Guest blog: Composer Thomas Hewitt-Jones on the threat AI poses to music

I am generally an optimistic person and tend to embrace new technologies. Innovation and change are arguably what shape society, and in many respects, we live in the most exciting era in history. Apart from dodgy MPs, vast inequality, the housing crisis, and the energy crisis. Oh…and Brexit. Anyway apart from all that, we live in an era where well-being at school is appreciated as much as grade A*s, and the young people of tomorrow know to embrace new technologies and take risks, as they know they are financially screwed anyway.

However, I cannot put this more strongly: AI poses the greatest threat to civilisation we have yet seen.

As a professional composer fast approaching my 40s, I’ve recently taken stock amid a busy stream of commissions over the last couple of years. I know I believe firmly (as do many of my contemporaries) that the value of human endeavour of any kind should not be free, and hard graft (of whatever nature) should be respected and valued.

But in thinking this all through, I have to go right back to the essential question: what is the purpose of art? For me, human creativity is the very essence of identity. The reason for being. My own artistic journey is about creating order from inherent disorder, where an individual vision (in whatever genre) has the potential to make its unique and lasting mark. It’s all about process, and I practically live by the Stephen Sondheim idea that “content dictates form”.

However, I do know that others see the pursuit of creativity through a more corporate lens. There are frequently up to 7 writers on a pop song, sometimes as many as 9. Film scores often have whole teams of additional writers, and orchestrators are usually employed for reasons of speed (even though their job is often more of a MIDI/audio transcriber and rearranger). Conversely, classical composers normally work on their own, and use a combination of inspiration and hard graft to craft an emotional narrative of horizontal lines and vertical textures, and I’ve always sat slightly on the more ‘commercial-but-aiming-for-integrity’ end of being a melodic classical and commercial composer.

When human ‘ghostwriters’ come into the equation in commercial music, I can sort of understand. But the really interesting stuff – the game-changing pinnacle of creativity – is always aware of the limitations of the human condition; it isn’t a coincidence that some of the finest human expression has been on down days or late in life, when staring mortality in the face. Documenting our journey through life – warts and all – is something that is hardwired: it’s a human compulsion, and those of us whose work represents personal fulfilment, but also reaches an audience, should consider ourselves extremely lucky.

“The ease of access to AI-generated content may decrease motivation for humans to create.”

cHATgpt

The current crisis on our hands (I do not use that word lightly) is that AI machine learning is about to get many, many times cleverer than it is already. Google’s foray into AI music is pretty crap so far, but it’s advancing incredibly fast and will surely replace low-level commercial music within a couple of years.

A good thing, one might say. But despite the lack of universal free music education (which we all dream of), audiences are smart. People can tell instantly when music has artistic integrity if they aren’t deliberately patronised by what I call ‘lowest common denominator music’ and are given a choice. Most sentient beings are open to art, and art can enrich them.

I should probably wind back a few paragraphs and unpick applications where AI can potentially really help humanity – and I asked ChatGPT to outline these for you here. This is what it said:

  1. Improving healthcare (e.g. diagnosis, personalized treatment plans)
  2. Enhancing education (e.g. personalized learning, grading)
  3. Driving scientific discoveries (e.g. drug development, climate modeling)
  4. Automating mundane tasks (e.g. data entry, customer service)
  5. Reducing poverty and inequality (e.g. creating jobs, improving access to services)
  6. Improving public safety (e.g. disaster response, crime prevention)
  7. Enhancing accessibility (e.g. speech recognition, language translation)
  8. Environmental protection (e.g. reducing waste, conserving resources).

However, unchartered AI let loose on the creative industries is incredibly scary for multiple reasons. Large AI companies profess to make the technologies ‘open’ but what they are really doing is writing code that steals from creative people. That’s what it does – it steals. And that’s not OK. Governments put ‘copyright exemptions’ in place to try and support these new and emerging technologies, but everyone is quickly realising that this will not work. A world where any new creative endeavour is immediately ‘harvested’ is not acceptable – not only in terms of financial loss to the creator but also in terms of the existential threat to humanity and people’s wellbeing. I have it on good authority from friends who work in the AI sector that technically speaking, a system of remuneration to the original creators of any ‘harvested’ work is entirely possible, but that governments need to make appropriate laws immediately, otherwise, this will be skirted over and not come to fruition.

Otherwise, we need to have the option to ‘opt out’ of data harvesting. I’ll certainly be writing that into all of my music contracts from now. There is a UK government committee about to investigate the ethics of AI, and in the US the White House an ‘AI Bill of Rights Blueprint’ has just issued, but more needs to be done globally specifically regarding the protection of copyright material else the very essence of human creativity is at stake. AI needs to be properly legislated by governments, and it needs to happen fast. 

I would like to think that developers working on AI and machine learning have good intentions at heart, and are all trying their best to keep the modern world fresh and exciting. The problems arise when technologies outpace governments and legal systems to the point that it becomes almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

I’ll give the last word to ChatGPT.

I asked it to outline the threat AI poses to the value of copyright. It responded:

Outline the potential threat AI poses to the value of copyright.

