And the winner of BBC Young Musician 2020 is …

Percussionist Fang Zhang has secured the 2020 BBC Young Musician title

17-year-old percussionist Zhang was born in China’s Henan province and is a recent student of Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester.

The final (along with the semi-final recorded last year but broadcast on Friday) was impressive. A musically strong programme, horn player Annemarie Federle playing Ruth Gipps: Horn Concerto , Op. 58 was an entrancing introduction to a work I’d not heard before, while Ewan Millers performance of Oscar Navarro’s “Legacy” Concerto with its cinematic vibe (whilst still making for a demanding play for the soloist) made for a theatrical conclusion to proceedings.

The winner was, perhaps, easy to spot. Even in the semi-final. Zhang plays with a remarkable assurance that belies his seventeen years.

Perhaps more importantly, the broadcast messaging was reassuring. Previous winner oboist Nicholas Daniel reinforced the importance of live music. Jess Gillam provided a heartfelt sincere perspective that validated a genre that often gets short shrift from cynical types. Anna Lapwood shone without comprising on knowledge and experience.

There is a sting in the tail however. The finalists tonight represent some of the UK’s music conservatoires. The same higher education establishments who will probably see their funding cut by 50% because the current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson regards humanities subjects like drama and music as low priority.

Those who compete in BBC Young Musician are at the beginning of their development. One of the finalists is first year at the Royal Academy of Music. We celebrate these marvellous musicians, but we do so with caution: the Government doesn’t acknowledge the importance of music education at any level.

Will there be another BBC Young Musician competition. Yes. Will it be tougher for the next winner: undoubtedly. We owe it to all of the participants past, present and future to change that.

Review: Andreas Ottensamer makes UK conducting debut with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Last night Andreas Ottensamer made his UK conducting debut with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Mozart and Mendelssohn. The concert ran to just over an hour, was performed to an empty auditorium due to current COVID-restrictions, and streamed live via the BSO website.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Andreas Ottensamer is available to watch on-demand until 21 May.

Ottensamer & the BSO

Ottensamer is a youthful presence on the stage with a long frame and more than a whiff of Hector Berlioz about him. Bold gestures and long sweeping movements spanning a near 180 degrees, with a smooth and precise baton technique that caresses and cajoles, are where Ottensamer thrives.

Broadly speaking, Mendelssohn’s music – both the Hebrides and ‘Italian’ symphony felt like a better fit for him in terms of physical expression, where Ottensamer appeared more at ease with a greater range, and more flexibility in his upper body.

There were occasions during the Mozart Haffner when his communication felt a little like he was appeasing rather than directing, as though there was a need to manage the transition from player to conductor.

Similarly in the ‘Italian’ when viewers saw him readying the orchestra before embarking on the final movement. Naturally, the band needs to be ready before they can start playing music, but maybe some of the excitement about the work as a whole is the energy that is maintained throughout. In order to achieve that does the transition between third and fourth movement need to be commanded rather than guided by consensus? I’m not 100% sure. What I appreciated was how the performance made me pose the question to myself.

There were ensemble discrepancies between wind and strings, and in the strings in various places, notably in the second movement of the Haffner – a case of distancing amplifying slightly ambiguous direction. I even wondered whether the strong beats were at the eye line for the front desk but not necessarily visible by those at the back.

But one has to be mindful that these are not exactly the best conditions for a relatively inexperienced conductor. The important point here is that a musician with a considerable worldwide reputation was doing something live amid difficult circumstances.

All this said, there were some touching moments throughout, notably in the third movement minuet of the Haffner which was warm, expansive and, where called for in the score, had a gratifyingly chamber-like feel.

Sound

The sound mix from the BSO is by far the most authentic of the digital streams I’ve watched over the past few months, partly because it’s a live relay. This provides a true reflection of the some of the challenges faced by distanced playing, noticeable in ensemble between the strings and winds at the beginning of the Haffner and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides. That unintended consequence is an authentic trigger for in-person concert experiences where not every performance is perfect.

But that authenticity comes at a cost. The lack of an audience means a boomier auditorium ambience. That created moments in the Hebrides Overture (where the tempo necessarily adopted so the detail wasn’t overlooked) that felt like heavy weather (forgive the pun). In loud-tutti sections the first violins felt distant and overpowered.

