Being in amongst the tribe

It has been quite a day. There was occasion (much-missed these past few months); an unexpected shared sense of purpose; a sense of personal responsibility; and possibly even a feeling of vindication too.

I suspect I’m a bit of a shit journalist. That’s what I thought when I headed back from the freelance musicians demonstration in Parliament Square at lunchtime. Reason: I hadn’t captured any opinions. I had no personal stories. I had little ‘evidence’. I’d only captured visuals.

What I also struggled to capture was the efficiency of the protest. That’s a very musician thing I think. Perhaps not especially surprising: people who have for their whole careers been called upon to do – to be at a certain place at a certain time to play a certain thing, do just that and then pack up and go home. That’s their thing. They did it reliably well.

For me, it was nice to be in amongst them.

Instinct kicked in as it often does in this situations. Just because the email comes in ‘late’ doesn’t mean it’s something that isn’t worth clearing the decks for and prioritising. Sometimes there’s a conversation one needs to be a part of. Sometimes the story presents itself as a story that must be told. And just because you only have a Canon EOS M50 doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to do what the people with the big cameras are doing. You’ve as much ‘right’ to be here as anyone else.

I was amazed that two people recognised me even though I had a mask on. One waved for the camera, the other took me surprise and complimented me on the podcast. Was there ever a moment when the value of what music can bring was illustrated so gently and so very urgently. Music had made one member of the audience feel part of the music community. What kind of Government wonk can’t see how music benefits society? A privileged one who hasn’t suffered depression and never thought to pick up a musical instrument probably. Why? Because money.

I went home. Looked at the footage. Listened to the audio. Spun it together and slapped on some graphics. “It’s making my skin go all goosebumpy,” said the OH, “Look!”

For me, I’m a bit amazed that it’s got the engagement it has (small in comparison to Benedetti). But, if you’ll forgive me for indulging in a spot of ‘naval gazing’, it also makes me rather proud. Because the work of these people and others like them is what regularly makes me feel alive and what has sustained a lifelong friendship with a musical genre that is generous, nurturing and constantly fascinating.

This is the very least I can do. And it does feel rather paltry in comparison to what they and rest of the sector needs right now. One orchestral administrator this week told me that the band he worked for probably had until Christmas until it folded. It employs many of the people I saw in Parliament Square. People who were playing to cling onto their livelihoods.

A message to them. To you. We’ve got your back. Promise.

Bell Music to close

News this week that Bell Percussion – suppliers of percussion equipment to the music world for thirty years are at the end of this year going to shut up shop has come as a bit of a shock and was met with the kind of “Oh, that’s rather sad,” that usually gets uttered in response to the news that a celebrity (I care about) has died.

Plans had already been put in place in July to start the winding down of business activities in July, according to MD Mike Bell on the Bell Percussion website. The business ceases trading at the end of 2021. Whilst its not entirely down to COVID, the pandemic hasn’t helped matters. With no orchestras playing, there’s no call for percussion instrument hires. And with no hires, there’s no revenue.

The sad bit about this is that everything Mike Bell says in his announcement on the Bell Percussion website tallies with my memory of calling on the services of the company. Affable, accommodating, and willing. Nothing was too much trouble. There was eagerness too, and a sincere kind of sales technique that made Bell Percussion the go-to place.

The highpoint in my orchestral management career (relatively shortlived as it was) was undoubtedly booking out their new newly ‘furbed’ rehearsal studios in Acton for a series of rehearsals led by Stefan Asbury, preparing the Britten-Pears Orchestra for the Aldeburgh Festival’s 50th anniversary concert with Kent Nagano. It was a big deal of a project. Bell Percussion were hugely accommodating. Learning that they’re closing down catapulted me back to that time, ringbinder in hand, checking names off a printed list.

That Bell Music has continued for so long is testament to their spirit. We will no doubt see Mike Bell pop up somewhere or other. Consider this an early warning for similarly saddening announcements to come.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra kicks off the digital season

2020/2021 is a digital season. Fact. An orchestral bigwig contact of mine said so today. There was a begrudging tone to the individual’s voice. Almost as though the penny had finally dropped: artistic planning for actual mass live audiences was now officially on-hold.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra”s first of 11 digital concerts this evening signals the first step in a new direction: orchestras stepping up to do one of only a handful of things they can practically do right now. The choice (as far as I can make out) is either closed rehearsals, concerts to a handful of real-life audience members, pre-recorded performances to reduce numbers of audience members or, as in the case of Bournemouth tonight, an actual live stream.