  1. Ownership disputes: AI-generated content may raise questions about who holds the copyright to the work, the creator or the AI program itself.
  2. Difficulty in enforcement: AI-generated content can be easily copied and distributed, making it challenging to enforce copyright laws.
  3. Lack of originality: AI-generated content may lack the originality and creativity required for copyright protection.
  4. Rapid dissemination: AI can generate and distribute content at an unprecedented speed, making it difficult to control the distribution of copyrighted material.
  5. Unclear legal framework: The existing copyright laws may not adequately address the unique challenges posed by AI-generated content.
  6. Potential harm to human creators: AI-generated content may decrease the demand for human-created content and harm the livelihoods of creators.

And then I asked it: 

Outline the potential problems AI poses to the value of human creativity.

It said:

  1. Job displacement: AI can automate tasks previously performed by humans, potentially reducing the need for certain creative jobs.
  2. Decreased uniqueness: AI-generated content may lack the distinctiveness and originality of human-created content.
  3. Bias and lack of empathy: AI may perpetuate existing biases and lack the capacity to understand the nuances and emotional aspects of human experiences.
  4. Overreliance on AI: Overreliance on AI may stifle human imagination and problem-solving skills.
  5. Intellectual property concerns: Issues surrounding the ownership and distribution of AI-generated creative works are yet to be fully addressed.
  6. Decreased motivation: The ease of access to AI-generated content may decrease motivation for humans to create.

In conclusion, while AI has revolutionised the way we live and create, it also poses a threat to the value of human creativity and the protection of copyright. It is important to address these challenges and find ways to balance the benefits of AI with the protection of human creativity and the value of copyright.

That last paragraph was also written by AI.

So I would like to think that it agrees with me.

See the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights | OSTP | The White House

MusicLM – Google Research’s foray into AI music generation from text prompts  MusicLM (google-research.github.io)

Sam Jackson announced as new Controller of BBC Radio 3

Sam Jackson is announced as BBC Radio 3’s new Controller. He’ll be responsible for running Radio 3 and the BBC Proms.

He has an impressive career, starting out as a runner at the BBC Proms, he later managed Classic FM output, and after that took on the role of Executive Vice-President of Global Classics & Jazz for Universal Music Group.

It’s a great move for Radio 3, bringing Sam’s considerable commercial radio experience into the BBC at a time when classical music and jazz need a strong advocate (perhaps even defender?).

Each controller has brought their own individual style to the role – Roger Wright overseeing cross-BBC tie-ins and the beginning of a ‘friendlier’ on-air tone, Alan Davey ushering in immersive programming, a particular favourite of mine being ‘extended ‘slow-radio’ – sweeping soundscapes rooted in natural landscapes.

It will be interesting to see what changes Jackson’s era as Controller ushers in.

Presenter Controller Alan Davey leaves the post in March.

January Daybreak

A chance exchange when I said goodbye to Vicki Haircut post-trim the other night prompted a slew of ideas on the 202 home to Torridon Road:

“If there are any concerts you fancy going to in January, let me know., said Vicky as we’d waved goodbye to each other, “I’d love to come along.”

Regular readers may recall I took Vicky Haircut – the lady who has regularly cut my hair for the past ten years or so – to a Prom concert earlier in the year. She had a ball. I’d found a new concert-going friend. Everyone was, as they say, a winner.

On the journey home I started thinking about Christmas gifts. As well as a hairdresser, Vicky is a nurse too. Her pandemic tales were jaw-dropping. She’s worked hard. She’s chronically underpaid. But her ambition isn’t dented. She’s ever so slightly older than me but she’s still striving for more. She is incredible. Such dedication and warmth and all-round loveliness needs to be rewarded. Me buying her a ticket to a concert is a no-brainer and a simple no-brainer too. An ideal Christmas gift she’ll be pleased with.

Later on in the same journey (around the Catford Bridge stop for those interested in the detail) I start thinking about a blog post of ideal Christmas gifts for classical music devotees, newcomers, or the curious. A Good Idea, I think. I should probably do that. It would probably end up being a list of things I want my partner to buy me for Christmas, truth be told. I should probably just tell him what I want.

That’s when I start to think about books, the pointlessness of buying me CDs (I’m a Tidal user when I’m not using Spotify) and, eventually, what dreamy concert destinations I had in mind.

I immediately start thinking about Elb Philharmonie in Hamburg. I’ve never been. Everyone raves about it. I want to go there. Then I start Googling flights to Hamburg. The cost of a Premier Inn. I think about the drabness of January. I think about the excitement of travel. And reading. And international airports. And the joy of being an introvert.

And now, a few days on, I’ve made Some Arrangements. My first self-funded trip abroad for twenty years (the last time was Riga for the 2002 Eurovision). I hope to God the Bamberg Symphony doesn’t cancel on 16th Jan, otherwise, I’m spending a day in Hamburg for absolutely no reason.

I’ll see to Vicky Haircut’s Christmas gift tomorrow. I promise.

Listening to a carol service minus the faith

This year’s Choral Evensong for Advent broadcast live from St Johns College Cambridge stirs all sorts of thoughts and feelings that remind me of the critical role music plays during the festive season.