Visuals

When BSO began their live streams (in September of last year) they did well to establish themselves as one of only a handful of orchestras that truly performed as live. This made the visuals less of a problem for me because I was experiencing a live moment. A few months later now that other orchestras have used their ACE funding to create more polished pre-recorded ‘as live’ and patched digital concerts, so the visual discrepancies in BSO’s live relay are more evident and, in some cases, interrupt the viewing experience.

Some small adjustments only need to be made to improve the look and feel. Specifically, using hard cuts between shots rather than cross-fades (cuts reduce the pixellation caused by compression when two shots blend). This would help compensate for the challenges of distanced playing, especially in the faster seqeunces. The final movement of Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ would undoubtedly have benefited from fast cuts at the end of phrases in order to increase the excitement articulated in the chuntering string lines.

There are fixed shots that might benefit from being adjusting in order to improve the focal point in the image. Sometimes there were shots where the focal point was a microphone on the stage. This jarred when transitioning from the previous close-up of the principal second.

There are also moments in time when cutting back to the conductor for the upbeat (or a split second before the beginning of a new phrase) needs to be tighter so as to now crash the previous musical idea coming to an end. This would limit visual interruption.

The image contrast in the wide shots probably drives the current orange bias in the shots, hence why I wonder whether a spot of colour grading (or changing the white balance) might help create a more cinematic feel, reducing the gap between BSO’s output and say the OAE’s.

User Experience

Where BSO is consistently reliable is undoubtedly in their digital user experience. Page design is uncluttered projecting a fresh unpretentious image of the band. The copy is clear, informative and useful, and bold navigation with clear white space guides the user. This establishes a perception of product reliability, and brand openness and accessibility.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Nick Daniel is my new squeeze

There is nothing better than the warming glow created by the rich sonorities created by a well-chosen wind ensemble. I love a good string section of course. But I’d willingly trample over the strings if I had to choose between the orchestral or wind ensemble arrangement of Dvorak’s Czech Suite.

In the SCO’s ‘as live’ performance premiered this evening on YouTube, deft and low-key multi-tasking from Daniel brought out some blissful moments, in particular in the second movement Polka where flutes and oboes created the musical equivalent of a flower’s petals springing open. The blistering finale showcased some dry and precise articulation.

There were other works on the programme which I will return to over the next few days.

Top marks to the video team behind the production (I spy the marvellous Mauro Silva from Edinburgh & Sydney Festival in the credits too – ridiculously talented man), and the marketing team too for creating appointment to view stuff out of a YouTube premiere, and for simple use of the Live Chat function to provide timely and reasonable discreet in vision messaging. In the weeks and months to come such work will make having to make travel plans to attend an actual concert a massive ball ache.

Watch the Scottish Chamber Ensemble on YouTube.

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Marquee TV co-production of Bach’s St John Passion is a must-see

I’m never considered myself a Christian. Nor religious. At best I might consider myself spiritual. But, this Easter weekend, listening to the music of Bach, I’m beginning to question. Sort of.

First, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Bach St John with Mark Padmore (£7 via OAE Player).

Helen Charleston and Gerald Finley. Eye-catching. A story told by musicians to musicians watched by an isolating and isolated audience. To create such a digital theatrical statement that lasts over two hours and make its message linger twenty four hours later is a quite some achievement. 

Part of that success is down to the direction (and Padmore’s vision) whereby chorus and soloists perform to the musicians who accompany them. All who feature in shot are cast members making the viewer a silent participant in proceedings. It is because of the striking visual direction that the audience experiences something so unexpectedly immersive throughout.

Gerald Finley

Of course, the direction wouldn’t have impact if the material didn’t inspire so. But, it is because of a unique set of events – a perceived collective sense of isolation and the pernicious ongoing low-level stress that promotes a sense of fear about what life will be like beyond June of this year – that such a story told through the mastery of Bach’s music, that the story not only maintains attention, but demands the redemption found on Easter Sunday. 

Here’s the thing: I know St John Passion well. I’ve listened to it endlessly over the years. But I’ve never felt it. I’ve never experienced the spiritual message in this music until now. And what it took was a part-cinematic part-theatrical digital experience created and distributed amid a global pandemic for me to finally get it.  

St John Passion experienced in amongst the busy lifestyle is a mere performance. This digital stream with its powerful visual storytelling has done much to shape Easter 2021 for me.

