Composer and producer Alex Groves’s Arts Council-funded SOLO concert series returned last night with a solo concert given by Irish cellist Kate Ellis.
On the programme, theatrical soundscapes, imagination-triggering scores, and tantalising textures, some accompanied by pre-recorded tracks, others captured live. The ninety-minute recital included works by Linda Buckley, Judith Ring & Donnacha Dennehy, as well as a SOLO commission from Laura Cannell and the world première of Trace II by Alex Groves.
SOLO is a concert format developed by Groves, spotlighting leading contemporary classical musicians with distinctive genre-defying music. Kate Ellis’ concert was the ninth in the series. Percussionist Joby Burgess featured in a previous SOLO outing back in 2019 when the event came to Peckham CLF Cafe.
What makes Groves productions work is their apparent simplicity. St Ethelburga’s is a narrow former church now event space seemingly squeezed in between giant office builds on Bishopsgate near to Liverpool Street. The tall squashed interior has an intimate vibe.
Theatrical lighting created a simple studio feel, dramatically lighting up corners and creating darkness in others. Inside this intimate space, the 100-strong audience – buzzcuts, turn-ups, and baggy trousers – gave this event an additional sense of urgency, all eyes focussed on the lone cellist in front of us, bows, microphones and other gizmos all lined up beside her on a black-clad music stand. As the event began a hush descended amongst the audience leaving, pleasingly, the hubbub of post-pandemic London thundering past in the background.
Selecting the right venue and kitting it out right is something I think we can say confidently Alex Groves does well. The atmosphere created sets the tone, heightens focus, and therefore supports the musician in the live performance.
What was heard was a distinct range of creative approaches to generating sound by just one instrument. Balm for a frazzled mind looking for experiments and whimsy to recharge and restore. At the start, Alex Groves Trace II – whispering string textures that put the unmistakable tantalising sound of horsehair on metal string front and centre. Groves piece established mood, shifting us into an attentive mindset.
The SOLO commission from Laura Cannell provided something more personal, beguiling in its use of a constantly repeating simple melodic idea – a kind of musical sigh or moan – that quickly embedded itself in the mind. Lilting Irish folksong was cleverly embedded making it barely perceptible in Donnacha Dennehy’s piece. Here there was a sense we had to ‘lean in’ to avoid losing it altogether.
The success of such a well-curated event as this was that the concluding Cello Counterpoint by Steve Reich sounded dated in comparison to the electricity of what had gone before.
Music curation and event production combined is key to developing networks and building audiences. Do it well, as Groves consistently does, and the audience can feel as though they’ve been thought about in the creative process as much as the performer on stage.
That this approach is discernible in two separate events I’ve attended suggests one important question: where are such creative talents of the kind Alex Groves clearly has needed most in the wider classical music industry?
A weekend of concerts spotlighted the 118 new chorales commissioned by William Whitehead to fill Bach’s incomplete ‘Little Organ Book’. One event dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II was especially poignant.
The Orgelbuchlein Completed project staged a weekend of concerts in late September juxtaposing Bach’s Orgelbuchlein with 118 newly commissioned pieces inspired by the music originated by JS Bach.
The ‘Little Organ Book’ is a plan of a complete hymnal of short organ chorale preludes sketched out by JS Bach. There are 164 in all but Bach only completed 46. 118 titled blank pages made the hymnal until this year.
Organist William Whitehead founded the Orgelbüchlein Project, inviting contemporary composers to write a piece to complete the collection.
There are six volumes completing the collection. Whitehead’s work took 16 years.
Incomplete pages of a manuscript are a tantalising proposition. The kind of stuff that triggers the imagination and raises all sorts of questions. How to respond? In-kind, as a musical homage, in imitation, or by deploying an entirely different musical language? What is the core material in JS Bach’s music that links a present-day chorale with the original 46?
The ‘Requiem in Homage to HM Queen Elizabeth II’ – the penultimate concert in the series on Sunday 25 September – gave a hint for those without a score in front of them of the curated approach taken, juxtaposing Bach chorales with contrasting musical languages to create a unified whole that triggered reflection, contemplation, and consolation.
Peppered throughout the carefully selected pieces were excerpts from the Requiem mass as written by Jan Dismas Zelenka. Transitioning from the liturgical to purely instrumental imbued the Orgelbüchlein music both original and present-day with a sense of an emotional excursion, providing the listener with an opportunity for personal reflection at every stage within the mass.
Each section in the mass was punctuated with a distinctive musical sound accordingly, most notably Alexander Campkin whose Jesu der du meine Seele had a hint of menace with its devilish repeating ostinato underpinned with a rumbling pedal note. Pierre Farago’s Ach, was soll ich Sunder machen was stark and angular in comparison, utilising high frequencies to create sharp ‘edges’ that seemed to pulsate when clashing intervals were slowly introduced into the mix. Later, there was a cleansing effect in James Francis Brown’s more tonal setting of Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott that concluded with a sense of hope, and a folk song simplicity (and what felt like a gentle rock feel) to Sei gregrusset, Jesu gutig.
It was the visceral nature of the sounds created – originated, imitated, and ‘new’ – that had the most impact on me listening in the third row of St George’s, Hanover Square. The four-voice chorus from St George’s Choir played a key role: precision ensemble work, chilling articulation, and wondrous vocal textures combined to create magical moments every time the group sang.
In contrast, by focussing on the textures created by the church organ, there was an unexpected connection established as though the sound created was physically supporting the listener in some way. When chords finished and silence momentarily prevailed there was a feeling as though we had been cast off on our own, left to fend for ourselves.
In this way, the mix of 300-year-old music with present-day compositions that followed a deliberate harmonic arc, combined with the everyday sounds of a tube train rumbling far beneath the church and emergency vehicle sirens occasionally screaming past, made this a far more meditative listening experience than I had been anticipating.
