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.

Manchester Collective at the BBC Proms 2021

An epic night. Wild rhythms and visceral textures from the Manchester Collective – their debut at the BBC Proms – and Mahan Esfahani. Listening to the broadcast felt like earwigging a textbook Proms gig, the kind where excitement and anticipation spill out from stage and auditorium, evident too online.

That excitement is in no small part down to the sincerity of the offer Manchester Collective consistently brings – a reflection of founders Adam Szabo and Raki Singh vision evident right from the start of their creative endeavour. There is integrity and authenticity to their work which results in them creating concert experiences that are fascinating and compelling. There was a sense that those I knew in attendance in the hall were there to witness a significant milestone in the group’s five years of existence.

Three standout performances in this Prom picked out below with illustrative clips.

Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto

There was a rock-gig feel to Mahan Esfahani’s keyboard work in Gorecki’s Harpischord Concerto, the music of which holds absolutely no prisoners with a driving incessant rhythm. The rust-like feel in the combined textures of harpischord and strings gave proceedings a creepy edge. The frenzied cacophony had a tinge of madness about it that was magnetic and repellant. Music that brings about strong contradictory emotions. Efficient writing. Electrifying playing.

Joseph Horovitz’s Jazz Concerto

I studied Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina for Clarinet when I was a student and loved his playfully light combination of classical and jazz. The same approach is evident in his Jazz Concerto for Harpishord and Strings, only this work has all of those trademark elements of Horovitz’s musical language really ramped up. None more so than in the final movement (opening clipped above) when the harpsichord lets rip, fingers crawling up and down the keyboard with all sorts of unexpected chromatic notes that theoretically shouldn’t be there but fit the bill for those who see a cranky miraculous world only just hanging together.

Kilar’s Orawa

Especially captivating in Manchester Collective’s encore Orawa by Polish composer Kilar was the extreme textural contrasts, heard in this clip at 7 seconds in.

I adored the dry sequences that seemed to favour a percussive textural effect over any discernible pitch, a texture I wanted to carry on indefinitely even though I knew it couldn’t – the musical equivalent of wanting to devour an entire family bag of your crisps after you’ve taken just one bite.

Be sure to watch the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s equally compelling lockdown recording of the piece (below) published last year.

Listen to the Manchester Collective Prom via BBC Sounds

Incredible

Not the greatest day. MPs reconvene in the House of Commons to debate the complete balls-up in Afghanistan, seemingly happy to overlook mask-wearing and social-distancing, whilst UK orchestras still have to be distanced in concert venues.

It appears that orchestral musicians are more of a risk to the health and safety of society than politicians.

Víkingur Ólafsson Mozart 24 with the Philharmonia at the BBC Proms 2021

Víkingur Ólafsson’s sizzling performance of Mozart Piano Concerto No.24 needs a quick noting down in the journal.

The detail in Víkingur Ólafsson’s playing itself I enjoyed most was most evident in the first movement where the piano part wasn’t always the dominant voice. That meant we got to hear alternative or ‘lesser-heard’ voices given more attention. There were many times when the piano, in particular the right-hand upper notes, were reduced in volume by Ólafsson, giving more prominence to the flute in some places.

And in one sequence clipped below it was being able to hear a melodic line in the ‘middle’ of the piano that really took me (pleasantly) by surprise, almost as though Olafsson had lifted the bonnet of the car he was driving and was pointing excitedly at the fuel injector.

Ólafsson and the Philharmonia with Järvi play Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24

There’s a directness or firmness to Ólafsson’s tone too which I’ve not heard in a performance of this concerto. And I rather like that too. The Guardian’s Andrew Clements didn’t agree who described the performance as ‘bizarrely anachronistic’.

Tthe listening path is worth documenting too. I watched first on TV. Josie D’Arby is by far the best Proms presenter on TV (sorry Katie, Tom and Jess), achieving that rare balance of authority, accessibility, sincerity and warmth. The audio felt as though it battled for my attention with the visuals so I didn’t really pick up on the detail in the playing (it was the Stradal arrangement of a Bach Organ Sonata that worked best on TV). It was only later listening to the radio broadcast I got to the detail in the sound production.