Watch the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s 2021 production of St John Passion featuring Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley

David Le Page and the Orchestra of the Swan release The Interpretation of Dreams

The last time I left London was to see David Le Page and his merry band Orchestra of the Swan record Tartini’s Devil’s Trill.

It was my first trip out for nearly three months. It felt like an expedition heading out on the Greater Anglia to Harlow. Another country. I took my Brompton, perhaps a little naively believing I could easily pedal my way from Harlow Town train station to the community centre where Le Page and the production team filming the eclectic selection of music were holed up for the day.

Harlow seemed – like any other UK destination I imagine – deserted. A town constructed, seemingly waiting for its population. Eery.

Once I’d arrived at my destination, I folded up my bike and hobbled uncomfortably inside. The first time on my bike in months had resulted in an unexpected back injury when I’d reached down to the front wheel to reposition the mudguard. That was at Lewisham. The rest of the afternoon had then looked set to be a rather awkward experience. And, on arrival in Harlow, it appeared it was going to be exactly that.

Inside, the community centre had been taken over by TV-people. People hung around in corridors, masked, earnestly those not already inside the makeshift studio to keep quiet and, importantly, keep your distance.

When a suitable break in proceedings presented itself, me and the lovely Nicky were invited inside. A narrow corridor presented itself inside the doors. Urgent looks exchanged; tiptoe stance adopted. Down the narrow makeshift curtain-lined corridor both us of went before we arrived at what in TV terms would be described as ‘the gallery’ – a small group of socially-distanced dimly-let production staff sat at makeshift tables one keeping a close eye on sound levels, another methodically transferring data from SD card to hard drive.

Nicky and I took up position at the far end, me taking up the prime spot where a gap in the curtain revealed violinist David Le Page. I sat down cautiously, smiling pathetically through my mask in response to the mask. I had come to Harlow to watch through a crack in a curtain one musician perform. This is the cost of COVID. This is the closest I can get to live music.

I pointed out to my chaperone that none of this was a problem. This is the story, after all. This is what rams the point home.

Le Page’s vision, realised in collaboration with the musicians he knows and manifest in The Interpretation of Dreams, is the pinnacle of what can be achieved artistically and technically in the digital medium. Carefully curated storytelling articulated through the curation of an eclectic mix of musical styles and linking prose voiced by an actor. It’s basically Radio 3’s Words and Music but better, and in vision and (assuming you’ve got a Connnected TV) on your TV too. An hour-long TV programme featuring skilled musicians playing a mix of classical and jazz.

It’s taken a pandemic to empower a subsection of the classical music world to create the content they’ve long wanted to see on their screens. And now it is. £10 a ticket. The Interpretation of Dreams is available now.

From Monday 29 March 2021, 20:00
The Interpretation of Dreams – Night Owl Digital Concert
 
Arvo Pärt Fratres
Tartini ‘Devil’s Trill’ Violin Sonata in G minor, 1st movement
Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps, 1st movement
The Chordettes Mr Sandman
Vittorio Monti Csárdás
Ignacio Cervantes Ilusiones Perdidas
Liszt Nuages gris
Angelo Badalamenti Audrey’s Dance
 
With words by Sigmund Freud, Lewis Carroll, Ursula K. Le Guin, Franz Kafka, Daniel Love, Stanisław Lem, Lola Ridge & William Burroughs
 
Lana Williams dancer
David Acton narrator

Southbank Centre speaks

Possibly one of the most uplifting press releases issued today. My heart is pounding fast.

The Southbank Centre reopens on 19 May, first at the Hayward Gallery, 21 May for Royal Festival Hall, with live events from 28 May.

There’s a full programme of COVID-safe events from May to August. I’m so ridiculously excited I can barely type. So just read the fulsome press release instead.

I totally understand that those outside of London may well roll their eyes at this.

But bear in mind that the Southbank Centre is my most local large scale arts destination. It’s home to me. It’s also where I have over the past few years escaped to as a freelancer for sanity.

I cannot wait. Musicians, play what you want. Play out of tune if you like. I don’t care. This is joyous news.

Review: London Chamber Orchestra’s Magical Metamorphoses: Strauss, Fitkin, and Shostakovich at St John’s Smith Square

When audiences are able to step back into an auditorium, orchestras had better continue to film their concerts. I’ve got accustomed to digital streams.

The London Chamber Orchestra regrouped for the first time in a year to record their centenary celebration concert at St John’s Smith Square. The orchestra’s digital premiere on YouTube featured Graham Fitkin’s Vassal, Strauss Metamorphosen, and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony plus other musical excerpts. It was free to watch with invitations to donate.