I found myself reflecting on a great many loved ones – family and friends – who had passed away over the past 18 months, supported musically by what felt like a constant implied pulse or pace that led us all inexorably towards consolation. If combining multiple works in this way was the intent, then it was masterfully done and brilliantly executed.
Inside Silver Cloud Studios on the edge of an industrial estate west of Glasgow, Scottish Opera rehearses for two concert performances of a rare opera by French composer Massenet.
The opera is Thérèse, a short two-act entertainment telling the story of a woman torn between her lover and her husband set in the context of the French Revolution. Until late last week I’d not been aware of it (no great shakes given my limited knowledge and experience of opera repertoire). Now by dint of a trip to Scotland to see final rehearsals, I find myself getting immersed in it – the preferred Thoroughly Good Way.
The 100-strong company fill an interior flooded with white light, slightly raised above which conductor Alexandra Cravero looks out across a seemingly vast expanse of musicians, singers, and production staff.
It’s a sight that sets my heart racing. There is so much urgency and excitement to be experienced in the room. At the same time its something that underlines the scale of what’s involved in producing even concert performances of opera.
A sight reminiscent of those TV programmes that promise to transform a hoarder’s home into a tranquil clutter-free space. But before they do, the beneficiary of the makeover is confronted with the extent of their stash all laid out on the floor in a warehouse.
At Silver Cloud Studios, 100 people are all in one room, engaged in a day’s work in preparation for two live performances later in the week. All this, here and now, in front of me, for two concert performances of an opera most haven’t heard of. Some might see that as an indulgence. It makes me wonder whether anyone even contemplated inventing an orchestra today, if we hadn’t already had them as part of our musical experience for the past three hundred years.
There was a range of different seats I could have sat in when I arrived. It’s during one of the loud sections (characteristic of Massenet’s writing I now understand) in rehearsals that I realise I chose the right position, sat behind the cellos and basses. Better there than beside the brass. Dear God, they’re loud.
On a first listen, composer Massenet’s writing reveals a master orchestrator, drawing on the innovation Hector Berlioz is famed for introducing into his symphonic writing, and using it with breathtaking efficiency and concision. In the comparatively boomy acoustic of Silver Cloud, all the detail in his score is there to savour just a few feet away.
I follow along with a copy of the conductor’s score, marvelling at angry growls in the string section heard in the opening Prelude, and punctuating ‘staples’ in the powerful brass. High oboes track low ones threaten menace when the story demands, and I am sure I hear something vaguely eastern when clarinets and flute play as something as simple as a downward scale in harmony together. There is colour and texture swirling all around. Well worth the early rise, flight from London and taxi ride to hear at 11am.
At one point conductor Alexandra Cravero stops to focus on the sound produced by the strings Act 2’s Le dangeur s’accroit (the danger increases). Attention is focused on the violins – the cellos are asked to stop playing for a moment, whilst a bed of gentle chords played by the upper strings is finessed. Once the right emphasis has been agreed upon between violins and conductor, so the soaring cello section solo topped by cor anglais and the soloist’s – Shenghzi Ren’s playing Therese’s lover Armand – is reintroduced. When the melody is repeated one final time before the end of duet between Armand and Thérèse, this time played on a solo cello, the effect makes me want to wrap my arms around the section leader.
This simple rehearsal technique reminds me of how simple repetition of short sequences themselves viscerally appealing to listen to has the effect of quickly embedding something new into the consciousness, in a way that sitting in an audience and listening more ‘passively’ often fails too. It’s how I became more familiar (and essentially fell for) Benjamin Britten’s compositional technique back in Aldeburgh listening to endless rehearsals of Rape of Lucretia and feeling as a result as though I knew the work inside out.
The opening of Act 2 – a stately waltz with an oddly dark feel – has a similar effect as I listen to it for the first time in rehearsal. Delicacy, and precision underpin the playing, achieved by a sense of unity from the entire string section. Like the Proms just a few days ago, this is a delicious listening experience. So to the sound of the ‘scrunchy’ chords in the woodwind – a sound like they’re searing something soft and delicate before Thérèse sings Jour de Juin, jour d’ete. Sounds I want to touch. Where does that kind of writing come from? Does a composer hear that in their head before they write it? And if they do does it ever turn out to be what they heard in the first place?
But it is in the loud sections – something I now know having done a small amount of research into the man’s work – where the most powerful connections are made. First in the brass where the effect is to emphasise and punctuate. In fact, it is a terrifying sound every time they play as one. And I’m sure I see a glint in the second and third trumpeter’s eyes whenever they do so. Such musical interjections are a matter of obvious pride for a section of the orchestra that often has to spend a lot of time counting silent bars before they’re required to play.
Soloists Dingle Yandell, Shenghzi Ren, and Justina Gringyte seem to have the biggest job being heard above the powerful score. Justina is often seen cupping her ears as she sings, Shenghzi gesticulating with his arms to enunciate the phrase. All of them are unaware of the effect their voices have on me sat listening across the other side of the room. Here and now I think I’m finally understanding what it is that gets people so exercised about the voice. When they hit their top notes it feels as though the entire space is resonating in response to their voices. It hits me physically in the chest. There is pleasure and release whenever they deliver their critical climactic note.
And the ‘six strong men’ (as proudly described to me by the Head of Casting sat at her temporary desk in the corner of the rehearsal room) whose ensemble singing sends a charge up my spine. I look at the score to confirm what I suspected – soldiers. They sound beefy, decisive, and possibly even ever-so-slightly intimidating. A measure of the effectiveness of the score and their collective interpretation.
During what feels like a late lunch break for me I speak to a buzzing conductor clearly loving her debut project with Scottish Opera, who generously shares details of her responsibilities directing a big group of musicians through Massenet’s score, including working with Chinese tenor Shenghzi Ren’s French accent. There is joy and enthusiasm and pride evident in her tone of voice.
