A conference at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds.

Thoroughly Good at ABO2023

It’s the ABO Conference this week. Many of the UK’s orchestras, ensembles and arts organisations all convening to chew the cud (and masticate on a conference dinner). In between various sessions on recruitment, touring, fundraising and audiences, there will be the inevitable networking opportunities too.

Heads up. I hate networking. I’m not very good at it. At least I don’t think so. I despise small talk (never ask me how I am because I promise you I will tell you and you’ll wish you hadn’t asked). And I’m always concerned I’m wasting your time and will as a result bring the conversation to an end as quickly as possible.

Surprised? Offended? Don’t be. I just figure it always helps others to be completely transparent. And I think it’s always nice to have something specific in mind to talk about. Questions. Things to dig in deeper about. Consider this a helpful pre-brief.

So with that in mind, here’s a primer on Thoroughly Good’s recent activities and future plans, just in case like me you’re stuck for things to talk about (assuming we bump into each other at all).

And just to bring you fully up to speed too, I’m very much an Earl Grey tea drinker now and am trying very hard (and succeeding) in cutting back my alcohol intake, so if you’re offering to go to the bar I’ll just have a Virgin Mary. Thanks.

Ten things from Thoroughly Good’s 2022

Yuja Wang at Royal Festival Hall – a 2022 Thoroughly Good Highlight
  1. Trained international war reporters on digital content publication best practise including digital content strategy, copywriting, video production and metadata.
  2. Facilitated individual coaching programmes for arts administrators, students, and producers in further education, orchestras, schools and the independent recording industry.
  3. Digital content strategy and production work for Wigmore Hall. Supporting phenomenal people working for the much-loved brand enjoyed by passionate appreciative audiences. My appreciation for chamber music has deepened as a result. I fear spelling composers’ names, in particular Dvořák and Lizst Liszt. Have also done a little script-writing and promotional film producing.
  4. Digital Consultancy for Ulster Orchestra over the past 18 months developing a content framework, supporting recruitment, and developing thinking and skillsets.
  5. Executive coaching at Coca-Cola, Channel 4, Netflix, Mastercard, General Electric, Sony, Costa, HSBC, Thomson Reuters and Talk Talk. Working with senior leaders on a one-to-one basis on leadership, creativity, innovative thinking, prioritisation, presence, and communication.
  6. Sharing digital content best practise with the 2023 RPS Composers and RPS Awards Panellist.
  7. Sharing digital content storytelling techniques and creative thinking withBath Festival Orchestra.
  8. Digital content marketing services for soloists, composers, and chamber music ensembles.
  9. Visited Elb Philharmonie to see Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and was floored by the experience, beginning a research process for A Big Writing Project (see below). Had a fabulous time at the Aldeburgh Festival last year and have now booked up for the entire first week in this year’s festival in June. 
  10. Wrote for some industry publications.
The Red House at Aldeburgh displays many Britten artefacts and seeing some of them was partly what made Aldeburgh Festival 2022 so very enjoyable. Appreciation of classical music sometimes goes beyond the core content.

Thoroughly Good is on the lookout for …

  1. a publisher. Do you know of any you can introduce me to?
  2. introductions to scientists, thinkers and performers (plus audience members) to explore the psychology of audiences and the science of the listening experience.
  3. …. authoritative voices on the subject of music education in the UK, publications that document the history of music education, in addition to some recommendations as to current thinking.
  4. digital content strategy opportunities and specifically partnerships with artistic directors to programme seasons of content that have digital outcomes at the heart of the planning phase. (If you’re looking for evaluation, best practise, recommendations and training, that’s also good too.)
  5. coaching programme opportunities from arts organisations or private individuals.
  6. travel opportunities – especially destinations which are part of the concert experience.
  7. … ad-hoc paid writing opportunities.