It also raises a question I’m still struggling to answer: how to listen to a carol service when you’re not a Christian?

I’ve been in a necessarily reflective mood these past few months. Memories of school sixth form have tumbled around, so too have the various musical events I participated in as a member of the school chapel choir. These events centered around worship – a key component of the Methodist school I attended between 1980 and 1991. The twenty-five-strong choir performed multiple functions, contributing to services in and out of school, raising awareness of the school’s commitment to high-quality participatory music-making, and I think it’s fair to say, an ongoing demonstration of its conductor’s passion for choral direction.

In recent weeks, however, I’ve also been reflecting on experiences from school in order to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of trauma. Some of these reflections reveal the extent to which religion embedded itself not only as a consequence of this musical activity but also as a result of a sexual assault I experienced at time (and written about in an earlier post).

Of the many strategies I deployed to manage the turmoil in my head, praying during the services helps me recall how desperate things had become back then. These prayers simply offered a deal to God, stating I’d be happy to shoulder the fear and loathing then associated with an HIV diagnosis if that meant I didn’t turn out to be gay.

That I remember such fervent and repeated prayers saddens me a great deal thirty or so years later. It reveals that anti-gay messaging was so virulent back then that it infected my thoughts, triggered my basest fears, and how I had without even realising it surrendered responsibility to an untested, unreliable, and unproven greater power.

Liturgical music has become a soundtrack for some of these times – an awkward mix of anticipation and trepidation, purpose and release. But running through all of this was the virtuosity of a class music teacher – John Bradbury – whose attention to detail in rehearsals transformed the school Chapel Choir into something vital.

Our work saw us take on the role of participants in events set in grand religious spaces, expressing through music human emotion at the heart of the oldest story. The annual school carol service at St Edmundsbury Cathedral was the high point of our musical calendar. For this event the chapel choir joined the ranks of the Carols Choir, membership of which was extended to anyone who was interested and committed, and able to sing in tune.

During the annual Carol Service, those of us previously overlooked because of our love of music now took centre stage processing down the nave towards the choir stalls with a long overdue sense of purpose and relevance. Here the music of Elizabeth Poston, John Rutter, Benjamin Britten, and Michael Head punctuated a service of nine lessons and carols, signaling the end of term. The Christmas holidays beckoned.

The intervening years and regular listens to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College on Christmas Eve have distilled memories of the Culford School Carol Service. Now as I listen to the soaring descant of Once in Royal David’s City I get a whiff of cheap aftershave and heavy foundation. Hair neatly swept back in glossy ponytails and high heels resolutely striking the cold cathedral floor. The Carol Service was an occasion when the familiar dark preoccupations that had haunted throughout the term were very nearly banished.

St Mary’s Church, Culford

A month or so before, the service for advent was held in the school church. Much smaller, with Calor gas heaters valiantly heating the damp interior, the advent carol service was a far more intimate affair with a congregation made up of parents and teachers – the advance party switching on the lights. Candles in our hands created a mystical atmosphere; wax dripped on the hymn books.

Inside St Mary's Church, Culford
Inside St Mary’s Church, Culford

Both events were occasions that injected purpose, meaning, and anticipation, leaving in their wake a greater sense of connection with those around me.  

Listening to the Service for Advent with Carols – an annual Radio 3 appointment – accesses many of these memories, though this year it exposes a tension.

Without faith, these moments feel increasingly uncomfortable. Listening to readings from the bible interspersed with new and familiar music, a compromise is demanded. How to listen authentically to something you don’t really subscribe to? What to take away from a ritual based on a story for which there is no empirical data? What is it you’re actually connecting to?

Consistently, I end up listening to the service from the perspective of three-dimensional theatre. I hear the stirring of the congregation respond to the spine-tingling reedy introduction to O Come O Come Emmanuel, the carol concludes with a resolute descant, driving all in pursuit of the goal. I imagine a bewildered group pulling together in unity as they wearily embark on their epic journey. The wavering melodic lines in the various antiphons that follow gently lead the group on its journey. Bible stories are the tales people tell one another to keep the spirits up.

Peter Maxwell-Davies One star, at last has a newness to it – urgency mixed with aspiration – that reminds me of the first time singing Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day thirty-five years ago. The first of two commissions, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Lo! The desert depths are stirr’d ramps up the curiosity even further with awkward spikey calls from the chorus signalled by a pleasingly dirty sound from the accompanying harp that sounds like a string in need of replacing.

And whilst Goldschmidt’s ‘A tender shoot’ is every bit as consoling as I remember Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, it is Iain Farrington’s brilliantly mischievous gospel-infused ‘Nova! Nova!’ with its finger clicks and hand claps that triggers a sardonic smile. Cue images of gruff-looking clergy bemoaning youngsters chipping away at centuries-old convention.  In this way, Farrington’s writing is the most potent element in recalling the experience of singing in St Edmundsbury Cathedral: a choir singing to the assembled congregation subverting everyone’s expectations and relishing it.

