Viability and Jess Gillam’s Decca Release

Talk of viable jobs in the mainstream media today triggered my inner lefty. Or was it my inner liberal? I’m still not clear whether advocating the arts makes me a lefty or a liberal. Either way, the word was a trigger word deliberately placed in press releases, speeches and ‘reports’ intended to enflame and enrage.

Job done. It does enrage. But if you’re a bigger person, you’ll find a way to overlook it. The next six months (which I’m absolutely convinced will be extended by another six months in March 2021) present themselves as a grind. Yet another cross country run we have to set out on. We know we’ll complete it but dear God it seems like a struggle to get motivated right now.

The question that looms large is what story to tell of this period? Do we celebrate those who defy expectation and mount the concerts they can given the mitigations? Do we spotlight those for whom live music-making isn’t just their bread and butter but their sense of being, using this as evidence of the arts unshakeable spirit to rise up like a Phoenix (in itself a reflection of the story I tell to myself about myself)? Or is it important to highlight how the state-funded arts activity is systematically being destroyed? If one does the former does one risk down-playing the latter?

I don’t know the answer, other than the questions themselves help shape some editorial goals in the coming months. And in a weird way, I’m oddly grateful that curious editorial can be dug our from this particular shitheap.

All this whilst listening to Jess Gillam’s much-anticipated (by which I mean much-hyped) new album on Decca. The build-up has been relentless perhaps even never-ending. It might even have risked damaging the end product.

As it happens, it didn’t. This is a carefully curated selection of tracks drawing a bounty of new (to a few) composing names. The overarching mood is contemplative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking whilst avoiding the usual preponderance naval-gazing bollocks. Anna Meredith’s track in particular is not only well-placed – a kind of symphony-esque pivot point – but also balm for the soul right now.

Listen out for the plucked bass in various tracks too. It’s tactile. Tidy. Pleasing.

If you’re in search of some montage music to manage you through this weird time, this is the place to start.

Levit, Malta, and the 6 month thing

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

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

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

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

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

Peckham. Handel. London Handel Festival.

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

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

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

Anticipated highlights included below.

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

Tickets £20. More information here.

Nice work

The Philharnonia premiered a concert this evening via their YouTube and Facebook channels, with a simulstream via that other radio station dedicated to classical music, Classic FM.

Some thoughts bubbled up to the surface whilst I was chopping veg for the casserole tonight.

First, the slew of YouTube premieres from various bands are a lovely thing. But, tonight’s I find myself listening to the Philharmonia’s like it’s a radio broadcast. Then when there’s conversation in between performance, I focus in on what’s being said.

Second, the conversation challenges assumptions. Anne Marie Minhall is a brilliant broadcaster. Solid. Authentic. Trusted. The conversation she facilitates with Jaarvi and Benedetti is enlightening. Touching. Fitting perhaps. There is a sense of occasion about it even though I’m listening on my smart speaker not watching.

Third, I end up thinking that Classic are basically nipping at the heels of Radio 3. At least online they are. And that’s quite some achievement.

Lovely setting. Beautiful photography. And even though I’m getting a little sick of Lark Ascending there is a valid argument for the value of the work’s repetition right now.

Nice work everybody. You’re still my favourite band Philharmonia.

My local reopens

All at St John’s Smith Square will no doubt query my attendance record at the Westminster concert venue. And they would be right to do so. I have been a little flakey. But what this year has thrown into focus are the things, places and people that, which and who collectively keep the flame alive.

Whilst our idiotic government fiddles with legalities and consistently fails to deliver on their promises around COVID testing up the road (Matt Hancock, for crying out loud get on with it – if I do much as tweet something with a typo I get hauled over the coals, so why are you still in post exactly?), St John’s Smith Square are quietly and resolutely getting on with things and doing the best they can given the virus-infused circumstances.

Socially-distanced audiences have a month of concerts to look forward to in the glorious acoustic of St John’s Smith Square in October.

As I scroll through the list my eye is drawn to members of the RPO with Roderick Williams at 1pm on 2nd October, ‘Beethoven’s Late Quartets’ on Sat 3rd and Sunday 4th, Purcell on 6th, Gesualdo Six on Friday 9th, and Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday 14th. And to be able to hear something from my youth – Faure’s Messe Basse and Cantique de Jean Rancine, almost makes October both a joyous proposition and too much to contemplate all at the same time.

It’s a sign of the times. As events are staged, so we as audience members weigh up need, distance, against the pull of an acoustic. St John’s Smith Square wins right now. There’s no guarantee I can be there – tickets will go like hot cakes (rightly so) – so at least it will be online.