If you’re at ABO this year, be sure to say hello and be sure to share what you’ve been up to over the past year too. Find me on Twitter @thoroughlygood and Instagram @thoroughly_good

Community and connection at a Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concert

Just over two and a half hours on the train southwest from London sees me reach my destination in Weymouth. I’m here fo a 24-hour trip to see and natter with classical music pal (Fran Wilson) and hear a performance at the Weymouth Chamber Music series.

It’s easy to get distracted by big brands, international names and plush seating I find. These elements are of course important in providing a guarantee for a classical music experience. Kind of. Coming to Weymouth for a chamber music concert in St Mary’s Church, I’m reminded that those other brassier urban events represent only a small proportion of the wider cultural scene. There is insight (as well as joy) to be found everywhere. Sometimes you just need to look in the opposite direction.

Weymouth Harbour

It’s my first time in Weymouth. It’s cold. The mist hangs around the bay that skirts the town. Tiny waves crash determinedly on the beach along which a treasure seeker swings his metal detector. Couple amble along the shoreline. Dogs leap after tennis balls. The esplanade that skirts the bay and the line of Victorian terrace of townhouses that sit behind declare some of Weymouth’s illustrious past.

These sights and sounds are a treat for the ears, neutralising the London chatter and preparing for the concert ahead – a sort of refreshing pre-concert dip in the sea without having to shed clothes and set foot in it.

Searching for treasure on Weymouth beach

On the bill at today’s Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concert is Irish American violinist Columba Dromgoole-Cavazzi with pianist Duncan Honeybourne. She’s a recent master’s graduate of Trinity Laban in London, before that an undergraduate from Southampton University. And I learn after the concert, it was also Columba’s first post-study recital. A big deal for her. A musician at the beginning of her career.

St Mary’s Church, Weymouth

Her training route is reminiscent of peers of mine at Lancaster University – broad music studies first in a University environment followed by a specialist performance course at a conservatoire. Many friends who are now players, soloists, band members, administrators, and artistic directors followed this route. What followed was a hard slog as they took their first tentative steps in the industry, establishing their network, testing their limits, and fleshing out ambition. In this context, this concert is not only about listening but supporting. Not only a performance but a vital development opportunity. And at £5 a ticket – a small amount of money to gain access to St Mary’s Church – it’s a no-brainer of a contribution that guarantees a warm fuzzy feeling as a result. It’s also the first time I’ve handled cash in an absolute age.

From my seat upstairs on the balcony I observe bobble hats and thick winter coats obediently lined up in the pews below me. Warm extended applause greets the performers when they step onto stage. The sound of appreciation is full, hearty and sincere. I feel at home.

The programme combines the familiar (Beethoven’s Spring Sonata) with the unfamiliar G minor Violin Sonata by Debussy. Where my attention is really focussed is on the piece in the middle of the programme by Cecilia McDowall’s Strange Violin written in 2008. Highly atmospheric, the eery solitary eeriness is captivating. In places I hear bells ringing out in the piano part. It feels personal. There’s a sense of jeopardy in the music. Even though its completely new to me, there’s a sense that it’s constantly moving forward (reminding me of what my plus one at the LPO concert said about the Brett Dean work being packed full of a range of musical ideas that don’t linger).

I realise one other aspect of this concert experience. I’m not looking for elite performance, I’m looking for a sense of connection with the music and the instrumentalists. I undoubtedly get it in the McDowall piece, and so too in the second movement of the Beethoven Sonata when there are moments when everything in St Mary’s Church is utterly still. This sense of stillness – fleeting – is created because of the presence of the audience. We are collectively witnessing something. These are the moments I crave.

After the concert, I am introduced to Columba and Duncan Honeybourne. Warm appreciative smiles are exchanged before we all collectively head off to lunch. Columba’s mother joins us. Potted histories are shared before the mains delivered.