Listen to Choral Evensong on BBC Sounds

Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Nicola Benedetti premiere James MacMillan’s second violin concerto

James MacMillan’s captivating new violin concerto formed the centerpiece in a spectacular Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert at Usher Hall earlier this week, an event that demonstrated remarkable connection between conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the SCO


Dedicated to Nicola Benedetti and in memory of Penderecki who died in 2021, MacMillan’s one movement violin concerto was a captivating piece of storytelling built upon a decisive musical idea. The work is rooted in a conventional tonal sound, with hints of Britten and Vaughan Williams in the mix.

The concerto is also packed full of tantalising textures. Slap bass, insistent brass fanfares, cascading woodwind sequences, and shimmering strings, all give a distinctive feel to the work. Everyone was kept busy which made for a highly entertaining work.

Nicola Benedetti takes the applause

These elements and the work’s concision made it instantly appealing, no easy feat for the composer of a new work. It is rare I finish listening to a new work and instinctively want to hear it again. But there is something in MacMillan’s score than makes it so. I really hope we don’t have to wait too long before there’s another chance to hear it live.

The second half symphony – Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 – was not like anything I’ve heard before. Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev created a raw lean sound-world, almost like a period instrument performance of the work that gave the symphony a grittier edge – a world away from the lush heart-on-the-sleeve string sound normally associated with performances of music by Tchaikovsky. Emelyanychev works incredibly hard too, pointing, jabbing, and bouncing in order to maximise the efforts of the chamber orchestra in front of him. I was never distracted by him in the performance. Instead his focused energy and exuberance commanded the orchestra to play to the max.

There were a couple of moments when that exuberance maybe risk unseating things. The first example in the cellos at the opening of the second movement, where some of the detail at the end of the solo line was lost in the ensemble. And second in the breakneck third movement where events were so intense, so fast moving that the sense of jeopardy was a little too much. String players threw everything into the blistering third movement that arrived at its inevitable joyous conclusion. The temptation to applaud before the concluding fourth movement was too great for some (though it didn’t lessen the vibe). I sat in the stalls with my mouth wide open throughout.

The redefining of sound and textures, so too the immense speed and intensity in the first three movements, made more sense of the final concluding Adagio movement. To date I’d heard it only as strange ‘add-on’ in more conventional performances. Here the final movement made complete sense: one long ‘goodbye hug’ after the rip-roaring triumph that had gone before.

Special mentions must go to principal bass Nikita whose demonstrative playing is a joy to watch, the pianist in the opening Adams Chairman Dances whose wrists must have been in agony at the end of his 13-minute contribution, and (just because they so absolutely deserve to be showered with praise) the muscular corn-fed playing form the string section during the Tchaikovsky.

Also, let’s take a moment to celebrate the language used in the printed programme for the concert. Front and centre was the list of orchestral players all on one page under the title “Your Orchestra”. A powerful in-situ reminder to the audience of who they’re looking at on stage. Heart-string tugging stuff.

Joby Burgess’ ‘A Percussionist’s Songbook’

I’ve always considered percussionists – the ones who are as at home with tuned or rhythm instruments – as the epitome of cool. The hipper cousin to the comparatively staid pianist. Percussionists can conjure up all manner of wizardry, bedazzle you with their technique. There’s more on display too – we can see the mechanics of sound project in a way that is hidden on the piano. Percussionists are cool. That’s all there is to say.

Joby Burgess consistently makes full use of this perception I articulate. At Peckham CLF a few years back and at Two Moors Festival last year, he surrounds himself with a great many contraptions, some recognisable others not, to create sound worlds that raise or lower the heart rate. In live performance he combines this with a low-key schoolboy charm that makes the sounds he creates all the more incredible. It’s a technique that hooks you in.

Percussionists Songbook carries across this instinct for entertainment into a commercially minded playlist of good vibe tracks that reward curiosity with aural treats. The sleeve notes draw on Joby’s love of pop. The genre is evident in some of the tracks – Yazz Ahmed’s Throw Your Pumpkin is good example, so too Gabriel Prokofiev’s Dr Calvin Remembered. Take Me Home uses echoes of an 80s pop melody, to build an uplifting mid-tempo anthem begging for a montage, jangly bells spilling over the edges.

Joby Burgess achieves something very special in A Percussionists Songbook, combining 20th century musical ideas, each unmistakably of their time, into a composite sound that sounds fresh. And like all well produced albums it’s one you’ll want to listen to from beginning to end.

Cooling off in the water listening to Schumann at the Lerici Music Festival

Conductor Gianluca Marciano is building an audience in the Italian fishing town of Lerici with a distinctive and satisfying listening experience. Jon Jacob reflects on an enlightening trip to the Italian Riveria.

It’s so hot here in Lerici on the Italian Riveria these past few days that seeking out shade, breeze and cool refreshing water has been a priority. Hence why the sight of the bay from my hotel window has been sufficient for me to throw caution to the wind, tear off my t-shirt, and step gingerly into the crystalline blue water.

Mindful of the demise of Percy Shelley who drowned in the neighbouring bay 200 years ago (nearly to do the day), an unexpected and incongruous sound interrupts my ruminations: Schumann’s Fantasia in C major on a nearby outdoor grand piano, the sound muffled by the searing heat. The breeze carries the efforts of pianist Christian Blackshaw battling against the unsympathetic acoustic.