There was something of the pioneering days of TV (or at least how I perceive them reading histories of the early days of television) when I was setting up my laptop via HDMI to The Big TV in the Lounge. The management welcome from Dougie Scarfe was run as a visual test; the pre-concert talk was a much-needed 25-minute audio pre-concert-wrestle-with-the-sound-system. Come 7.25pm when I finally got things working, it was a pleasure to hear presenter Martin Handley converse with an orchestra-bod about the importance of this moment for the orchestra and the BSO audience.

That’s when the (relatively straightforward) opportunity orchestras now need to grasp really dawned on me. Orchestras dont’ need to recreate a concert experience;. The fact is that they really can’t. All they need to do is to create a sense of occasion. Appointment-to-view moments. That’s not about relaying live necessarily. It’s about amplifying those elements of the live concert experience that creates a sense of ‘liveness’.

Short heartfelt introductions from the management either pre-recorded or on stage go a long way to contributing to that sense of occasion. These vignettes create a sense of ‘special-ness’. They are the event-based equivalent of beautifully spoken broadcaster compensating for being unable to speak off the cuff or ask insightful questions of his or her interviewee. You orchestral administrators and artistic programmers are now, necessarily, in the business of creating occasion. You’re adept at that. Only now you’ve got to think beyond the actual music.

Bournemouth pulled it off OK. They have a cracking venue that looks good on camera. The direction could have made more use of sharp cuts (cross-fades should in my book be used only when the pace of the music permits). But once I got used to the shift in visual language, something unexpected happened: watch an orchestra play on their home turf miles away from where you’re sat watching them aad the experience will make you feel closer to them and to their brand. Boom.

This was self-determining content production. Content that reminded us of the impact state-funded arts activity has cultivated and served local communities.

Only now they’re reaching out further. Nearly 800 subscribers viewed the live feed this evening, Martin Handley told us in the post-concert sign-off. (I observed a total of 710. Either way, at £6 a ticket, that’s a pretty good return. I think.

The performance wasn’t perfect. Though really an truly, I’m not interested in perfection. I can find that (probably) on the likes of Spotify. What I want is what I imagine my sport-loving pals seek in a football match. We don’t want a win. We just want to see people doing live music-making. And maybe what us audiences need to do is adjust our expectations in the short-term. Live will return. Whilst we wait we need to look for the joy in live relay or deferred relay.

Viability and Jess Gillam’s Decca Release

Talk of viable jobs in the mainstream media today triggered my inner lefty. Or was it my inner liberal? I’m still not clear whether advocating the arts makes me a lefty or a liberal. Either way, the word was a trigger word deliberately placed in press releases, speeches and ‘reports’ intended to enflame and enrage.

Job done. It does enrage. But if you’re a bigger person, you’ll find a way to overlook it. The next six months (which I’m absolutely convinced will be extended by another six months in March 2021) present themselves as a grind. Yet another cross country run we have to set out on. We know we’ll complete it but dear God it seems like a struggle to get motivated right now.

The question that looms large is what story to tell of this period? Do we celebrate those who defy expectation and mount the concerts they can given the mitigations? Do we spotlight those for whom live music-making isn’t just their bread and butter but their sense of being, using this as evidence of the arts unshakeable spirit to rise up like a Phoenix (in itself a reflection of the story I tell to myself about myself)? Or is it important to highlight how the state-funded arts activity is systematically being destroyed? If one does the former does one risk down-playing the latter?

I don’t know the answer, other than the questions themselves help shape some editorial goals in the coming months. And in a weird way, I’m oddly grateful that curious editorial can be dug our from this particular shitheap.

All this whilst listening to Jess Gillam’s much-anticipated (by which I mean much-hyped) new album on Decca. The build-up has been relentless perhaps even never-ending. It might even have risked damaging the end product.