It turns out there’s an unexpected thing that links us at the table. Duncan who teaches at Southampton University (in 2020 Southampton was ranked the top university to study Music, now occupying seventh place ahead of Royal Academy and Guildhall School) speaks warmly of Lancaster University (where I studied) before recalling that a Lancaster Music alumni had in recent years played at Weymouth. Neil Aston was in the year above me, was the conductor of the Wind Orchestra I took over when he graduated and was along with the mighty fine clarinettist. Sickening in fact. It is a joy to hear he is still playing. I must make a point of seeking an opportunity to hear him play now.

In this moment of connection, 30 years have collapsed into what feels like only a few months. Memories flood back of me and my peers leaving Lancaster to embark on our fledgling careers unaware of quite what it would entail or how much determination would be required. And here we are at this table in a Weymouth restaurant with another fledgling member of the classical music family about to embark on a similar journey. Had I had the presence of mind I would have whispered ‘one step at a time’ to Columba. But I didn’t. I imagine she’ll figure it out herself.

As I head back to London I reflect on the experience I’ve had. Not just going to a church and listening to three pieces of music by a musician setting out on their career, but powerful connections made in listening and amongst people. It is another consistent and reliable aspect of the classical music experience I overlook.

Kinan Azmeh’s Clarinet Concerto at Royal Festival Hall

After the vast white modernness of Elb Philharmonie earlier this week, the usually faded 50s glamour Royal Festival Hall had a comparatively shabby feel to it. The crowd was entirely different too. A much younger group, unshaven, long-haired, unkempt. Vintage casual, lace-up boots and the occasional ripped jeans. Instead of Hamburg’s gentle murmur, there was jostling, voices battling to be heard at the bar, and a race for the toilets before the final audience bell signalled the auditorium doors were about to close. I felt at ease here.

A young audience too. Younger than me, for sure. An entirely different energy. And thanks to going to the London Philharmonic Orchestra concert with a plus one, an unusually social experience too.

The draw for me was Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh’s Clarinet Concerto, inspired and reflective of his thoughts and feelings after President Trump issued his travel ban stopping people from seven majority-Muslim countries in 2017. The work Azmeh wrote commissioned by Classical Movements for Seattle Symphony Orchestra sought to celebrate freedom – a musical exploration in response to the Syrian clarinettist’s experience of being unable to return home following the ban.   

There was an air of anticipation. Having a specific hook to go to a concert isn’t by any means a requirement, but I’m increasingly coming around to thinking that it’s a useful part of the process – something that heightens the experience by increasing motivation.

Kinan Azmeh with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of his own clarinet concerto on Thursday 18 January 2023

Azmeh delivered in spades. First as a performer. His posture is quite something – a confident stance from toe to clarinet bell with sufficient flexibility as to make the moves in response to the sounds he creates balletic. From time to time the clarinet moves independently from the subtle head turns. The isolated movement of the instrument is a joy to behold. He occupies the space between conductor and leader with a nervous energy, compulsively pulling down a snugly fitting waistcoat, patting down his trouser pockets and shifting weight from one heel to another.

The solo line immediately has a human quality to it. Meandering, searching. It tugs at the heartstrings. It follows a three-movement structure but is played as one complete work. A slow burn builds ultimately to a foot-tapping third movement, with a return to a more introspective feel eventually dying away. Evocative sounds paint a vivid picture within seconds of conductor Enrique Mazzola raising his baton. I get to the end of the work when I feel as though I’m applauding the soloist as though I know him personally and have done for years.  It’s as though we’ve all joined him on a joyous and uplifting excursion in 22 minutes.  

London Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall

Grabbing our interval drinks me and my plus one comment on how much we enjoyed not just the work but the Kinan Azmeh’s showmanship. I ponder what it is about the work that went before it in the programme – Brett Dean’s 11-minute concert opener Amphitheatre (2000). My plus one points to the range of musical ideas, the fact that we don’t linger for too long on each idea, AND the presence of an extensive percussion section including tuned percussion which gives proceedings a far-away-land feel.