After that, a brief conversation with soprano Justina. I spend most of the brief interview distracted by her eyelashes which seem to widen her eyes and, inexplicably, add an extra charge of excitement to her already electric presence. More than commitment to her role as an ‘advocate’ for Therese, it is her enthusiasm for performance that shines during our brief exchange. It completes the picture painted by the sound of her voice heard earlier in rehearsals, something immediate and brimming with energy.
Scottish Opera’s Thérèse premiered on the first night of the Lammermuir Festival, Thursday 8 September. The performance is repeated in Perth Concert Hall on Saturday 10 September.
The Lammermuir Festival runs from 8-19 September and features concerts given by pianist Jeremy Denk and Tom Poster, cellist Laura van Heijden, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In light of the death of Queen Elizabeth II announced on Thursday 8 September, all concerts will be preceded by a minute’s silence. The concert on the National Day of Mourning is cancelled.
Imposter syndrome is rife in the classical music world. Here’s one way to tackle it. Go back to first principles and listen.
It may surprise people in the ‘classical music world’ (wherever that is) to learn that I don’t consider myself knowledgeable, well-connected, serious, well-respected, well-liked, or informed enough to consider myself a legitimate classical music fan, expert or commentator.
In addition, I’m often convinced that everyone in the industry thinks I’m a pain in the arse, someone who really must be removed from a list of invitees, not least because his interview technique centres on asking embarrassingly superficial questions, and whose overly long and poorly researched articles are consistently constructed with facile insights and woefully poorly edited quotes.
I frequently tell myself that I should be better at ‘playing the game’, that I should work on a more plausible poker face, and spend less time on Twitter in order to save my reputation. I should research more. I should know more too. I should be able to recall dates, connections, facts, and quotes far quicker than I actually can.
And, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in an auditorium on a press ticket telling myself I don’t deserve to be there and that the reason I’m there is only because I’ve ‘tricked’ people into giving me a ticket.
None of what I’m telling you is exaggerated. The negative self-talk is real. It can be all-consuming.
The bar I set myself is quite high. This is of course imposter syndrome. In the classical music world (if you’ve found it yet perhaps you’d be good enough to share directions) I think it’s rife. In an industry that is built on elite performance, legacy, deference and convention perhaps it’s not surprising. The industry is so small too, which means it’s competitive. And competition fuels negative thinking.
I have experienced my version of imposter syndrome for years. Fifteen years.
A friend who ‘mentored’ me as a Proms season ticket holder years back triggered this self-doubt when he scorned my early efforts to write concert reviews. I still feel the anguish too after a BBC producer gleefully corrected my mispronunciation of ‘Ligeti’ on camera in an interview. I still feel a stab of it whenever anyone asks me how I pay the bills blogging about classical music. And don’t get me started on the apparently innocent question ‘Who are you writing for?’
But imposter syndrome has been a trusted pal. About ten years ago I saw it as an inspiration for Thoroughly Good’s editorial strategy. Why not make your lack of recall a focus for what’s really important? After all, it’s just music. You shouldn’t need to know anything. It’s just music. Listen.
This response to imposter syndrome has sometimes seemed like a defensive act. An apology. Me recoiling from self-criticism by retreating. Regrouping. Me licking self-inflicted wounds.
In the past few months, however, I’ve made a deliberate attempt to return to first principles: reflecting on the experience of what listening live is like. Such a personal response is distinctive.
COVID restrictions accelerated this process. Being denied the opportunity to attend live events made hearing live music when it was finally ‘allowed’ a giddying experience.
In the intervening period, a programme of therapy demanded by the challenges brought out by the inevitable demise of an ageing parent righted decades of dissociative behaviour. In an instant, that which had merely been observed or reported was now something that was experienced. Overnight, listening has become a visceral experience, one ushering in emotions I’d not really experienced quite so intensely before. Sound demanding a trigger warning, if you like.
As I’ve written before, proximity to the action on stage is key. Hearing the sound as close as possible to the source of production is the priority. Sit as close to the music ‘at source’ as I can and I can almost touch the textures a string section creates. I can sense a melody played by a high oboe and flute as though my fingers are caressing the fur of a kitten. To hear the soft touch of an entire ensemble underpinned by a solid bass section is like being wrapped in a billowing duvet.
The concert was the BBC Symphony’s performance of Lalo, Franck and the Brahms Violin Concerto. The event was a big deal for me. I took a friend – ‘Vicki Haircut’ – who only five days before had, whilst cutting my hair as she has done for the past twenty years, said how she’d never been to a classical music concert and how she’d like to some day. An hour back at home I’d booked tickets for the next available concert I thought she’d enjoy.
Taking a newcomer to a classical concert comes with all manner of stress. A risky business.
Vicki and I ended up sitting at the back of the stalls behind the first violins and within earshot of the Radio 3 commentary box where Petroc Trelawny presided. Not a bad price.
It was better than I could have hoped. The proximity to the orchestra yielded all of the textures I revelled in. I sat there hoping like hell that Vicki would signal something that confirmed she was touched or moved or maybe just appreciative. I looked to the audience whilst soloist twenty-one-year-old Daniel Losavkovich led us through the cadenza, my eyes shut as though I was waiting for Vicki to unwrap her Christmas present.
Vicki leaned in when the applause rippled across the auditorium. “This is incredibly moving,” she whispered in my ear. Best Christmas present ever.
Here’s the thing. These kind of listening experiences are the foil to that imposter syndrome I mentioned earlier.
When you know the reason the live music experience moves you, the dreamiest Christmas present is being able to share that with an unsuspecting bystander. Sure, if you’re going to pick this over you’re well within your rights to say that I can’t prove that my friend’s experience of listening live was the same as mine in the moment. But there was something warm, genuine, and unequivocal about her response that made me think this evening’s entertainment was money well spent.
