Perfection

I’ve been a little restless today. I haven’t been able to put my finger on why exactly. Not until now.

I’ve wanted to write (since watching last nights Proms gig with the LSO) but couldn’t. So I read instead (about Vaughan Williams and the British perception of music and landscapes). Then I read Gretchen Ruben says about what Rebels can do to meet their inner expectations (spoiler: the secret is self-deception). Then I started work on a database service I’ve wanted to provide musicians for a couple of years. Endless displacement activities. Open book stuff.

At the tail end of all of this I discovered I’d massively cocked up and failed to turn up for a Zoom interview by an hour. And after that I felt I was ‘able’ or at least ‘motivated’ to write.

Back to the LSO’s blistering performance last night. Hearing a concert (or seeing it on TV) is, it seems, only the beginning of the classical music experience for me now. Hearing something when I’m not able to be physically present in the same space means I’m dependent on the moment when the music has the most impact on me – the moment when the musical experience takes me by surprise. And if it has (and it did) then reflecting on how much and why is important. Until that point is reached it seems the concert isn’t ‘over’.

That’s weird. I know.

Or at least it marks a shift. Because up until this year writing about a concert was something that I felt I should do in order to demonstrate my presence at a concert retrospectively. A sort of personal responsibility to advocacy of the genre. Now, a year later, writing about a concert is something I have to do in order to make sense of it to myself. To arrive at a sort of closure.

Rattle and the LSO was one of the most remarkable pieces of television (and radio – I’m listening as I write this in the bath) I’ve seen in a long long time. There was a detail to the sound mix which brought an urgency, relevance and immediacy to say the Elgar Introduction and Allegro that I’d not heard before. Every instrument sang. There was more punch in the overall ensemble. And the content – emotionally – seemed not only to reflect the implicit visual narrative (a space in which us at home were denied access) but also provide a soundtrack for what has happened to the arts over the past six months, but hints at what might be lost if the ridiculousness of this situation is allowed to continue.

That kind of programming isn’t an accident I don’t think. It’s a measure of how COVID has brought about an opportunity to experiment with a different way of bringing concert programmes to life. Look at it this way: if I’d seen Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Adès, Kurtag, and Vaughan Williams fifth symphony I might well have overlooked it.

But when you’ve been starved of something you love (and when an artist has the opportunity to programme works in response to present constraints) then the resulting concert has the potential to respond more immediately. And it did. With devastating effect.

After a gritty and impassioned Elgar, Mitsuko Uchida performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was terrifying. Crushing, even. The pieces by Kurtag created a displaced feel to them. Ades’s Dawn was other worldly. Transcendental – just as perhaps he’d intended.

And the Vaughan Williams. I ended up crying a lot during the third movement. It was though something had been lanced. Someone or a group of people had come along and presented a playlist of music live performing to a perceived audience. They not only entertained, but spoke to us and sought to represent us all at the same time. And in doing so they reinforced precisely the thing that makes this art form so utterly indispensable. And so vital right now. Music as a series of statements that speak to, reflect back, an articulate the mood of a collection of people the players can’t see in the moment.

The eyebrow-raising element for some will be this. After all my crowing and complaining about TV at the Proms last year, it was TV that came good this year. Because without the audience, a boom camera had the most access to the stage – more than ever before. With no audience in the Hall, the audience at home was able to experience a potent narrative made possible by the sight of a vast interior, access to the edge of the stage, and an enviable range of wide angle lenses. The script wasn’t needed to compensate. The music was allowed to speak for itself.

Not every concert can be like this. Nor every concert will be. But if you’re looking for an illustration of why this art form isn’t just relevant but needed, here was an example.

Quite a remarkable evening.

Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and Sir Simon Rattle speak to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden about the needs of UK orchestras post-lockdown

Sir Simon Rattle to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden: “We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs.”

I read Sir Simon Rattle’s Times interview first thing on Sunday morning in bed as soon as I woke up. Take it from me this is not the best strategy. Not right now at least. Top line message from Rattle: orchestras will go to the wall; everything’s fucked.

Later in the day during a telephone chat with a pal of old, I glibly say that reading Rattle’s interview should be reserved until later in the day. It’s suggested to me that a similar strategy is being adopted by the theatre world to lay things on the line, to get the attention that’s needed to move things along.

I get this. And I agree with it. Later in the day I pick up an email pointing me in the direction of a meeting Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Sir Simon Rattle all have had with DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden last week to talk about what the UK orchestral sector needs right now. Put simply – other countries are moving already to make live performance happen because a) they’ve supported the arts during this period and b) they’re collaborating to find workable pragmatic interim solutions; we want to work with you; help us.

Combined with the Saturday appearance of Nicola Benedetti, CBSO general manager Stephen Maddock, Chi-chi Nwanoku, and Southbank’s Director of Music Gillian Moore on Radio 3’s Music Matters, this feels like a more concerted and coordinated effort than in recent weeks. It certainly reads more explicitly than the joint open letter Petrenko, Karabits, Brabbins, Jurwoski, and Sir Mark Elder put out last week. Why wouldn’t they all coalesce around one thing? Or did the emotive former prompt the more specific and practical latter?

Most compelling in Rattle’s contribution is the experiences he shares with other European orchestras right now. And specifically the idea of distancing amongst the band in a performance space. This tallies with another piece of news I picked up from Bamberg Symphony who in May were testing the reach of aerosols in a performance space. Spoiler: turns out wind instruments aren’t spreading the virus anywhere near as far as the two-metre distancing rule might lead you to believe. Bamberg Symphony plays host to the Mahler Conducting Competition from 29th June (albeit behind closed doors and streamed live on YouTube) as a result.