As it happens, it didn’t. This is a carefully curated selection of tracks drawing a bounty of new (to a few) composing names. The overarching mood is contemplative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking whilst avoiding the usual preponderance naval-gazing bollocks. Anna Meredith’s track in particular is not only well-placed – a kind of symphony-esque pivot point – but also balm for the soul right now.

Listen out for the plucked bass in various tracks too. It’s tactile. Tidy. Pleasing.

If you’re in search of some montage music to manage you through this weird time, this is the place to start.

Levit, Malta, and the 6 month thing

I’ve been listening to Igor Levit’s Gramophone category winning album of Beethoven piano sonatas A LOT this week. Hitherto Beethoven’s creations for the keyboard have presented themselves as a marathon to get through. This week they’ve made sense of the world. They’ve also been things I’ve wanted to return to like a snack in the kitchen cupboard, or a stinky cheese in the fridge. They are, assuming you don’t know this already, works that must be listened to. Especially Levits release on Sony. (Biss on Orchard, I’ll get to you in due course.)

In other (startling) news given that we’ve all been briefed to style this COVID thing out for another six months yet, is that the Malta International Music Festival have announced a jaw-dropping line-up for their 2021 festival including Martha Argerich.

Others signed up include Rudolf Buchbinder, Gautier Capuçon, Danielle De Niese, Daniel Hope, Gidon Kremer, Denis Matsuev, Andreas Ottensammer, Grigory Sokolov and Maxim Vengerov. Lawks.

COVID hasn’t had a massive impact on Malta it seems, and if memory serves me correctly there’s a considerable Russian diaspora in Malta eager and able to facilitate live performance in April. It seems almost impossible to imagine that it could. I do hope it does.

In the meantime, the six month wait. I woke up this morning hearing rain through the curtains and bedroom window, finding it difficult to contemplate what next year might look like. I’m lucky, of course. I won’t starve. But l, the wait for socially distancing being a thing of the past seems like a long long way off.

Nice work

The Philharnonia premiered a concert this evening via their YouTube and Facebook channels, with a simulstream via that other radio station dedicated to classical music, Classic FM.

Some thoughts bubbled up to the surface whilst I was chopping veg for the casserole tonight.

First, the slew of YouTube premieres from various bands are a lovely thing. But, tonight’s I find myself listening to the Philharmonia’s like it’s a radio broadcast. Then when there’s conversation in between performance, I focus in on what’s being said.

Second, the conversation challenges assumptions. Anne Marie Minhall is a brilliant broadcaster. Solid. Authentic. Trusted. The conversation she facilitates with Jaarvi and Benedetti is enlightening. Touching. Fitting perhaps. There is a sense of occasion about it even though I’m listening on my smart speaker not watching.

Third, I end up thinking that Classic are basically nipping at the heels of Radio 3. At least online they are. And that’s quite some achievement.

Lovely setting. Beautiful photography. And even though I’m getting a little sick of Lark Ascending there is a valid argument for the value of the work’s repetition right now.

Nice work everybody. You’re still my favourite band Philharmonia.

My local reopens

All at St John’s Smith Square will no doubt query my attendance record at the Westminster concert venue. And they would be right to do so. I have been a little flakey. But what this year has thrown into focus are the things, places and people that, which and who collectively keep the flame alive.

Whilst our idiotic government fiddles with legalities and consistently fails to deliver on their promises around COVID testing up the road (Matt Hancock, for crying out loud get on with it – if I do much as tweet something with a typo I get hauled over the coals, so why are you still in post exactly?), St John’s Smith Square are quietly and resolutely getting on with things and doing the best they can given the virus-infused circumstances.

Socially-distanced audiences have a month of concerts to look forward to in the glorious acoustic of St John’s Smith Square in October.

As I scroll through the list my eye is drawn to members of the RPO with Roderick Williams at 1pm on 2nd October, ‘Beethoven’s Late Quartets’ on Sat 3rd and Sunday 4th, Purcell on 6th, Gesualdo Six on Friday 9th, and Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday 14th. And to be able to hear something from my youth – Faure’s Messe Basse and Cantique de Jean Rancine, almost makes October both a joyous proposition and too much to contemplate all at the same time.