Going back to core principles. That’s the way to tackle imposter syndrome.
Mid-concert my BBC Proms buddy Abigail (from university days 30 years ago) lets slip that she’ll always make a point of listening to a work she’s unfamiliar with before coming to a concert in which the work is performed. She unwittingly triggers me to reveal one of my listening ‘red lines’
“If I don’t know the work I won’t listen to it first.” I am emphatic.
Abigail looks a little shocked.
“I don’t want to preempt things,” I explain. “I don’t want to spoil things. I want to listen to it fresh. New. Like it was a premiere. I’m a purist. I’m a massive pain in the arse.”
On a first listen Nielsen’s third symphony is bold. Fearless. I’ve got this vague sense the material jumps around a bit. It feels like there are loads of ideas welded together. The resulting sound makes a kind of sense but it’s not immediately obvious what he’s trying to say. I’m not quite sure where we’ve started or where we’ve arrived. (Rachmaninov or Shostakovich in comparison has a far more easily discernible narrative thread for example).
But, when Nielsen writes for strings suddenly his core proposition suddenly becomes more pronounced. His string writing is gut-wrenching stuff. Not so much tugging at the heartstrings as pulling down hard to see their tensile strength.
Another key highlight. Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 ‘fine’. Joyous material in the first movement. The second movement somehow stopped me in my tracks and hung me out to dry so to speak. The melody at the beginning has a deeply personal quality to it – maybe that’s something to do with Behzod Abduraimov playing. Me and pal Abigail comment on how whether maybe Beethoven’s love of variation makes his writing listenable but ultimately unsatisfying. #ControversialView
Without a doubt, the most remarkable element was Ravel’s ‘La Valse’. So much colour. So much texture. So many shifts in speed. As a concert opener, the BBC Scottish delivered in spades. Luscious string textures throughout – the musical equivalent of deep scoops from a bucket of luscious ice cream.
Conductor Gianluca Marciano is building an audience in the Italian fishing town of Lerici with a distinctive and satisfying listening experience. Jon Jacob reflects on an enlightening trip to the Italian Riveria.
It’s so hot here in Lerici on the Italian Riveria these past few days that seeking out shade, breeze and cool refreshing water has been a priority. Hence why the sight of the bay from my hotel window has been sufficient for me to throw caution to the wind, tear off my t-shirt, and step gingerly into the crystalline blue water.
Mindful of the demise of Percy Shelley who drowned in the neighbouring bay 200 years ago (nearly to do the day), an unexpected and incongruous sound interrupts my ruminations: Schumann’s Fantasia in C major on a nearby outdoor grand piano, the sound muffled by the searing heat. The breeze carries the efforts of pianist Christian Blackshaw battling against the unsympathetic acoustic.
Blackshaw is playing in the sixth Lerici Music Festival, a music event staged by artistic director and opera conductor Gianluca Marciano, and a festival he initially established for the benefit of his hometown. Not by any means an easy feat. Without an obvious tradition of classical music in the town compared to say the likes of Aldeburgh or Malvern in the UK, the challenge for Marciano seems considerable and perhaps even insurmountable.
Born and bred in the fishing town, the conductor credits a Royal Academy of Music summer school descending on Lerici when he was six years old as being a turning point in his fascination with classical music. He was six years old at the time.
Nearly forty years later and clearly not showing the passage of time in the same way I do, Gianluca is quick to explain what inspired him to bring festival music-making to his hometown.
“Early on in my career I met Myrna Bustani who set up the Al Bustan International Festival in Lebanon. With her I understood how beautiful it is to create a festival and how much joy she had generated for the people in Lebanon.”
Lerici’s challenges are considerably different from those in Lebanon. Hotels aren’t open all year round, meaning the available dates to host the festival are limited to the holiday season. Whilst the views are pretty and there are restaurants and cafes aplenty.
Numerous expensive-looking yachts and motorboats bob about in the bay, cruisers navigating channels to take tourists to and from the coastal villages further up the coastline. Runners and walkers (accompanied by their dogs) stride the two mile promenade, and on Saturdays there’s a market selling clothes, artwork and sundry other holiday tat.
There’s a feeling that classical music is hustling to put down roots in the town.
“It’s a small town,” explains Gianluca to me during our interview, “There is no infrastructure. But when I saw what they achieved at Grange Park in Hampshire (where Marciano has returned from conducting Otello) raising £12 million by putting opera on in the forest I just thought, ‘if there is a chance to try and do something that everybody thinks is impossible then I want to try and make it happen.”
A modest collection of hotel leaflets hint at a cultural programme in the town – jazz, talks, comedy, but classical music as a reason to come to Lerici doesn’t immediately present itself. Previously hosted in a dedicated venue on the hillside overlooking the town, this year’s festival for financial reasons finds itself slap bang in the middle of the town’s promenade.
This year’s festival sees performers step onto a temporary stage erected in the centre of the town and perform to a 150-strong audience all perched on plastic chairs. The acoustic isn’t sought after, but the ambience of nearby cafes, clinking cutlery and passing tourists creates a pleasing hubbub nonetheless.
“I would like to find a way to not lose contact with the community,” explains Gianluca when we discuss some of the challenges he’s faced picking out venues for concert performances to date. “Being in the square is important of course, but we need to find proper venues to sell certain events, perhaps a venue with a more intimate set up.”
On this point I (still) find myself disagreeing with him largely because of that incongruous experience standing in the water and listening to Christian Blackshaw rehearsing for his evening concert. This was a moment where I felt connected to the performer – part of the preparation and the anticipation of the event to come. To hear a rehearsal is to be granted unusual access. To hear a rehearsal whilst feeling like you’re on a package holiday at the beginning of the jet age is surreal.
