Is it ‘selfish’ to be unmasked at a classical concert?

In an opinion piece on Bachtrack Mark Pullinger says that “the government could – should – decree that audiences have to remain masked or, even better, that they have to prove vaccination status/ immunity/ negative test. But they won’t. They’re afraid of being seen as the “nanny state” and would prefer to devolve difficult decisions.”

Of audience’s responsibility he writes “don’t jeopardise the recovery through your own selfish behaviour. Test yourself on the day of a performance and… mask up!”

I’ve been to a range of concerts over the summer where different mitigations have been required, mandated or advised.

At the Proms in particular (you need only to look at the Last Night) the wearing of masks wasn’t consistent. Sometimes I wore mine, sometimes I didn’t. Quite how much more risk there is sitting amid a largely silent seated audience without a mask on I remain unconvinced about, nor the actual effectiveness of a mask anyway.

In Dubai, the experience at the InClassica festival was entirely (and even outside at the fountain display). Security and front of house staff were quick to tap you on the shoulder even mid-performance to remind you to apply your mask, even if it was slipping down your nose. This in an auditorium with restricted seat sales.

In Scotland, at Lammermuir the instruction was clear – masks on all the time for the distanced audience, plus staggered entry to the venue. The hotel I stayed in made a point of completely clearing down a table I absent-mindedly moved away from at breakfast because I wanted to sit someplace else, but told me not to worry about having forgotten to don my mask to enter the breakfast room. In Dubai at the chain hotel I stayed at, breakfast was a fairly laid back affair with distancing a thing of the past in the relatively cramped canteen – a stark contrast to the Downtown Dubai where zealous police kept a keen eye on everything.

These inconsistencies don’t bother me as perhaps they might do for Mark Pullinger at Bachtrack.

I recognise that the opening up of live events presents an opportunity to build new audiences, a chance for the existing audiences – the genres advocates – to bang a different drum, tell a different story and project a different image.

The Government has consistently utilised the Populist Playbook throughout the pandemic just as it is right now with the lorry driver shortage.

If you tell people not to do something they will do it. If they do it, then the Government can blame the population it told not to do something when tighter restrictions are subsequently deemed necessary. If the government doesn’t mandate mitigations then that plays to the Governments advantage in the future.

That’s called gaslighting.

But what results is the population or audience squabbling, finger-pointing and blaming one another. Turn the population on itself in order to deflect attention from a hopeless Government.

Which is why the line about indicating that non-mask wearers in the auditorium are somehow ‘selfish’ is unhelpful. Those are people who are exercising their right to choose based on their own judgment of risk.

The only thing that is achieved by pointing the finger at some members of the audience is establishing what the perceived classical music cognoscenti regard as the unwritten expectations of the audience. That’s a short step from a clique. And cliques are what some arts managers, audience members and commentators regard as one of classical music’s biggest challenges.

A Rookie Error

It appears that I have been rather foolish.

Not only have I fallen into the trap of being an incensed middle-aged white male barking online about a performer’s concert attire, but I’ve managed to pitch myself deftly and efficiently as a classical music fan who is part of the very problem classical music is trying to rid itself of.

And I’ve achieved this in a short series of Tweets posted shortly after I left the Albert Hall last night, before I reached South Kensington tube station (which was closed, by the way).

Last night’s Aurora Orchestra was something I was looking forward to following rave reviews of the band’s Saffron Hall ‘sister concert’.

What took me a little by surprise and subsequently drew my eye throughout the first work was Pavel Kolesnikov’s bright orange Nike trainers. Rarely has concert attire drawn my eye quite so much, triggered so much thought and reflection, and in so doing distracted me from the sole purpose of the event I was attending in the first place.

Pavel’s footwear was, I understand from incoming correspondence, a clear sign to reach out to younger audiences to make classical music appear more approachable. From my seat in the stalls it feld oddly contrived and a bit arch. It was a distraction.

Even writing that now … in.an.actual.blog.post … gives me the fear a bit. I can hear the shouts across the internet heading my way. I can see whatever reputation it is I have disappearing down a plug hole.

Maybe one of those correspondents was right when she asked whether I might consider deleting my Tweets.

But then again. Maybe she wasn’t. My comment wasn’t rude. It wasn’t offensive. I was hardly spreading misinformation about COVID or vaccines. I was just expressing an opinion in the moment. I think that’s still OK. We should all of us be able to do that.