I appreciate the observations, in particular, the notion about an idea or fragment not only having to sound original and appealing to someone listening to it for the first time but also knowing when is just enough time spent before moving on to the next idea. Quite some feat. So too programming two contemporary works alongside one another, holding my attention throughout and making me want to talk about both in the interval.

24 hours in Hamburg

A lightning visit to Hamburg with one overriding goal: experience the Elb Philharmonie.

I’d been looking forward to this trip from when the idea came to mind on the 75 bus back from Vicky Haircuts a month or so ago. Heading to Hamburg to experience the city’s splendid Elb Philharmonie for the first time seemed the obvious choice. The 870 million Euro concert hall started in 2007 and completed (late) in 2017 is one of many destinations that appear on the Extra Special List I’ve drawn up for this year. There aren’t many on the list.

I wasn’t disappointed. This wasn’t just confirmation bias at work either. Elb Philharmonie didn’t disappoint. Hamburg’s concert hall is sited in a stunning location, perched on the edge of the River Elb, overlooking the port. The same industrious port that Hamburg resident and bicycle early-adopter Gustav Mahler reportedly found inspiration for the opening bars of his sixth symphony.

Construction on Elb Philharmonie was started in 2007 and the hall was opened in 2017 – late and over four times more than originally costed

Elb Philharmonie is more than a concert. It’s an experience. One that starts on the pavement outside, with automated ticket barriers at the base of the 26-storey building establishing a public transport come Festival vibe as you gain entry to the big box on the side of the river. (Tickets are required to gain access to the building whether you’re attending a concert or not, although free day tickets to access the first-floor public space must be booked in advance.

Elb Philharmonie’s entrance has a whiff of the Elizabeth Line about it

The curved escalator spanning the first nine floors of the hotel residing at the base of the building has a Disney feel as though we’re stepping into Epcot. Our destination is a vast white cave with stairs leading off in all manner of directions. It is a world to explore slowly and with heels that click on the solid wooden floor beneath. Everything feels solid, permanent and with the addition of wood trims for leaning against, sitting on it resting your 7 Euro glass of House Red on, a reassuring sense of solidity about the place. 

Elb Philharmonie’s ‘Tube’

I steadfastly refused to take the lift and clambered the many flights of stairs in pursuit of the top-floor view. Once there, breathless, I discovered one of the playful quirks of the building: the view inside is far more captivating (and illuminated) than the one outside looking over Hamburg on an icy January night. 

Doors to the auditorium remain shut until fifteen minutes before the performance – a useful way of delaying ultimate gratification and giving me a chance to observe the clientele.

Whilst there’s a range of ages and attire, the overwhelming vibe is one of a stylish night out of on the town. Lots of cashmere, expensive cotton shirts open at the collar, well-chosen colours that highlight a preponderance of salt and pepper hair. Glasses are held by the stem, not the rim. Everybody looks gorgeous and monied. I feel raggedy and British. I see absolutely no people of colour. 

There are many flights of stairs in the Elb Philharmonie – best get there early to enjoy the interior free of pesky humans

When the auditorium doors gracefully swing open patrons step forward in a measured way. No one seems to be in a hurry except for me. I have to take a deep breath.

Inside the scene is a sci-fi TV set come luxury cruise liner. I forgot I’d thrown caution to the wind and bought the most expensive ticket which now that I match up the seat with the ticket in my hand I realise is directly in front of the orchestra, behind the conductor. Given that the seat labelling is a little confusing, I seek confirmation from the white-haired German lady, asking her to check I’m sat in the right seat. She looks at me bemused and says ‘Where are coming from?’ I say London. She says ‘Ah.’

