for writers: find a friend and write for them
Pre-COVID concert going experience
Mild news fail
Margaret Atwood on a scooter
Rite of Spring without a conductor
Tricky plane landing
Laura Whitmore’s on-air tribute following the suicide of Caroline Flack
Sir Philip Rutnam resigns from the Home Office
Supporting employees who call-out workplace bullying
Deborah Meaden on Workplace Bullying
Design choices inside the Festival Hall
Who wouldn’t want to be Cherry Wainer?
Painful journalism (stick around until 1.40″)
Royal Albert Hall Organ to the rescue
Wash your hands to the lyrics of Britten’s Friday Afternoons
Memories of the last recital I attended
How Government changed in a short space of time
Before lockdown, there was self-isolation
Rotterdam Philharmonic play Ode to Joy in lockdown
Dealing with first UK lockdown with regular dance sessions in the street
CBSO trumpeter and viola player with a lockdown rendition of Star Trek theme tune
BBC News theme tune played by a weather guy and members of the public
Boris Johnson challenged in the park
Carrie Gracie’s last day on BBC News
Tristan Chord on a floor keyboard
Paul Harvey improvises on four notes
How France made concert going possible in September 2020
Freelance musicians protest in Parliament Square
Kevin Brennan MP asks Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden about false claims regarded self-employed musicians support
Samar Ginsberg plays Thomas The Tank Engine
Rishi Sunak’s reskilling comment is underlined in a Government campaign
Footage of Imogen Holst conducting her father’s brass band suite
Dominic Cummings leaving Downing Street cut to the Imperial March
Will society be back to normal by Spring 2021?
Reverend Richard Coles and Danny Jules sing and dance for Sally Phillips
If Carols for Choirs could talk
Original footage of Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance
Charlotte Higgins writes about how British classical music is struggling in the pandemic
Why one Spanish opera house put on a performance to an auditorium full of houseplants
Oliver Dowden’s committment to the arts
Questionable social media posting from Andrew Lloyd Webber
Spotify’s committment to supporting artists comes to the fore at a time when musicians can’t perform live
Intrepid Dunedin Consort head back from France concert on a hired fishing boat before travel restrictions are imposed
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s return to the concert hall
Susan Calman’s re-post of her Strictly Semi-Final Dance with Kevin Clifton
If it’s good enough for Fiona Maddocks (link at the bottom of this post) it’s good enough for this blog.
I started the year wanting to explore what the music was that I connected with and, importantly, figure out why.
The list that follows is a summary – the highlights – of my musical year. It doesn’t profess to be a recommended list. Such lists run a high risk of appearing like virtue signalling.
Instead, see this list as evidence of the music I’ve responded to in the unusual cirucmstances we’ve all experienced.
Andrew Manze and the NDR’s Beethoven 7
I’ve long been aware of Andrew Manze but always thought of him in the context of historically-informed performance practice. That changed last year with the discovery of his poignant recording of Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5 with the RLPO.
He brings some of that historically-informed performance experience to this recording with the NDR Radiophilharmonie.
Grit, urgency, and pathos can be found in the string textures. especially in the second movement funeral march. Details abound. A glorious adventure playground for the ears.
Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven Wigmore Hall recital
The last jaw-dropping live music I heard was with Fran Wilson at Wigmore Hall at the top of the year. Tears rolled. Much discussion post-concert. Biss’ playing pinned me to the back wall of the auditorium. Remarkable intensity. Moments that were immediate, uncompromising, and unequivocal. Difficult to put into words exactly what it was like. Exhilerating stuff.
Iain Farrington’s Beethoveniana
This was an unexpected joy. A visual manifestation of the times. Storytelling through dance, backed by visual tropes we’d all become rather used to because of the lockdown. Farrington’s variations and deliciously varied orchestral textures made for a tantalising musical buffet.