There is for me a good reason why everyone on stage by and large wears all one colour (a uniform if you like) or a pallet of colours. It’s to reduce distraction. I’m not advocating penguin suits or dinner jackets, nor evening dresses (these always strike me as distinctly uncomfortable to wear at a point in time when performers need to be ‘freed-up’). But against a neutral backdrop of players on stage at a venue like the Royal Albert Hall say, it’s hardly surprising that the introduction of a bright pair of trainers is going to draw the eye – to the feet rather than the keyboard.

I can now see producers rubbing their hands together with glee, others rolling their eyes with derision. Those with a proven track record in passive aggression will also be looking at this and no doubt thinking, “Well we had to wait a long time but it paid off – he’s finally made an idiot of himself saying this. He really is part of the problem.”

What Aurora’s concert has highlighted to me is that I’m surprisingly and comfortably conventional and orthodox. I’m attuned to contrivance. And I’m reminded that I’m less inclined to think that appealing to a younger audience is best done through fashion choices.

I still hold that the music should speak for itself. It’s just music. Listening is all that’s required. That and a properly funded music education system that introduces music at primary school level. That would help a great deal.

Suzy Klein takes on role of Head of Arts and Classical Music TV in October 2021

News arrives at Thoroughly Good of the appointment of Suzy Klein as Head of Arts and Classical Music TV at the BBC.

BBC Radio 3, TV and Proms presenter Klein takes on her new role in October 2021.

Thoroughly Good can’t think of anyone better to take on the role. Suzy’s path has taken in a range of roles in TV and radio in production, direction and presentation. Her knowledge and experience is considerable and her authority and sincerity on air (and in real-life) makes the appointment as exciting as it is reassuring.

“If my appointment represents something,” said Suzy Klein in the BBC press release, “it is a long-term commitment to the transformative power, inspiration and joy that the arts bring. That’s something I can’t wait to share with my brilliant commissioning team, as we work together to create the most compelling, unmissable programmes for audiences across the UK.”

What I’m liking about the BBC Proms 2021

Radio still thrives, and television coverage has been afforded the opportunity to get some gratifying wide shots. But is the televisual refresh at the expense of available space for Prommers?

It is without doubt a joyous thing to have the Proms back. I’ve been attending for thirty years in one way or another. On that basis it’s assumed the status of an old friend. Always there, even if at times I didn’t always understand why it was doing what it was doing or saying. The fact is it’s here and it’s on snd that’s a relief. Seeing the interior of the Royal Albert Hall brings back memories which are in themselves part of my ongoing Proms experience. And that is much-appreciated. 

Seeing and hearing familiar faces and voices – Derham, Klein, Trelawny et al. – reinforces that feeling too. After a year of uncertainty, the restoration of something that has provided continuity real and perceived also gets a big tick from me. I suspect a global pandemic abs something being ‘taken away’ has the inevitable consequence of resetting priorities. 

There have been mildly painful observations that have at first brought about some unease. A Proms pal of old (who would normally be in attendance at the First Night drew attention to the barren arena. Usually packed with people, this year the space was bare. A closer look revealed a slightly different layout to what has over the years become a very middle-class kind of mosh-pit. The distance between the prommers and the stage has widened (so too the stage to accommodate the distanced orchestra). There seems to be a physical divider between the back row of the prommers and the rest of the arena. Behind which appears at a distance to be an empty space. In fairness its a little difficult to say with any certainty about the amount the floor has been reduced by, but I’m an edgy kind of chap. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this after all.

Does this appear that the insistence of proof of immunity or vaccination wasn’t enough to pull in the crowds for the First Night. Is that a sign of the times? Is it also a hint of future times too? When I thought about it, I was surprised how much I apparently needed to see the Prommers there. The jigsaw isn’t complete until they’re all there. 

The flip side is, I realised after an emergency meeting with myself, television’s advantage. A much deeper stage (and taking over part of the arena – hence the seemingly empty space) means that a boom can face the stage full-on, getting shots of the orchestra usually only possible from the side. This makes for TV’s equivalent of immersive shots, bringing the music alive and giving proceedings a refresh.

There’s an argument that says that had the global pandemic not happened, the management’s fear of those Prommers who cling on to convention like a barnacle stuck Peter Grimes fishing boat would have made a radical shifting of TV equipment a difficult change to implement.

What the change underlines is where the priorities should lie (something highlighted in numerous digital streams across the year), with the performance. What I sought to watch on Friday and Sunday wasn’t chit-chat (sorry Katie and Tom) but the music.