Not only the interior is it an incredible sight – plush with lots of movement, but it’s a delightful acoustic too. The audience has to work hard to make an impression when conductor Jakub Hrůša strides onto the stage. When the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra plays the opening chords of Brahms 3rd Symphony my heart pounds. There’s terrific detail in each separate instrumental line. The wooden stage enriches the basses and cellos in various points in the first movement that it sounds as though the players are reaching down to the bottom of the building for each and every phrase, yanking at a big thick rope to pull up the bass line. Hearty, steady, strong. The woodwind are precise, the flutes tone warm, the contrabassoon buzzing with delight. And the ends of phrases underpinned by pizzicato basses are breathtakingly tidy. Playing all together you can still hear the individual textures of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, gritty sounds reminiscent of the first time I heard a recording of the London Classical Players’ Symphonie Fantastique in 1993. The playing has so much heart, energy and commitment. This is in no way being ‘phoned in’. It’s as though they’re all playing to retain their contracts. Knife edge stuff. I don’t want it to come to an end. 

Inside the Elb Philharmonie auditorium – a sci-fi / luxury cruise line vibe

There are minor drawbacks to this acoustic I suspect. By optimising the experience for everybody sat in the round the orchestra (across five floors) everything is made audible. Rich, generous and supportive as that acoustic is, it’s also unforgiving, exposing not only the slightest error in ensemble on stage (there were only two I noticed), but also any persistent troublesome coughs in the seats above. Little wonder Elb Philharmonie have published specific advice. Conversely when there the silence marked in the score was matched by the audience the effect was electrifying. 

The morning after, a lie-in on a very comfortable mattress watching a container ship reverse into Hamburg port is interrupted by an over-eager chambermaid. Then a protein-rich breakfast minus the carbs, followed by a scoot around the Composers Quarter where I’m mildly embarrassed to say I hadn’t realised quite how many composers were linked to Hamburg. Telemann certainly seemed to be a busy chap (I was impressed by his self-publishing strategy, exploiting new technologies and monetising his creative assets to raise awareness), hadn’t known Mahler was one of the first seen cycling in Hamburg and had forgotten that Brahms had died as late as 1897 of pancreatic cancer. Not sure I needed to see his death mask necessarily. 

What really stuck in mind was a quote in the exhibition guide from music historian Johann Nikolaus Forkel writing in 1778 reflecting on the shift in thinking about music during the ‘Age of Sensibility’ when CPE Bach was at his height doing his thing at the clavichord.

“Music is a language, yes indeed, but the language of feelings, not that of concepts (-) and it is only fast beginning to express the infinite gradations of feeling at that point to which other languages can no longer attain and where they are at the end of their powers.”

Once again I’m reminded how a sense of place can drive focus, provide insights and deepen understanding. We spend so long in writing about classical music unwittingly trying to describe another language, when music is or can be seen as language in and of itself. It’s easy to forget that distinction I think, and as a result we end up using language to describe something which perhaps doesn’t need describing. 

Be sure to listen to Bamberg Symphony’s 2019 release of Brahms 3 – the buzzing contrabassoon in the first movement is a joy to behold.

London Mozart Players, Leia Zhu, Leslie Suganandarajah and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at QEH

Last night’s jaunt to QEH was my first concert of 2022. Sixteen-year-old violinist Leia Zhu was very much front and centre, taking the audience’s collective breath away with a staggering performance of Beethoven’s epic Violin Concerto. The vibe was relaxed beforehand at the pre-concert foyer chinwag. Even Leia stepped up to the microphone extending warm welcomes and heartfelt thanks before her performance, the epitome of fearless youth.

The London Mozart Players conducted by the sweet, charming and dashing Leslie Suganandarajah played with a precision I’ve not heard before. Part of that might be down to the QEH acoustic, which favours a small band and an attentive audience. The detail emanating from all of the players was discernible. The ‘thumb in the air test’ comparing the distance the bow moved at the front of the violins compared to the back suggested everyone wanted or felt compelled to put the same effort in. A gratifying sight that paid dividends in an electrifying Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Vicky Haircut was my plus one for the evening and at various points in the second half was observed wiping her eyes. This brought attention to how I was feeling throughout the first and second movements – an underlying sense of tension that had crept up on me almost unawares. Across the aisle, I saw other audience members dabbing at their eyes, presumably triggered in the same way I was by Zhu’s delicacy, precision and sparkle. I was not alone, nor Vicky Haircut.

