Play It Again

Throughout 2022 I’m exploring my connection with the piano. I want to gain a deeper understanding of why I came to learn to play it, what the experience of playing it was back in my school days, and why I find it so difficult to return to playing it again now.

 

Behind me sits a black upright piano, currently dust free but not always so. The same scores sit on the music desk as a year ago. Occasionally the keyboard is approached to bash out a vaguely recalled melody, but for most of the time the piano stands silent and dejected, holding its own as impactful Zoom call backdrop.

I think we paid £750 for piano. Soon after me and my partner met and I’d moved in to his flat on King’s Avenue, we woke up one Saturday morning bleary-eyed wrapped thinking that buying a second hand piano might be a good way to start the nesting process. Later the same day at Markson Pianos showroom the trade was made, the serviced instrument delivered a few days later.

Sometimes I look at the thing and pity it. Twenty four years later it’s a piece of furniture that fills a gap but goes unplayed. Just play me. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? That’s what other people do with their pianos, they play them. There have been occasions when I have, usually when I’m performing for others. But most times I’ll feel the weight of the past – a big hand pushing against my chest, telling me to steer clear. How can something which has in the past played such an important part in my development as a human now be such a barrier?

It got quite a lot of use to begin with, at first rehearsing a range of tenor solos preparing my still-new partner Simon for theatre auditions.

My recollection of ‘98 is one of dissatisfaction with my own technique. I was no rehearsal pianist. No pencil in my ear, a keen eye cast across the top of the instrument looking out for a two beat intro and then in on the first beat of the bar, heel pounding the floor.

I was a sluggish player, stumbling over seemingly unexpected chords. Speed changes which were at best aspirations, and dark messy key signatures promised failure, apology and shame. Mozart opera transcriptions were no good because I couldn’t expand on the simple score laid in front of me. Sondheim was too fast and too complicated. I would end up ‘marking’ bars and, after a few failed attempts quietly suggest that maybe I should just practice a little more. “It will be better when I’ve got it under my fingers.”

My main problem was not being any good at approximation at the keyboard. Plenty of others in my past had seemed adept at making a simple looking score sound considerably fuller than the manuscript indicated. Simon’s singing teacher Scilla’s ability to add a shake to any written chord gave proceedings a much grander sound. Mr Lane – my first class music teacher at Culford School – was able to make anything in The Beatles Complete sound as full and exciting as the fab four. And then there were the likes of Jerome at school or Pete at university who defied any kind of rational explanation who sat at the keyboard and did something known as ‘playing by ear’. Skills such as this made me as suspicious as I was jealous.

Forty years on I still can’t hear the title track from Ghostbusters and wince a little, remembering my peers crowding around Jerome as he bashed out Ray Parker Jr’s top ten tune with energy and attack I could only dream of.

Whilst diverting from the score seemed like cheating, there was also the need to build on the score – making more of what was printed in the manuscript. This too, like improvisation, was something completely alien to me. This was the ultimate in making yourself vulnerable to the world. This no doubt largely down to the formal tuition I received rooted in scales and arpeggios, and the value placed on accuracy, not only in practised pieces of music but also in sight-reading too. There was order in this process; chaos in improvisation.

There was too an implicit expectation established early on, originating in watching peers or teachers at the keyboard, that the really good musicians were those who played from memory or from ear. You needed to be able to improvise. You needed to be dextrous. These were the musicians who weren’t intimidated by the keyboard, they commanded it. I always felt like the keyboard insisted upon negotiation (and probably had days off at the weekend too.) the piano instead wanted to be played not participate in a scientific experiment.

How did those other musicians get to that stage? Did Jerome just wake up one morning and discover he could do this thing with this hands at a piano keyboard without so much as even one music lesson? If there were those who could sit at a keyboard and play without seemingly the many hours of practise I felt I had to put in, what was the point in continuing? Why was I wasting my time? I was going to have to run to catch up if I was able to catch up at all.

MU calls for support for freelance musicians Omicron variant

Photo by Andrea De Santis on UPhoto by Denise Jans on Unsplash

You know you’re in the zone when you get a press release from both the DCMS Committee and the Musicians Union during your last-chance pre-lockdown Christmas shopping trip. So it was this afternoon.