Graham Fitkin’s Vassal is an accessible concert opener constructed with a series of mood-driven minimalist vignettes peppered with pulsating rhythms, repeated melodic cells, and harmonic shifts reminiscent of Philip Glass.

The dramatic transitions between moods are daring, concise and efficient, maintaining a high level of energy, even in the contrastring contemplative sequences. The finished work is a captivating affair and still sounds as fresh given its premiere (by the London Chamber Orchestra) in 1998. In this performance there was lots of attack, slow crescendos, tingling articulation in the upper-string passages, and oh-so ridiculously warm strings when the score called for them – listen out for the recurring material first heard in the opening bars. It is a hugely satisfying listen, reminiscent of composer Paul Hart’s cracking opening 30 seconds for BBC TV’s Tomorrow’s World in the late 1980s.

Wasn’t quite so impressed with Strauss’ Metamorphosen. For a digital stream I suspect the intensity inherent in the work makes demands on both performers and video direction because of the absence the audience. It generally felt a little under-powered. As a listener I wanted to feel a little more ‘in’ the action of the music. I just didn’t feel it in this performance.

Not so in the Shostakovich however. Here was a filmed performance where there could have quite easily been an audience present only the director had forgotten to cut to the auditorium. Tight. Heartfelt. When the score demanded attack we had it in spades. And when required, the basses really dug deep and created a special thing. Delicate whispering upper strings in the opening bars, threatening barks from the cellos, and all manner of terrifying screams as and when required. Throughout this was when I had a sense that the LCO were completely engaged – a considerable achievement given the lack of audience.

Worth flagging, I’m not 100% sure whether each work was one complete take. I’ve become a stickler for this. Recorded as live in one take is the sign of bravery and a sign of wanting to recreate something as near to live performance for both performer and audience as possible.

Be sure to take a look at the pre-concert Zoom chat between Sophie Lockett and Jenny Coombes. After what might feel like a slightly awkward beginning, there’s spirit, warmth and insight from their exchanges and responses to livestream questions. Both of them effervescent ambassadors both for the LCO brand and for classical music in general. Love half hour chat about the programme, the experience of playing music together for the first time in a year, and the impact of lockdown and cancelled gigs on the music industry.

Special mention to Christopher Warren-Green whose pieces to camera were informative. Warren-Green’s voice is pleasingly rich. Authoritative and unfussy.

50 Thoroughly Good bookmarked tweets from 2020

I have a habit with social media of scrolling and bookmarking. Its instinctive. There is no bookmarking strategy as such. I only really noticed I did it around February 2020.

As it’s the end of the year I figured I’d take a look at the tweets I’ve bookmarked. This selection isn’t trying to be representative of the year, other than a record of the kind of things I’ve responded to in the moment.

Just a warning: there are fifty media-rich tweets in this blog post. So it does take a bit of time to load!

I’m particularly interested in the subjects which have resonated for me, especially discussions around workplace bullying, the advice from Phoebe Waller-Bridge about writing. These two things in particular were clearly dominant themes throughout the year.

Nearly all of the tweets I bookmarked featured video which I think also reminds me of where my thinking has been in terms of content creation strategy, and specifically work. This combination of videos creates a story that I find compelling, reminding me in some cases of pre-COVID news and its impact, in particular the suicide of Caroline Flack which hit colleagues hard.

They’re also illustrations of how thinking has changed throughout the year with regards to the pandemic. The Royal Albert Hall Organ was genuinely funny at the time when the pandemic was beginning to impact UK life. I’m just not sure one would post that now.

Seeing the Imogen Holst post again reminded me how when my mood was low the nostalgia contained within previously unseen footage created an emotional uplift.

Sheer Joy

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s advice for writers: find a friend and write for them

Pre-COVID concert going experience

Mild news fail

Margaret Atwood on a scooter

Rite of Spring without a conductor

Tricky plane landing

Laura Whitmore’s on-air tribute following the suicide of Caroline Flack

Sir Philip Rutnam resigns from the Home Office

Supporting employees who call-out workplace bullying

Deborah Meaden on Workplace Bullying

Design choices inside the Festival Hall

Who wouldn’t want to be Cherry Wainer?

Painful journalism (stick around until 1.40″)

Priti Patel

Yay. Dogs.