And broadcasters are only too aware that what they’re competing with is on-demand music streaming. In the run-up to its centenary year, it makes perfect sense for the BBC to be prioritising the capturing of performance. That’s where it can create the most value from its core content now and in the future. Those interstitial moments are (I’m sorry again Katie and Tom) the stuff that will end up edited out.

Radio still thrives. I heard Petroc Trelawny’s interval feature with a Hollywood musical expert either recorded as live with audience ambiance underneath or done actually live. If the latter then it was invigorating live broadcasting. A reminder that radio triggers the imagination in a way that TV relays (deferred or otherwise) often crush.

The overriding question for me is whether this signals the gradual decline of the Prommers arena space. At some point, the stage will return to its normal size, won’t it? I can’t see TV producers nodding to management in the future and saying ‘Yeah OK, we’ll go back to what we were doing’. TV isn’t generally like that. So, given that the Prom tickets aren’t exactly a massive revenue driver (say a maximum of 500 people at £6 each), is the Promming area even worth the hassle? Has COVID given an opportunity to usher in a big change, or at least begin the transition?

The answer to that is to know whether whether the BBC would be happy to ditch one of the defining characteristics of a Proms performance in a a flagship global product during its centenary year next year. I hope not. 

Wigmore Hall announce new season for September and October 2021

Wigmore Hall has done great work over the past fifteen months. A slew of live streams on YouTube, with calls to its highly engaged real-life audience, subscriber base, and digital network have seen chief executive John Gilhooly’s considerable eye for PR pay dividends for the Wigmore brand. The chamber music venue has enhanced its reputation by positioning itself as a voice for the audience, and a vociferous advocate for musicians, and the arts.

It’s also assumed a bellwether role, illustrating how live (unamplified) music and comparatively intimate performing arts events now have to think and operate.

In that respect Wigmore Hall’s 40-page brochure released yesterday after a live-streamed season launch with Gilhooly and Clive Myrie is a punchy piece of PR. There are thirty pages of events committed for September to October 2021 (it’s easier to navigate the PDF than the events page).

But beyond the end of October is a statement of intent. A preview. Nothing more.

It’s the same approach the BBC Proms took at launch. But what’s different here is how the word ‘preview’ establishes jeopardy. I don’t believe for a moment that Wigmore Hall don’t already know what the details are for their November and December concerts for example. But I do think there’s a gain to be made by witholding that information, assuming there isn’t already a fairly good hunch been had about what’s going to happen when winter comes.

At the time of writing this I’m tussling whether that’s a sign of a hunch or information known which can’t publically be shared. Because if there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate far more keenly over the past year it’s that a great many more people have advance warning of what’s going to be likely and what isn’t.

Why Presto Music works

News today that Presto Music, the online and in-store classical music distribution hub saw an 18% increase in its business growth in the past twelve months is good to hear.

The news prompts a few Thoroughly Good Hunches.

First, its evidence of an engaged customer base remaining true, presumably, to its preference for physical products (ie CDs, books snd sheet music) and motivated by a desire to see artists get more of the money from sales that they deserve.

Second, it perhaps reflects the classical music fans desire for authoritative reliable destinations. As a digital user experience Presto’s is consistent and reliable. That reinforces the brand name as a destination when in search of recordings (even if you’re not purchasing something I find it a wholly reliable research tool).

Most interestingly is its content strategy. Presto clearly recognises the value originated marketing content (interviews, articles and reviews) has on the way its brand is perceived. That core content drives traffic, improves ranking, and contributes to conversion. It achieves all of that whilst ensuring its language is clear too with a tone of voice that lacks pretension.

And, in a relatively crowded digital space where streaming platforms, radio stations, and even some ensembles compete for attention, Presto Music stands apart with a product that not only works, but does so without getting itself tied up in knots.

I’d be interested to drill down into the data to see what the take-up has been for its streaming app (digital purchases are stored in the cloud and accessible via the app), to gain a deeper understanding of how that development contributed to its 18% growth during the pandemic. Regardless, news of Presto’s success makes me warm to the brand even more. It also gives a pat on the back for the music sector as a whole – the audience is there and they’re hungry. Long may that success continue.

Liverpool says goodbye to Vasily Petrenko

It’s all too easy to read stuff online and lose sight of geographical differences across the UK. Not so with anything inspired by or reflective of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra who last week said goodbye to their Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko.

An op-ed by Head of UNESCO City of Music, Kevin McManus in the Liverpool Express explicitly highlights the impact Petrenko has on the orchestra and the city too.

