Jess Gillam receives Master of Performance from Guildhall School of Music and Drama

I never especially enjoyed my graduation day. Twenty-seven years ago, me and my parents journeyed from Suffolk for the late morning ceremony. I’d lost the tickets. I was also reeling from having to return to post-University life, back in my old bedroom, resentful of my suddenly curtailed freedoms.

The ceremony saw me and my peers processing up to the stage in the Great Hall to shake hands with a person we’d never seen before, look out on a see of proud faces, before walking off the other side and walking past the congregation.

It felt like a ramshackle experience, one everyone assuming would be full of pomp. An hour or so later we handed back our gowns and mortarboards, exchanged goodbyes with friends and headed off.

All this is nothing in comparison to what this year’s music graduates have endured: a year of interrupted tuition, distanced learning, and nothing but practise. And to top it all they didn’t get the chance of closure with a formal ceremony.

Undeterred, saxophonist Jess Gillam donned her gown and mortarboard after ‘receiving’ (presumably in the post) her Masters of Performance from Guildhall School of Music and Drama during the conservatoire’s virtual graduation day on Friday 26 March 2021..

After extended studies with her teacher-composer and (its fair to say) mentor John Harle, Gillam’s graduation bookends the COVID year during which her second album release Time ended-up being the idea soundtrack for a year misaligned experiences.

#ABO21 Caroline Dinenage MP shares some surprising Culture Recovery Fund figures

The Association of British Orchestras conference 2021 is underway and has started with its customary address from the ABO Chairman, principal supporters (Classic FM), and a 20 minute or so spot from Caroline Dinenage MP, Minister of State for Digital and Culture in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In a fairly safe piece to camera delivered live (and a little later than originally scheduled), Dinenage thanked the ABO and membership for their collaboration in helping DCMS respond to the challenges faced by the arts and culture sector amidst the pandemic.

Talking specifically about the Culture Recovery Fund Dinenage said,

“I was very proud to have been part of the team that helped deliver the Cultural Recovery Fund. It’s an unprecedented sum of money, £1.57 billion pounds, the biggest ever one-off cash injection into UK arts and culture. And it is providing support right across the cultural ecosystem. I was delighted that last week, the Treasury announced £300 million of additional funding for that as part of the Spring Budget, and that will continue to support our key cultural organizations. It will continue to bridge the sector as audiences begin to return it will continue to ensure a really vibrant future for the culture sector as the nation recovers from the pandemic.”

“So far, we’ve only released the details of the very first round of the Cultural Recovery Fund, the second one has just concluded.

“And of that, just from that first round alone £117 million has already been awarded to 690 music-based organizations. The music sector will be further supported through the second round of funding, and there’s so many orchestras right across the country that will receive funding in that, in that section.

“The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra received over £8.8 million. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra received over £3 million. The Paraorchestra and friends in Bristol received over a million, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra received over £10 million, all incredibly worthwhile recipients of that money. And I’m also delighted that the self-employment income support scheme has been extended until September 2021.”

The Culture Recovery Fund data issued by Arts Council England confirms that the Paraorchestra received £156,000, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra received £843K. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra received £996,702. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra did not apply for funds from the Cultural Recovery Fund.

The ABO confirmed in a tweet following her appearance of the “need to clarify the numbers quoted by the Minister for CRF grants to ABO members were wrong her briefing, and she is mortified. We have informed DCMS.”

https://twitter.com/aborchestras/status/1369972206294425600

Light

News from 10 Downing Street last night about post-national lockdown tier rules provide a little bit of hope pre-Christmas for classical music venues, groups and organisations. Just so long as you’re in Tiers 1 or 2.

Reports document the three-tiered approach will return to England, allowing sports and live performance venues to accommodate 50% of their capacity audience or (in the case of live performance) 1000 people whichever is smaller. Numbers vary for sports according to whether the sport is played outside (maximum of 2000 spectators) or inside (maximum of 1000 spectators).

I see some leaping on the headlines which drove the story – sport – as a trigger for highlighting the apparent inconsistency or lack of consideration for the arts. Whilst I’m not about to sign up to the Conservative party as a fully-fledged member or start defending the government’s poor record in responding to COVID, not seeking out the information on live performance does skew perspectives on this change.