As far as I can see both the committee AND the MU are broadly in agreement.

This is what DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP had to say after Chancellor Rishi announced money for the hospitality and leisure sectors ahead of what most predict will be New Year restrictions to combat the Omicron variant.

“While we await the detail, the announcement of additional financial support for the entertainment and hospitality sectors is welcome. It will be important for this funding to help all those whose livelihoods depend on thriving theatres and live venues, whether they be on the stage, behind the scenes or front of house.

“More crucial still will be giving clarity for what the likely outlook for Covid restrictions is in the short and medium-term. You cannot simply start and stop a production or tour with a few days notice. They need to be planned and are dependent on a reasonable assessment of whether enough people can see it to be financially viable. While additional money is welcome we must also give the entertainment sector the best possible chance of being up and running on its own. Without more clarity, this will not be possible.”

South of the river, the Musicians’ Union (MU) had this to say:

“Whilst the Union welcomes the Treasury’s announcement of £1bn in financial support for businesses in the hospitality and leisure industries, the lack of provision for freelance workers leaves the majority of MU members uncertain about their future.

Early results of the Union’s latest research reports that 86% of musicians have had work cancelled due to the surge in cases related to the Omicron Covid-19 variant. Plus 41% of musicians state that they expect to earn under 25% of their usual income during the next two months, while the results show 75% expect to earn less than 50% of their regular income.

Top marks to the MU for the most devastating line about the current situation.

“Although the Government is not formally cancelling events, it appears to be advising people not to attend them, which is harming audience confidence at live music performances.”

The venues I’ve been in attendance at in recent weeks for filming and concerts have made every effort to reassure visitors that safety is front and centre. They’re doing their bit. The Government appears to be revealing its complete lack of understanding about the world around it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. They don’t experience the impact of their decisions. How could they?

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

John Bradbury

There are a handful of subjects that are sure to prompt me to reach for the keyboard.

Recent examples include injustice and gratitude. Death too often triggers a similar impetus to write. Last year saw a necessary tribute to one of my school music teachers James Recknell. So too this year, with the news of the untimely and completely unexpected death of another school music teacher John Bradbury.

Unlike Mr Recknell’s tribute, this one for John feels a whole lot more difficult. I’m not entirely sure why. News of his death came in a late-night surprise phone call. “Can I call you back?” I blurted out on the phone. “I need to take 5 minutes.”

We tell ourselves stories about our past. We’re constantly reminding ourselves of those stories long after the event has passed. In some instances, the rewriting of those stories casts us further and further away from the truth. In other instances, they bring closer to the person or the idea of the person in mind.

The story I tell myself about my past may well have gone through a series of rewrites, but some characters remain consistent in each and every draft.

So it is with John Bradbury. Perhaps that’s why news of his death in his early 60s came as such a shock.

I owe a great deal to John. I see the influence he had on my motivation, determination, and attention to detail. He was disciplined. He was a poster boy for discipline. He made music something that could be excelled at, perhaps simply through a process of paying the greatest attention to the smallest detail. Repetitive relentless practise wasn’t something to be endured but embraced. By going over and over and over the same phrase, first slowly, then faster and faster, so confidence could be fostered and fluidity be more of a guaranteed.

“Relax your shoulders!” he would bark as he watched me plough through whatever piece I was working on in my piano lessons. How could I possibly expect to tackle anything fast if I held tension in my arms and my upper body? And how on earth would my fingers move up and down the keyboard at speed if I let my wrists slump and didn’t ensure the movement came from my digits instead of my upper arm? He was strong on identifying faulty technique and prescribing corrective action.

The story I tell myself now of my piano lessons has one dominant image: me sat on the floor with my arms stretched above me, trying to learn a more conducive position for my wrists to optimise my playing. I passed Grade 8 as I recall. Merit, if I’m not mistaken. That’s in no small part down to John Bradbury and his relentless attention to detail.

John’s own ambition and the energy he drew upon to realise it had a critical impact on me too.

Membership of the Culford School Junior Choir was decided upon with rigour. Auditions had an other-worldly air. Membership wasn’t guaranteed; it was dependent on meeting a certain standard. The reputation of the ensemble was at stake. The Culford School Junior Choir could after all, be something to raise awareness of the school itself, hence participation in the then Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year Competition with Walter Barrie’s arrangement of Stodola Pumpa, Britten’s Old Abram Brown, and (if memory serves me correctly) Harold the Frog.

