London Symphony Orchestra plays first public performance at Barbican Concert Hall

“Welcome back to Barbican” said the man on stage; the audience reacted with customary and extended applause. Had the London Symphony Orchestra have called the concert off there and then, the sound of the applause would have been sufficient. The sound was warm, joyous and excitable. Everyone united. Everyone brimming with anticipation. Quite a special moment to be a part of. “We’re all very excited and very emotional,” said Rattle referring to the orchestra behind him.

On the face of it, writing notes about a concert only a small group of people have attended seemed a rather quaint idea. Mildly outdated. Pointless. But then this was an important moment – the London Symphony Orchestra’s first public concert in the Barbican for fourteen months. Highly charged. Capturing the moment you hear a particular orchestra in a particular venue after so long is something to document, like hearing an orchestra for the time (very nearly).

In the opening theme of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra the upper strings sounded rich and warm on the G-string. The cello variation was gratifyingly tender, and the clarinet duet was comically playful. I heard a sonorous oboe solo over which neither player nor conductor saw any need to rush (much to my delight). And somewhere between that and the uplifting fugue at the end, the unmistakable sound of a mobile phone. Nobody tutted. Nobody sighed.

Throughout I was surprised about how cohesive the ensemble sound was. There was precision and detail (particularly given the phenomenally challenging speed changes during Dvorak’s mammoth Slavonic Dances. Not only was the togetherness of the sound seemingly incredible given the distances the players were from one another, but the rounded sound especially between the flutes, clarinet, and oboe at the ends of phrases were a ravishing treat – like a perfectly wrapped present topped with neatly tied bow.

Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite was a poignant mix of relief and reflection, part uplifting, consistently restorative.

Front of house management in the 80s interior of the brutalist Barbican had a whiff of the airport about it. Ticket holders queued outside, checked in using the NHS Test and Trace app, filed in line to a roped off part of the foyer before heading into the auditorium, from street to seat in around 10 minutes. One presumes it won’t always be like this. But for the time being at least, this is good enough, because the reality is that it is so good to be back. So very good to be a part of the live music experience.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Goldscheider’s musical tribute to Dennis Brain

Horn player Ben Goldscheider has a remarkable CV for someone who came to prominence back in 2016 following his BBC Young Musician Concerto Final in 2016.

Solo appearances followed with the BBC Concert, BBC Symphony, Aurora, English Chamber, and and Manchester Camerata. He’s been guest principal for West Eastern Divan, English Chamber and Philharmonia. Last year he featured in a recording of Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Gran Partita. This year he records as soloist with Philharmonia and appears at Wigmore Hall. He’s 23.

The release of Godscheider’s musical tribute to much-loved musician Dennis Brain whose centennial the music world is marking at the moment is a homage to the legendary horn player who died at 36 in 1956 in a car crash.

Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain (1921 – 1956) came from a musical family. Grandfather and uncles played the horn; Dennis’ father taught Dennis the horn throughout his Royal Academy of Music years; brother Leonard played the oboe; mother Marion played the piano.

Brain is celebrated for the quality of his sound which even in a mono recording like Strauss’ first horn concerto with the Philharmonia from 1947 is something to marvel at – a long elegant self-assured melodic line that reassures with every caress. The opening subject of the first movement evokes a powerful image – a column of air that starts in the pit of the abdomen and weaves its way across a wide vista with grace.

That so many composers in Brain’s early career were interested in the horn player’s playing is reflected in the music written for him by the likes of Hindemith, Benjamin Britten and Gordon Jacob. “Dennis Brain has often been heralded as awakening the horn from a long slumber,” said Ben Goldscheider in the release for the album, “such was the comparative barrenness of the Romantic period in terms of compositions for a solo horn player.”

Composer Huw Watkins plays piano on Ben Goldscheider’s Legacy tribute to Dennis Brain

The album ‘Legacy’ consists of music for Brain (it surprised me that Poulenc wrote for Brain), and that written in memory of him, the most arresting of which on a first listen for me at least is Huw Watkins Lament.