Royal Albert Hall Organ to the rescue

Wash your hands to the lyrics of Britten’s Friday Afternoons

Memories of the last recital I attended

How Government changed in a short space of time

Before lockdown, there was self-isolation

Rotterdam Philharmonic play Ode to Joy in lockdown

Dealing with first UK lockdown with regular dance sessions in the street

Lockdown shoulds

CBSO trumpeter and viola player with a lockdown rendition of Star Trek theme tune

BBC News theme tune played by a weather guy and members of the public

Boris Johnson challenged in the park

Carrie Gracie’s last day on BBC News

Tristan Chord on a floor keyboard

Paul Harvey improvises on four notes

How France made concert going possible in September 2020

Freelance musicians protest in Parliament Square

Kevin Brennan MP asks Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden about false claims regarded self-employed musicians support

Samar Ginsberg plays Thomas The Tank Engine

Rishi Sunak’s reskilling comment is underlined in a Government campaign

Suffolk murmaration

Footage of Imogen Holst conducting her father’s brass band suite

Dominic Cummings leaving Downing Street cut to the Imperial March

Will society be back to normal by Spring 2021?

Reverend Richard Coles and Danny Jules sing and dance for Sally Phillips

If Carols for Choirs could talk

Original footage of Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance

Charlotte Higgins writes about how British classical music is struggling in the pandemic

Why one Spanish opera house put on a performance to an auditorium full of houseplants

Oliver Dowden’s committment to the arts

Questionable social media posting from Andrew Lloyd Webber

Spotify’s committment to supporting artists comes to the fore at a time when musicians can’t perform live

Intrepid Dunedin Consort head back from France concert on a hired fishing boat before travel restrictions are imposed

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s return to the concert hall

Susan Calman’s re-post of her Strictly Semi-Final Dance with Kevin Clifton

13 Thoroughly Good musical things from 2020

If it’s good enough for Fiona Maddocks (link at the bottom of this post) it’s good enough for this blog.

I started the year wanting to explore what the music was that I connected with and, importantly, figure out why.

The list that follows is a summary – the highlights – of my musical year. It doesn’t profess to be a recommended list. Such lists run a high risk of appearing like virtue signalling.

Instead, see this list as evidence of the music I’ve responded to in the unusual cirucmstances we’ve all experienced.

Andrew Manze and the NDR’s Beethoven 7

I’ve long been aware of Andrew Manze but always thought of him in the context of historically-informed performance practice. That changed last year with the discovery of his poignant recording of Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5 with the RLPO.

He brings some of that historically-informed performance experience to this recording with the NDR Radiophilharmonie.

Grit, urgency, and pathos can be found in the string textures. especially in the second movement funeral march. Details abound. A glorious adventure playground for the ears.

Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven Wigmore Hall recital

The last jaw-dropping live music I heard was with Fran Wilson at Wigmore Hall at the top of the year. Tears rolled. Much discussion post-concert. Biss’ playing pinned me to the back wall of the auditorium. Remarkable intensity. Moments that were immediate, uncompromising, and unequivocal. Difficult to put into words exactly what it was like. Exhilerating stuff.

Iain Farrington’s Beethoveniana

This was an unexpected joy. A visual manifestation of the times. Storytelling through dance, backed by visual tropes we’d all become rather used to because of the lockdown. Farrington’s variations and deliciously varied orchestral textures made for a tantalising musical buffet.

Musically too, there was something about the hints at familiar Beethoven melodies that was also of the time – a musical depiction of the way live music was perceived in the mind of the listener: fractured, confined, nearly-recognisable. Some variations are almost too difficult to listen to because of the memories they recall.

Dvorak Symphony No. 8 – Mariss Jansons and the Bavaria Radio Symphony

Technically speaking the recording I heard isn’t the one I’m illustrating here. It was actually a BBC Proms repeat from 2004 featuring Jansons and the Bavarian RSO that blew me away earlier in the year. Electrifying stuff. Made me feel alive. There are beautiful details to delight in in this recording: the delicacy in the upper strings in the third movement; the triumph and celebration in the fourth; and the joyous applause at the end.

Beethoven 3 from Les Concerts des Nations

Its fast and exhilarating. Terrifying. Ravishing.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 from the Aurora Orchestra

The Aurora Orchestra’s outdoor performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony was the first live orchestral music I heard (I think I’m right about that) after lockdown restrictions eased. Two concerts in one evening demonstrated what classical music concerts could turn into in the future. It was a highly-charged affair. The sound of an appreciative audience perhaps the most pleasing of all.