An unexpected invitation to join the school Chapel Choir came a few years later. Impressionable, spotty and and eager to demonstrate difference and (let’s face it) superiority over my peers with whom I felt I struggled to acquire credibility, the chance to go ‘on tour’ with the school Chapel Choir gave me an unexpected sense of worth.

Haydn’s Little Organ Mass sung in numerous churches across Northern Europe (so it seems to me now) when Fergal Sharkey, Aha, The Blow Monkeys and Whitney Houston featured high in the UK charts and on my Walkman made for an unlikely playlist of music that now, all these years later, still triggers a raw and unshakeable sense of self-confidence.

Later still, the Culford School Chapel Choir played a key role in Sunday services in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the Queen Mother’s massed-choir birthday celebrations in Horseguards Parade and St Martin in the Fields. Weekly Tuesday evening rehearsals assumed a different edge: time dedicated to the necessary hard work for the forthcoming weekend’s showcase. This was a demanding process. Sometimes it felt like stupidly hard work. It pushed us. Not so much demanding as reinforcing the importance of the occasion for the choir and more so perhaps for him. The payoff? That undeniable sense of being part of a special moment.

When John left Culford School, me and Rebecca mid-way through our A-Level music studies there was an unshakeable sense that he was abandoning us for something better. He never billed it that way but the sense of loss was considerable. Such was the bond he’d created by virtue of the vision he was trying to realise.

John Bradbury had an unshakeable vision and terrifying attention to detail that was both exhausting and aspirational at the same time. To this day I still celebrate that core principle: secure solid technique and everything else will follow; strive for the very best in everything you do. To be reminded these past few days that my years with him were when he was in his first job post-studies says something about his remarkable commitment.

News of his death came as a shock. The thought of him not being around is something that will take a long time to get used to.

Unlike his boss at Culford School James Recknell I did, during a drunken evening a few years back in central London, tell him exactly what impact he’d had on me, and I thanked him for it. Rather predictably he was uncomfortable taking the praise. No matter. At least he knew.  

Warmth, joy and strength at the RPS Awards 2021

Given that it was live-streamed on YouTube with highlights and excerpts broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday 8 November, asking for a ticket to this years RPS Awards felt a little odd. Awards ceremonies are essentially just a series of announcements, the bare content of which can easily be gathered from a webpage, tweet or press release. Assuming you’re not in line to collect an award, why the need to attend in person?

It is the atmosphere that matters most. That’s what can’t be conveyed online, in video or on-air. The reuniting of old pals, reconnecting over experiences of pandemic-driven gardening, running, or remote working. “Fancy another?” says a pal in the Cock and Lion on Wigmore Street. “Just a small one,” I say. Shortly after it’s a quick mad dash up the road to the main event. It’s dark. There’s a nip in the air too. Shut your eyes and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Christmas Eve.

The customary pre-ceremony toilet dash pre-ceremony (where I note all present were masked and thoroughly washing their hands), before the steady climb up the stairs to the Wigmore Hall auditorium, always done with seconds to spare before the start, always done at a snail’s pace.

And here, quite unexpectedly the real excitement of the evening. Up in front laughing and joking with one another, three oddly familiar faces. Full of verve, brimming with energy – Mark Simpson, Cordelia Williams and Nicola Benedetti. Here and now I feel like a Lower Fifth; they feel like the Sixth Formers. Celebs. Individuals with talent and vision and passion and spirit. It would be easy to smile, say hello and wheedle my way in. But I won’t. Because it’s their night. Leave the talent alone.

The buzz is as unexpected as it is invigorating. So too is the hubbub in the auditorium. 

I apologise to the person sitting in R16. “That’s my seat I think. I’m terribly sorry.” After she moves down I quip how it feels like we’re on a train what with the confusion over the seats. Only later does it become apparent that the person in question is in fact a prize winner from The Hermes Experiment. In the seat in front of me, a long-haired blonde woman surreptitiously drops her mask to say hello (it’s Heloise Werner). And across the aisle pianist Chris Glynn smiles back at me. I write like these people are old friends. They’re not. They just feel that way. It’s all unexpectedly warm. It’s like being a part of a family. I’ve missed this feeling a great deal.