“As well as being a giant of the conducting world Vasily is also a hugely charismatic individual and has served as a brilliant ambassador not just for the Phil but for the city itself. He has taken the city to his heart, embraced its people, moved his family here and most significant of all he has shown his incredible taste by becoming a loyal supporter of LFC. Importantly he takes this love for the city with him wherever he is working and having such a prominent and respected figure acting as an advocate for the city is priceless.”

What I especially like about the piece is how unusual it is to see someone in an official capacity talk so passionately about an orchestra, illustrating just how important an orchestra can be to a local community.

That’s always been evident in the communications surrounding the RLPO over the past 10-15 years – a statement not only on how the organisation understands the relationship it has with its local audience, but also a measure of its pride in sharing that with a wider audience beyond Liverpool.

Some of the larger orchestras could do more of that. It’s an easy win to tell the story of how their activities underpin civic pride. It’s also a different story too, one that draws on authenticity.

Discover Thoroughly Good Recordings made by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic, and Vasily Petrenko.

Eurovision: the audience’s critical role

The audience creates an experience that other potential audience members will willingly pay to be part of

Eurovision this year is different: a much smaller audience, distant from the stage. During the two semi-finals broadcast on TV earlier this week, we’ve seen a 3500 strong audience in various shots, significantly smaller and quieter than in previous contests.

On the wide expansive stage below performers (only the lead vocals need to be sung live this year) sing to an arena populated by other artists and their production teams. In the cavernous space, the atmosphere is lost in comparison to the EBU-approved ticketed mosh-pit visuals that were part and parcel of previous Eurovisions. This not only places greater demands on the performer but means viewers at home see an entirely different kind of atmosphere, contrived perhaps even sterile.

A safe distance between audience and stage

The story the audience creates at a live experience is potent, both for those present and those of us watching at home. Eurovision is an aspirational event, something that its eager audience of fans and commentators help amplify the profile of. Eurovision’s renaissance since 2000 is in no small way down to capitalising on the enthusiasms of its most passionate audience members. That audience has over the years first validated, celebrated and advocated the Eurovision brand. The Eurovision audience is an integral part to the experience, and over the years their proximity to performers especailly important too.

Malta’s Destiny in rehearsals

The irony is that this year’s Eurovision is sort of what the Contest used to be when I first watched it as a kid. The audience was small and distant from the stage. But there was still an aspirational air about proceedings when I watched. It triggered the imagination. This was an event that was going on someplace else. What happened after the TV credits rolled was as potent as the event itself.

Staging Eurovision is an achievement on the part of the EBU and the Dutch broadcaster AVROTROS, not least because the revenue derived from it is surely depleted given the restricted lifestyle most people are experiencing at the present time. It also helps science and, like the Brits in the UK, it helps a country’s government and a global record industry who astutely recognise that a return to live events is vital for their revenue stream and their artists’ earnings.

Gjon’s Tears rehearsing Tout l’Univers – Switzerland song appears in the Eurovision final

But the distance imposed on the audience at Eurovision reminds me of what that audience brings to the live experience for those in the arena and those of us at home. The energy the audience brings by being both present and close to the performer is critical. An audience creates ocassion. An audience creates atmosphere.

My visits to Bath Abbey, the Barbican, and Wigmore Hall this week have contributed to this thought process, and remind me of another story not currently being made the most of at the moment: the contribution the other people present make.

This is a valuable currency not being reflected anywhere near enough. Entertainment regards and reflects the audience as a passive observer instead of an active contributor to an experience.

The audience – your customers – create the experience that other potential audience members will willingly pay to be part of. I know because I have in the past.

Why we should be mindful of the language we use to describe the music we love

The language we use to describe music has the potential to convince, persuade or reassure the newcomer, the sceptic, the wary, or the dubious-minded that classical music is a cultural journey worth embarking upon.

To that end those who are already fans or devotees of classical music play an important role in articulating their passion in a relatable way. It is us who have the opportunity to build community around the art form by drawing on our knowledge and enthusiasm to illustrate why this musical genre matters. Some might say its even a responsibility.

At a point time when the art form needs those advocates at every level to seize the opportunity presented by the gradual return of live performance, we have the chance to channel our collective passion and articulate why the music we love has the impact on us in the way that it does.

This is not to say that music impacts in only one way, nor that it will impact two people in the same way necessarily. Rather, by sharing our reflections on how music impacts us personally, we underline why curiosity and awareness are the only requirements for exploring this wide and varied genre.