Musically too, there was something about the hints at familiar Beethoven melodies that was also of the time – a musical depiction of the way live music was perceived in the mind of the listener: fractured, confined, nearly-recognisable. Some variations are almost too difficult to listen to because of the memories they recall.
Dvorak Symphony No. 8 – Mariss Jansons and the Bavaria Radio Symphony
Technically speaking the recording I heard isn’t the one I’m illustrating here. It was actually a BBC Proms repeat from 2004 featuring Jansons and the Bavarian RSO that blew me away earlier in the year. Electrifying stuff. Made me feel alive. There are beautiful details to delight in in this recording: the delicacy in the upper strings in the third movement; the triumph and celebration in the fourth; and the joyous applause at the end.
Beethoven 3 from Les Concerts des Nations
Its fast and exhilarating. Terrifying. Ravishing.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 from the Aurora Orchestra
The Aurora Orchestra’s outdoor performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony was the first live orchestral music I heard (I think I’m right about that) after lockdown restrictions eased. Two concerts in one evening demonstrated what classical music concerts could turn into in the future. It was a highly-charged affair. The sound of an appreciative audience perhaps the most pleasing of all.
Holst’s Planet Suite in Parliament Square
Hearing the first few bars of Holst’s Mars the Bringer of War in Parliament Square was a moving experience. I went there to capture the protest mounted by freelance musicians calling on the Government to recognise the 30% of freelancers who weren’t able to benefit from the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. This was old-school bread-and-butter content production as far as I was concerned. A call to arms, one others I knew in the media seemed woefully disinterested in. Perhaps that was part of my motivation – proving them wrong. I found it difficult to look at real human beings and know that they were struggling because of the pandemic. I didn’t really understand how other people couldn’t be moved by the sight of them. A few months on I find it difficult to listen to Mars.
Richard Stamp and Ottensamer’s Copland
If I had to rank this list, I’d probably put this recording joint first with the next one in this post. Richard Stamp’s recording with the late great clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer blew me away, lifting me from an intense bought of what felt like depression. The textures in this intimate recording soothe the soul. Ottensamer’s storytelling in Copland’s concerto makes sense of the work in a way I’ve never really got from other recordings.
Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Wind Serenade
An unexpected invitation to speak to composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson prompted me to listen to this album before it was released. Geysir was a revelation. Highly descriptive writing that celebrates the similarities and differences found in a wind section. It is a delight for the ears. If there is a 2020 subsitute for the live concert experience, then its this. Simpson’s work gave me renewed impetus for the autumn.
Paired with Simpson’s Geysir was Mozart’s Gran partita. The joyous industrious first movement in particular provided much-needed hope at a dark point in my year. The precise articulation throughout the ensemble is a joy to behold.
Both works were recorded at Saffron Hall in Cambridgeshire when lockdown restrictions had been eased.
Transit of Venus / Gillam / Joby Talbot
I’ve heard a lot of ponderous reflective music this year. Jaw-grinding eye-ripping stuff some of it. But Gillam’s much-anticipated ‘Time’, and Jody Talbot’s Transit of Venus in particular, was not only perfectly-timed but restorative too. Gillam’s playing is remarkable in this track. Talbot’s writing effortlessly conveys a sense of hope without resorting to musical cliche. Loved it. Still do.
John Rutter’s ‘Joseph’s Carol’
I include this because it was an unexpectedly moving experience to hear it recorded by the Oxford Philharmonic, Bryn Terfel and John Rutter. Aside from the necessary COVID mitigations, the few hours I spent at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre hearing John Rutter’s new carol and speaking to him and Terfel reminded me of the press-junket experience which will, I’m sure in due course, return.
Peace on Earth – Errollyn Wallen
Errollyn Wallen’s eery Peace on Earth was published by English National Opera in July amid the emerging Black Lives Matter movement. Performed by Idunnu Münch and Gerrard Martin, this feels in places like a homage to Benjamin Britten and his love of scales. It a carol (or song?) that gets under the skin. First heard it in Opera Holland Park’s Christmas YouTube concert. There’s a choral version on Spotify too. We had better hear it at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols next year.