There will also be fifty events made available online at SJSS’ YouTube channel as part of the St John’s Digital Exchange programme, some hybrid versions of concerts featured in the live concerts, some created specifically for our digital audience. 

Bring your own wine (to consume outside) if you’re attending in person.

Buy tickets online (only) at St John’s Smith Square.

London Mozart Players start recording their Classical Club concerts

It’s been a pleasure to be working with the London Mozart Players these past few months. In years to come I suspect I’ll look back on this year with a similar kind of warped fondness as I do on my early years in orchestral management.

From lockdown came a series of blog posts for the Scala Radio website. And from that, a media partnership between the two organisations. I can’t lay claim to all of it. Maybe the introductions and the digital aspect of the partnership. Being able to play a part in making something happen which has the potential to support a transformed activity, and drive revenue at a point in time when its needed most, is energising. There’s more information on the London Mozart Players website. Subscription on-demand concerts premiere on 24th September.

What I’m returning to more and more at these performances is the benefits of proximity and stillness. Last night’s recording was ticketed for a socially-distanced audience, meaning masks, sanitiser, and a chair. Adjusting to this setup as an audience member brings into the light some of the unexpected benefits being a socially-distanced audience member in the concert space. Even if the severe reduction in number of chairs is a visible sign of the urgency of finding sustainable revenue streams via digital, having the space around me before the next bank of two or three chairs counter-intuitively makes for a more intimate concert experience. The feeling of solitude is actually rather heart-warming.

So too, being able to see more detail on the faces of the musicians. (The wind players were necessarily miles away, meaning the demands placed on all to ensure ensemble playing whilst negotiating a boomy acoustic must have been considerable.) It’s going to be a long time before I see the expressions on the faces of wind players, but seeing the expressions between string players mid-performance was uplifting. The orchestra is not a machine that is switched on or off. It’s a collection of spirited energised individuals all expressing something. Getting glimpses of those moments – a smile or a glance to a colleague – is very special and adds to the live-ness of the experience, details that might otherwise be lost when sat further back.

Young Classical Artist Trust cellist Maciej Kulakowski was a good fit for the concert bringing a warm, rich and unwavering tone that exuded confidence and strength. And with no conductor, direction was left to effervescent leader Ruth Rogers. That only added to the intimacy and unfussy-ness of the occasion too, changing the dynamic from the hierarchical structure often implied at the platform to something altogether more collaborative.

Aurora Orchestra’s principal flute and Creative Director Jane Mitchell wins RPS ABO Salomon Prize

Congratulations to Aurora Orchestra’s principal flute and Creative Director Jane Mitchell who was last night awarded with the Royal Philharmonic Society and Association of British Orchestras Salomon Prize, celebrating an orchestral musicians achievements as nominated by the orchestra they work for.

One of those awards you see announced you end up thinking to yourself, “Well, good show and about time.”

Mitchell is I think I’m right in saying a critical player in the creation of last years breathtaking Berlioz Symphonie fantastique theatrical extravanza last year, and the driving force in nearly every concert I’ve come away from Aurora have played where I’ve felt invigorated, refreshed and (seeing as they even got a mention in my coaching session this month), maybe even inspired.

The award and its associated PR bursts a smallish bubble through which I’ve peered at orchestras and seen them as a complete thing rather than a mass of creative individuals. Sorry, obviously. In my defence I didn’t do that knowingly. It’s just that the announcement has quite rightly taken me by surprise.

At the risk of this blog appearing like a big Aurora Orchestra love-in, the band are also playing at the Proms this week. I bet it won’t be anywhere as good as the Handyside Canopy gig.

Aurora at Handyside Canopy

The opening chords of Beethoven’s 7th symphony played by the Aurora Orchestra in Kings Cross pinned me to the glass doors of nearby Waitrose in Handyside Canopy. Tears flowed. This was the first actual live orchestral music I’d heard in person in six months. A supercharged affair.

There’s a vague sense that this might be an outing for musicians and concert-goers alike which is fleeting. Conversations I’ve had today with TV people hint at something cumbersome and depressing coming down the tracks: an increasing R-rate. If you’re part of a pitifully small group of people who are getting to experience live music in socially-distanced audiences right now maybe that avenue of pleasure will be closed of in the coming weeks. Will Christmas music all be pre-recorded? Or will we ride this wave? It’s difficult to tell.

© Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place

No time for catastrophisation. Let’s live in the moment. Savour it. Jump up and down with joy. Because really, that’s how it felt last night hearing 50 minutes of live unamplified music.