There is talk amongst the group I find myself eating with throughout the weekend in Lerici about the challenge of increasing classical music’s reach. Lots of talk of how social media must avoid ‘dumbing down’ and reflections on how some different formats and venues give otherwise conventional proceedings a bit of an edge. Whilst there is healthy disagreement, there is consensus around the table: what people are interested in is having an experience. And here in Lerici, making a short boat trip to nearby Porto Venere, its easier to see how building a live classical music event into a bigger tourist experience might offer a solution.
This trip I’m experiencing Italy for only the second time in my life, I’m immersing myself in the life (if not the works) of the likes of Percy and Mary, and maybe Lord Byron too, gaining a light-touch understanding of why this area of the world was so attractive to romantic poets (you only have to look out of your hotel window – it’s really not difficult), and I’m hearing music in a different way.
Offering classical music as part of a ‘package experience’ is hardly anything new, of course. The Music X Museums run featuring the Philharmonia conducted by Oliver Zeffman at Greenwich was partly supported by Viking Cruises, keen to increase reach for their various products amongst a customer-base perhaps still feeling a little queasy about committing to a post-pandemic cruise.
Where Lerici Music Festival is concerned the varied programme is carefully put together so as not to scare the horses. This year’s month-long event running from 22 July to 14 August has seen music by Elgar, Britten, Mozart string quartets, operatic excerpts from Falstaff, film music and musical theatre. There is, to coin a phrase, something for everyone.
Where Gianluca Marciano brings distinctiveness is the talent he brings to the Italian town to perform this programme. Trumpeter Alison Balsom, Bryn Terfel, cellist Adrian Brendel, pianist Christian Blackshaw – a tangible manifestation of Marciano’s purpose for the festival, to give back to the town what he has gained throughout his career to date, specifically connections.
But if the home crowd he grew up in isn’t already interested in classical music, how is he going to impress them with those connections? How does he get the local populations to care about the music that has shaped his subsequent international career?
Marciano’s explanation is characteristically straightforward, quietly delivered and convincing.
“When you start to see a lot of people coming from all over the world, when you see those people going to a concert hall on the sea like this one here, then it becomes it contagious. If it becomes an event where you should be seen even if it’s to meet other people, even before you know how much you enjoy the music, when you are there and you hear the music you will start to like the music. Because the power of that music like Christian Blackshaw’s performance the other night – I think that will convince anyone.”
But there is another aspect to all of this which is quite apparent to me speaking to Gianluca.
It’s clearly no easy feat starting a festival, especially when there’s no evidence there’s an audience hungry for the music he excels in. But that’s exactly the point. It seems that Marciano is someone who generally responds positively when the odds are stacked against him. Has he always been like that?
“Yes,” he replies simply. “Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be able to succeed in whatever I did. So it’s important to do whatever you’re doing well. Never give up when there are difficulties. If there someone presents me with problem, I will always want to transform it.”
There is a sense of modesty about Gianluca which is endearing. He wants to bring value back to the place he grew up in for sure. He thinks big too – some of the ideas I’ve learned he’s explored over the past few years show childlike imagination even if they are, using his own words at a concert introduction over the weekend, ‘crazy ideas’. Marciano clearly sees the Festival as bringing positive change, specifically cultural tourism, to the town, helping develop its infrastructure and build a sustainable economy.
This enthusiasm is tempered with realism, a sense of respect for what the town is now. He doesn’t want to bring something big on the back of a trailer year in year out to Lerici. He wants to grow something in and amongst it, respecting what already keeps locals in and brings tourists to the town. He wants more people to make the journey.
I’m glad I did.
As I sit and watch Walton’s ‘one act extravaganza’ The Bear on my first night – a simple vaudeville love story originated by Checkhov, set to words and music by Paul Dehn and William Walton, and premiered in 1967 at the Aldeburgh Festival – the entertainment on stage is underpinned by the general hubbub of Italians walking the promenade or grabbing a drink in one of the many bars that line the bay.
Cutlery clinks and small children engaging in minor but largely unsuccessful tantrums accompany proceedings as well. If you’d told me this was what I’d be grappling when I got here I may have struggled to know how I could write favourably about the experience. And yet, here we are, deliciously close to the detail of Walton’s orchestration, immersed in the story, and diverted from the heat, humidity and, counter-intuitively, the ambient noise too.
I initially question my willingness to embrace this seemingly raw concert experience by assuming I’ve just had one too many drinks in a hot environment, but the subsequent night’s concert – Christian Blackshaw playing Schubert and Schumann – only serves to reinforce actually how refreshing the outdoor listening experience is.
Stripped of all the usual preoccupations like an air-conditioned crystal clear acoustic, or an architecturally uplifting concert interior, a simple row of chairs and an instrument has a satisfying back-to-basics feel. Behind the stage the audience sees a moon rising, boats bobbing on the water, and the looming presence of a 12th-century Castellan castle.
Every so often a Festival volunteer can be heard assertively ‘ssshing’ passers-by. Every time I wonder whether they might just take the risk and let the music cut-through and do the work for them.
The reality in Christian Blackshaw’s precise electrifying performance is that the ambient noise doesn’t distract. It focuses the mind. Every pianissimo draws focus, drawing us into the theatre he creates at the keyboard. Concluding his encores with music by Scarlatti before we wend our way to bed there’s even a sense that maybe more concerts should be done open-air. Ambience drives listener focus.
Hearing Blackshaw rehearsing whilst I relax in the water at the hottest point on a ridiculously hot day, there’s also a feeling that I’ve had a chance to connect with the soloist long before the actual performance. Cooling off in the water under the midday sun I’ve been treated to a preview of what’s to come later in the day. Nothing has been spoiled by hearing it before the concert. If anything I’ve been reminded of the human being behind the music-making.
These experiences are, as far as I can make out, a consequence of circumstance rather than a planned experience. The concert series was originally meant to be staged at a venue on the side of a hill overlooking the town. For me though, it makes sense that music intended for the town in which the Festival’s artistic director grew up is sited slap bang in the middle of the town the locals frequent.
