Music-related Queens Birthday Honours 2021 for pianist Imogen Cooper, composer Huw Watkins and saxophonist Jess Gillam

Music-related Queens Birthday Honours 2021 for pianist Imogen Cooper, composer Huw Watkins and saxophonist Jess Gillam

Order of British Empire

Imogen Cooper CBE, pianist
John Holder, actor and musician
Deborah Dyer, songwriter and author
Professor Julian Lloyd Webber, cellist
Alexia Jane Quin, founder and director, Music as Therapy International
John Summer, CEO, Halle Orchestra

Commander of the British Empire

Lulu OBE
Rick Wakeman, musician

Member of the British Empire

Alison Moyet, Singer Songwriter
Sarah Willis, musician
Allan Clayton, opera singer
Dennis Bovell, musician
James Brand, Principal Teacher of Curriculum, Annan Academy, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.
Englebert Humperdinck, singer
Jess Gillam, musician and presenter
Francis Moore, chief executive, IFPI
Jonathan Pell, Director of Strategy and Business Operations, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Huw Watkins composer and pianist
Lorraine Wright, for services to young people through music
Matthew Baker Freelance Director, Music and Performance for Creative Arts.
Dr William Hawkshaw For services to Music and Composing Radlett Hertfordshire
Dr Martin Hudson Founder, Holmes Chapel Music Society. For services to Music Goostrey Cheshire
Gertrude Jamison for services to music in County Down Craigavon County Down
Dr Jeremy Huw Williams, opera singer
Robert Yarr, for services to church choral music in Ballinderry Parish Church Lisburn County Antrim

YCAT announces twelve new artists for 2021

The Young Classical Artists Trust has announced twelve musicians to its sought-after roster of young artists.

Seven artists were selected through YCAT’s rigorous audition process from a highly competitive field of 150 applicants:

Adelphi Quartet (string quartet)
Quatuor Agate (string quartet)
Armand Djikoloum (oboe)
Irène Duval (violin)
Ariel Lanyi (piano)
Charlotte Saluste-Bridoux (violin)
Iyad Sughayer (piano)

In addition, young artist agency will represent five shared artists with Concert Artists Guild in the USA, including:

Jordan Bak (viola)
Balourdet String Quartet (string quartet)
Chromic Duo (toy piano/electronic duo)
Geneva Lewis (violin)
Gabriel Martins (cello)

All twelve get the benefit of YCAT’s support services, providing access to performing activities, plus promotional work too.

Names to keep an eye out for.

Don’t be a tool

A few days ago I posted a blog extending thanks to an army of classical music PRs who had through their work over the past twelve months brought me opportunities and helped me develop my own thinking. It was heartfelt and appreciated by all of them.

Just the other day I stumbled on some messages posted by a reader that took me a little by surprise.

I receive a lot of spam on the blog, and a considerable amount in my inbox too. I’ve not received anything quite so knowing or targeted.

I read these comments unfazed by the content but unsettled by the intent. Someone who knows me pretty well or who has the read the blog in its present iteration felt compelled to script a position with the intent of causing hurt. That can only have come from somebody with my ‘classical music world’. Nearly a week on I still can’t get head around it.

I share it here and now because I think it should be called out. I don’t especially care whether you like me or not, I have insufficient energy to persuade people to like me. What’s the point?

You don’t represent the community I’ve come to depend on. If you have helped at all it’s simply by helping me focus in on those borderline toxic relationships I could probably do cutting out of my life. Your actions have focussed my attention on real life connections I’d be better without.

Don’t be under any illusions: the worlds that help me find a sense of worth (classical and digital) is riven with people intent on causing hurt. If music and classical and art should reflect and advocate anything it’s forgiveness. I’m working on that. I hope you are too.

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Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the Royal Festival Hall

There was a theatrical quality to tonight’s concert in the Royal Festival Hall. Music written in confinement performed for an audience emerging from isolation.

The pilgrimage to hear Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time from pianist Steven Osborne, violinist Alina Ibragimova, cellist Alban Gerhardt, and clarinetist Mark Simpson provided the catharsis that perhaps I was left wanting after last night’s Vaughan Williams from the RPO. Those on stage and in the auditorium participated in a profound and poignant moment of reflection, remembrance, and gratitude.

Alina Ibragimova, Steven Osborne, Alban Gerhardt, and Mark Simpson

To pick it apart would do an injustice to the experience. This was an exceptionally special experience. Simpson’s solo movement was epic, Gerhardt’s heart-breaking, and Alina Ibragimova’s utterly divine.

