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.

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.

London Symphony Orchestra plays first public performance at Barbican Concert Hall

“Welcome back to Barbican” said the man on stage; the audience reacted with customary and extended applause. Had the London Symphony Orchestra have called the concert off there and then, the sound of the applause would have been sufficient. The sound was warm, joyous and excitable. Everyone united. Everyone brimming with anticipation. Quite a special moment to be a part of. “We’re all very excited and very emotional,” said Rattle referring to the orchestra behind him.

On the face of it, writing notes about a concert only a small group of people have attended seemed a rather quaint idea. Mildly outdated. Pointless. But then this was an important moment – the London Symphony Orchestra’s first public concert in the Barbican for fourteen months. Highly charged. Capturing the moment you hear a particular orchestra in a particular venue after so long is something to document, like hearing an orchestra for the time (very nearly).

In the opening theme of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra the upper strings sounded rich and warm on the G-string. The cello variation was gratifyingly tender, and the clarinet duet was comically playful. I heard a sonorous oboe solo over which neither player nor conductor saw any need to rush (much to my delight). And somewhere between that and the uplifting fugue at the end, the unmistakable sound of a mobile phone. Nobody tutted. Nobody sighed.

Throughout I was surprised about how cohesive the ensemble sound was. There was precision and detail (particularly given the phenomenally challenging speed changes during Dvorak’s mammoth Slavonic Dances. Not only was the togetherness of the sound seemingly incredible given the distances the players were from one another, but the rounded sound especially between the flutes, clarinet, and oboe at the ends of phrases were a ravishing treat – like a perfectly wrapped present topped with neatly tied bow.

Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite was a poignant mix of relief and reflection, part uplifting, consistently restorative.

Front of house management in the 80s interior of the brutalist Barbican had a whiff of the airport about it. Ticket holders queued outside, checked in using the NHS Test and Trace app, filed in line to a roped off part of the foyer before heading into the auditorium, from street to seat in around 10 minutes. One presumes it won’t always be like this. But for the time being at least, this is good enough, because the reality is that it is so good to be back. So very good to be a part of the live music experience.  

Ben Goldscheider’s musical tribute to Dennis Brain

Horn player Ben Goldscheider has a remarkable CV for someone who came to prominence back in 2016 following his BBC Young Musician Concerto Final in 2016.

Solo appearances followed with the BBC Concert, BBC Symphony, Aurora, English Chamber, and and Manchester Camerata. He’s been guest principal for West Eastern Divan, English Chamber and Philharmonia. Last year he featured in a recording of Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Gran Partita. This year he records as soloist with Philharmonia and appears at Wigmore Hall. He’s 23.

The release of Godscheider’s musical tribute to much-loved musician Dennis Brain whose centennial the music world is marking at the moment is a homage to the legendary horn player who died at 36 in 1956 in a car crash.

Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain (1921 – 1956) came from a musical family. Grandfather and uncles played the horn; Dennis’ father taught Dennis the horn throughout his Royal Academy of Music years; brother Leonard played the oboe; mother Marion played the piano.

Brain is celebrated for the quality of his sound which even in a mono recording like Strauss’ first horn concerto with the Philharmonia from 1947 is something to marvel at – a long elegant self-assured melodic line that reassures with every caress. The opening subject of the first movement evokes a powerful image – a column of air that starts in the pit of the abdomen and weaves its way across a wide vista with grace.

That so many composers in Brain’s early career were interested in the horn player’s playing is reflected in the music written for him by the likes of Hindemith, Benjamin Britten and Gordon Jacob. “Dennis Brain has often been heralded as awakening the horn from a long slumber,” said Ben Goldscheider in the release for the album, “such was the comparative barrenness of the Romantic period in terms of compositions for a solo horn player.”

Composer Huw Watkins plays piano on Ben Goldscheider’s Legacy tribute to Dennis Brain

The album ‘Legacy’ consists of music for Brain (it surprised me that Poulenc wrote for Brain), and that written in memory of him, the most arresting of which on a first listen for me at least is Huw Watkins Lament.

Lament is a ravishing creation, taut and efficient, charting a journey through a range of emotional statements punctuated with anguished leaps. Music with humanity that has the power to console. It’s rare that new music I’m invited to write about prompts so many listens as this has this week. It’s music that makes me want to explore Huw Watkins other output further. Some achievement.

Ben Goldscheider

Listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s Sonnets without Words during Ben’s Facebook premiere launching the album on Friday night, the sound of her rich array of harmonies made me think of her Love Abide album on Signum featuring Voces 8 (a release that triggered a revealing interview with Roxanna for the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast back in 2019).

“Panufnik speaks when she’s writing for the human voice,” I said to The OH (it sounded less pretentious than it reads) as we watched Goldscheider play Sonnets.

Reading the booklet now at the time of writing this post I now understand that Sonnets started as a work for voice and piano.

That her transcription for horn and piano makes me think that when listening to Goldscheider’s recording helps me appreciate more what Roxanna’s compositional language is. Sweet Love Remember’d has an absorbing theatrical air about it.