The award winners are well-deserved, appreciative and are perhaps in some respects even irrelevant. The shortlist reads in its entirety as a reminder of the many potent creations pored over by hungry audiences starved of live, curious and grateful for digital. The winners in this hybrid world succeed in a similar way, perhaps gaining more prominence as a result of the unusual way classical music and the talent that creates it rose to the challenge of the pandemic over the past twelve months.

I was especially pleased to see composer Dani Howard win Large Scale Composition for her Trombone Concerto, and both unsurprised and excited to see Nicola Benedetti win Instrumentalist for basically being brilliant again. Laura Bowler’s Chamber-Scale Composition win for Wicked Problems drew huge excitement in the Wigmore Hall (and shone a light on another Huw Watkins work I need to listen to – his Violin Sonata with Tamsin Waley-Cohen).

The Storytelling Award winner Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason’s House of Music reminds me of a Christmas list addition (the nominee Kate Kennedy’s Ivor Gurney biography is something I’m disappointed to say I hadn’t even been aware of and will rightly compete for my attention come Boxing Day this year).

2021 RPS Instrumentalist Award winner – Nicola Benedetti at the RPS 2021 Awards in the Wigmore Hall on Monday 1 Nov. 2021 Photos by Mark Allan

Chamber-Scale Composition – Laura Bowler – Wicked Problems
supported by Boosey & Hawkes in memory of Tony Fell

Conductor – Ryan Bancroft
supported by BBC Music Magazine

Ensemble – Dunedin Consort
supported by Tarisio

Gamechanger – Bold Tendencies
supported by Schott Music

Impact – ENO Breathe
supported by ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music)

Inspiration – Hilary Campbell and Bristol Choral Society
supported by Decca Classics

Instrumentalist – Nicola Benedetti – violin
supported by Help Musicians UK in its centenary year

Large-Scale Composition – Dani Howard – Trombone Concerto
supported by The Boltini Trust

Opera and Music Theatre – L’enfant et les sortilèges – Vopera
supported by Cazenove Capital

Series and Events – The World How Wide – Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia
supported by PRS for Music

Singer – Jennifer Johnston – mezzo soprano
Supported by Jenny Hodgson

Storytelling – Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason – House of Music
supported by Lark Music

Young Artist– The Hermes Experiment
supported by Sir Simon and Victoria, Lady Robey OBE

Pictures (except for Wigmore Hall interior) are by Mark Allan Photography

Twenty-four hours later

Yesterday I wrote about a disparaging article on The Critic about pianist Yuja Wang. Even for me in my world, the response was surprisingly noisy. My mentions timeline went a bit mad.

What took me by surprise was how the act of drawing attention to the piece in the first place and the follow-up, exposed things I hadn’t been prepared for. Insights you might even say.

Reflecting on what I read (and in some cases what I responded to) I noticed that there was a division between those who thought the action of highlighting what I saw and felt annoyed by was valuable, versus those who saw it as a foolish way of giving oxygen to someone who uses his writing to crave attention.

In one thread I saw someone saying that there wasn’t really very much point in calling it out because others had done so before and it hadn’t worked, so what was the point in doing so now?

One influential commenter described it as a ‘brouhaha’. Another sought to draw attention to the number of years and the regularity they had been writing about it, almost as though there was a sense they were disappointed they hadn’t seized on the opportunity themselves.

I was surprised (and still am) about how isolated I’ve ended up feeling as a result of it all. Odd, given that the intent was to highlight something that didn’t sit right, not just within the context of the music sector, but also in that of our wider cultural experience.

I’m still left wondering – what was the best course of action? To not draw attention to it, or to point to it? Did I in fact do the wrong thing? There was a time – when I first started working in digital – when the mantra for managing communities was that the community would eventually correct itself. Not so.

Is there something I regret? Yes. I should have done just a screengrab of the post that rattled me rather than linking to it. That was a bit of a fail on my part.  

But what I’m left with is something a little darker and perhaps even fundamental.