Throughout the quartet Osborne acted as a kind of facilitator, support each instrumentalist as and when needed, preluding the Quartet with the solo piano piece ‘Je dors mais mon coeur veille’. The dynamic range throughout was astounding.

And as the music faded away so the distant rumble of a Tube train penetrated the silence. Devastating.

Royal Philharmonic play Rossini, Haydn and Vaughan Williams with Petrenko and Isserlis at Royal Festival Hall

It was the RPO’s first concert at the Royal Festival Hall since March 2020, and only the third night of concerts at the Soutbank Centre venue. The orchestra shaped up well, and whilst the atmosphere wasn’t quite so ramped as at the Barbican for the LSO’s first outing a few weeks back, the programme did fit the bill emotionally.

Rossini’s Silken Ladder overture did feel a little raggedy in places. There wasn’t the consistent precision Rossini’s particular writing demands in the score. No surprises really given the complexities of the articulation and the distance imposed on the players. But the breeziness of the melodies and the urgency of the motoring rythmns injected some energy to proceedings on what was a surprisingly hot evening.

Steven Isserlis brought his characteristic ebouillance the stage, brimming with joyous enthusiasm and excitement, producing in tandem with Vasily Petrenko a touching and tender slow movement the impact of which (that delicious moment when you realise everyone around you is completely still) by surprise. A sense of boisterous optimism underpinned the concluding movement. Isserlis emanates warmth in everything he does – evident by the bouncing curls and wide michievous smile. This performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto felt a reassuring pat on the back driven by an enviable positive mindset.

For a work I’ve spent much of this past year listening to recordings of (Andrew Maze with RLPO in particular) Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5 felt surprisingly intimate, with loud spasms in various places. This isn’t to say the performance wasn’t enjoyable or appreciated. The intimacy gave things a personal feel as though the entire band was talking as one slightly damaged but nonetheless determined individual.

Right from the start, the strings sounded rounded, sweet and resonant, in a taut ensemble. The scherzo was delicate and fragile, the third movement raw, with one especially magical moment at the end when the harmonies pivot as the principal viola invites first cello then upper strings to resolve the harmonies. Come the conclusion there was a sense not of closure so much as a promise of a new start. In that respect the symphony fitted the emotional bill I came to the hall with – a need for a musical statement that went some way to make sense of what had passed, offering a path to something different in the coming months.

Leif’s Momentum 1785 hits the spot

There is a strategy understandably adopted by record labels in our on-demand world: drip-feeding tracks before a full release.

I totally get the strategy. Drip-feeding means building momentum (assuming the product is good). Or, it will help maintain a reasonably high-level of awareness around what an artist is doing. That’s certainly been the case around Jess Gillam’s slow-burner Time on Decca. So too Leif Oves Andsnes’s Momentum 1785 with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, released in full last week.

I’ve been aware of Leif’s Mozart focus for a few months because of the work I’m currently doing for Scala Radio. It’s featured in multiple New Release Fridays. The sleeve graphic has (because of the digital work I do there) popped up on my screen repeatedly late Thursday afternoons when the emails go out to various important people.

Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt where Leif’s release is concerned. How could it? Leif is the perfect package. Leif oozes the kind of appeal you know your mother would approve of, wears his passion on his sleeve without overplaying it, and you know will absolutely let things go with a generous glass of red.

He also delivers on what his A&R promises. Not least in label’s Sony’s latest video release promoing MM 1785.

What I like about the video is the way it quickly establishes a reason to care about a year I hadn’t previously thought about. This period was about Mozart upping his game, so says Andsnes. But there’s also a sub-story (or a meta-story?) about him breaking free of ‘full-time employment’ and sort of going alone: Mozart goes freelance.

This messaging has made me ‘lean in’ (to coin a phrase) to MM 1785. The message is relatable. Mozart as a composer taking action to ensure he’s ahead of the game. As a consumer I don’t know whether that’s factually correct or not. To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter. Whatever’s necessary to make me listen.

What works is that the message in the video makes me want to listen to the entire release. And what I discover as I listen is that I don’t want to listen to the entire in one go, because its that good.

Not everybody will feel the same way. And that’s OK too. But if you’re looking for something that comes near to the anticipation of a live event, this might be it. Marketing alchemy.

Hats off to the PRs

Last week a PR friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of her and her team reconvening in the same office for the first time since March 2020.