Music shouldn’t be separate or closed off, but accessible to all (on presentation of a ticket, of course). Music can (and maybe must?) share the space with others. Maybe if it did then more will stop, pause and stare through the gaps in the wall in order to find out what’s going on beyond.
But how to build your audience when there’s no history of classical music in your hometown?
Gianluca leans in to respond.
“The secret is to appeal to the kids. Get the kids excited and they’ll bring the parents.”
Mid-Proms season I’m reminded of a bittersweet feeling that often crops up for me. The season has been running for sufficient weeks to have become the embodiment of a trusted pal, but one who in just a few short weeks we’ll be having to say goodbye to.
This ‘friendship’ is manifest long before I get to the Hall for the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra debut Prom. The journey to the Royal Albert Hall – a kind of pilgrimage in itself – is the beginning of the concert experience. Heading up Exhibition Road, crossing Prince Consort Road before climbing up Kensington Gore anticipating the building revealing itself as I turn a corner.
Vaguely recognisable faces whose names I forget are passed en-route to the South Porch. The ticket scanned then inside to find my seat. Sat down looking around the cavernous interior – a sight nearly everyone wants to stop and capture on their phones as soon as they see it – it feels like this is home.
I experience both calmness and excitement whenever I step inside. All of us are collectively embarking on the experience to follow. It is a profound feeling. Or at least its something to savour. Senses are awakened. This is the point in the season when listening is at its best for me.
To the right, the stage. Players assembled waiting for conductor Marin Alsop,the stage cocooned by one long encompassing armfull of audience. Warm enthusiastic applause greets conductor Marin Alsop’s return to the BBC Proms stage, uplifting to hear in itself. House lights dimmed, and attention focuses on the theatrical space the orchestra occupies. This adds to the drama poring from Béla Bartók’s score for The Miraculous Mandarin suite.
There is so much detail heard from my seat in the stalls – industrious grating strings underpinned by a driving snare drum, rumbling bass from double basses and organ that makes the floor shake. Later, there’s an intricate solo scored for trombone that sounds like an impossible ask deftly executed. And towards the end of the work a sequence for brass and horns with cacophonous chords paint a grim evocative picture. I’ve known of The Miraculous Mandarin for years but never actually heard it live. I conclude that I (still) bloody love Bartok – Shostakovich on Red Bull – ever since I heard his Concerto for Orchestra in Budapest a few years back. There’s a gritty uncompromising flavour to his musical language that keeps me coming back for more.
Marin Alsop has an electricity about her with the Vienna Radio that I wasn’t quite aware of when she worked with the BBC Symphony. Seeing her obvious joy returning to the Royal Albert Hall stage and hearing the appreciation of the crowd before the concert began was a gratifying part of the experience too. Sincerity in a big crowd does a lot of heavy lifting.
That sincerity paid off, spurring on the musicians playing on stage and the audience’s attention. The string section in particular draws my attention throughout. The leader (or rather known Concertmaster outside the UK) Maighréad McCrann is a captivating presence – spirited, assertive, and strong – leading a hardworking section throughout the entire programme, generating a stunning range of textures and colours in the Bartok, the UK premiere of Hannah Eisendle’s Heliosis, and the concluding Dvorak Symphony No. 7. There are no stragglers in the section – no division between front desk and back desk effort like you might see in some UK orchestras – everyone is pulling together. A good example of this consummate skill can be heard in the frothing string introduction when the piano first plays. There is electricity in their sound. Tautness, versatility, and considerable clout too.
I’m attending tonight’s Prom principally to see pianist Benjamin Grosvenor play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, a characteristically demanding work which matches the virtuosity of his previous two concertos, but in No. 3 combines strength, power and weight, with material that is, in contrast, tender and romantic. I’m sure I heard a bit of jazz in there as well.
It is an unrelentingly entertaining work, packed full of notes. Percussive. Driving. All-consuming.
It is the demanding nature of the solo piano part in particular which makes Benjamin Grosvenor’s performance a must-listen for me.
Very early on in Grosvenor’s performance career – possibly one of his first Proms appearances after winning BBC Young Musician in 2004 – I remember being sat in the Gallery at the Royal Albert Hall and hearing him play Lizst (?) and being struck by how ‘smooth’ his technique was at the keyboard.
Fast passages which would surely make me tense up if I thought I’d have to play them were played with such polish that it was as though I was listening to water. Fluid was the word that appeared in that moment. The memory is stark but self-doubt had often led me to think that I must have either been drunk or merely trying hard and succeeding in being a pretentious commentator.
Every single performance I’ve heard Grosvenor give since has reinforced that initial impression. His gleaming dexterity belies a meticulous approach to detail. This sequence in the opening movement illustrates the point perfectly.
That I hear and respond to the same ever-reliable technique – Grosvenor’s calling card if you like – is every bit as powerful a contributor to memories created at the Proms. I regard the experience of being able to pinpoint instinctively what it was I enjoy at his playing all those years ago as the starting point of a different kind of music appreciation for me, something that has paid dividends ever since. For that quality or characteristic to still be perceptible fifteen years later makes this genre increasingly more compelling.
Hannah Eisendle’s Heliosis demands a special mention here, achieving something very rare in new music for the classical music genre. Composers today are faced with a need to develop something which is distinctive but also listenable to, combining art with (perhaps) a commercial ear meaning the resulting new work will fit an editorial brief and please the audience on a first listen. Eisendle achieves this in Heliosis – a kind of one-movement film soundtrack without the need for pesky visuals getting in the way. A hugely entertaining work.
Oliver Zeffman conducted the Philharmonia and mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly in a filmed performance destined for streaming platforms last night, concluding the ‘Music x Museums’ series underneath the hull of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.