Blackshaw is playing in the sixth Lerici Music Festival, a music event staged by artistic director and opera conductor Gianluca Marciano, and a festival he initially established for the benefit of his hometown. Not by any means an easy feat. Without an obvious tradition of classical music in the town compared to say the likes of Aldeburgh or Malvern in the UK, the challenge for Marciano seems considerable and perhaps even insurmountable.

Born and bred in the fishing town, the conductor credits a Royal Academy of Music summer school descending on Lerici when he was six years old as being a turning point in his fascination with classical music. He was six years old at the time.

Nearly forty years later and clearly not showing the passage of time in the same way I do, Gianluca is quick to explain what inspired him to bring festival music-making to his hometown.

“Early on in my career I met Myrna Bustani who set up the Al Bustan International Festival in Lebanon. With her I understood how beautiful it is to create a festival and how much joy she had generated for the people in Lebanon.”

Lerici’s challenges are considerably different from those in Lebanon. Hotels aren’t open all year round, meaning the available dates to host the festival are limited to the holiday season. Whilst the views are pretty and there are restaurants and cafes aplenty.

Numerous expensive-looking yachts and motorboats bob about in the bay, cruisers navigating channels to take tourists to and from the coastal villages further up the coastline. Runners and walkers (accompanied by their dogs) stride the two mile promenade, and on Saturdays there’s a market selling clothes, artwork and sundry other holiday tat.

There’s a feeling that classical music is hustling to put down roots in the town.

“It’s a small town,” explains Gianluca to me during our interview, “There is no infrastructure. But when I saw what they achieved at Grange Park in Hampshire (where Marciano has returned from conducting Otello) raising £12 million by putting opera on in the forest I just thought, ‘if there is a chance to try and do something that everybody thinks is impossible then I want to try and make it happen.”

A modest collection of hotel leaflets hint at a cultural programme in the town – jazz, talks, comedy, but classical music as a reason to come to Lerici doesn’t immediately present itself. Previously hosted in a dedicated venue on the hillside overlooking the town, this year’s festival for financial reasons finds itself slap bang in the middle of the town’s promenade.

This year’s festival sees performers step onto a temporary stage erected in the centre of the town and perform to a 150-strong audience all perched on plastic chairs. The acoustic isn’t sought after, but the ambience of nearby cafes, clinking cutlery and passing tourists creates a pleasing hubbub nonetheless.

“I would like to find a way to not lose contact with the community,” explains Gianluca when we discuss some of the challenges he’s faced picking out venues for concert performances to date. “Being in the square is important of course, but we need to find proper venues to sell certain events, perhaps a venue with a more intimate set up.”

On this point I (still) find myself disagreeing with him largely because of that incongruous experience standing in the water and listening to Christian Blackshaw rehearsing for his evening concert. This was a moment where I felt connected to the performer – part of the preparation and the anticipation of the event to come. To hear a rehearsal is to be granted unusual access. To hear a rehearsal whilst feeling like you’re on a package holiday at the beginning of the jet age is surreal.

There is talk amongst the group I find myself eating with throughout the weekend in Lerici about the challenge of increasing classical music’s reach. Lots of talk of how social media must avoid ‘dumbing down’ and reflections on how some different formats and venues give otherwise conventional proceedings a bit of an edge. Whilst there is healthy disagreement, there is consensus around the table: what people are interested in is having an experience. And here in Lerici, making a short boat trip to nearby Porto Venere, its easier to see how building a live classical music event into a bigger tourist experience might offer a solution.

This trip I’m experiencing Italy for only the second time in my life, I’m immersing myself in the life (if not the works) of the likes of Percy and Mary, and maybe Lord Byron too, gaining a light-touch understanding of why this area of the world was so attractive to romantic poets (you only have to look out of your hotel window – it’s really not difficult), and I’m hearing music in a different way.

Offering classical music as part of a ‘package experience’ is hardly anything new, of course. The Music X Museums run featuring the Philharmonia conducted by Oliver Zeffman at Greenwich was partly supported by Viking Cruises, keen to increase reach for their various products amongst a customer-base perhaps still feeling a little queasy about committing to a post-pandemic cruise.

Where Lerici Music Festival is concerned the varied programme is carefully put together so as not to scare the horses. This year’s month-long event running from 22 July to 14 August has seen music by Elgar, Britten, Mozart string quartets, operatic excerpts from Falstaff, film music and musical theatre. There is, to coin a phrase, something for everyone.

Where Gianluca Marciano brings distinctiveness is the talent he brings to the Italian town to perform this programme. Trumpeter Alison Balsom, Bryn Terfel, cellist Adrian Brendel, pianist Christian Blackshaw – a tangible manifestation of Marciano’s purpose for the festival, to give back to the town what he has gained throughout his career to date, specifically connections.

But if the home crowd he grew up in isn’t already interested in classical music, how is he going to impress them with those connections? How does he get the local populations to care about the music that has shaped his subsequent international career?

Marciano’s explanation is characteristically straightforward, quietly delivered and convincing.