It’s a sign of the times. As events are staged, so we as audience members weigh up need, distance, against the pull of an acoustic. St John’s Smith Square wins right now. There’s no guarantee I can be there – tickets will go like hot cakes (rightly so) – so at least it will be online.

There will also be fifty events made available online at SJSS’ YouTube channel as part of the St John’s Digital Exchange programme, some hybrid versions of concerts featured in the live concerts, some created specifically for our digital audience. 

Bring your own wine (to consume outside) if you’re attending in person.

Buy tickets online (only) at St John’s Smith Square.

London Mozart Players start recording their Classical Club concerts

It’s been a pleasure to be working with the London Mozart Players these past few months. In years to come I suspect I’ll look back on this year with a similar kind of warped fondness as I do on my early years in orchestral management.

From lockdown came a series of blog posts for the Scala Radio website. And from that, a media partnership between the two organisations. I can’t lay claim to all of it. Maybe the introductions and the digital aspect of the partnership. Being able to play a part in making something happen which has the potential to support a transformed activity, and drive revenue at a point in time when its needed most, is energising. There’s more information on the London Mozart Players website. Subscription on-demand concerts premiere on 24th September.

What I’m returning to more and more at these performances is the benefits of proximity and stillness. Last night’s recording was ticketed for a socially-distanced audience, meaning masks, sanitiser, and a chair. Adjusting to this setup as an audience member brings into the light some of the unexpected benefits being a socially-distanced audience member in the concert space. Even if the severe reduction in number of chairs is a visible sign of the urgency of finding sustainable revenue streams via digital, having the space around me before the next bank of two or three chairs counter-intuitively makes for a more intimate concert experience. The feeling of solitude is actually rather heart-warming.

So too, being able to see more detail on the faces of the musicians. (The wind players were necessarily miles away, meaning the demands placed on all to ensure ensemble playing whilst negotiating a boomy acoustic must have been considerable.) It’s going to be a long time before I see the expressions on the faces of wind players, but seeing the expressions between string players mid-performance was uplifting. The orchestra is not a machine that is switched on or off. It’s a collection of spirited energised individuals all expressing something. Getting glimpses of those moments – a smile or a glance to a colleague – is very special and adds to the live-ness of the experience, details that might otherwise be lost when sat further back.

Young Classical Artist Trust cellist Maciej Kulakowski was a good fit for the concert bringing a warm, rich and unwavering tone that exuded confidence and strength. And with no conductor, direction was left to effervescent leader Ruth Rogers. That only added to the intimacy and unfussy-ness of the occasion too, changing the dynamic from the hierarchical structure often implied at the platform to something altogether more collaborative.

Aurora at Handyside Canopy

The opening chords of Beethoven’s 7th symphony played by the Aurora Orchestra in Kings Cross pinned me to the glass doors of nearby Waitrose in Handyside Canopy. Tears flowed. This was the first actual live orchestral music I’d heard in person in six months. A supercharged affair.

There’s a vague sense that this might be an outing for musicians and concert-goers alike which is fleeting. Conversations I’ve had today with TV people hint at something cumbersome and depressing coming down the tracks: an increasing R-rate. If you’re part of a pitifully small group of people who are getting to experience live music in socially-distanced audiences right now maybe that avenue of pleasure will be closed of in the coming weeks. Will Christmas music all be pre-recorded? Or will we ride this wave? It’s difficult to tell.

© Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place

No time for catastrophisation. Let’s live in the moment. Savour it. Jump up and down with joy. Because really, that’s how it felt last night hearing 50 minutes of live unamplified music.

There were critics present in the audience for the concert I attended. God only knows why anyone worries what critics think right now. The important thing is about capturing what’s so incredibly exciting about this experience now. Because if we do we might collectively – us fans – remind ourselves of the secret that could entice the newcomers.

And what is that exactly? Well first, realising that the sound you’re connecting with in the moment isn’t amplified. It’s made by humans. Physical contact – bow on string, lips on mouthpieces, and eyes alive. This stuff is electric. We are being immersed in an experience whilst sat on a plastic chair within sight of the entrance to Waitrose.