Holst’s Planet Suite in Parliament Square

Hearing the first few bars of Holst’s Mars the Bringer of War in Parliament Square was a moving experience. I went there to capture the protest mounted by freelance musicians calling on the Government to recognise the 30% of freelancers who weren’t able to benefit from the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. This was old-school bread-and-butter content production as far as I was concerned. A call to arms, one others I knew in the media seemed woefully disinterested in. Perhaps that was part of my motivation – proving them wrong. I found it difficult to look at real human beings and know that they were struggling because of the pandemic. I didn’t really understand how other people couldn’t be moved by the sight of them. A few months on I find it difficult to listen to Mars.

Richard Stamp and Ottensamer’s Copland

If I had to rank this list, I’d probably put this recording joint first with the next one in this post. Richard Stamp’s recording with the late great clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer blew me away, lifting me from an intense bought of what felt like depression. The textures in this intimate recording soothe the soul. Ottensamer’s storytelling in Copland’s concerto makes sense of the work in a way I’ve never really got from other recordings.

Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Wind Serenade

An unexpected invitation to speak to composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson prompted me to listen to this album before it was released. Geysir was a revelation. Highly descriptive writing that celebrates the similarities and differences found in a wind section. It is a delight for the ears. If there is a 2020 subsitute for the live concert experience, then its this. Simpson’s work gave me renewed impetus for the autumn.

Paired with Simpson’s Geysir was Mozart’s Gran partita. The joyous industrious first movement in particular provided much-needed hope at a dark point in my year. The precise articulation throughout the ensemble is a joy to behold.

Both works were recorded at Saffron Hall in Cambridgeshire when lockdown restrictions had been eased.

Transit of Venus / Gillam / Joby Talbot

I’ve heard a lot of ponderous reflective music this year. Jaw-grinding eye-ripping stuff some of it. But Gillam’s much-anticipated ‘Time’, and Jody Talbot’s Transit of Venus in particular, was not only perfectly-timed but restorative too. Gillam’s playing is remarkable in this track. Talbot’s writing effortlessly conveys a sense of hope without resorting to musical cliche. Loved it. Still do.

John Rutter’s ‘Joseph’s Carol’

I include this because it was an unexpectedly moving experience to hear it recorded by the Oxford Philharmonic, Bryn Terfel and John Rutter. Aside from the necessary COVID mitigations, the few hours I spent at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre hearing John Rutter’s new carol and speaking to him and Terfel reminded me of the press-junket experience which will, I’m sure in due course, return.

Peace on Earth – Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen’s eery Peace on Earth was published by English National Opera in July amid the emerging Black Lives Matter movement. Performed by Idunnu Münch and Gerrard Martin, this feels in places like a homage to Benjamin Britten and his love of scales. It a carol (or song?) that gets under the skin. First heard it in Opera Holland Park’s Christmas YouTube concert. There’s a choral version on Spotify too. We had better hear it at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols next year.

All Things Are Quite Silent – Anna Lapwood and The Choirs of Pembroke College, Cambridge

There has been a preponderance of vocal releases – video, audio, TV and film – this year. Only one album stands up at the end of 2020 as still warranting repeat listens that yield something meaningful. I love everything on the choral album, but if I had to choose one thing above all else it would be Kerensa Briggs heart-stopping Media Vita. Music that shores up my sense of hope.

For Fiona Maddocks’ selection visit the Guardian website.

10 things people said to me in 2020

The first of a handful of unorthodox reviews of my ‘Thoroughly Good’ year.

At the beginning of 2020 I hated speaking to people on the phone. Come the end of the year I find that I’ve become more at ease calling up people on-the-hoof. It is as though 2020 has reminded us that its allowed to call people up without warning.

Part of that is because of video calls. Zoom and Teams are now the communication medium most use (I think I’m right in saying). Maybe Skype.

Seeing people in conversation has been central to a different kind of communication experience.

Way back at the beginning of UK lockdown people reported exhaustion having to have quite so many video calls. The observation seemed obvious to me. We were having to listen more. We were paying closer attention to what we were saying and doing, and what others were saying and doing.