There were critics present in the audience for the concert I attended. God only knows why anyone worries what critics think right now. The important thing is about capturing what’s so incredibly exciting about this experience now. Because if we do we might collectively – us fans – remind ourselves of the secret that could entice the newcomers.

And what is that exactly? Well first, realising that the sound you’re connecting with in the moment isn’t amplified. It’s made by humans. Physical contact – bow on string, lips on mouthpieces, and eyes alive. This stuff is electric. We are being immersed in an experience whilst sat on a plastic chair within sight of the entrance to Waitrose.

The reality is that I could get used to this kind of set up. Put an orchestra and a smallish audience (who have been starved of contact with their network) in a boomy acoustic at a sophisticated distance from one another and let the atmosphere create itself. We were all massively appreciative. The excitement was delectable. Who wouldn’t want to be in amongst that?

Aurora Orchestra play at the BBC Proms on Thursday 10 September

Getting used to video streams

These weekly posts help me. They’re probably more helpful to me than they are interesting to read. I have no real idea whether that’s true or whether it’s just a reflection of my own negative thinking. This said, a weekly (or fortnightly) as has been the case in recent weeks does help order my thoughts around those things which have acted as an interface with the classical music world.

First, a visit to nearby Beckenham Place Mansion with a colleague to capture b-roll and talking heads about their paywalled chamber concerts. They’re not the only band doing this at the moment. Expect other announcements next week. But, still there was an element of an occasion about the experience. There was also something reassuringly authentic about the experience too.

Orchestras aren’t really that big or grand or aloof. That’s what I’ve been reminded of this week.

Orchestras are perceived as ‘big things’. And because they’re seen as big they’re also assumed to be rolling in money or grand or aloof. Let’s avoid the aloof thing (because I’ll just descend into surfacing all of that negative talk I’ve heard about ‘classical music’s problem’ in recent months).

Instead, let’s focus on the reality that challenges that ‘grand’ assumption of scale.

The English Chamber Orchestra this week was the experience I recall most potently from my early arts admin days: little glamour; lots of anxiety; lots of negotiating spaces; lots of making sure everyone’s happy.

Don’t get me wrong, it was all perfectly organised. It’s just that orchestras aren’t in themselves glamorous things. And they’re not always big. This week was a reminder.

This was a dozen players. Single wind, trumpet, string quartet, and percussion. Filming meant I could get up to two metres away. And that combined with the deft purchase of a Canon EOS I made for a filming job in The City two weeks before lockdown meant not only was I able to get some tasty footage, but I was also able to hear an ensemble in rehearsal (Debussy) up close.

You’d think a sparse orchestration would leave me wanting. Of course it didn’t. Debussy got orchestration, wanting individual strengths of instruments to take centre stage. In chamber form the sound is rich, warm, strong but with a hint of shoestring. In Beckenham Place Mansion’s near-shabby chic interior, the combination of location and sparseness elevated the music by putting textures first.

I didn’t get emotional. Very early on in lockdown I assumed that I would get teary when I heard an orchestra play. Instead I felt at ease in the company of others I felt I knew (I don’t) and possibly even resentful that seemingly ridiculous health and safety measures were making the miraculous unnecessarily hard-fought.

That’s perhaps what I’ve concluded most forcefully throughout all of this second ‘period’. Measures are not so much things which are there to preserve health, but ill-thought out and literal extrapolations of ham-fisted interpretations of health advice. It’s as though someone is standing next to a conductor during a concert and stopping proceedings to say: “but it says pianissimo there. I don’t think any of us would regard what you just directed as anything other than a piano.” You know, someone present bleeding all the joy out of life.

I’m thinking all of this at the same time as watching, for the third time in twenty-four hours, the CBSO’s Centenary Concert on YouTube.

It didn’t work terribly well on our TV screen. The sound mix wasn’t great – better in a mono mix than stereo – and the ‘live’ pieces to camera dissappointingly clunky unhearsed. But, the intent was strong and the storytelling potent. This was a fundraiser, of course. (Side note: I’ve now seen enough of these to think that if you’re asking for money, then the more potent thing to do would be to reveal how much money you’ve raised.)

It worked better on a laptop with a mono speaker. A.R. Rahman performing was touching, Sheku’s Saint-Saëns concerto was unexpectedly arrestin. Hannah Kendall’s Sparks was utterly compelling. Stravinsky’s Firebird was a bit of a tear-jerker come the final bars.

There was an air of sorrow about the whole thing. Plucky musicians doing their thing because they’re allowed to in a tight-controlled space. Yes, you can have your party so long as its absoutely and completely utterly safe. Not the uplift. A sort of outdoor concert done indoors. Not the kind of celebration I had hoped for.