In this way, its possible to see the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people dependent not on the development of a vaccine or the reduction of the R, but instead reliant on those with the power to make small changes to listen to spokespeople from the sector, and for those to be persuasive. Seen from this perspective, the return to live performance should be driven by those with an eye on the science and who can come up with workable solutions. Is the UK industry doing that? I’m genuinely not sure. I’ve not seen obvious evidence of that.

Meeting statement in full

We know you know the terrifying hardship and uncertainty the classical music sector faces. That an entire, complex ecosystem of musicians, composers, behind the scenes creators, managers, technicians, festivals, venues, orchestras, choirs, education & outreach leaders, publishers, marketers etc. are not only unable to work, but unlike many other industries, have absolutely no concept of a timeline to work towards. It is making any semblance of getting back to work, and saving our industry from collapse impossibly and increasingly hard.

However, we are aware that you know the phenomenal contribution arts and culture brings to our GDP, £10.8 billion in GVA (source Arts Council England).

As you’ve already referenced today, we know you recognise the weight and importance our cultural landscape holds, both worldwide and to the British public.

But all of us representing the classical sector today are here to say that with the right financial support, and workable social distancing guidelines, our entire industry is united, ready, prepared, and desperate to get back to doing what we do best.

People all over the country are in need, people are in crisis. Classical music itself is steeped in history and tradition, but we are agile, dedicated and reactive. And we want to help ease people out of this impossibly difficult time. 

There are countless examples we could list of what people and organisations have already been doing, but hopefully you will have been keeping up to date with these.

Looking to the immediate future, there are so many areas of opportunity within which we can work with government, and there is so much we want to offer – individually and collectively. But we can only do so with the right support and collaboration.

We know we can provide national moments of unity and uplift, and a coming together of mass music participation and appreciation.

We can help be a vital part of the emotional and psychological recovery for ALL people of the UK, but in particular for our elderly and vulnerable population.

When unified, we can be an unbelievable force for developing creativity and resilience in our next generation through education.

We can deploy musicians in innovative ways, through digital and inventive performance spaces reaching people in all parts of the country.

And of course, our substantial and growing track record for using music to positive effect in mental health and wellbeing speaks for itself. 

We have all been humbled by this experience, and are more understanding of our role in society than ever.

Morale, creativity and energy will be needed from all walks of life to find ways out of this crisis. It’s not just about managing circumstances in a reactive and stagnant way – let us tap into the part of the brain artists and musicians use all the time. We problem-solve through creating new pathways, and the country desperately needs that right now. 

Please work with us!

But we need money, we need a clear timeline to work to, we need guidelines that are both safe and workable and we hear there’s plenty of evidence specifically pertaining to our industry we are simply not making use of, some of which Sir Simon Rattle speaks more on below. 

– We need meaningful collaboration with creative leaders in the digital field 
– We are willing and indeed desperate to collaborate with scientists and experts and leaders in all fields to ensure we’re on the front foot of what’s possible to do, safely
– We want to look seriously at workable proposals
– We need to work out a timeline and business model for venues. Unlike in many parts of Europe, our venues by and large cannot open without significant support
– And from now until the moment where they can viably open, we still need to be making music for people, wherever that may be. What about licensing agreements to perform in car parks, warehouses, parks, etc.?

What Sir Simon Rattle said DCMS’ Oliver Dowden on post-lockdown orchestral life

Sir Simon Rattle said: “Orchestras need to play and play soon. Like dance companies or footballers, we have to train. We are a collective. We can do a great deal even before we are back in public, but even then, we have to be match ready! However, without workable distancing plans, an orchestra as such will not be a possibility.

On this subject it has been a surprise even for us how little aerosols or droplets are emitted while playing wind instruments, considerably less than normal conversation, for instance. We would ask that wind distances are a generous two meters maximum, and strings just one meter. In this way some kind of return to playing would be practical. The latest Danish scientific calculations suggest 0.5 meters for strings and 1 meter for winds as a perfectly safe arrangement. 

Over the last two weeks I played my first orchestral music in over three months in two European cities: first in Munich, in a studio, very distanced, but with a whole string section followed by a wind section of 13. The winds were 3 metres distant from each other which was like sending smoke messages between mountains: but we played! In Prague we played with a full orchestra, not distanced as everyone had been tested in the previous three days. There was an audience of 500, all masked but sitting together, and most shockingly of all, we shook hands on stage, something I had almost forgotten how to do!

Two different cities with different solutions: but both with scientific underpinning and immense care. And although both cities are further in their COVID journeys, the science remains the same. The aerosols move in the same way wherever they are in the world, which is why I would beg the UK to take note of the very thorough investigations from all over the world, rather than starting from the beginning. In other words, deal with the necessities of orchestral distancing not just the superstitions.

Orchestral rehearsal venues are willing and ready to transform into modern film and recording spaces which can follow the guidelines – but only if the guidelines are not impossible.

And finally, we will need some extra support over the next 12-18 months while we start performing to necessarily smaller, distanced audiences, and transition towards whatever our new world will be.  On the other side of all this, we will be alive and kicking and ready to take on new challenges once more.”

The resilience, work ethic and tenacity of people working in our industry is bountiful and deeply moving.

We really, really do not want to be left behind here, and have our world-class industry fall by the wayside whilst European cultural institutions are being protected.

We shouldn’t be penalised for our increased autonomy and our commercially viable business models. 

We don’t want more money for nothing. We don’t want our lights to stay dark. We want and need cash, support and guidelines in order to GIVE. To give to the public, to help people, to provide solace, comfort, uplift and art.

Fundamentally, we want to work with you. We don’t want to sit and complain and moan. We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs – but to also help lift people out of this awful situation.