“When you start to see a lot of people coming from all over the world, when you see those people going to a concert hall on the sea like this one here, then it becomes it contagious. If it becomes an event where you should be seen even if it’s to meet other people, even before you know how much you enjoy the music, when you are there and you hear the music you will start to like the music. Because the power of that music like Christian Blackshaw’s performance the other night – I think that will convince anyone.”

But there is another aspect to all of this which is quite apparent to me speaking to Gianluca.

It’s clearly no easy feat starting a festival, especially when there’s no evidence there’s an audience hungry for the music he excels in. But that’s exactly the point. It seems that Marciano is someone who generally responds positively when the odds are stacked against him. Has he always been like that?

“Yes,” he replies simply. “Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be able to succeed in whatever I did. So it’s important to do whatever you’re doing well. Never give up when there are difficulties. If there someone presents me with problem, I will always want to transform it.”

There is a sense of modesty about Gianluca which is endearing. He wants to bring value back to the place he grew up in for sure. He thinks big too – some of the ideas I’ve learned he’s explored over the past few years show childlike imagination even if they are, using his own words at a concert introduction over the weekend, ‘crazy ideas’. Marciano clearly sees the Festival as bringing positive change, specifically cultural tourism, to the town, helping develop its infrastructure and build a sustainable economy.

This enthusiasm is tempered with realism, a sense of respect for what the town is now. He doesn’t want to bring something big on the back of a trailer year in year out to Lerici. He wants to grow something in and amongst it, respecting what already keeps locals in and brings tourists to the town. He wants more people to make the journey.

I’m glad I did.

As I sit and watch Walton’s ‘one act extravaganza’ The Bear on my first night – a simple vaudeville love story originated by Checkhov, set to words and music by Paul Dehn and William Walton, and premiered in 1967 at the Aldeburgh Festival – the entertainment on stage is underpinned by the general hubbub of Italians walking the promenade or grabbing a drink in one of the many bars that line the bay.

Cutlery clinks and small children engaging in minor but largely unsuccessful tantrums accompany proceedings as well. If you’d told me this was what I’d be grappling when I got here I may have struggled to know how I could write favourably about the experience. And yet, here we are, deliciously close to the detail of Walton’s orchestration, immersed in the story, and diverted from the heat, humidity and, counter-intuitively, the ambient noise too.

I initially question my willingness to embrace this seemingly raw concert experience by assuming I’ve just had one too many drinks in a hot environment, but the subsequent night’s concert – Christian Blackshaw playing Schubert and Schumann – only serves to reinforce actually how refreshing the outdoor listening experience is.

Stripped of all the usual preoccupations like an air-conditioned crystal clear acoustic, or an architecturally uplifting concert interior, a simple row of chairs and an instrument has a satisfying back-to-basics feel. Behind the stage the audience sees a moon rising, boats bobbing on the water, and the looming presence of a 12th-century Castellan castle.

Every so often a Festival volunteer can be heard assertively ‘ssshing’ passers-by. Every time I wonder whether they might just take the risk and let the music cut-through and do the work for them. 

The reality in Christian Blackshaw’s precise electrifying performance is that the ambient noise doesn’t distract. It focuses the mind. Every pianissimo draws focus, drawing us into the theatre he creates at the keyboard. Concluding his encores with music by Scarlatti before we wend our way to bed there’s even a sense that maybe more concerts should be done open-air. Ambience drives listener focus.

Hearing Blackshaw rehearsing whilst I relax in the water at the hottest point on a ridiculously hot day, there’s also a feeling that I’ve had a chance to connect with the soloist long before the actual performance. Cooling off in the water under the midday sun I’ve been treated to a preview of what’s to come later in the day. Nothing has been spoiled by hearing it before the concert. If anything I’ve been reminded of the human being behind the music-making.

These experiences are, as far as I can make out, a consequence of circumstance rather than a planned experience. The concert series was originally meant to be staged at a venue on the side of a hill overlooking the town. For me though, it makes sense that music intended for the town in which the Festival’s artistic director grew up is sited slap bang in the middle of the town the locals frequent.

Music shouldn’t be separate or closed off, but accessible to all (on presentation of a ticket, of course). Music can (and maybe must?) share the space with others. Maybe if it did then more will stop, pause and stare through the gaps in the wall in order to find out what’s going on beyond. 

But how to build your audience when there’s no history of classical music in your hometown?

Gianluca leans in to respond.

“The secret is to appeal to the kids. Get the kids excited and they’ll bring the parents.”

Aldeburgh Festival premieres ‘Violet’ by Tom Coult and Alice Birch

Gripping, bleak, and thought-provoking

The Aldeburgh Festival got underway on Friday 3 June at Snape Maltings Concert Hall with the premiere of Tom Coult and Alice Birch’s opera ‘Violet’.

The apocalyptic tale documented the gradual disintegration of human life as a town and its inhabitants slowly come to realise how time is gradually, hour by hour, day by day, slipping away from them.

Set against an animated backdrop of constantly, the small company led by Anna Dennis in the title role. Richard Burkhard played Felix, Frances Gregory Laura, and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks The Clock Keeper.

Richard Burkhard as Felix and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (right) as The Clockkeeper (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Cohesive costume and set design by Cecile Tremolieres and Rosie Elnile gave the drama an Elizabethan feel with judicious use of trestle tables, ruffs, and tankards.