It’s not that people disagree. People should disagree. Or they can agree. I don’t mind what side of the fence you’re on. Not really That’s because where music-making has taught me discipline, the study of music has helped me learn the importance of considering a variety of different views, and a willingness to adapt your own views as a result.  

It’s not the content then of what people say (ie whether they agree or disagree). Nor necessarily the ‘how’ they communicate their content. Rather, what’s darker for me is the intent behind some people’s behaviours.

A real-life illustration will help here.

A few years ago I went to the Edinburgh Festival. I saw Mitsuko Uchida play at Usher Hall. It was the first time I’d ever heard her play live and it was an incredible experience. Throughout the concert I struggled to get comfortable. The rows of seats as I recall were narrow meaning I was from time to time moving around in my seat. This didn’t go down well with the man sat behind me who, at Uchida left the stage for the interview, using a pointed knuckle thumped me in the shoulder and whispered in my ear, “We sit still here. So should you.”

I picked up my bag and left the auditorium. I missed the second half.

Reflecting on it now, I see a connection. His action wasn’t the painful thing, it was the intent he brought to the interaction. I felt and ‘saw’ rage actively expressed in a physical act – a behaviour he clearly believed was appropriate and proportionate. I was shocked that someone (understandably irritated by me shifting around to get comfortable) would choose the intention to physically make a point.

Similarly, some of the comments from yesterday came with clear intent to condescend, belittle or patronise. It was the intent behind the act which I saw, not necessarily the content of what they were saying. This deflected from their message and their original starting point. Their motivations were louder than the meaning they were trying to convey.

There are I suspect many who will quietly have looked on yesterday as evidence of  me attention seeking. I’ve always experienced a certain level of shame whenever I’ve spoken my mind, though never quite so intently as I have today. It is a much deeper feeling of disappointment than I’ve experienced before. This of course overlooks those who recognised the intent I demonstrated and appreciated the resulting sentiment and overlooks their generosity of spirit.

But I’m left feeling oddly isolated, reminded again of how the digital space struggles in this day and age (far different from when I first started blogging in 2005) to accommodate a range of views because of vested interests and deep-set insecurities.

The reality is that because of the voices of the minority who I’d hoped would be ‘better’, I find myself less inclined to speak up in the future. And maybe even reticent to be quite so vocal advocating a musical genre that means so much to so many.

Classical music has at its heart a striking contradiction: voices who don’t manifest the joy themselves the art form brings about in its audience.

Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective at Lammermuir Festival

“Are you reviewing the concert?” asked horn player Ben Goldscheider looking at the notes in my hand.

“Well,” I replied heistantly, “I don’t like to call it reviewing. Not really.”

This often happens. I notice that if I talk to a musician I’ve heard play, then a boundary has been crossed.

Before the question was asked, me and the musician were either side of a stout fence. From my side it’s easier to refer to the performer in the third person, much much easier to discuss what impact their work had on me in the moment of performance. I can wax lyrical without fear of blushing.

Mentioning the review word is the equivalent of leaving the garden gate open. Someone strolls in takes a look around, passes small talk and then, all of a sudden you’re suddenly feeling really self-conscious about the state of the flower bed.

For someone who seeks to bring audience and performer closer together, this momentary self-consciousness is unsettling. What’s apparent to me now is that in a lot of instances, maintaining the distance between listener and musician is crucial.

Except for those occasions when there’s no need. Like with the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective who are, it seems, no different on-stage as off.

A musical collective built on values we need right now

Ben Goldscheider is one of a handful of musicians who appears as part of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective.

Kaleidoscope – a creative endeavour that uses this country’s greatest exponents of chamber music to mitigate our fractured cultural experience – is the work of pianist Tom Poster and his partner Elena Urioste.

It’s textbook Poster, who early subscribers to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast may recall appeared in the very first episode with pianist Christina McMaster. I recall Tom being a generous sort, quite at ease accommodate my nervous energy, compensating for my lack of knowledge with grace and good humour.

It turns out he’s the same on stage. And he’s ridiculously nimble at the keyboard, making light work of considerable demands of a whole range of repertoire he’s played with his Lammermuir collective: Mozart, to Glinka, to Beethoven, new music from Mark Simpson, plus a blisteringly intense E-Flat major horn trio with Magnus Johnston and Ben Goldscheider.  