Lots of wide smiles brought energy to the picture. There was also warmth from the accompanying copy explaining how their regular Zoom calls were no substitute for being in the same physical space as one another.

The picture reminded me of something that I’ve thought a lot of the past few months – how contact from PRs has helped me.

The business of PR demands having contacts and keeping in contact with them. That often means sharing news, announcements, or ‘gifting’ something or other in return for access across your (my) network.

The transaction demands a positive mindset. And in the case of all the PRs I am in regular contact with, that positive mindset is infectious.

People wrongly assume that we don’t really need PRs what with social media and musicians and artists being told they should and can do their own digital PR.

After fourteen months of this pandemic, I disagree.

I think what PRs do is bring focus to particular endeavours, helping people like me deal with the noise and ultimately speak to some really interesting people. By sharing potential stories, offering access, and setting up interviews they also create an accountability loop too (vital for people like me). PRs are invaluable. The great thing is that I don’t have to pay for them.

All of you in your work have made me feel included this past year and that has done wonders for maintaining my well-being. It’s also galvanised me to focus on my work a little more, and given it a greater sense of purpose.

And more importantly than any of this they have provided interaction, and maintained a much-needed sense of community when physical spaces have been closed off. They’re all professionals independent of Thoroughly Good, and yet they always feel as though they could quite easily be situated on the third or fourth floor of UK Classical Music HQ if such a building exists (I think it should).

So for no reason other than because no one else is saying it, thanks to Rebecca Driver Media (Maddie, Rebecca, Ruth, Joanna, and Joanna), Premiere (Simon, Rebecca, Tessa, and Jen), the utterly fantastically collaborative Jo Carpenter, Margaret, Nicky Thomas and Michaela Higham, Camilla and Victoria at the BBC, Fran Wilson, Tim Woodall (formerly Philharmonia), Elle and Anna at OAE, Libby Percival, Anna at the Southbank, and Anna, George, Naomi, and Olivia at Wildkat.

All of you in your work have made me feel included this past year and that has done wonders for maintaining my well-being. It’s also galvanised me to focus on mine a little more, and given it greater purpose.

BBC Proms 2021 season announced

A smaller season for in-person audiences with a heavy focus on the British music scene, one international orchestra, and a celebration of the music of Stravinsky and Saint-Saens

I feel for Proms Director David Pickard. Being the BBC Proms chief is a tough job in itself. Managing the programming challenge that is the BBC Proms, planning for the impact Brexit would have on the season’s visiting bands, and then having to respond to the challenges of COVID and the ban on large gatherings, is the kind of job description you’d probably steer clear of if you saw it advertised. Still, Pickard and his team have done an OK job in massively challenging times.

Organist Anna Lapwood makes her performing debut at the BBC Proms on my birthday

52 concerts (down 23 concerts from the 2019 season) over 44 days, this year’s season is a pragmatic response to travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, leaning heavily on the BBC’s orchestras and choirs, plus the Scottish Chamber, CBSO, Aurora, Philharmonia, LSO, and Arcangelo with Jonathan Cohen.

With performers Nicola Benedetti, Benjamin Grosvenor, Steven Isserlis, Roderick WIlliams and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, newcomers to the classical music scene will get a snapshot of some of the key performing talent that makes up the sector. It’s also great to see Manchester Collective take to the stage in the season, as well as new works from composers Charlotte Bray and Daniel Kidane.

The Kanneh-Mason’s bring their charming collaboration with former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpugo combining Camille Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals original score with Morpugo’s new poems. The press release doesn’t mention Olivia Colman (who appears on the Decca release from earlier this year) which suggests she won’t be making an appearance. Or maybe she will and they’re holding that little surprise back.

Writing this I’m mindful of the digs the Proms team will get for the season. In the culture war that this and other large scale festivals are often prone to, expect to see people point to this year’s season as evidence of dumbing down, a lack of ambition, yet another reason as to why the BBC should be defunded. And yet, there’s evidence here of making the very best of a phenomenally difficult situation.

Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason

We’re all assuming, for example, that at midnight on 21 June the world will suddenly return to normal: audiences will be flocking to the Royal Albert Hall, that travel restrictions will have been lifted, and that come the Last NIght of the Proms DCMS will have revised their ruling on having no more than 6 people singing indoors. This year’s season is risky business. The revenue stream is unpredictable. The BBC is strapped for cash. Little wonder its a reduced season.