All Things Are Quite Silent – Anna Lapwood and The Choirs of Pembroke College, Cambridge
There has been a preponderance of vocal releases – video, audio, TV and film – this year. Only one album stands up at the end of 2020 as still warranting repeat listens that yield something meaningful. I love everything on the choral album, but if I had to choose one thing above all else it would be Kerensa Briggs heart-stopping Media Vita. Music that shores up my sense of hope.
The first of a handful of unorthodox reviews of my ‘Thoroughly Good’ year.
At the beginning of 2020 I hated speaking to people on the phone. Come the end of the year I find that I’ve become more at ease calling up people on-the-hoof. It is as though 2020 has reminded us that its allowed to call people up without warning.
Part of that is because of video calls. Zoom and Teams are now the communication medium most use (I think I’m right in saying). Maybe Skype.
Seeing people in conversation has been central to a different kind of communication experience.
Way back at the beginning of UK lockdown people reported exhaustion having to have quite so many video calls. The observation seemed obvious to me. We were having to listen more. We were paying closer attention to what we were saying and doing, and what others were saying and doing.
Conversations were more direct. We experienced safety being physically disconnected from the people we were talking to. This fuelled a sense of confidence to say what we thought and felt. Now at the end of the year I feel as though I know people a whole lot better, in a way that I don’t think I would have done had I interacted with them in real life.
And as a result of that, I find myself in between Christmas and New Year with a few phrases lingering in my head. These, like pictures, music, and social media, are the things that characterise my 2020.
“I’m frightened.” “So am I.”
Technically this is me saying something and what someone else said in response. My statement (“I’m frightened”) was recorded in a podcast at the beginning of lockdown in March 2020. “So am I” was the comment left by a friend of mine in comments section below.
“I’m sorry to have to ask you this … “
Around about the time I bought microphone stands and tested out doing fixed mic podcast recordings on location (it seems like another century now), I remember being emailed by a trusted PR pal prior to my visit. “I’m sorry to ask you this,” she said, “but can I just check that you haven’t visited Italy or Spain in the past few weeks, and that you don’t have a persistent cough, and haven’t had a temperature the past few days?”
There was a time when we thought an emailed declaration of good health would nail it.
“People are going to be bored in lockdown so they’ll want to read more.”
This was one of those things you hear in conversation and think, “No. I’m sure I misheard that.” But when you hear it repeated then you realise that no, that is what some people think. It’s a variation on the moldy thought that home-working or furlough would in some way trigger people to write that novel they always threatened the world they would write.
“I don’t want this to sound like a Priti Patel apology, but ….”
Months before Priti Patel made her non-apology for workplace bullying, she was the subject of considerable ire on social media because of her similarly considered obfuscation of responsibility, organisational or personal. Around about the same time I confronted someone about behaviours I felt crossed a bit of a line. There appeared to be great delight derived from referencing Priti Patel’s similar difficulty. I remember having to take deep breaths during the exchange – at times heated, aggressive and intimidating.
Sometimes apologies aren’t apologies. And when they’re not they merely confirm a hunch. How we manage ourselves in the aftermath is what is important. I reassure myself that I was brave remaining true to my values. Even now I can recall the taste in my mouth. It wasn’t pleasant.
“Classical music doesn’t have to be boring.”
This is a trigger phrase. It calls to mind lots of highly-respected experienced marketing types who quite rightly point out the paradox that results from such a mindless statement.
Classical music isn’t boring. No music is boring. To dismiss a genre as boring shows ignorance. To hold up a genre as boring in a bid to demonstrate how you could potentially save it is pointing to a problem that isn’t there and, in the process, being misleading.
“People love all of that mindfulness shit.”