Conversations were more direct. We experienced safety being physically disconnected from the people we were talking to. This fuelled a sense of confidence to say what we thought and felt. Now at the end of the year I feel as though I know people a whole lot better, in a way that I don’t think I would have done had I interacted with them in real life.

And as a result of that, I find myself in between Christmas and New Year with a few phrases lingering in my head. These, like pictures, music, and social media, are the things that characterise my 2020.

“I’m frightened.” “So am I.”

Technically this is me saying something and what someone else said in response. My statement (“I’m frightened”) was recorded in a podcast at the beginning of lockdown in March 2020. “So am I” was the comment left by a friend of mine in comments section below.

“I’m sorry to have to ask you this … “

Around about the time I bought microphone stands and tested out doing fixed mic podcast recordings on location (it seems like another century now), I remember being emailed by a trusted PR pal prior to my visit. “I’m sorry to ask you this,” she said, “but can I just check that you haven’t visited Italy or Spain in the past few weeks, and that you don’t have a persistent cough, and haven’t had a temperature the past few days?”

There was a time when we thought an emailed declaration of good health would nail it.

“People are going to be bored in lockdown so they’ll want to read more.”

This was one of those things you hear in conversation and think, “No. I’m sure I misheard that.” But when you hear it repeated then you realise that no, that is what some people think. It’s a variation on the moldy thought that home-working or furlough would in some way trigger people to write that novel they always threatened the world they would write.

“I don’t want this to sound like a Priti Patel apology, but ….”

Months before Priti Patel made her non-apology for workplace bullying, she was the subject of considerable ire on social media because of her similarly considered obfuscation of responsibility, organisational or personal. Around about the same time I confronted someone about behaviours I felt crossed a bit of a line. There appeared to be great delight derived from referencing Priti Patel’s similar difficulty. I remember having to take deep breaths during the exchange – at times heated, aggressive and intimidating.

Sometimes apologies aren’t apologies. And when they’re not they merely confirm a hunch. How we manage ourselves in the aftermath is what is important. I reassure myself that I was brave remaining true to my values. Even now I can recall the taste in my mouth. It wasn’t pleasant.

“Classical music doesn’t have to be boring.”

This is a trigger phrase. It calls to mind lots of highly-respected experienced marketing types who quite rightly point out the paradox that results from such a mindless statement.

Classical music isn’t boring. No music is boring. To dismiss a genre as boring shows ignorance. To hold up a genre as boring in a bid to demonstrate how you could potentially save it is pointing to a problem that isn’t there and, in the process, being misleading.

“People love all of that mindfulness shit.”

In a year that has for a whole variety of reasons seen the subject of mental health elevated beyond platitudes into something real and present, hearing people speak in a disparaging way of some of the tools friends, colleagues and associates use to maintain their mental health, has consistently made me frustrated. And possibly even a little bit hurt.

“It’s a bit navel-gazy. Change it back, please.”

This was a comment made in response to my copywriting.

The comment stings. Not because I think my copy sings necessarily. I don’t think I’m an expert. Or brilliant. Or beyond criticism. Far from it. Questioning what one does is part of the creative process after all.

It was what the comment really represented: a command. An indication that not everyone is at ease with collaboration. And even less equipped communicating cleanly.

“You get angry when someone crosses your boundaries.”

We often misunderstand the meaning of the word angry.

Angry for some means losing one’s temper. Flushed cheeks. Green stream.

Angry for me means my heart pounding fast in my chest. My legs go shaky. There is an insatiable need to meet the challenge (whatever it is head on). Between you and me, I’m often terrified by the experience.

It’s happened three times this year. Managing it in the moment is what’s key. And the key to managing it is being aware of when it’s happening. Be observant. Don’t take evasive action – that’s when things can have a habit of getting a bit sticky.

Determining whether the person crossing the boundary in question is a repeat offender, and calculating the likelihood of them changing their behaviour is also terribly important. It’s a work in progress. For all of us.

“Thanks for being a colleague, a confidant, and a friend.”

In a year that I think is probably fair to say for all of us fed self-doubt, one message in a card at the end of this year took me completely by surprise.

“You speak a lot of truth.”

I don’t share this one because of the content of it., although I appreciate some will conclude that I’m being massively egotistical by including it. What I’m more interested in is the effect reading the statement had on me. There was a rush – like water seeping into an empty space. A sense of relief. Sometimes when one experiences relief, a split second follows when we realise just how much we needed the reassurance in the first place.