Lament is a ravishing creation, taut and efficient, charting a journey through a range of emotional statements punctuated with anguished leaps. Music with humanity that has the power to console. It’s rare that new music I’m invited to write about prompts so many listens as this has this week. It’s music that makes me want to explore Huw Watkins other output further. Some achievement.

Ben Goldscheider

Listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s Sonnets without Words during Ben’s Facebook premiere launching the album on Friday night, the sound of her rich array of harmonies made me think of her Love Abide album on Signum featuring Voces 8 (a release that triggered a revealing interview with Roxanna for the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast back in 2019).

“Panufnik speaks when she’s writing for the human voice,” I said to The OH (it sounded less pretentious than it reads) as we watched Goldscheider play Sonnets.

Reading the booklet now at the time of writing this post I now understand that Sonnets started as a work for voice and piano.

That her transcription for horn and piano makes me think that when listening to Goldscheider’s recording helps me appreciate more what Roxanna’s compositional language is. Sweet Love Remember’d has an absorbing theatrical air about it.

James Gilchrist in conversation with Huw Watkins during recordings at Henry Wood Hall

The other striking thing about this album is Goldscheider’s playing. In Watkin’s Lament and Mine Eye from Roxanna Panufnik, there’s a fragility to the vibrato that creates jeopardy to the listening experience. The sincerity in the voice creates a persona that mixes self-assurance and vulnerability. Utterly fascinating.

In posting this I want to call out the video production and PR for Ben’s album release. If you’re looking to encourage people to listen, think, reflect, and advocate the material then sharing a range of supporting material off the bat is bottom line stuff. Artists looking to maximise reach must understand why it’s important to engage with video, image, and copy production. Without that supporting material advocating new work is made more challenging. Goldscheider’s team has done textbook work.

The continuing strain on our mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winners at the International Opera Awards 2021

The winners were announced at the International Opera Awards earlier this evening. The ticketed pre-recorded digital stream celebrated an international community of opera creatives in a mixed programme of awards and performances.

The picture of awards host Petroc Trelawny is from the Opera Awards archive.

Metropolitan Opera

Kirill Petrenko

Małgorzata Szczęśniak

Robert Carsen

Birmingham Opera Company

Lise Davidsen

Salzburg Festival

LEADERSHIP sponsored by the Good Governance Institute
David Pountney

Bernard Haitink

Javier Camarena

Tale of Tsar Saltan (Tcherniakov, La Monnaie De Munt)

Alpesh Chauhan

Teatro Real, Madrid

Denyce Graves

Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich

Martina Arroyo Foundation

Jakub Józef Orliński: Facce d’amore (Erato)

Thomas: Hamlet (Naxos) [DVD]

Jamie Barton

Moniuszko: Paria (Teatr Wielki, Poznań)

Glanert: Oceane (Deutsche Oper, Berlin)

YOUNG SINGER sponsored by Mazars
Xabier Anduaga
Vasilisa Berzhanskaya

Pedal-powered performance from composer Laura Bowler and the London Sinfonietta

An unexpected message in my inbox this morning drawing my attention to a new commission premiering at the Southbank Centre on 9th July from resident band London Sinfonietta.

Composer Laura Bowler (pictured) seeks to bring more attention to the ongoing climate crisis, bringing music and movement together in an inventive and thought-provoking piece: the entire performance and the resources needed to host it will be powered entirely by cyclists, on-stage with members of the London Sinfonietta. I hope to God they’ll make sure they’re oiled the chains beforehand.

Bowler’s new work work Houses Slide, describes one woman’s psychological journey to investigate her response to the climate emergency.

The concert is directed by the award-winning theatre director Katie Jane Mitchell OBE who will position 16 bicycles on stage with the players. It’s these bicycles that will power the production and the venue.