In a year that has for a whole variety of reasons seen the subject of mental health elevated beyond platitudes into something real and present, hearing people speak in a disparaging way of some of the tools friends, colleagues and associates use to maintain their mental health, has consistently made me frustrated. And possibly even a little bit hurt.
“It’s a bit navel-gazy. Change it back, please.”
This was a comment made in response to my copywriting.
The comment stings. Not because I think my copy sings necessarily. I don’t think I’m an expert. Or brilliant. Or beyond criticism. Far from it. Questioning what one does is part of the creative process after all.
It was what the comment really represented: a command. An indication that not everyone is at ease with collaboration. And even less equipped communicating cleanly.
“You get angry when someone crosses your boundaries.”
We often misunderstand the meaning of the word angry.
Angry for some means losing one’s temper. Flushed cheeks. Green stream.
Angry for me means my heart pounding fast in my chest. My legs go shaky. There is an insatiable need to meet the challenge (whatever it is head on). Between you and me, I’m often terrified by the experience.
It’s happened three times this year. Managing it in the moment is what’s key. And the key to managing it is being aware of when it’s happening. Be observant. Don’t take evasive action – that’s when things can have a habit of getting a bit sticky.
Determining whether the person crossing the boundary in question is a repeat offender, and calculating the likelihood of them changing their behaviour is also terribly important. It’s a work in progress. For all of us.
“Thanks for being a colleague, a confidant, and a friend.”
In a year that I think is probably fair to say for all of us fed self-doubt, one message in a card at the end of this year took me completely by surprise.
“You speak a lot of truth.”
I don’t share this one because of the content of it., although I appreciate some will conclude that I’m being massively egotistical by including it. What I’m more interested in is the effect reading the statement had on me. There was a rush – like water seeping into an empty space. A sense of relief. Sometimes when one experiences relief, a split second follows when we realise just how much we needed the reassurance in the first place.
Not everything has to be perfect. Not everything has to draw in a massive audience. Sometimes things are done for the sheer joy derived from doing them.
I work in a field where numbers are constantly held up as evidence of success or otherwise. More often than not those numbers often act as a mask hiding a lack of understanding of how digital works or what success looks like. Sometimes, success is nothing more than standing up in front of a camera and playing your flute in your bedroom.
Last year when we were able to sit closer than two metres from one another, I spent a Saturday afternoon in the company of the Opal Flutes – a group of amateur musicians who get together for rehearsals and concerts in South London, for the sheer love of playing, and also because of the enthusiasm and drive of its founder Sharon Maloney.
When we convened for filming I was reminded how much joy low-pressure participatory music-making could bring. As adults the experience of rehearsing together is valuable. As adults we gain a better understanding of what’s involved in playing in a group: a bit of direction combined with peer-to-peer encouragement. It was instinctive when we were kids; as adults its a much tougher ask.
Over the past few days I’ve got increasingly irritated by Government restrictions and those who assume that because the Government says its OK to meet up in a pub that its therefore safe and wise to do so. Today, I’ve had to actively remind myself that those people don’t care (even though they should), and they’re unlikely to care, even though some of them I know are those who seek to celebrate classical music.
Looking back over this video clip a year after it was shot reminds me what’s at stake. It reminds me why its important to draw on a sense of personal and collective responsibility and exercise caution.
There’s joy to be derived from experiences shared in close proximity to others. But if we’re not patient and ride this out farther than the ill-thought-out predictions made by our inept Government, then we’ll find ourselves denied these experiences for longer than we’d like.
On paper spending £30 to go to Oxford on the train and see the recording of a Christmas concert by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra seemed like a bit of an extravagance.
The Oxford Philharmonic’s programme is short, contains some old familiars – Abide with Me, Hallelujah Chorus, You’ll Never Walk Alone. And what Christmas concert is complete without some Rutter too. All of it dedicated to the work of those developing the COVID vaccine.
Compared to the last time I was in Oxford to attend a Beethoven Symposium (was it this year or last?), the live music-making experience is entirely different. Programmes are different – pragmatic artistic responses contained within a 16×9 crop, varying angles, a range of different coloured lights if the budget allows, and if you’re really lucky a bit of depth of field too.