It may seem a little early to say this given that ticket sales don’t open until Saturday 26 June, but in my mind it’s next year’s season we need to focus on. What will that be like? WIll it be the same length? Will there more or the same number of international orchestras? This year COVID is casting shadow on the challenges to the music world brought on by Brexit. And that’s important because of the important role the Proms plays in highlighting classical music in the UK. Bringing the Proms back post-COVID is an achievement. Safeguarding it’s place in the cultural landscape of the UK is the even bigger challenge. An uneviable one.

Full listings for this years season in the BBC Proms website.

Donatella Flick Conducting Competition 2021 winner Julio Garcia Vico: a real joy to watch

Congratulations to Julio Garcia Vico from Spain who secured the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition trophy for 2021 last night at LSO St Lukes in London.

The final saw Vico compete with UK conductor Chloe Rooke, and Martijn Dendievel from Belgium for the £15,000 prize plus the role of Assistant Conductor at LSO. The three finalists were whittled down from a shortlist of 20 in rehearsals during the weekend.

Vico was far and away the most captivating of conductors on the podium during the final drawing on a lightness of step, flexible movement in his body and a physical expressivity that created dynamic performances distinct from the other competitors. There was a real sense that Vico was already doing the job before he’d won the contract, so to speak. A real joy to watch.

Each competitor conducted the LSO in a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco overture, plus sections from Johannes Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn in B flat Major, and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, Op. 72.

A big pat on the back to LSO Production for the live stream on Medici TV. LSO St Lukes is the perfect venue for this kind of under-the-bonnet classical music content. I really appreciated how the presenters – Martin Handley and violinist Tasmin Little – didn’t compromise on detail or expertise. I felt engaged in what was an absorbing compare-and-contrast viewing experience.

The Donatella Flick Conducting Competition Final is available to watch for free on Medici TV until August 2021.

Eurovision: the audience’s critical role

The audience creates an experience that other potential audience members will willingly pay to be part of

Eurovision this year is different: a much smaller audience, distant from the stage. During the two semi-finals broadcast on TV earlier this week, we’ve seen a 3500 strong audience in various shots, significantly smaller and quieter than in previous contests.

On the wide expansive stage below performers (only the lead vocals need to be sung live this year) sing to an arena populated by other artists and their production teams. In the cavernous space, the atmosphere is lost in comparison to the EBU-approved ticketed mosh-pit visuals that were part and parcel of previous Eurovisions. This not only places greater demands on the performer but means viewers at home see an entirely different kind of atmosphere, contrived perhaps even sterile.

A safe distance between audience and stage

The story the audience creates at a live experience is potent, both for those present and those of us watching at home. Eurovision is an aspirational event, something that its eager audience of fans and commentators help amplify the profile of. Eurovision’s renaissance since 2000 is in no small way down to capitalising on the enthusiasms of its most passionate audience members. That audience has over the years first validated, celebrated and advocated the Eurovision brand. The Eurovision audience is an integral part to the experience, and over the years their proximity to performers especailly important too.

Malta’s Destiny in rehearsals

The irony is that this year’s Eurovision is sort of what the Contest used to be when I first watched it as a kid. The audience was small and distant from the stage. But there was still an aspirational air about proceedings when I watched. It triggered the imagination. This was an event that was going on someplace else. What happened after the TV credits rolled was as potent as the event itself.

Staging Eurovision is an achievement on the part of the EBU and the Dutch broadcaster AVROTROS, not least because the revenue derived from it is surely depleted given the restricted lifestyle most people are experiencing at the present time. It also helps science and, like the Brits in the UK, it helps a country’s government and a global record industry who astutely recognise that a return to live events is vital for their revenue stream and their artists’ earnings.

Gjon’s Tears rehearsing Tout l’Univers – Switzerland song appears in the Eurovision final

But the distance imposed on the audience at Eurovision reminds me of what that audience brings to the live experience for those in the arena and those of us at home. The energy the audience brings by being both present and close to the performer is critical. An audience creates ocassion. An audience creates atmosphere.

My visits to Bath Abbey, the Barbican, and Wigmore Hall this week have contributed to this thought process, and remind me of another story not currently being made the most of at the moment: the contribution the other people present make.

This is a valuable currency not being reflected anywhere near enough. Entertainment regards and reflects the audience as a passive observer instead of an active contributor to an experience.

The audience – your customers – create the experience that other potential audience members will willingly pay to be part of. I know because I have in the past.