The music that resulted was something that was bold, courageous and honest. Zhu’s rendition was a slow burn. I just didn’t realise quite how tense I felt until the beginning of the stress-relieving third movement, moments before the conclusion of which my plus-one involuntarily said out loud (quietly but audibly) ‘fucking hell!’ Heads turned. A special moment. Not only had I finally appreciated this epic work but my plus-one had submitted herself to the performance – the first time she’d heard the concerto.

All this delivered by someone who only half an hour before subverted on-stage conventions and led the pre-performance chat inviting contributions from the conductor before she played the work. A sparkling evening concluded by an unequivocal standing ovation.

Make no bones about it. Zhu is a phenomenal talent. She is reassuringly self-assured. The complete package. Everything she does with or without her violin gently reminds you that there is in amongst the darkness in the world a resolute sense of hope. There aren’t many who achieve that. Even fewer have that effect in their teenage years.

If you weren’t present, haven’t experienced the Beethoven Violin Concerto, or if you were and you fancy something similarly electrifying, you might try a recording by Vilde Frang with conductor Pekka Kuusisto and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen released by Warner Music in 2022.

Leslie Suganandarajah conducts the Ulster Orchestra at Ulster Hall in Belfast on Thursday 19 January in a concert with horn player Ben Goldscheider.

A Thoroughly Good Christmas Message

Convention dictates at this time of year that generic Christmas wishes are sent to recipients on a great long mailing list.

Make the message as broad and inclusive as possible and the process is made infinitely less onerous.

Such strategies can result in a bland message, I find. Taking time to find the right message is difficult. Settling on the right words painful making the whole thing seem a dubious endeavour.

Regardless. Here goes.

This year, I’m indebted to family, friends, colleagues and clients who have in the many interactions I’ve had with them helped bring joy, knowledge and opportunity.

It has by no means been a breeze but it has been invigorating. Fulfilling too. I feel enriched, focussed and content. It is quite something to be able to say that.

If you have played a part in that (and for those who don’t realise that they have), please accept my heartfelt thanks.

Very best wishes for Christmas.

Philharmonia’s Mahler 6

It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know Mahler’s music I don’t think. Not really. If you see it advertised just go along. Don’t bother with the programme notes. Be prepared to let yourself go. Be curious. Be open. Be aware. See what happens. See how you feel. 

His sixth symphony is a good test of this strategy. It’s like the most epic film music Hans Zimmer wishes he could have written. It’s film music without the film getting in the way.

Mahler 6 is it if you’re looking for a Big Fuck Off shiny mirror that reflects back an image of yourself that is so vivid as to be almost unbearable to look at. Mahler 6 will show everything. Warts and All.

The entire work – the second movement in particular – has the same kind of effect on me as that moment when you know you’re about to pass a road traffic accident. You’re drawn to it but you’re also repelled by the thought of it too. You want to, but you know you shouldn’t. It’s epic in its scale and its demands (there were 108 players in Thursday night’s Philharmonia performance). Counter-intuitively it’s also intimate. Painfully personal.

The Philharmonia’s performance on Thursday night was a rare thing too – one of those concerts you see in the listings and think ‘that’ll be good’ AND it turns out to be good too. Listening back to the LSO’s recent recording with Gergiev I’m now wondering whether this is because of the writing rather than the playing in itself. No matter. If a band commits to playing it and selling tickets for a live performance you should feel reassured by their confidence and the inherent brilliance in Mahler’s writing. Buy the ticket. Go. Submit.

Some of the experience was undoubtedly down to my chosen seat: box one seat four overlooking the stage. But also because the band played with so much precision, painting so many vivid colours and textures. I was gripped throughout.