No longer do I find myself sitting in a rehearsal wondering how best to write about a piece of music in order to get more people to consider experiencing it live. Now I sit in a kind of hermetically sealed box watching musicians shift through a series of postures in their seats according to whether they’re playing or waiting to play. When they play, the textures they create individually and collectively suggest that everything is just as it was. When they stop and wait for the producer to issue the next instruction across the talkback, they sit back and relax, waiting in silence for the next command.
This stop-start approach to music making is of course necessary. It’s a recording session. Some orchestras and ensembles have made a point of saying how they’re recording as live. Others adhere to creating recorded experiences.
“I come from the Glenn Gould school of performance,” said Oxford Phil conductor Marios.
“Oh. What’s that?”
I really should spend a bit more time researching. Or even reading.
“Gould hated audiences.”
What I’ve overlooked in a lot of my listening and thinking and writing over the past few months is that recording is as a process something that some musicians enjoy. I and a lot of others this year have spent a lot of time moping around about the ‘lack of live’, some even bemoaning how pre-records are a poor substitute. The point is that they’re different. And both are valuable.
Proceedings get underway inside the Sheldonian Theatre with two sing-throughs of Abide with Me with choristers from Merton College Oxford who stand the obligatory two metres apart from one another in the gallery overlooking the audience. The intense melancholy spun out by bows sweeping gently across strings brings an irony into focus. We’re sat here in our distanced seats, watching a similarly distanced orchestra and choir record music for a digital concert dedicated to scientists who have discovered a vaccine which could help get us out of this mess. Music sung by choristers who quite rightly observed social distancing inside the building, but didn’t need to outside whilst they waited outside. The rules that bring everyone together for this now familiar ‘live’ musical experience aren’t about safeguarding one another’s health, they’re about insurance policies. The rules are more the thing the music world is doing battle with, not the virus.
When John Rutter glides into the Theatre in his white bow tie, mask and coat tails, there’s a distinct change in energy. Rutter and the world premiere recording of his newest Christmas gift – Joseph’s Carol – is the main event for this rather strange afternoon jaunt to Oxford. He sets down his worn brown leather briefcase on the floor and bends down to open it, revealing the modest tools he needs to bring his work to life.
Rutter. A name synonymous with Christmas. A name burned into the memories of countless individuals who mark Christmas, childhood memories set to beautiful melodies, and touching harmonies. A composer who has shaped so many people’s experience of Christmas. A composer who actual exists in real life and is there down there below me stood on a podium with his open briefcase on the floor behind him.
“Is there anyone you’d like to speak to Jon?” asks Nicky the PR who had invited me for the afternoon.
This question has a surreal edge to it though Nicky doesn’t realise it at the time.
Earlier on in the day I was arranging interviews with two other high profile performers for a different story, arrangements being made via two, three or maybe four intermediaries all of whom believed that an interview could only go ahead if the questions were pre-agreed, an outline of the twenty minute interview experience was detailed and agreed. If there’s anything that is guaranteed to drain the energy from any interaction it is the assumption that it can only work if everyone knows precisely what is going to be talked about in advance. That isn’t journalism. It’s also not content.
I came to Oxford with no expectations to speak to anyone. I came only to be in amongst musicians, to get a sense of an event and to capture the resulting experience. That was enough for me. And now I’m here, sat here in a tatty jumper with a stupid mask stopping much-needed non-verbal communication being asked if there is anyone I’d like to talk to before I leave. There are only three people potentially: the Oxford Philharmonic music director Marios, tenor Bryn Terfel, and Rutter himself.
“Mr Rutter perhaps?” I say to Nicky almost apologetically. “Maybe Mr Terfel?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” And then she disappears. All very Nicky. Textbook Nicky.
