Ivan Hewett in the Telegraph: a savage judgment on how audiences are accessing on-demand content

Ivan Hewett’s piece in the Telegraph last weekend (I’ve got to it rather late I know) roasting BBC Radio 3 about their two new mood-driven programmes is a difficult subject to cover here. I’ll give it a go though. I’m game.

On the one hand, I agree with Hewett. Music as something prescribed that will cure you of whatever ills you think you have is grossly misrepresenting the potential impact art can have on the individual. Hewett is – even if he doesn’t explicitly say so or realise it – worried about the rebranding of classical music, in the same way that those who love jazz always look over their shoulder at those who express an undying love for Dinner Jazz. Hewett is suspicious (and probably hates) ‘crossover’.

I sympathise with him. The music my neighbour proudly pointed to during a Christmas party (remember them?) a few years ago as ‘classical music’ isn’t what I’d listen to. But given that he was offering a generous platter of nibbles and is, like me, a big fan of red wine I wasn’t about to judge, dismiss or denigrate. I’d have to be some kind of an arsehole to judge my neighbour or suggest he listen to something different. Sure, I want Alan to be as moved as I often am listening to Rachmaninov (don’t judge me Ivan, I do like Rachmaninov), but I can’t make Alan listen to Rachmaninov. I’m certainly not going to tell him that he should be listening to Rachmaninov. Or Brahms. Or Mozart. Or whatever. You get my point.

This idea of music-as-therapy is absolutely everywhere. Playlists advertising the soothing and healing powers of classical music have become big business. The major names of this new trend are rapidly taking over classical music’s territory. For many younger listeners, classical music isn’t Beethoven or Stravinsky; it’s Max Richter, with his dreamy album Sleep, or Ludovico Einaudi’s slow, meandering piano meditations.

Why is Radio 3 downgrading classical music to a trendy form of therapy?

And whilst I get where Ivan is coming from (we don’t know each other), there are other things that are at play here that are worth flagging here.

We live in a fully-embedded on-demand world. I listen to the things I want to listen to when I want to listen to them. I don’t make my musical selections based on a deep-seated understanding of what my mood is and what mood I’d like to have, and then look for musical promises that can take responsibility for that mood transition. People watch the films or TV they watch for a whole variety of different reasons. They discover their own escapist routes using their own tried and tested methods.

What broadcasters have to do is anticipate what audiences think they need, and make sure their content is discoverable ahead of the competition. By doing that, those organisations that seek to underline their relevance to their audience and bill-payers will stand a better chance of renewing their source of income. What’s important is to be seen to be relevant rather than redundant.

To denigrate those who seek out curated music according to mood is to overlook the fundamental reason why rave culture took hold in the 90s. It reveals a lack of understanding of how digitally-savvy audiences access content. Audiences are fractured now, content sources and touch points for classical are far more than one just one authoritative source. The BBC is more than just Radio 3. The Reithian approach is on its last legs.

And more than all of this, to be so savage of those who seek out mixed musical experiences is to further misrepresent classical music. Listen to what you want to. But don’t judge people for their musical choices. If you do, then you’re not helping the greater good. You’re just projecting all us classical music fans as a bunch of snobs.

Review: London Chamber Orchestra’s Magical Metamorphoses: Strauss, Fitkin, and Shostakovich at St John’s Smith Square

When audiences are able to step back into an auditorium, orchestras had better continue to film their concerts. I’ve got accustomed to digital streams.

The London Chamber Orchestra regrouped for the first time in a year to record their centenary celebration concert at St John’s Smith Square. The orchestra’s digital premiere on YouTube featured Graham Fitkin’s Vassal, Strauss Metamorphosen, and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony plus other musical excerpts. It was free to watch with invitations to donate.

Graham Fitkin’s Vassal is an accessible concert opener constructed with a series of mood-driven minimalist vignettes peppered with pulsating rhythms, repeated melodic cells, and harmonic shifts reminiscent of Philip Glass.