The second movement andante was emotional, heartwarming and consoling all at the same time. I ended up focussing on particular memory – the same I shared in a presentation to the Bath Festival Orchestra admin team a few weeks back – when me and old Britten-Pears pal Jacqueline sat in the circle at the Royal Albert Hall watching the then World Orchestra for Peace play the same work conducted by Gergiev. When the final note was plucked and the rich applause got underway, me and Jacqueline turned to one another and hugged for what felt like ages. A very special memory.

Pre-concert and interval there was heartwarming small talk with the others in the box (not something that always happens in the rest of the auditorium. One South African woman sat beside me now living in France who can’t drink wine or eat cheese (but sometimes does), and another wheelchair-bound lady in fantastic knitwear talking animatedly about the principal timpanist. Obviously, he was Very Good but I wonder whether she might have had a bit of a crush on him, truth be told.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto in the first half wasn’t the main draw for me, and yet Lisa Batiashvili’s sound I can only describe as confident and solid. This contributed to a theatrical depiction of the kind I’ve not experienced before. I must spend a bit of time searching out A Good Recording of the work in a bid to stir memories of the evening.

Proceedings were slightly marred, however. Exiting the last set of doors out onto the chilly outside I suddenly thought I’d dropped my programme. I stopped dead (and stepped aside), first looking at the floor, next realising that the programme on the floor wasn’t mine, then realising that the person behind me – a recognisable journo whose profile picture frequently pops up in my Twitter feed and in the copies of Gramophone I flick through every month – seemed a little irritated, tutting and puffing at me blocking his exit. Tsk. First thing tomorrow I’m cancelling my subscription.

Relatively straightforward choices

When you’re paying for your concert experiences the decision-making process is surprisingly easy. At least it seems that way to me this week.

Full transparency (and don’t think badly of me): it’s only recently I’ve started paying for my concert tickets. Previously the concerts I’ve attended have been on a quid pro quo basis. When you make a big announcement like I did about ‘stepping back’, then concert-going has a whole different take. Making active choices yields so many more insights.

Take this week. I’ve heard A LOT about the Drury Lane production of Messiah. Danielle de Niese told Neil Fisher she didn’t quite know what to expect from the one night show (she’s one of the soloists). There are dancers and lights, and it seems tickets remaining priced at £56 and £66.

I’m pondering whether I’ll fork out for a £56 ticket when I hear the production promo’d again on InTune tonight in the car back from the garden centre with The Partner of 25 Years, Simon (henceforth referred to as PO25). He’s banging on about how boring he finds the Hallelujah Chorus. I resist. This is a measure of how my view on Handel has changed in recent years. Samir Savant should take the credit here.

The idea of a concert experience over the next week or so is appealing though. An orchestra. Maybe Southbank. I should investigate when I get home I think to myself.

A couple of hours later I discover I can buy a £48 balcony seat to see Sibelius Violin and Mahler 6. That’s a tenner less, in my favourite venue, with far more space AND a ring side seat. As I click ‘purchase’ anticipation rises.

In doing so I realise I’m confirming what endless marketers have been saying for months: people are buying far closer to the wire. In my case I want epic and proximity. And I’m quite happy to drop £50, just not on something like Handel in a theatre with colourful lights and (I bet you) a smoke machine. Still, Drury Lane has sold out (basically), so good on them.

Ulster Orchestra plays Dvorak 9 at Ulster Hall

The brass play gentle but insistent chords. Strings echo. Dry. Cue cor anglais. Look to the ceiling. This is an awkward moment. It seems silly early to be crying.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always overlooked Dvorak’s ninth symphony. Schmalz. Popular. Way too tuneful. Insufficiently spikey to be of any use to me.

And yet here I am, listening to Abbado and the Berlin Phil’s interpretation, waiting for the 0950 from Belfast City to London Gatwick this morning. To my left a woman nursed a large glass of white.