Left to right: Arman Djikoloum, Amy Harman, Ben Goldscheider, Tom Poster, and Mark Simpson

Kaleidoscope delights because it’s a collective of musicians, all of them soloists in their right; individuals at a range of different stages in their career, all of whom bring different personalities and remarkable levels of energy to the stage. There’s a rock band vibe too. All playing their distinct role in creating the whole in whatever configuration is called upon.

Bassoonist Amy Harman

Particularly heart-stopping was bassoonist Amy Harman (Aurora Orchestra bassoonist who also appears on Mark Simpson’s Gramophone nominated Mozart/Simpson release on Orchid Classics from last year) whose rich chocolatey tone consistent across the instrument’s registers created a sound around which her peers coalesced.

At the risk of fanboying here, I was transfixed.

In the Sonata for clarinet and bassoon by Poulenc, the theatrical interplay between her and Mark Simpson was swift and crisp. In the Larghetto in Mozart’s Piano and Wind Quintet in E-Flat Major, her solid and rich sound added an emotional depth to the resulting ensemble that really took me by surprise in the moment.

It is in these moments in particular that the mask audience members are still required to wear in concert spaces is irksome, especially when the performers are happy exchanging smiles with one another as they perform. In the Mozart Piano and Wind Quintet especially, the looks exchanged only enhanced the high-quality playing. In these moments an audience wants to participate in the performance themselves by throwing a look of appreciation. I remain unconvinced I am able to do that with my eyes alone.

Goldscheider, Watkins and Tailleferre

Ben Goldscheider and Tom Poster playing Huw Watkins’ Lament

Huw Watkins Lament written for Ben Goldscheider, which forms part of the horn player’s tribute to the legendary Dennis Brain, was a touching, sometimes painful, antidote to the breeziness of Mozart’s score. And, interestingly, not inspired by Dennis Brain, but by the collective sense of loss many of us experienced during the first months of the pandemic.

French composer Germane Tailleferre was new to me. Unsurprising perhaps. She was born in 1892, died in 1983. Sonate champetre drew on folk song and applied playful neo-classical quirkiness with verve, bounce and delight. The second movement Andantino had a refreshing pastoral air about it created by high notes in the bassoon and oboe. The third movement, under the fingers of oboist Arman Djikoloum, clarinettist Mark Simpson, Amy Harman, and Tom Poster, seemed like a twinkling waterfall of sound (if you can possibly conjur up such an image) which in the acoustic of Dunbar’s Parish Church acoustic rang around to great effect. The work needs to be recorded. Or at least a recording of it (if it exists) needs to be made more findable.

Amongst all of this, a contemporary piece from Mark Simpson – Echoes and Embers for piano and clarinet, deftly introduced by the clarinettist as an exploration of the ambiguity between the two. In musical terms, this meant making it difficult to discern which was a clarinet line and what was emanating from the piano. The creative force that emanated from both Poster and Simpson in the moment was incredible, humbling, and deeply moving.

For me there’s something fascinating about Simpson in particular. The urgent confidence with which he plays and speaks makes him a magnetic presence on stage is one thing. Another is his multi-faceted creativity (he’s currently in the process of penning a piece for Ben Golscheider to premiere at the Barbican next week). This makes him more than an interpreter but an enabler, someone with the ability, the means and the connections to feed and sustain a network.

Dunbar where some of this year’s Lammermuir Festival concerts have taken place

Musicians off-duty

The day I leave Haddington the Kaleidoscope are billed for their second and final performance in the Lammermuir Festival.

I sit in the hotel restaurant peering at the black pudding, potato cake and locally sourced sausage on the plate, noting that just as Ben Goldscheider had advised in our podcast interview sound check the day before that the poached eggs do look rather good and that is in itself quite surprising.

In walks Tom Poster post-shower looking intently at his phone. He sits down and orders his breakfast (he hesitates over tea or coffee, finally settling on tea). Shortly after Amy Harman arrives and takes her seat. And after that Ben arrives.

None of them have seen me. Or at least I don’t think so. I feel momentarily relieved.