The performance was part of a series of live recordings released on Apple Music (to watch and listen to) and eventually to stream on Spotify too.
Acoustically the 19th-century tea clipper now homed in Greenwich didn’t disappoint. The polished hull cut an impressive line through the narrow audience space underneath which members of the Philharmonia charted a course through evocative music by Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and Grace Williams.
I had assumed it was because of Venus Rising and similar projects that Williams ravishing score for string ensemble was seeing more light. What I discovered last night browsing through the first Proms brochure I bought back in 1991, was that Williams Sea Sketches was performed back in the year I first went to the Proms – the first time it appeared at the festival, forty-five years after it was written.
A pupil of Vaughan Williams, Williams score has a distinctive musical language setting her apart from the folk tune-infused music of her teacher. There are some beautifully heart-tuggingly lush sequences in Calm Sea in Summer that hint at the music of Peter Warlock and even reference bits of Britten’s language too.
Dame Sarah Connolly shimmered in a scaly dress made up of coral blues and greens (that’s about as far as this privileged white middle-aged male is going to go in describing an outfit) during Elgar’s Sea Pictures, gracefully riding the waves in Elgar’s sonorous score. I’ve been listening to Sea Pictures on repeat all day since.
The Cutty Sark is a surprisingly good venue, somewhere that has a considerable impact on arrival, and is served by attentive bar staff. Acoustically it works too. And whilst I know this was an event for filming purposes with supporting organisation Viking Cruises necessarily selling their wares, I’m wondering why the venue isn’t used more for live events, especially if seating could be made available at the elevated side positions too.
Keep an eye out on Apple Music for the performance in full. Music x Museum’s previous performance at the V&A with Victoria Mullova is available to watch and listen to now.
“Where are you off to?” asks the cab driver en-route to London Liverpool Street Station.
“Aldeburgh. East Suffolk, ” I confidently reply. “For the weekend.”
Recognising the implicit permission granted, the cab driver proceeds to tell me about his recent experiences in the area.
These recollections turn out to be rooted deeper in Essex than East Suffolk, but one short anecdote about a café on the Essex coast not accepting credit or debit cards grabs my attention.
“I didn’t have any way to pay the bill. There weren’t any signs, ” protested the cab driver. “But the owner was really helpful. Told me how to find the nearest cash machine and said he was quite happy to wait for me to return with the money.”
The apparent trustworthiness of the café owner surprised the cab driver. “That wouldn’t happen in London.”
The anecdote prepared me well for my second trip to East Suffolk for this year’s Aldeburgh Festival: things are different in East Anglia. Adjust.
The accommodating spirit isn’t necessarily evident in every interaction, but the change of pace is, almost as soon as you arrive at Saxmundham train station. Things move at an entirely different pace in East Suffolk.
This is exactly the point about the area. The most rural part of the county is also the most difficult to travel around if you’ve not got your own transport. Settlements are remote and facilities sparse.
The consequence is that the area has a feel of steadfastly clinging onto the past. And only an idiot would assume that its inhabitants will willingly shift to your pace of doing things. You have to adjust to the county.
Don’t expect to book taxis on the day; there are no Ubers. There is a regular bus service but it doesn’t start early, doesn’t finish late and takes in a great many other towns and villages, making it the least efficient mode of public transport if you’re in a hurry.
If you’re looking to book a table at a restaurant, don’t ring up for availability on the day. Eating opportunities are by and large at set times because staff are thin on the ground. Avoid disappointment outside of these set times by not asking if they still serve food. So if you can, eat before you head out. This and the fact that East Suffolk demands you don’t rush anywhere means you must plan in advance. The county insists on it. It also recommends that you get your head out of your phone and look all around you at the area of outstanding natural beauty you find yourself in. It won’t take long before you’re mesmerised.
This is of course one of the reasons composer Benjamin Britten settled in the area after returning from the US after the Second World War. Being in such a spacious environment promotes clarity of thought. It also stirs emotions and calms the nerves. It makes focussed activity a pleasure. The benefits of being in an area so remote wasn’t on him, his creative pals, and the many thousands of musicians and artists who have followed in his wake, hence why, after a two-year COVID hiatus, we’re here for the 73rd Aldeburgh Festival.
It was also where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears had in mind when the pair first had the idea of a school for training musicians back in the late sixties. As oboist Nicholas Daniel explains in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme Thoroughly Good Podcast, one of the benefits of the remote location of Snape Maltings Concert Hall and the Britten-Pears School is how it promotes a different kind of musicianship. It is a place where people can recalibrate themselves.
The necessary overnight stays a visit to this location demands make the shift into a lower gear helps create a state of mind which is sustainable. This process is also accelerated if you’re staying with a landlady or in shared accommodation. Far from being an anonymous experience affordable privately rented accommodation means you’re going to be interacting with the owner of the property you’re staying in. Nothing promotes a sense of community and their (and by extension your) place in it than a conversation over breakfast about shared connections.
During my first stay on the first weekend of the Festival, I discover I’m renting from a lady who used to be a stage manager for the English Opera Group, worked with the English Chamber Orchestra at Snape from time to time, and had lived through the Jonathan Reekie era of Aldeburgh Festival Management, and now the still-relatively-new era of Roger Wright’s. Both are praised for their individual achievements, unique qualities, and impact on the Festival, but one thing remains clear from the conversation over our wholemeal toast: building a connection with the local audience is vital for Britten’s continuing legacy.
What I observe in the Concert Hall Café is that this connection is a matter of course and one of pleasure for current Chief Executive Roger Wright. I comment to the equally outgoing and interested Executive Director Sarah Bardwell on the third night of my stay just how ‘visible’ both of them and their counterparts Harry Young and Caro Barnfield are amongst the audience. Watch Roger Wright walk hurriedly down the length of the restaurant and there are multiple occasions when he stops to talk to concert-goers passing the time with a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.