In the space of 24 hours I’ve become besotted with the second movement.

Last night I heard the Ulster Orchestra conclude their Friday night concert with Dvorak’s much-loved symphony, the performance concluded with an unapologetically theatrical bow from the band lead principal conductor Daniele Rustioni.

The Ulster Orchestra string section is inconceivably rich. To hear them playing their loudest in Dvorak’s 9th you’d think there were more of them squirreled away somewhere. The acoustic helps – amplifying the upper frequencies meaning the textures and higher notes are most evident when they play. This emphasises the loud bits and the texture. Gripping stuff.

80% house by my estimates. Numerous people younger than me. One parent responding to excited offspring seeking clarification on various Young Person Observations made in the moment. Parents observed in the bar accommodating young person clearly animated by being out on the town with his folks.

The vibe in the Ulster Hall was pleasingly upbeat. A mix of anoraks, duffle coats, suits, and half-moons. I felt like I was at An Event that meant something to everyone there. A world away from London. People stood to applaud.

During the Dvorak 9, I see the chap sat beside me fiddle with his hearing aid. As final adjustments are made, the brass section gently calls out. He moves his hand and lets it rest on the knee of his partner sat the other side of him. Hands clasp. The Cor Anglais solo begins. It’s almost too much to bear.

An update on that hiatus thing

Pressing pause on this blog – a decision made in the eye of a storm a few weeks back – turned out to be a phenomenally and surprisingly good decision taken in a moment of crisis.

Be sure to read the originating post to get yourself up to speed if you’re not already.

Since that ominous night, I’ve benefited from multiple conversations with a therapist via the Better Help platform, gaining a deeper understanding of how the toxic swamp of anger I often feel I’m tapping into came into being. The conversations have been a revelation. 

I understand how years of putting extra effort into demonstrating adequacy and seeking acceptance have led to a distinctly unhealthy habit I have of forming co-dependent relationships. These relationships have led at various points to flashpoints – almost like warning signs at which corrective action needs to be taken. 

That I’ve had the varied and successful career I’ve had is a testament to this lifelong strategy. It’s something to celebrate: these crisis points have driven motivation and laid the foundation for success. Less of a generalist more of a curious wanderer, if such a thing exists in the professional realm.

Miraculously, all of it has worked. If I’d imagined 25 years ago I’d be the person I am today I’d have laughed in your face. Today I regard that journey to be something to be immensely proud of. 

There has been an unexpected sting in the tail. Of all those unhealthy co-dependant relationships I’ve analysed over the past few weeks, the classical music industry is the last I expected to see on the list.

I can see how the intent behind writing about the classical music ‘world’ is arguably a form of co-dependent relationship in itself. It is as though writing about the thing you love is in itself an act of seeking validation. That isn’t healthy. Don’t do whatever you do do it. Save yourself.

This and other revelations I’m not going to share here have been a bit chilling. Saddening. They’ve been weighty. Some mornings I’ve woken up from nightmares and been flattened by a slew of memories now set in a new context. Events I remember being a part of thirty years ago are now being experienced on an emotional level. Many of them make my bottom lip tremble. Everything makes a Great Deal of Sense I wish I’d worked out many years before.

But the time away has helped me drill down on a revised core purpose. This art form matters. All art matters, regardless of what the cultural vandals at DCMS and Arts Council England would have you believe. Writing about it or in response to it is still something I want to do. Acting within that space is something that motivates me. What’s important now is to be sure that whatever action is taken is done with the right intention and with the right end in mind. I know now it can’t primarily serve others. If it does, then that means the personal boundaries are set way too low. That’s a red line.

I haven’t quite worked out what that means in practice even if some self-imposed ‘self-care’ (a phrase I despise by the way) has helped clear away some of the chafe.

What remains is a sense that something needs to be done and that I’d like to be recognised as one of those people doing it. What it is I can do, who will pay for it and who has the budget for it is perhaps something for a future post.