Musicians off-duty are people I want to avoid. They’ve only just woken up, after all. They have a big day of work ahead of them – not like me who just has to sit on a train home and scirbble down his thoughts. By sitting here I run the risk of overhearing their conversation and I don’t want to do that. I want them to feel free to be off-duty. I don’t want to ruin their day by my presence.

What’s apparent is that what is evident on stage is evident at breakfast. Goldscheider is generous, charmingly and polite; Poster is warm and inviting; Harman effervescent and ebouilliant, even at seven thirty in the morning. The reason they and their colleagues are so brilliant in performance is because they are so wholly authentic. People to learn from. No wonder Kaleidoscope was set up.

Music has found these individuals and found a natural home, given them a second voice with which to express themselves and, in the process, brought joy to a whole lot other people.

The Lammermuir Festival continues until 20 September 2021, with a Secret Places Festival in November 2021, and even something afoot for January 2022.

Thanks BBC Proms

With the Last Night of the Proms closing this years season, an opportunity to reflect presents itself.

This season was something of a relief, pointing the way back to live music. The welcome return of an old friend framing the summer months with live performances from a range of different artists and ensembles.

There is a danger that the Proms return signals a return to normality. We still need to care about the people who bring us the music we enjoy. Music is still in danger thanks to the systematic erosion of music education, and the catastrophic incompetence behind the post-Brexit ‘arrangements’. Don’t let’s allow COVID nor the perception the pandemic is over mean we ignore the other clusterfucks that threaten the UK’s music scene.

The season has not been without its low-points for me. Never before have I walked out of a concert mid-broadcast. And I’m truth I miss the grandeur, the range of visiting international orchestras, and the roar of a packed auditorium.

But whilst the Proms is always easy to criticise, that it was staged this year in the way it has – a compromise amid constantly shifting guidelines and mitigations is a testament to the commitment of the planners, producers and marketers. I don’t imagine for a moment this was the season Proms Director David Pickard was thinking of when he applied for the job a few years back.

Amid a year of increased digital streams mounted by orchestras and ensembles mid and post-pandemic, the Proms has had to up its game visually too. It’s a rare thing I don’t bitch and moan about TV coverage at the Proms. Those involved would agree. This year however has seen some high quality direction, tasty shots and some delightful inserts snd packages. Credit to Guy Freeman and Ben Weston, Bridget Cauldwell and their team.

My final word on this years season is a personal one, an illustration of how the Proms has delivered for me what it always has: refuge.

Mid-summer my family suffered a catastrophic event which we’d all feared but hadn’t quite prepared for. In the resulting grief, the opportunity to immerse myself in live music either in person or broadcast has been gratifying. To be able to discover detail in new music by George Lewis, Charlotte Bray, and Daniel Kidane has distracted me from dark thoughts. Víkingur Ólafsson did quite wonderful things, so too the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Props too to Manchester Collective.

But particular credit to English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner, and the Monteverdi Choir. A special evening that reminded me how chromatic Handel really is. A special evening.

It’s not been easy for anyone. But the Proms has been much-needed and very much-appreciated. It’s reconnected me with friends and colleagues, distracted me from stuff, and provided some inspiration too.

I raise a glass. Thanks BBC Proms.

Balance between risk and reward

Professor Linda Bauld (Bruce and John Usher Chair of Public Health in The Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh) talks to Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell on Broadcasting House on Sunday 5 September 2021 about research into the spread of COVID at large-scale events

Off the back of a short package previewing the Proms Festival Orchestra appearance later this week at the Royal Albert Hall, Broadcasting House presenter Paddy O’Connell spoke to Professor Linda Bauld about early research published by the Events Research Programme which has been investigating the risk of COVID at mass gatherings and live events.

The news is broadly good with the spike in cases recorded at the Euros this year explained by the unique characteristics about the footballing tournament where fans congregated in pubs, homes, and stadia. In one case a total of 9000 cases were reported in the run up to and two days after one event. No surprise perhaps.

“It’s a balance between risk and reward, isn’t it?” asked Paddy O’Connell.

“Governments don’t want to locker down again, ” replied Professor Bauld. “We don’t want these musicians not to work again. Let’s say if you’ve got very high levels of covid in a particular place that has to be taken into account. You can see that from the Programme. Many of these events happened when there were very low levels of COVID in the community. When its much higher you have more infected people attended and the risks are not zero and an event could add to infections rising in a location.”