The dramatic transitions between moods are daring, concise and efficient, maintaining a high level of energy, even in the contrastring contemplative sequences. The finished work is a captivating affair and still sounds as fresh given its premiere (by the London Chamber Orchestra) in 1998. In this performance there was lots of attack, slow crescendos, tingling articulation in the upper-string passages, and oh-so ridiculously warm strings when the score called for them – listen out for the recurring material first heard in the opening bars. It is a hugely satisfying listen, reminiscent of composer Paul Hart’s cracking opening 30 seconds for BBC TV’s Tomorrow’s World in the late 1980s.

Wasn’t quite so impressed with Strauss’ Metamorphosen. For a digital stream I suspect the intensity inherent in the work makes demands on both performers and video direction because of the absence the audience. It generally felt a little under-powered. As a listener I wanted to feel a little more ‘in’ the action of the music. I just didn’t feel it in this performance.

Not so in the Shostakovich however. Here was a filmed performance where there could have quite easily been an audience present only the director had forgotten to cut to the auditorium. Tight. Heartfelt. When the score demanded attack we had it in spades. And when required, the basses really dug deep and created a special thing. Delicate whispering upper strings in the opening bars, threatening barks from the cellos, and all manner of terrifying screams as and when required. Throughout this was when I had a sense that the LCO were completely engaged – a considerable achievement given the lack of audience.

Worth flagging, I’m not 100% sure whether each work was one complete take. I’ve become a stickler for this. Recorded as live in one take is the sign of bravery and a sign of wanting to recreate something as near to live performance for both performer and audience as possible.

Be sure to take a look at the pre-concert Zoom chat between Sophie Lockett and Jenny Coombes. After what might feel like a slightly awkward beginning, there’s spirit, warmth and insight from their exchanges and responses to livestream questions. Both of them effervescent ambassadors both for the LCO brand and for classical music in general. Love half hour chat about the programme, the experience of playing music together for the first time in a year, and the impact of lockdown and cancelled gigs on the music industry.

Special mention to Christopher Warren-Green whose pieces to camera were informative. Warren-Green’s voice is pleasingly rich. Authoritative and unfussy.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast: Pianist Clare Hammond

Pianist Clare Hammond releases a new disc ‘Variations’ on 5 March featuring piano variations by Hindemith, Copland, Adams and Szymanowski.

It continues the pianist’s deeply felt work advocating active listening in discovery sessions specifically tailored for prisoners. COVID guidelines permitting, Hammond hopes to return to prisons in the UK sharing the repertoire on the disc in live performance sessions.

In Podcast 112 Clare Hammond talks about how she introduces classical music repertoire to a prison community. The music used is Clare Hammond’s recording of Szymanowski’s ‘Variations on a Polish Theme’.

Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Audioboom.

21 June. So, that’s all good then. Or is it?

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra responds to PM’s announcement about easing of restrictions

I will happily admit that I have, as a punter, found Boris Johnson’s announcement in the House of Commons this afternoon about the stages leading up to the doing away with social-distancing giddy-fying.

17 May for socially-distanced audiences in places like theatres (and presumably concert halls). 21 June for the removal of social-distancing.

June feels like a long way off. At the same time, there feels as though there is an endpoint. Imagination runs riot. Hope springs up perkily. The unthinkable might just end up happening after all.

The RPO doesn’t agree necessarily. In an official statement, they voice a note of caution.

“We welcome today’s announcement as a positive first step in the process, but more detailed information is required if performing arts organisations are to be able to plan for the future with any certainty.

“Opening concert venues for a handful of audience members is not economically viable without further government support.  The focus of the discussion should be on when we are likely to see venues return to fuller capacities.

“We are still completely in the dark as to what conditions and criteria will be required in order for this to happen. Until we have this information, it is difficult to find a way out of the situation in which we find ourselves.  

“During the course of the pandemic the RPO has regularly tracked the public’s views on music and the tangible role it plays.

“Seven in ten (71%) people who listened to orchestral music during isolation cited tangible and lasting positive impacts on their mood and wellbeing, while 41% of people regard music as among Britain’s greatest exports to the world.

“The performing arts will continue to play a valuable role long after the pandemic has passed, and it is vital that everything is done now to bring the industry back from the precipice and ensure its long term future.”  

London Mozart Players and Howard Shelley play Saint Saens Piano Concerto No. 2

London Mozart Players introduces the seventh series of LMP’s ever-popular Piano Explored series

The London Mozart Players have consistently demonstrated themselves to be a nimble tenacious organisation, brimming with energy, with an infectious kind of tenacity.