It was a compelling watch in part down to the manually updated display board documenting the days completed and hours lost, building tension and driving towards the world’s inevitable end. Composer Tom Coult’s characteristically inventive and descriptive score, played by the London Sinfonietta and conducted by Andrew Gourlay, sustained a sinister air throughout the 90-minute production.

In particular, the extensive use of pizzicato bass and low bass clarinet by Coult was a pleasing addition to an already rich and inventive score, reminiscent of Dudley Simpson’s resourceful use of chamber ensemble in his Doctor Who TV music scores in the mid-70s.

Anna Dennis as Violet (Photo: Marc Brenner)

I was particularly impressed with the concision in Coult’s writing. Driven partly by the libretto, itself a reflection of the story, there is an immediacy to the composer’s musical ideas that drives focus in the audience. At the same time, the music maintains originality and integrity throughout. It is a remarkable balancing act that serves the storytelling.

Its most potent storytelling twist was the outlying conceit: we know what’s going to happen at the end of the story long before most of the characters do by virtue of the display visible to all from the stage. Yet, as the realisation grows amongst the inhabitants, so the sense that this story needs to slow down because of the characters impending demise. That same sense of tension is present in Tom Coult’s music.

Frances Gregory as Laura (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Violet’s depression, driven by the regularity of the clock, slowly turns to hope for the central character as time is lost and society disintegrates. The conclusion is bleak and appropriately ambiguous, though the epilogue – a concluding animated sequence depicting computer-generated characters – jarred stylistically. I need to think further on what was being said in the epilogue.

What I liked most was the work’s efficiency (driven no doubt by the relentless loss of time the inhabitants of the town are experiencing themselves). It was that efficiency that helped make the production a compelling watch.

Anna Dennis possesses a magical voice – clear, distinct, rounded, and warm. She made light work of Coult many high notes and intricate melodic lines.

The co-production between Britten-Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales was originally scheduled for premiere at the 2020 Aldeburgh Festival but was postponed due to the COVID pandemic.

‘Violet’ continues at the Aldeburgh Festival on 5th June (tickets from £10). There are performances at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff (8 June), Theatr Clwyd, Mold (19 June), Hackney Empire, London (23 June), and Buxton International Festival (18 July). It is a must-see.

Sheffield Chamber Music Festival immerses its audience in the must-have intimate experience

Sheffield Chamber Music Festival isn’t daring to present classical music in a new way. It doesn’t need to. Sheffield started presenting things in a new way 38 years ago.

6 minute read

The Sheffield Chamber Music Festival got underway last weekend, opening at the city’s legendary Theatre Studio at the Crucible.

Produced by Sheffield’s Music in the Round, the 9 days of concerts curated by composer Helen Grime consist of a bold range of contemporary works paired with ever-popular core repertoire.

What was programmed in Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2022?

Across the opening weekend, audiences were treated to pieces by Janacek, Martinu, Anna Meredith, John Cage, Helen Grime and Huw Watkins, alongside Dvorak, Chopin, Haydn and Beethoven.

In amongst the 20 date programme are visiting artists Ruby Hughes, Joseph Middleton, and guitarist Sean Shibe, the 15 remaining musical events the responsibility of a core group of players – Music in the Round’s Ensemble 360.

Such a schedule combined with a varied repertoire to prepare for – some of it familiar to each musician, the contemporary music potentially less so – seems like a big ask. That’s reflected in the care taken to protect each player’s free time in between performances by the management of the band. I get to speak to cellist Gemma for around 10 minutes before she needs to escape for her lunch in between performances of Izzy Gizmo – an endearing animated story for primary schoolers and below accompanied by live music scored for quintet and stripped back wind.

How does Sheffield Chamber Ensemble present its performances?

It’s partly perhaps the demanding schedule that drives the energy in performance. There is also a sense it’s Music in the Round and Ensemble 360’s trademark concert presentation style – live chamber music experienced by audience members sitting in a circle around the ensemble – that also ramps up the tension and delivers something either exhilarating or intensely intimate.

“We want you to feel what we’re feeling,” says Gemma when I ask her about the experience of having the audience sat so closely to and all around the players. “When you’re sitting in the round like that it’s as though the audience is with us [the players] rather than looking at us.” Sitting in the Crucible Studio Theatre with its raked seating and two tiers of additional seats above with stage lights illuminating the central performance areas, there are times when it feels to me as though we’re students observing a surgical operation.

What’s the atmosphere like in Ensemble 360’s concerts?

“Not painful, I hope?” asks Gemma. “When we arrive in the studio the atmosphere is electric, and that doesn’t usually happen until you’re surrounding us in that way. The feeling we get is that the audience is surrounding us. But sat in the round, we’re all facing each other. When you’re playing in something like a string quartet that is an incredibly intimate style of music-making.”

The intimacy is appealing. Being sat directly behind Gemma during the Dvorak Piano Quartet on the first night, I felt I was in amongst the action as though I was a player myself battling my way through the wild and furious writing the composer packs into so much of the work.