It’s the second time in a week that actively ‘leaning in’ to the detail in a live broadcast has brought me out of a motivation-less fug. It is by listening for detail that my mood is transformed, resulting in renewed impetus (hence the post about Thoroughly Good in a Nutshell). That merely listening in a focused way can have this transformative effect is another reminder of how I draw so much value from this genre.

Listen to Víkingur Ólafsson with the Philharmonia and Paavo Järvi playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor via BBC Sounds.

Settling on what Thoroughly Good is … in a nutshell

Most self-employed people will say that August is a bit of downtime. In the four years I’ve been self-employed I’ve not noticed that quiet time quite so keenly as I have this year. And this year it’s taken a bit of getting used to.

With live concerts back and with the hybrid model looking like it’s settling in quite nicely for the foreseeable future too, there’s more to write about on the blog.

On the flip side, this isn’t necessarily the time to be lining up new work what with people in decision-making roles heading off for much-needed breaks of the kind we’ve been denied for the past fifteen months.

Lockdown business development work

During that period, I’ve capitalised on great long periods of lockdown reflection and committed to formalising my work on Thoroughly Good. The goal was to shift my own mindset from this being a personal blog to a content destination, projecting the Thoroughly Good brand into a serious income stream.

Eagle-eyed types will already have seen modest changes already. A redesigned homepage. Re-categorised posts, artist profiles, and a mild shift in language. Thoroughly Good still retains the biographical roots it had when it started out in 2005, but the tone of voice is changing a bit. Less first person, more third person. At least that’s the plan.

Culminating in a purpose, mission and values document

And the completion of this year-long project (truly, that’s how long it’s been) is the values document which, just to bring it back to the opening paragraph, is the kind of work that can really only be satisfactorily completed during a period of downtime like mid-summer.

The full list of purpose, mission, values, and sought-out collaborators can be found on the Thoroughly Good in a Nutshell page. But for those resistent to clicking through or a little bit rushed what with one thing or another, here’s a summary of the key points.

Thoroughly Good’s Purpose, Mission and Values summarised

Thoroughly Good celebrates classical music, accompanying readers, listeners and music-lovers on a shared path of discovery.

It reflects on all aspects of the music-making and listening experience. Knowledge or experience of the classical world isn’t a pre-requisite, only a sense of curiosity and awareness.

Thoroughly Good operates in two distinct areas: free-to-access content (known as Thoroughly good), and paid consultancy for industry specialists (referred to as its business name Thoroughly Good Digital).

Thoroughly Good is independent from the mainstream music press, ensuring a perspective distinct from conventional reporting. By making its content fair, honest, and sincere, Thoroughly Good can ensure its output is distinctive and relatable.

It is vitally important that content is critical but respectful. At the same time Thoroughly Good isn’t afraid to stand out with a different perspective or a say difficult thing.

Thoroughly Good believes the only requirements for music appreciation are curiosity, awareness and open-mindedness. It doesn’t hold with snobs or elitists and strives to avoid being seen as either itself.

Finally, Thoroughly Good seeks to work organisations and individuals who are aligned to its business values. More information on that can be found on the Thoroughly Good in a Nutshell page.

Violinist Leia Zhu wows the Trafalgar Square audience at the BMW Classics LSO concert

A joy to see people in Trafalgar Square (nearly) shoulder to shoulder listening to the LSO’s 10th outdoor Trafalgar Square concert.

There is a pleasing kind of straightforwardness to a pops concert like this one – uncomplicated, foot-tapping, uplifting music that can brighten the mood on the glummest of days, including Act 1 of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a premiere of Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Dream City with players from the East London Academy, and concluding with the 8th of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances complete with cheers from the crowd. Nice.

One special Thoroughly Good was 14-year-old violinist Leia Zhu perform Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The look on her face after the final note sounded is a picture.

Props to the digital team too for some clear best practise in the YouTube description field for the live stream.

Clear information about the running order, useful links to specific parts of the video, and a call-to-action to donate via text. None of this is any great surprise as the LSO has long led the way in terms of digital content and, more pertinently metadata. Its work that just makes the content more findable for users and, as a result, drives traffic. Consistently reliable high-quality digital.