Bowler said of Houses Slide, “The climate crisis is the most urgent matter for the artistic community to address right now. The more ways we find to communicate the problem, the more likely people will become active in demanding governmental action and in turn global action. Houses Slide delves into the complexities at the heart of the climate crisis; climate psychology and
climate grief. How can we change our minds and the minds of others? How can we effect change?”

This video previewing her collaboration with Manchester Camerata a few years back helps provide some background on Bowler’s work. What I’m drawn to here are her values, particularly the importance she places on creativity based on authentic experience, and the need for the music experience to communicate.

“I don’t see any point in making art unless it communicates.”

composer laura bowler, 2018

Here in particular I’m excited by the way she creates soundscapes – audio renditions of the thoughts and feelings which arose as a result of that experience. In the case of Houses Slide, that makes the creative output something that will undoubtedly provoke thought and reflection.

Houses Slide with London Sinfonietta premieres at Royal Festival Hall on Friday 9 July.

Baritone Tom Mole wins Guildhall’s Gold Medal 2021

Congratulations to baritone Tom Mole who has won this year’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama Gold Medal, the School’s prize for outstanding musicians.

Awarded to singers and instrumentalists in alternate years, 2021 was the turn of the singers. The final was staged on Thursday 6 May and made available to watch back on Guildhall School’s website last night. It is now available to view for free for two weeks on the Guildhall website. Tom Mole’s Gold Medal winning performance is available with this deep link.

Tom’s winning performance included Rachmaninov’s V molchanyi nochi taynoy (In the silence of the secret night), Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder: Abschied (Farewell), Finzi’s The Phantom: Earth and Air and Rain, and Moss’ The Floral Dance accompanied by pianist Inês Costa. 

Baritones do as a rule leave me completely flummoxed. Such deep sonorous voices only make sense to me if they’re generated by big set men with age on their side. Mole is 22. His physical presence – he is remarkably tall stood in front of the piano – combined with a steely distant look in his eyes makes for a captivating self-assured performance. Watch him with the sound turned down and keep an eye on his face – the storytelling in his facial expressions is quite something.

The other Gold Medal finalists, tenor Thando Mjandana, soprano Laura Lolita Perešivana and soprano Olivia Boen also performed songs and arias of their choice. Accompanying the singers in the first half of the concert were pianists Josh Ridley and Toby Hession.

This year’s judges featured: Professor Jonathan Vaughan, Vice-Principal & Director of Music at Guildhall School; Huw Humphreys, Head of Music at the Barbican; Gweneth Ann Rand, soprano and alumna; Jordan de Souza, conductor; and the evening’s conductor Natalie Murray Beale.

Mole currently studies with John Evans on the Opera Course at Guildhall School of Music & Drama where he recently gained BMus in Vocal Studies. 

Such competitions are ever more important to highlight. Like the Bicentenary Prize at the Royal Academy of Music in a couple of weeks’ time, and various prizes at the Royal College and other conservatoires, prizes are the calling card for higher education establishments and the work their teaching staff do to develop the next generation of musical talent. One look at the competition alumni for the Gold Medal demonstrates that point. Jacqueline du Pre (cello), Simon Smith (violin), Susan Bickley, Bryn Terfel, Ashley Fripp, and Oliver Waas to pick out a few have all received the award. More are listed in this year’s Gold Medal programme.

Now more than ever is the time to reflect on the contribution higher education has on developing this new talent and, making the UK a location of artistic excellence. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s ridiculous plan to implement a 50% cut in higher education funding for arts subjects threatens that hard-fought reputation for artistic excellence.

In short, Tom Mole’s mastery isn’t a fluke or magic. His win is evidence of what we risk losing if higher education funding is cut.

Touching tribute to Corrine Chapelle penned by Cheryl Frances-Hoad

Composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad has penned a short piece in tribute to violinist Corrine Chapelle who died from cancer in March of this year. Corrine’s Song has been recorded in isolation by Menuhin School alumni including Nicola Benedetti, Alina Ibragimova and Alexander Sitkovetsky.