The reality is that I could get used to this kind of set up. Put an orchestra and a smallish audience (who have been starved of contact with their network) in a boomy acoustic at a sophisticated distance from one another and let the atmosphere create itself. We were all massively appreciative. The excitement was delectable. Who wouldn’t want to be in amongst that?

Aurora Orchestra play at the BBC Proms on Thursday 10 September

Getting used to video streams

These weekly posts help me. They’re probably more helpful to me than they are interesting to read. I have no real idea whether that’s true or whether it’s just a reflection of my own negative thinking. This said, a weekly (or fortnightly) as has been the case in recent weeks does help order my thoughts around those things which have acted as an interface with the classical music world.

First, a visit to nearby Beckenham Place Mansion with a colleague to capture b-roll and talking heads about their paywalled chamber concerts. They’re not the only band doing this at the moment. Expect other announcements next week. But, still there was an element of an occasion about the experience. There was also something reassuringly authentic about the experience too.

Orchestras aren’t really that big or grand or aloof. That’s what I’ve been reminded of this week.

Orchestras are perceived as ‘big things’. And because they’re seen as big they’re also assumed to be rolling in money or grand or aloof. Let’s avoid the aloof thing (because I’ll just descend into surfacing all of that negative talk I’ve heard about ‘classical music’s problem’ in recent months).

Instead, let’s focus on the reality that challenges that ‘grand’ assumption of scale.

The English Chamber Orchestra this week was the experience I recall most potently from my early arts admin days: little glamour; lots of anxiety; lots of negotiating spaces; lots of making sure everyone’s happy.

Don’t get me wrong, it was all perfectly organised. It’s just that orchestras aren’t in themselves glamorous things. And they’re not always big. This week was a reminder.

This was a dozen players. Single wind, trumpet, string quartet, and percussion. Filming meant I could get up to two metres away. And that combined with the deft purchase of a Canon EOS I made for a filming job in The City two weeks before lockdown meant not only was I able to get some tasty footage, but I was also able to hear an ensemble in rehearsal (Debussy) up close.

You’d think a sparse orchestration would leave me wanting. Of course it didn’t. Debussy got orchestration, wanting individual strengths of instruments to take centre stage. In chamber form the sound is rich, warm, strong but with a hint of shoestring. In Beckenham Place Mansion’s near-shabby chic interior, the combination of location and sparseness elevated the music by putting textures first.

I didn’t get emotional. Very early on in lockdown I assumed that I would get teary when I heard an orchestra play. Instead I felt at ease in the company of others I felt I knew (I don’t) and possibly even resentful that seemingly ridiculous health and safety measures were making the miraculous unnecessarily hard-fought.

That’s perhaps what I’ve concluded most forcefully throughout all of this second ‘period’. Measures are not so much things which are there to preserve health, but ill-thought out and literal extrapolations of ham-fisted interpretations of health advice. It’s as though someone is standing next to a conductor during a concert and stopping proceedings to say: “but it says pianissimo there. I don’t think any of us would regard what you just directed as anything other than a piano.” You know, someone present bleeding all the joy out of life.

I’m thinking all of this at the same time as watching, for the third time in twenty-four hours, the CBSO’s Centenary Concert on YouTube.

It didn’t work terribly well on our TV screen. The sound mix wasn’t great – better in a mono mix than stereo – and the ‘live’ pieces to camera dissappointingly clunky unhearsed. But, the intent was strong and the storytelling potent. This was a fundraiser, of course. (Side note: I’ve now seen enough of these to think that if you’re asking for money, then the more potent thing to do would be to reveal how much money you’ve raised.)

It worked better on a laptop with a mono speaker. A.R. Rahman performing was touching, Sheku’s Saint-Saëns concerto was unexpectedly arrestin. Hannah Kendall’s Sparks was utterly compelling. Stravinsky’s Firebird was a bit of a tear-jerker come the final bars.

There was an air of sorrow about the whole thing. Plucky musicians doing their thing because they’re allowed to in a tight-controlled space. Yes, you can have your party so long as its absoutely and completely utterly safe. Not the uplift. A sort of outdoor concert done indoors. Not the kind of celebration I had hoped for.

No matter. This is all part of a journey that everyone is on. Stick with it.