This isn’t unique to Snape and Aldeburgh – I observed Roger Wright do a similar thing at the BBC Proms when he’d appear talking to the many Prommers queuing for their place in the arena. But here in a building that reaches above everything around it casting a strong distinctive line in the wide Suffolk skies, the sense of a connected community and a shared experience is much much stronger than in London.
We are not punters at Snape Maltings; we’re joining up with fellow fans to soak up the atmosphere and restore ourselves. On occasion, this might even include listening to music too.
The Concert Hall restaurant is also where I bump into old friends. Some from twenty-five years ago, others I’ve made connections with in the past five. Wide smiles and warm embraces compliment the vast expanse of nature beyond the windows that consistently delights our eyes whatever the weather.
Here we talk about concerts we’ve been too, the atmospheres they’ve created and debate whether the seat cushions on sale in the gift shop are as effective mitigation for the wicker Concert Hall seats, compared to a much-loved feather cushion brought from home.
Here we can breathe slowly and deeply from our diaphragms. We become accustomed to the recently selected gear required for East Suffolk life. The Aldeburgh Vibe sets in.
In this almost euphoric state, musical experiences command far more focused attention.
At Orford Church, clarinettist Mark Simpson’s devastatingly still melodic line in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet performed with the Solem Quartet has the effect of rendering everyone in the audience motionless.
Later that same evening, him and a network of musician friends (including one extra player drawn the London Sinfonietta who were also playing at Snape that night) rattle off Mozart’s considerable Gran Partita, revelling in the clarity of Snape’s acoustic and wowing the audience with spectacular articulation and jaw-dropping breath control. Rock stars the lot of them.
Tom Coult and Alice Birch’s dystopian opera Violet is a compelling watch and it seems universally applauded by critics and audience alike. There is a buzz about the site as performers delight in the reviews. “Would you believe it?” I hear one member of the production team say, “Five stars. From The Telegraph!”
Dwarfed by the large expanse of Snape’s wooden stage, the sight of Piatti Quartet members and oboist Nick Daniel made their performance of Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet a touching celebration of a man who’s output still connects with musicians and audience alike. Written when he was 19, the work fizzes with Britten’s characteristic musical language and treatments and sounds as though it makes a great many demands on the oboist.
My concluding concert before I return to London was the most spectacular. Pianist Viknungur Olfasson disarming the audience from the stage as he introduced his playlister-programme, awkwardly shuffling from side to side as he did so. After which he turns to the keyboard and plays with such stillness and focus that there are moments when it’s doubtful whether the audience will ever move again. A collective sigh when Olafsson segues from a fragment of Mozart’s D minor Fantasia to a D Major Ronda confirms that, like me, everyone had been unwittingly carried along by the tension the pianist had created curating the programme in the way he had. The ability to create this kind of experience, and to experience it in a remote place is very special indeed.
After Olafsson’s performance, I say goodbye to my friends in the concert hall foyers and say hello to others of old I haven’t seen until now. And now a few days after an early train made possible by a seemingly impossible find – an early taxi – I find myself in a slump, yearning for the Suffolk marshes again. That’s the sign of a good Festival.
There were hardly any seats left when I booked. Hence why I ended up sitting in the Choir looking out towards the audience the piano lid blocking the sound. Not great. Hence why this is a journal entry not a review.
No matter. Experiencing the occasion was what was most important. Some thoughts arise.
Yuja doesn’t hang around
Yuja Wang strides purposefully onto stage, carefully prepares her stool, and plays with terrifying power. After which she stands, bends effortlessly at her waist, her hand resting gently on the edge of the piano, after which she sits down for the next bit. The speed of this procedure makes her phenomenally difficult to photograph even on a shitty mobile phone. There are moments in the first half when I wonder whether her bow to the audience is just part of a series of automatic moves from the audience’s obvious enthusiasm, almost as though it’s automated. She also plays at a rip-roaring white-knuckle speed in those bits where the music is fast. Ligeti’s L’escalier du diable especially so. This is terrifying and gripping. So very very gripping.
She keeps the crowd wanting more
Wang’s strategy seems to be keep the crowd wanting more at all times. That means a delay before heading onto stage (the auditorium doors appeared to be shut in readiness for a surprisingly long time). When the music is over and the bow delivered, then it’s time to stride off stage again. This isn’t a problem for me at all. It only ramps up the tension, making the audience ever more keen to applaud her more those times when she is on stage. And what that translates into are encores. Lots of them. I left before the seventh (it might have been the sixth – I lost count).
Lots of bile has been spat out by crusty old men about The Wang’s love of fashion on stage. I have in the past been critical of A Male Pianist love of trainers and trousers that cut above the ankle, but he and I have ‘sorted that out now’ and I see where he’s coming from. In light of this I should probably be carefully about how I position my comments re: The Wang’s threads. Also, I know nothing about fashion. But BLOODY HELL she looked fantastic. And, the change of outfit mid-interval gave a whoosh of even more energy when she strode onto stage at the beginning of the second half. That attention to detail adds an additional level of theatre to proceedings to an already theatrical presence at the keyboard. And that kind of detail creates a highly charged atmosphere. And there is nothing better than being in the thick of an audience that is excited to be there.
The difference in character between the first and second half was remarkable. Beethoven, Ligeti and Schoenberg conjure up entirely different and hugely demanding sound worlds. The Scriabin No.3 second movement was ravishing in its lyricism and saw tenderness that stopped me in my tracks.
Yuja Wang knows the secret
We spend so long picking over how to appeal to a new (younger) audience. Yet here were most if not all of the ingredients: anticipation for international soloist; soloist playing the audience like a violin and whipping them up into a state of frenzy; a dazzling range of repertoire; theatre; huge extended applause. This was a capacity audience. And there were endless (what I would describe as) young people in attendance too.