Charlotte Bray’s ‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ at the BBC Proms 2021

‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ (given its UK premiere by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2021), is an evocative meditation on climate change, inspired by a trip to Iceland’s Disko Bay where according to the composer, the icebergs appeared to ‘dance’.

Although the pre-performance introduction made clear that the piece wasn’t a literal depiction, Charlotte Bray’s trademark musical language created a haunting atmosphere with an uneasy stillness. Repeated deep bass notes ushered in spread chords across the orchestra which seemed to momentarily suspend time. In the opening section, towering shapes were sketched out, with high decorative woodwind phrases giving just enough detail for jagged edges.

An up-tempo middle section consisting of agitated phrases tossed around the orchestra provided an unexpected drive. There was a hint of a rhythmic pattern that might be developed towards the end of the middle section, but the opening material returns just before that sense of development can bed in. When the original idea returned it seemed to take on a slightly different feel – what was first unsettling is now reassuring, elegant, and beautiful. The image dissappears into the mist as the music fades away.

Its highly efficient writing and scoring means this surprisingly short piece that leaves me wanting more. A good thing then that Charlotte is working this into a larger piece for future performance.

That’s something to look forward to because Charlotte Bray’s musical language works really well with large-scale forces. The combination of pitch extremes (for example here in the basses and the violins) creates vistas in which epic drama waits to be played out. At the Speed of Stillness from 2011/12 is a highly recommended listen. Frenetic, urgent rhythmic patterns contrasted with brief moments of quiet. Also on the same album, Fire Burning in Snow (Moonshot) with Lucy Schaufer shows how really quite sparse writing for a handful of instruments can yield similar vivid imagery.

For a multi-dimensional demonstration of that same musical language Germinate for solo violin, cello, and piano with accompanying orchestra (see below with the Philharmonia Orchestra back in 2019) shows the same musical language used in two separate groups of players – chamber and orchestral.

Listen to ‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ via BBC Sounds

George Lewis’ Minds in Flux at the BBC Proms 2021 with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Not for the first time this Proms season I find that listening is paying unexpected dividends. George Lewis’ mix of electronics and live acoustic instrumentation in his meditation on decolonisation ‘Minds in Flux’ provided much-needed distraction and focus.

Billed as a work exploiting the considerable physical space on the Royal Albert Hall, you’d think it might have been lost in a radio broadcast. I’ve listened to it three times on-demand and found it utterly absorbing as a piece of live radio.

In fact, I might even go a step further and say it’s my favourite listening experience this season.

Some background might be helpful here.

Over the past few weeks three distinct challenges in my personal and professional life have coalesced: work; family; and money. I have as a result found myself frequently quick to anger. Not the impatient kind, rather a sense of rage in response to injustice or ineptitude.

Or rudeness. Laziness. Passive aggression. Snobbery and entitlement, ignorance, or controlling behaviour. Contrivance has been a reliable old pal too (see The Bright Orange Trainers debacle a few weeks back).

And even closer to home (and my heart) the dissonance between how we’ve all of us automatically praised the NHS (some even standing on a front door step to applaud invisible healthcare staff), and the level of care a close family member of mine has received (or not) during her prolonged and worrying stay in hospital.

Bringing up the rear … the inability of recruiters and recruiting managers to communicate with the applicant or interviewee brings out my inner foot soldier.

The rage that lays underneath all of these is real and it’s powerful. And I’m happy to admit it’s scared me a great deal.  

And then I hear something like George LewisMinds in Flux’ and feel like I’ve walked into an art installation. I see colour. I feel reassured. Blank spaces enclosed by sharp black lines and angular shapes are now coloured in. The rusty hinges have been oiled and are now squeak free. The shattered glass has been replaced. The fear, the self-loathing, and the momentary loneliness disappears in an instant. Organised sound heals.

My only slight concern is that the reason I’m enjoying it isn’t necessarily why Lewis originally wrote it for. Minds Flux is a work about decolonisation. I derive pleasure and reassurance from hearing what strikes me as a musical rendition of when things are both disassembling and reassembling all at the same time. Magical, visceral, and awe-inspiring.