Thoroughly Good as a business is built around this core value, a value discovered as a result of numerous conversations with artists and audience members. When the curious amongst us hear people talk about the music they love, we are encouraged, persuaded perhaps even compelled to listen to it too.

Being mindful of the language we use to describe music is vital. We need to present ourselves as a welcoming community, open to all.

The continuing strain on our mental health

Before the week draws to a close, I wanted to write a personal reflection about Mental Health Awareness Week.

After fourteen months or thereabouts of largely isolated human-less living, the prospect of final stages of eased restrictions might seem like the end of the pandemic. There is an assumption underpinning the approaching end of lockdown: the world is returning to normal; we can return to our normal lives.

But transition back into that ‘normal’ life is, it seems to me, a far different prospect.

Even today, with Nicola Sturgeon announcing some areas of Scotland remaining in a state of reduced lockdown whilst other areas are released.

For people across the UK their experience of returning to the world is subject to a vast array of differing timescales. Their perception of freedom will be based on the opening-up of activities, but also be rooted in perceived restrictions or perhaps imaginary ones.

Being able to hug people or step back into a concert hall auditorium isn’t the end of pandemic-driven mitigations; it is only the beginning of the regaining of freedoms. Some of those freedoms are real, tangible things. A great many others are in the mind.

For a considerable number who were made or took voluntary redundancy in 2020, finding another job has been hard. I have felt this at home supporting my partner whilst he finds alternative work. Recruitment is tough even with specialisms and experience on your side. Continued unsuccessful job hunting for those who lost their income during the pandemic prolongs the sense of isolation and restriction. The inevitable lack of purpose that arises damages motivation, and impacts self-belief. The impact that has on the state of mind for both job-seeker and supporter is draining. The pressure is immense.

Quite apart from the logistics, practicalities and financial responsibilities, there’s a sense of guilt stitched into this period in time. On a local level I see my world – the classical music world – opening up again. It’s by no means a straightforward opening up. It does in some respects feel a little precarious. Charlotte Higgins has a fairly punchy summary of the situation the UK arts scene faces from 17 May.

However, with conversations about future work for me coming in, the guilt that arises when one’s partner continues to wait patiently and positively for work opportunities to come his way is a little difficult to swallow. Freedoms aren’t freedoms if the ones you love can’t experience their version of freedom too.

That’s what I mean about how people will experience coming out of restricted living at entirely different paces. It will be different from that articulated by Government guildelines. Individual experience will be different from one another. Coming out of this (whatever that really means) will bring about all manner of pressures on our mental health too that we’ll need to be prepared for.

That’s quite apart from the experience of breaking out of the relative ‘comfort’ zone we’ve all become accustomed to over the past year or so. That transition places demands on our mental health as well.

I consider myself very fortunate this past year. I have benefited from regular freelance work when it was quite possible (and I did for a while believe) everything could have fizzled out right from the word go. Me and my partner have space to do what we need to do without getting in one another’s way. We laugh a great deal and, importantly, we’re able to speak openly about how we feel, with one another without consequence or judgment. We understand one another’s differences and respect them. We also know the importance of focussing on abundance rather than scarcity.

That said, it’s not always easy to keep the boat afloat.

I’ve also seen a shift in how we talk about our own mental health. This may of course only be a reflection of my circle of friends, colleagues and peers, and subject to confirmation bias too. But there feels as though there is greater openness in conversations. People I talk to don’t rush in to rescue with ideas to make things better. People check in more on a regular basis with a WhatsApp message or a call, and that prompts me to do the same with them. I am fortunate to be part of a network that sustains me.

It wouldn’t be authentic if we weren’t able to reflect calmly and objectively about our thoughts and feelings during Mental Health Awareness Week. So in the spirit of leading by example, here goes.

I find this time immensely tiring. I have no sense of when our situation will resolve, though the hope is considerable. The prospect of the world opening up a little bit more is exciting for me, but a difficult when I know someone I care deeply about is looking for work. Sometimes the worries that emerge as a result – ruminations on catastrophic thinking if you’re looking for the coaching parlance – are all consuming. They have become so familiar now as to be inextricably linked with the depressing shade of green I slapped on my office walls a few years ago in a bid to ‘finish decorating the office’. It’s beginning to feel a little oppressive now, so too the paintwork.

But this is where resilience is shored up. This is the moment in time when we surprise ourselves on a daily basis. This is the time when we begin by making small goals and commit to reaching them no matter what. The path out of this is not quick, not signalled by a Government announcement, or easy. And if you can’t say that in Mental Health Awareness Week, when can you?