James Gilchrist in conversation with Huw Watkins during recordings at Henry Wood Hall

The other striking thing about this album is Goldscheider’s playing. In Watkin’s Lament and Mine Eye from Roxanna Panufnik, there’s a fragility to the vibrato that creates jeopardy to the listening experience. The sincerity in the voice creates a persona that mixes self-assurance and vulnerability. Utterly fascinating.

In posting this I want to call out the video production and PR for Ben’s album release. If you’re looking to encourage people to listen, think, reflect, and advocate the material then sharing a range of supporting material off the bat is bottom line stuff. Artists looking to maximise reach must understand why it’s important to engage with video, image, and copy production. Without that supporting material advocating new work is made more challenging. Goldscheider’s team has done textbook work.

The continuing strain on our mental health

Before the week draws to a close, I wanted to write a personal reflection about Mental Health Awareness Week.

After fourteen months or thereabouts of largely isolated human-less living, the prospect of final stages of eased restrictions might seem like the end of the pandemic. There is an assumption underpinning the approaching end of lockdown: the world is returning to normal; we can return to our normal lives.

But transition back into that ‘normal’ life is, it seems to me, a far different prospect.

Even today, with Nicola Sturgeon announcing some areas of Scotland remaining in a state of reduced lockdown whilst other areas are released.

For people across the UK their experience of returning to the world is subject to a vast array of differing timescales. Their perception of freedom will be based on the opening-up of activities, but also be rooted in perceived restrictions or perhaps imaginary ones.

Being able to hug people or step back into a concert hall auditorium isn’t the end of pandemic-driven mitigations; it is only the beginning of the regaining of freedoms. Some of those freedoms are real, tangible things. A great many others are in the mind.

For a considerable number who were made or took voluntary redundancy in 2020, finding another job has been hard. I have felt this at home supporting my partner whilst he finds alternative work. Recruitment is tough even with specialisms and experience on your side. Continued unsuccessful job hunting for those who lost their income during the pandemic prolongs the sense of isolation and restriction. The inevitable lack of purpose that arises damages motivation, and impacts self-belief. The impact that has on the state of mind for both job-seeker and supporter is draining. The pressure is immense.

Quite apart from the logistics, practicalities and financial responsibilities, there’s a sense of guilt stitched into this period in time. On a local level I see my world – the classical music world – opening up again. It’s by no means a straightforward opening up. It does in some respects feel a little precarious. Charlotte Higgins has a fairly punchy summary of the situation the UK arts scene faces from 17 May.

However, with conversations about future work for me coming in, the guilt that arises when one’s partner continues to wait patiently and positively for work opportunities to come his way is a little difficult to swallow. Freedoms aren’t freedoms if the ones you love can’t experience their version of freedom too.

That’s what I mean about how people will experience coming out of restricted living at entirely different paces. It will be different from that articulated by Government guildelines. Individual experience will be different from one another. Coming out of this (whatever that really means) will bring about all manner of pressures on our mental health too that we’ll need to be prepared for.

That’s quite apart from the experience of breaking out of the relative ‘comfort’ zone we’ve all become accustomed to over the past year or so. That transition places demands on our mental health as well.

I consider myself very fortunate this past year. I have benefited from regular freelance work when it was quite possible (and I did for a while believe) everything could have fizzled out right from the word go. Me and my partner have space to do what we need to do without getting in one another’s way. We laugh a great deal and, importantly, we’re able to speak openly about how we feel, with one another without consequence or judgment. We understand one another’s differences and respect them. We also know the importance of focussing on abundance rather than scarcity.

That said, it’s not always easy to keep the boat afloat.

I’ve also seen a shift in how we talk about our own mental health. This may of course only be a reflection of my circle of friends, colleagues and peers, and subject to confirmation bias too. But there feels as though there is greater openness in conversations. People I talk to don’t rush in to rescue with ideas to make things better. People check in more on a regular basis with a WhatsApp message or a call, and that prompts me to do the same with them. I am fortunate to be part of a network that sustains me.

It wouldn’t be authentic if we weren’t able to reflect calmly and objectively about our thoughts and feelings during Mental Health Awareness Week. So in the spirit of leading by example, here goes.

I find this time immensely tiring. I have no sense of when our situation will resolve, though the hope is considerable. The prospect of the world opening up a little bit more is exciting for me, but a difficult when I know someone I care deeply about is looking for work. Sometimes the worries that emerge as a result – ruminations on catastrophic thinking if you’re looking for the coaching parlance – are all consuming. They have become so familiar now as to be inextricably linked with the depressing shade of green I slapped on my office walls a few years ago in a bid to ‘finish decorating the office’. It’s beginning to feel a little oppressive now, so too the paintwork.

But this is where resilience is shored up. This is the moment in time when we surprise ourselves on a daily basis. This is the time when we begin by making small goals and commit to reaching them no matter what. The path out of this is not quick, not signalled by a Government announcement, or easy. And if you can’t say that in Mental Health Awareness Week, when can you?