LMP’s second series of digital streams – this time focusing on pianist and conductor Howard Shelley’s captivating Piano Explored series – starts on Thursday 18 February 2021.

Recorded at St John’s Smith Square in London in February and March 2021, the seventh series of Piano Explored supported by International Piano will feature five hour-long programmes, with Shelley giving an entertaining and insightful introduction to one or two famous or not-so-famous works for piano and orchestra, before performing them in their entirety with the London Mozart Players. Tickets for the online concerts will be a very reasonably-priced £8.00.

I attended the first episode recording a few weeks back. It was the first time I’d heard live music in many months. The present UK-wide lockdown has starved the ear of a live performance listening experience such that when I heard the first chords in the Saint-Saens the effect was highly emotional, at times overwhelmingly so.

Some of that emotional response is down to the acoustics which supported a clarity of listening I’d almost forgotten about at St John’s Smith Square. To hear so many different textures and orchestration details was a treat, not unlike the experience of hearing after having your earwax removed.

The rest of the emotional response in the moment is created by the energy LMP consistently brings to their performance – charmingly unpretentious but fiercely authentic. Smiles all around and appreciative glances in response to Conductor Laureate Howard Shelley’s direction.

What was the lockdown recording experience like compared to last year?

Interestingly on this occasion the lack of audience wasn’t quite such a painful feeling as it was during the summer of last year when I attended the LPO Summer Session recordings at Henry Wood Hall. This didn’t feel like a ghost event in that respect. Shelley’s easy charm, uncomplicated but passionate explanations and annotations combined with his effortless ability to look straight down the barrel of the lens whenever he talked to the camera had the effect of tricking me into thinking there was an audience in St John’s Smith Square. There’s only one other musician I’ve seen carry that kind of delivery convincingly – violinist Lizzie Ball.

Emphasising the USP of live performance and active listening is key

Most markedly for me was that returning to a live performance experience reinforced the need to be talking about listening. We so rarely reflect on the audience experience of listening, pre-COVID believing that potential audience members were more concerned about dress code, when to clap, and where the toilets were.

Now mid-pandemic we’re thinking about what changes need to come into effect to shake up the classical music experience. Change may well be necessary in some areas, but the opportunity that presents itself now is articulating what the experience is of active listening. To promote the idea of listening for textures, to reflecting on the emotional impact a series of sounds has on the audience member, is to promote the idea of mutually understood language underpinning a communal experience.

Why do we still think there’s something wrong with the physical experience or hold the false assumption that knowledge is required, when the critical faculties that will elevate the experience is curiosity and awareness?

In this way, the London Mozart Players Piano Explored recording at St John’s Smith Square had a profound impact on me triggering my thinking as well as reacquainting myself with how it feels to be in the same physical space as another human being. To have been able to be present in that moment is very special and a manifestation of LMP’s generosity. What it also promises is that this, like similar projects by other orchestras last year, will in time act as potent musical triggers for a range of emotions and memories. And that means the same will be the case for audience members who set foot back into auditoriums, whenever that will be.

In the space of a year some orchestras have risen to the unprecedented challenge COVID-19 has brought about. Whilst many of us would regard filming a concert as a straightforward process, the appetite to do it not to mention the budget was lacking. Creating a audio-visual archive of activities wasn’t in the marketing strategy of many cash-strapped arts organisations. COVID has made digital streams a marketing must-have.

They’re not replacements for live performance, but as substitutes they keep musicians playing during this hiatus, keep the brand visible, and in some cases reach more pairs of eyes than orchestras play to in auditoriums. The really potent question we should be asking is whether digital streams will continue to form an integral part of an orchestra’s activities when the concert halls do open again.

How to watch London Mozart Players Piano Explored series

London Mozart Players Piano Explored with Howard Shelley starts Thursday 18 February at 1pm and is available online. Future concert recordings will be open to socially-distanced physical audiences government guidelines permitting.

Tickets for the online concerts will be £8.00, with films available to view
for six months via LMP’s website (except for the Shostakovich concert on 13
May – 30 days only).

Steuart Bedford (1939 – 2021)

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.

Two o’clock diary: Bruckner 4, birdwatchers and chamomile tea

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.