Speaking for myself, I experienced an unexpected rush when I discovered the news. Maximum capacity of 1000 is not 80% of the house (which is what is said to be the level at which a classical music venue breaks even on a concert) by any stretch of the imagination. In some cases it will be significantly less than 50%.

But it’s a step in the right direction, and presumably means that the two metre mitigation has been reduced to one metre now. If that’s the case, its both a success for those membership and trade organisations who have been working with DCMS on the latest measures.

Of course, all of this is dependent on one key thing: what parts of the country are in Tiers 1 and 2, and which parts of the country are in Tier 3. Some areas of the UK (and presumably its going to be a lot) are going to end up in the toughest of tiers. We’ll know how bright the light is, nationally speaking, come Thursday.

Central, vital, and gone

News out on Twitter this evening that classical music PR Dvora Lewis has died.

For the majority the name probably won’t mean anything. And to a subsection of that majority to even highlight her departure is evidence of the classical music sector’s aching insularity.

But. The reason to flag her departure is because of the positive impact she has had over so many years shaping the story not only of a great many recognisable brands in the classical music world, but also the influence she has had establishing best practise, and developing the current generation of PRs – the ones who currently shape the story of the music world I now feel a part of.

The finest of today’s PRs learned from Dvora Lewis. Her departure is unexpected and really rather sad.

Dvora Lewis is pictured left (above) at an event celebrating her retirement from the LSO in 2015.

Jess Gillam's Virtual Scratch Orchestra Logo

Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra set to record Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride

News this week that Jess Gillam is launching another lockdown virtual scratch orchestra brought a smile to my face.

As role models go Gillam’s activity throughout 2020 in response to COVID has been impressive, acting as a beacon for young musicians and amateurs alike.

That along with her obvious industry, determination and spirit, not only maintains Gillam in the education and entertainment worlds, but also injects a little bit of hope and sparkle at a time when its needed most. The Let it Be mashup from a few weeks ago, even if you assume the lockdown style won’t be compelling on a first glimpse, does tickle the tear ducts come the final chorus.

Her latest project calls on musicians across the world to submit video recordings of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride using music downloaded from the Virtual Scratch Orchestra website. All audio will be used in the final mashup, along with some of the video.

Set against the global pandemic and the economic crisis its brought about, Gillam’s marketing narrative in 2020 has shaken off the initial record-label fuelled contrivance it seemed to have pre-COVID. Her education work makes her relevant and relatable, just by virtue of it being needed and appreciated right now.

This combined with her second album released this year – Time – featuring a carefully selected running order of music suited to her instrument illustrates Gillam’s increasing maturity as a musician and an educator.

For more information on Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra visit her website.

Being in amongst the tribe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell Music to close

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

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

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

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

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

Levit, Malta, and the 6 month thing

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

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

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

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

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

Peckham. Handel. London Handel Festival.

News started dribbling in at first and it was tantalising. Then there was a steady flow of news about concerts and recordings, and then things started to feel like a bit more normal. Every press release after that the presented itself like a mini launch event for the BBC Proms.

Like this: DJ Nico Bentley joining forces with the London Handel Festivsl for an outdoor thing in nearby Peckham. Well, it’s near to me at least. A bike ride away. And I do need the exercise.

Festival Voices sing at Copeland Park, Peckham, showcasing a varied programme of well-known works by Handel, remixed live with electronic music by DJ and producer Nico Bentley on Saturday 3 October. It’ll be like going to an outdoor rave, only this will be legal. And you might need to bring a shawl.

Anticipated highlights included below.

  • Zadok the Priest (Coronation Anthems)
  • Eternal Source of Light Divine (Ode to Queen Anne)
  • Chorus of the Babylonians (Belshazzar)
  • Ombra mai fu (Serse)
  • How Dark, o Lord, are thy decrees (Jephtha)
  • Nel mondo e nell’abisso (Tamerlano)
  • A suoi piedi (Tamerlano)
  • The King Shall Rejoice (Coronation Anthems)

Tickets £20. More information here.

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.