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.

liverpool philharmonic hall

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic speaks

The future (financially) isn’t rosy, but the ideas and the execution of them in a post-lockdown world is exciting, and the RLPO are first out of the traps

I joined the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s pre-2020 season Zoom call earlier this evening (there’s a thing I never imagined I’d ever feel compelled to write about or even say in a sentence). And, if you weren’t there, I have to tell there were one or two things which left me feeling a little bit excited about the next few months.

As ensembles emerge tentatively from the post-lockdown darkness, the people who stage the events they play in are leading the way with new ways of doing things. They are the live event pioneers, eager to communicate directly with their core audience about the changes customers will experience. And, for someone like me, when I hear of those logistical changes there’s a frisson of excitement to experience too.

Tickets purchased online for a socially-distanced concert will give clear directions as to which car park car-owning patrons should park their vehicles in. On arrival at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, there’s the option of the bar (for up to 50 people an hour before the concert). Savvy ticket-holders will have already pre-ordered their drinks with their ticket. Those clever types will arrive at their seats (masks mandatory for all except for those who are exempt), and find a bag containing their drinks order. Beverages can be consumed at leisure inside the auditorium. “We’re assuming,” said Executive Director Millicent Jones from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, “that drinks will be consumed before the concert,”

But what if they’re not? Will front of house staff police the event? What’s the protocol once the music has started? What’s more important? The safety of front of house staff, the safety of socially-distanced (bubbled) audience members, or the live performance.

Later Millicent explained how each concert would be filmed and released in premieres on the the RLPO website ‘as live’, preceeded by pre-concert Zoom talks and post-concert Q&As. All this for a tenner a concert. That’s at least half what you’d pay to go to the cinema. And cinemas are open.

So, basically, I can have my cake (and almost eat it whole) without leaving my house. Sure, I know its not like being there. But this is the next best thing. And if I was there I like the idea of having my drinks delivered to my seat like I was on an aeroplane.

Michael Eakin, RLPO Chief Exec

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” concluded Chief Exec Michael Eakin at the end of the presentation, itself a piece of direct communication with audience members existing and potential of the kind I’ve not experienced before now.

It feels, just maybe, as though change is afoot. And I’m rubbing my hands together at the thought of what the experience might turn out to be like. Because the thought of being able to watch on-demand a whole series of UK orchestras concert performances on my TV? So long as I’ve got the money, I’m MORE than happy to spend it to get my fix.

Oh for the love of cocking God

The BBC Proms have made another announcement about Rule Britannia. That thing they weren’t going to do, they are now going to do. Those who cried ‘Foul play!’ and ‘Down with the wokes!’ and ‘This is political correctedness gone mad again!’, are now jumping up and down and claiming victory. The words of Rule Britannia are now going to be sung by the BBC Singers.

First, it seems incredible to me on one level that a concert I don’t especially care about is once again the subject of a blog post. Second and perhaps more importantly, I can’t believe the BBC has done such a complete U-Turn on something which so fundamentally insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

That a new DG has taken up the reins this past fortnight during which time there’s been a change of mind about how to go about things can’t be a coincidence. Seems like someone somewhere has had a word in someone else’s ear.

It’s all just a bit embarrassing really. What it really means is that the anachronism that is the Last Night of the Proms is here for another generation at least. At that’s a bit of a crying shame.

Perfection

I’ve been a little restless today. I haven’t been able to put my finger on why exactly. Not until now.

I’ve wanted to write (since watching last nights Proms gig with the LSO) but couldn’t. So I read instead (about Vaughan Williams and the British perception of music and landscapes). Then I read Gretchen Ruben says about what Rebels can do to meet their inner expectations (spoiler: the secret is self-deception). Then I started work on a database service I’ve wanted to provide musicians for a couple of years. Endless displacement activities. Open book stuff.

At the tail end of all of this I discovered I’d massively cocked up and failed to turn up for a Zoom interview by an hour. And after that I felt I was ‘able’ or at least ‘motivated’ to write.

Back to the LSO’s blistering performance last night. Hearing a concert (or seeing it on TV) is, it seems, only the beginning of the classical music experience for me now. Hearing something when I’m not able to be physically present in the same space means I’m dependent on the moment when the music has the most impact on me – the moment when the musical experience takes me by surprise. And if it has (and it did) then reflecting on how much and why is important. Until that point is reached it seems the concert isn’t ‘over’.

That’s weird. I know.

Or at least it marks a shift. Because up until this year writing about a concert was something that I felt I should do in order to demonstrate my presence at a concert retrospectively. A sort of personal responsibility to advocacy of the genre. Now, a year later, writing about a concert is something I have to do in order to make sense of it to myself. To arrive at a sort of closure.

Rattle and the LSO was one of the most remarkable pieces of television (and radio – I’m listening as I write this in the bath) I’ve seen in a long long time. There was a detail to the sound mix which brought an urgency, relevance and immediacy to say the Elgar Introduction and Allegro that I’d not heard before. Every instrument sang. There was more punch in the overall ensemble. And the content – emotionally – seemed not only to reflect the implicit visual narrative (a space in which us at home were denied access) but also provide a soundtrack for what has happened to the arts over the past six months, but hints at what might be lost if the ridiculousness of this situation is allowed to continue.

That kind of programming isn’t an accident I don’t think. It’s a measure of how COVID has brought about an opportunity to experiment with a different way of bringing concert programmes to life. Look at it this way: if I’d seen Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Adès, Kurtag, and Vaughan Williams fifth symphony I might well have overlooked it.