And then it all gets exciting again. In a flash I’m transported back a year to all those trips that marvellous classical music PRs have invited me on to talk to wonderful people about the thing I love. All of them opportunities to be present in a space where magic happens so that the magic of it can be documented and shared wider. The crushing silliness of over-engineered ill-informed ‘interviews’ are in turn a distant memory. In its place the casual spontaneity built on trust and rapport that yields the richest of content opportunities.
Like pre-COVID days. Like the ‘old days’. Back in the game.
Me and Mr Terfel speak. I try to build rapport by drawing attention to a mutual friend of old from Suffolk Youth Orchestra days, his reaction masked. We talk about the Sondheim Prom ten years ago, him playing Sweeney, politics and the unintentional impact of vaccine developments on freelance musicians and their plight. At one stage I wonder whether he might reveal the details of his tax bill, but fortunately we end up talking about he’s become a whole more interested in video and audio production this year and how he might start kitting himself out next year. “That technically means we’d be in competition Mr Terfel,” I quip. “Yes, I suppose so.” “Well look, I’d recommend you go for the cheaper end of the market, you know?”
He signals he’s got the joke with a hearty Terfel chuckle and we pose for the customary selfie. It’s Terfel, I tell myself. This moment needs to be captured.
I find myself pacing whilst I’m waiting to speak to Rutter. A familiar feeling from Eurovision days returns in a flash whilst I mentally clock how much the other journalist in the space has had. This seems a rather futile process given that I like everyone else has suffered an internal body clock malfunction this year. The overriding emotion is one of impatience. Possibly even a sense of competition. Utterly ridiculous I tell myself. But so very familiar when you’re given the unexpected opportunity to connect with a celebrity who actually means something.
Rutter is as I expect. Softly spoken. Mild-mannered. Irritatingly modest. And as I predicted to a friend in a WhatsApp message minutes before, more than attuned to rhetorical questions asked by a fanboy. Of course he is. He went to Cambridge.
We talk about his year, his industrial nature, explaining how he chose to turn his attention to ‘painting the garage’ during lockdown – a witty metaphor for the keyboard arrangements he’s made this year of his most popular choral music. It appears in hearing him speak so modestly about his contribution to a universal experience of music that he is either unaware or unwilling to let himself get in the way of the music. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the manifestation of his music. Or maybe his music is a manifestation of him. Either way, I’m not going to get to the bottom of it in ten minutes, so I go for the full on clumsy, ham-fisted approach: “Do you have any sense of how much joy your brings?”
And when that doesn’t yield much, I go for “Do you think you have the best job in the world?”
“I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid.”
“And what would you like to take from 2020 into 2021?”
Boom. Thank you Mr Rutter. We stand for another selfie.
After a short break, me and the other members of what I now realise was a bit of a pre-embargo press junket convene distanced seats back in the gallery. A hush passes over the Theatre. Rutter steps up to the podium. We hear Alex the producer speak from somewhere we can’t see him. “OK. Thank you very much. In your own time.”
The music Rutter has written is classic. Warm strings create a soft reassuring pillow on which Terfel’s carefully-placed voice gently rests. Beautifully balanced melodies that caress the soul supported by harmonic progressions that edge us to and fro from melancholy, hope, pain and pain. It’s difficult not to hear the carol as something that goes beyond Christmas. An anthem for a city proud for the vaccine its University has discovered. As we tread carefully through the final verse and a modest descant stretches the bittersweet tension just a little bit further, there’s a glimmer that all is not lost. Those vital connections which have proved so important over the past few years are still there. And they’re still active.
Later on, during the short trip home, I spend a lot of time beaming at the composition of the selfie – how unusually chipper I look in the shot. Maybe I’m not quite so fat around the face as I thought I was. Maybe I have still got a jaw. Better that Rutter with his still strong chin is in the background slightly out of focus.
Hear John Rutter’s Joseph’s Carol on 18th December via the Oxford Philharmonic’s YouTube and Facebook page.