No matter. This is all part of a journey that everyone is on. Stick with it.

London Philharmonic Orchestra to play concerts in Royal Festival Hall 30 September – 30 December

Always nice to start the day with an invigorating press release. This from the London Philharmonic Orchestra announcing their concert schedule for the rest of the year offers a little bit of hope and possibly even excitement.

All thirteen concerts will be streamed via Marquee.TV which if you’ve got one of a range of Connected TVs you may well be able to access directly on the TV (otherwise its an HDMI connection from your laptop to the TV). Marquee are currently offering 50% for all subscriptions to their service in September. The LPO concerts will be freely accessible via Marquee for the first 7 days after broadcast.

More detail for the LPO season on the orchestra’s website. For Marquee TV subscriptions go here.

Wednesday 30 September 2020, 8pm

JÖRG WIDMANN Con brio
SIBELIUS (ORCH. RAUTAVAARA) In the Stream of Life
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5

Edward Gardner conductor (Chair supported by Mrs Christina Lang Assael)
Gerald Finley bass-baritone


Wednesday 7 October 2020, 8pm

MESSIAEN
 Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht

Edward Gardner 
conductor (Chair supported by Mrs Christina Lang Assael)


Wednesday 14 October 2020, 8pm

JULIAN ANDERSON Van Gogh Blue*
NIELSEN Violin Concerto
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7

John Storgårds
 conductor
Simone Lamsma violin


Wednesday 21 October 2020, 8pm

ANNA CLYNE Prince of Clouds
R STRAUSS Suite, Le bourgeois gentilhomme
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 8

Karina Canellakis
 conductor
Pieter Schoeman violin (Chair supported by Neil Westreich)
Tania Mazzetti violin (Chair supported by Countess Dominique Loredan)


Wednesday 28 October 2020, 8pm

SIBELIUS 
The Bard
MAGNUS LINDBERG Cello Concerto No. 2 (UK premiere)
RAVEL Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 1

Jukka-Pekka Saraste 
conductor
Anssi Karttunen cello
Sally Matthews soprano


Wednesday 4 November 2020, 8pm

VIVALDI La stravaganza, Op. 4, Concerto No. 1 in B flat major
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 2
THOMAS LARCHER Ouroboros for cello and orchestra
REGER Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 132

Thierry Fischer conductor
Pieter Schoeman violin (Chair supported by Neil Westreich)
Kristina Blaumane cello (Chair supported by Bianca and Stuart Roden)


Wednesday 11 November 2020, 8pm

CHEVALIER DE SAINT-GEORGES
 Overture, L’amant anonyme
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4
BEETHOVEN Ah! Perfido
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4

Daniele Rustioni
 conductor
Nicolas Namoradze piano
Sophie Bevan soprano


Wednesday 25 November 2020, 8pm

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 3
PENDERECKI Concertino for Trumpet and Orchestra
LOTTA WENNÄKOSKI Verdigris (London premiere)
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 5

Hannu Lintu
 conductor
Gábor Boldoczki trumpet


Wednesday 2 December 2020, 8pm

PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 1 (Classical)
HILLBORG Bach Materia
SCHUBERT Overture in B flat major, D.470
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 5

Thomas Søndergård 
conductor
Pekka Kuusisto violin


Saturday 5 December 2020, 8pm

RAVEL Le tombeau de Couperin
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 6
JONATHAN DOVE Vadam et circuibo civitatem (a cappella)
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3

Thomas Søndergård 
conductor
Alexander Gavrylyuk piano
London Philharmonic Choir


Wednesday 9 December 2020, 8pm

J S BACH Orchestral Suite No. 1
ELENA KATS-CHERNIN Piano Concerto No. 3 (European premiere)
ENESCU Decet, Op. 14
ENESCU Chamber Symphony

Vladimir Jurowski 
conductor
Tamara-Anna Cislowska piano


Wednesday 16 December 2020, 8pm

J S BACH
 Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
BRETT DEAN The Players, for accordion and orchestra (UK premiere)
STRAVINSKY Pulcinella (complete)

Vladimir Jurowski 
conductor
Pieter Schoeman violin (Chair supported by Neil Westreich)
Juliette Bausor flute
Catherine Edwards harpsichord
James Crabb accordion
Angharad Lyddon soprano
Sam Furness tenor
David Soar bass


Wednesday 30 December 2020, 8pm

VIVALDI Overture, La verità in cimento
SPOHR Symphony No. 2
HONEGGER Pastorale d’été
BLISS Rout
JAMES MACMILLAN Sinfonietta

Vladimir Jurowski 
conductor
Mary Bevan soprano