But when you’ve been starved of something you love (and when an artist has the opportunity to programme works in response to present constraints) then the resulting concert has the potential to respond more immediately. And it did. With devastating effect.

After a gritty and impassioned Elgar, Mitsuko Uchida performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was terrifying. Crushing, even. The pieces by Kurtag created a displaced feel to them. Ades’s Dawn was other worldly. Transcendental – just as perhaps he’d intended.

And the Vaughan Williams. I ended up crying a lot during the third movement. It was though something had been lanced. Someone or a group of people had come along and presented a playlist of music live performing to a perceived audience. They not only entertained, but spoke to us and sought to represent us all at the same time. And in doing so they reinforced precisely the thing that makes this art form so utterly indispensable. And so vital right now. Music as a series of statements that speak to, reflect back, an articulate the mood of a collection of people the players can’t see in the moment.

The eyebrow-raising element for some will be this. After all my crowing and complaining about TV at the Proms last year, it was TV that came good this year. Because without the audience, a boom camera had the most access to the stage – more than ever before. With no audience in the Hall, the audience at home was able to experience a potent narrative made possible by the sight of a vast interior, access to the edge of the stage, and an enviable range of wide angle lenses. The script wasn’t needed to compensate. The music was allowed to speak for itself.

Not every concert can be like this. Nor every concert will be. But if you’re looking for an illustration of why this art form isn’t just relevant but needed, here was an example.

Quite a remarkable evening.

Grass pushing through concrete

I can’t take credit for the title – that was a line from Stephen Fry during last night’s touching first live Prom concert in the 2020 season. A fitting evening with poignant music choices and a satisfyingly pared-back presentation style too.

Radio deftly highlighted the impact that the COVID measures were having on live performance with an explicit reference from conductor Sakari Oramo and a delightful implicit one from the orchestra when, in between movements of the Beethoven symphony, silence exposing the sound of players turning the pages of their music.

On TV there was a solid pace, natural to and fro, and some much-appreciated advocacy from Stephen Fry. The simplicity of content meant the core implicit messages were clearer to make out: when something (live music in its broadest sense) is under threat, its value to us as individuals needs to be emphasised.

Ironically, there was a sense that the Prom concert denied a physical audience dramatically improved proceedings, possibly because it was a far more controlled environment. There was, as a result, a sense of occasion about the first live Prom concert, our eyes falling on the unoccupied spaces marked out by lines of lights. We had a sense of the distance that still needs to be travelled yet.

The central point illustrated both by Fry on TV and in the programming was the way in which a classical music programme can speak to a shared experience, or prompt thoughts around that experience. In this case: a new work inspired by questions around identity, by composer Hannah Kennedy, a piece about sleep, music that evokes memories or perceptions of lockdown (Copland’s A Quiet City), and Beethoven’s Eroica – a work I’ve always seen as a powerful statement of hope for the future.

It all got a little too much during the Copland. A Quiet City seemed like an apt choice, and as Stephen Fry later pointed out, made for a more heightened experience because of the thoughts and feelings those of us watching and listening brought to the experience. Not everyone, obviously. How could we all be thinking and feeling the same thing? How would we ever know? But this was a music choice that was perhaps helped bring people together in a shared, albeit it remote, experience. Something to coalesce around. Trumpeter Phil Cobb’s vibrato gave things a unsettling sense of vulnerability; Cor Anglais player Alison Teale’s rich warm tone added strength and a sense of hope.

The BBC Singers performing Eric Whitacre’s Sleep

What went before the Copland – the BBC Singers performing Eric Whitacre’s Sleep (on the day his news work ‘The Sacred Veil ‘ was released on Signum Classics) was a bit of a tear-jerker. Familiar faces spaced two and a half metres apart in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall. The sight – like that of a chamber orchestra on stage for the Beethoven later in the concert – seemed a little too much bear. Forgive the pun, there was a dissonance – a jolt with how we expect a group of people to stand. Challenging no doubt, but done anyway so that the music can live because determination insists upon it.

The Beethoven was a fascinating listen. It was apparent from the beginning that distance between players themselves and conductor Sakari Oramo was probably going to dictate a cautious approach to speeds and dynamic contrasts (though its worth qualifying here that I’ve been listening to Les Concerts Des Nations brilliantly gritty and rip-roaringly fast recording of Beethoven 3 over the past few weeks). During the first movement I wasn’t sure whether this sense of cautiousness worked. But the same cautiousness seemed to help expose the intricacies and complexities in the work, highlighting one aspect of the symphony’s revolutionary status.

Three quarters of the way through the second movement where the march pivots on rocking chords in the upper strings that appear to slow to a near-stop, I was bought-in. This was a gentle conclusion. A pause. But not an end.

It could have been exuberant from here until the end, but somehow it not being so seemed right given the moment. Live performance might be partially back, but its at a point when the fragility of the ecosystem needs to be highlighted. There needs to be determination and strength, but it doesn’t feel right to celebrate, not yet. Not by any means.

At the end of the concert unexpected applause broke out from the orchestra themselves – applause for soloists Alison Teale and Phil Cobb and, presumably for one another. Deserved undoubtedly, but also a moment that broke the tension of the night. And on radio we learned how having arrived on stage two-by-two, the BBC Symphony Orchestra would now leave two-by-two. “It’s going to be some time before the stage is empty,” explained presenter Petroc Trelawny.