So too during the Sunrise concert at Samuel Worth Chapel. Here following an uncharacteristically early start for me, I get a sense of what being a string player creating chamber music must be like. And, at 5.15am it’s the first experience of that particular day. There’s good reason why wannabee writers are encouraged to auto-write minutes after they wake up – this is when the mind is at its most undistracted. The proximity of the instrumentalists combined with my sleep-deprived but otherwise attentive brain made this a deeply moving experience.

Music in the Round’s events that the audience’s and the attention to the sensory experience that it is the audience that is the priority. That’s different from merely putting on a programme and hoping people will come along. This is about crafting an experience for the audience to immerse themselves in.

Most obviously this is in the way the audience seems to wrap around the audience, but also in the confident programming. It takes a certain kind of person to propose a crack-of-dawn concert, and a particular kind of production team and trustees to allow it to happen.

That the Sunrise concert was sold out was perhaps not surprising – there was only space for 65 people. But every single person had made a higher than normal commitment to be there meaning the intensity of the experience was greater. We were the hard-core. The ones who made an extra special effort to be here. This was A Proper Festival and we were Proper Festivalgoers.

Music in the Round’s distinctiveness goes beyond the immersive listening experience. It’s committed to bold programming. This isn’t an urban classical music festival catering for a specific demographic who smell of lavender talc and mouldy hymn books. Curated by composer Helen Grime, this year’s Festival combines familiar works with challenging new music. The energy it exudes is exciting.

Anna Meredith’s Tripotage

On the first night a highly inventive and cohesive work from Anna Meredith – Tripotage – creates evocative vignettes with unconventional instrumental combinations. piccolo and double Bass creates an eerie Far East feel. ‘Buzzard’ played by viola and violin is especially compelling with a short motive ‘squawked’ on the viola at ever increasing intervals.

Helen Grime introduces her music at Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2022

Music by Helen Grime features in the second night concert, alongside Cage, and Huw Watkins. The new and unfamiliar works (in this programme the Cage appears almost mainstream in the way it unexpectedly establishes a tranquil state) challenge and stretch. By the time we arrive at the Dvorak in the second half, I hear the familiar romantic language in the Piano Quartet with new ears. In this space the experience is not unlike doing an intense gym workout followed by some time in a steam room.

This approach isn’t new nor confined to Sheffield. But there is a sense the audience is more than just tolerating the unfamiliar as some kind of purgatory before the work they really came for. Nearly all of the seats are occupied and the applause is hearty after each work. Perhaps the audience comes to Music in the Round events not only expecting to be challenged but wanting to be with a range of thought-provoking works.

Edward Mackay, Head of Programmes, Music in the Round

“It’s got Helens very definite fingerprints, her enthusiasms, her relationships all over it,” says Edward Mackay, Music in the Round’s Programme Manager. “That’s what’s exciting about working with her. It feels like it’s an evolution of what we do. We’ve always been champions of new music. I think the balance is different this year, and there is more of it than they would otherwise be.”

Who are the curators for future Sheffield Chamber Music Festivals?

In the years to come Kathryn Stott and Steven Isserlis are scheduled to curate, bringing their own distinctive choices to each successive festival and a marketing challenge to the small nimble team. How does Music in the Round ensure that distinctive edge and ensure audience appetite.

“That intimacy and familiarity brings about a family feeling,” says Edward. “That means we get very honest and very direct feedback from our audience, if they don’t like something we’re doing, they tell us if they do like it.”

Music in the Round’s Sheffield Chamber Music Festival featuring Ensemble 360 runs until Saturday 21 May 2022.  

Grosvenor plays Faure, Ravel, Schumann and Albeniz at Wigmore Hall

It seems incredible to me that pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is only thirty this year, and that’s its 18 year since his BBC Young Musician appearance.

This year has seen him artist in residence at Wigmore Hall building on a growing collection of recordings for Decca. He’s packed a lot in to a short space of time and it seems handled the pressure well.

There is maturity that has developed in his sound that builds on his early established calling card (see later in the post for an explanation). He does theatre at the keyboard without breaking a sweat. A remarkable sight.

In recital Grosvenor is an assertive player, drawing on remarkable reserves of power at a moments notice, helping him create epic dramatic contrasts whenever the score dictates. He conjures up a symphonic sound at the keyboard, contrasting vast sound worlds with tender moments that linger and occasions haunt. This ability to shift gear at a moments is one of the things that makes Grosvenor’s playing so very exciting, evident in Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

Albeniz’s Iberia has a more compelling musical story, making the first work of the second half perhaps the more satisfying listen.

Benjamin Grosvenor also has a trademark. I picked it out the first time I heard (sat in the gallery at the BBC Proms maybe fifteen years back) and it was on full display reliable and consistent as ever in Ravel’s Jeux l’eau and La Valse. In both pieces it is the fluidity in his scales snd arpeggios that really take my breath away. They’re smooth, dynamic, and supple. Musical acrobatics.

All this whilst maintaining a mild-mannered physicality at the keyboard. Perhaps the oddest thing is the way when he playing at his most expansive, his music makes me smile with pride as though I’ve somehow created myself.

A top night at Wigmore Hall.