In February 2021, news broke that Grammy-nominated violinist Corinne Chapelle had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Friends rallied round to raise funds for a course of treatment in Germany, unavailable in the UK. Their efforts raised £171,000. Corinne died in March before the treatment could be completed. She is survived by her partner and six year old daughter Leila.

Described as ‘one of the most promising talents of her generation’ by Yehudi Menuhin, Corinne attended the Yehudi Menuhin School from the age of 16. As soon as her friends knew of Corinne’s illness, a large group of alumni, led by pianist Hyung-ki Joo, gathered together virtually in order to brainstorm how the huge sum for Corinne’s treatment might be raised. One idea, proposed by composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, was near to completion when the news of Corinne’s death was announced. The alumni decided nevertheless to complete Corinne’s Song, an original piece of music for string orchestra.

It’s a heartfelt musical tribute that tugs at the heartstrings whilst keeping sentimentality at bay. In addition to the painful story the composition represents, there’s also a powerful statement about how musicians unite in a shared goal. There is community to be found in the videography, a demonstration of yet another way that music drives unity and promotes empathy. Much-needed right now.

Audio-mixing by Emmy-nominated composer Halli Cauthery, video-editing by Deniz Kavalali, creative direction by Oli Langford and creative production by Hyung-ki Joo.

through the noise launch crowdfunded classical events ‘noisenights’

Acknowledging the audience’s role in helping create an electrifying classical experience

You may not have heard of through the noise. It’s a new crowdfunding platform specifically built for live classical noisenights events, trialling with a couple of events, one in July featuring Laura van der Heijden and Max Baille; the other with members of Chineke! in August.

A glimpse at the website this morning shows how through the noise creators Jack Bazalgette and Jack Crozier have deftly positioned the brand for the audience they’re looking to target.

First, it’s hosted in a club space in the heart of Hoxton famed for nights curated by people I’ve literally no idea about because I’m twenty years too old. The performers are referred by their first names. Performances are referred to as ‘sets’. And the last set has a bonus late performance thrown in too.

The call-to-action is evocative – ‘back this event’. Audience members are being invited to invest in an ocassion (even if the button to back the event also includes ‘get tickets’).

“We propose ideas for concerts, where the venue, artist dates and everything’s secured,” says Jack Bazalgette when I speak to him early last week. “Then we check it out there and see what happens. I mean, we intend for everything to actually happen. We intend for every concert we propose to happen. But should there be a less than great response, we wouldn’t just put on a bad concert with a 50% attendance. We want all our concerts to be amazing.”

The difference here for me is the importance of the audience creating the atmosphere as well as the musicians themselves. through the noise wants to shift the expectation from the performer to the audience member, empowering the audience to create the audience.

Standing at the front of the venue will demand an £8 investment, seated at the back for £10, with ‘premium’ table and chairs at the front for £22. Drinks on top of that. That makes a night out with live music in a cabaret-style space something in the region of £60-65 for two people if you want a premium seat., £32 if the pair of you are happy to stand. The Laura/Max event is at the point of launch 43% funded.

“I think people feeling like they can see how much backing a concert has got in real-time,” adds Jack. “We want them to feel like when they buy a ticket, when they back it, they’re getting more than just getting their seat to watch the thing that’s already happening. They’re sort of part of making it happen. This potentially has a positive impact on the event itself, influencing the atmosphere of those concerts by bringing together a group of people audience and performers who are invested in it.”

It’s an interesting idea. Ticket-buying but not ticket-buying. A subtle shift in thinking, a modest change in marketing in order to reach out to a different (additional) audience, reminscent of the the OAE Night Shift gigs. The apparent simplicity of the change reminds me learning about David le Page and Orchestra of the Swan’s words and music digital streams, an idea in development prior to lockdown in March 2020.

I ask Jack about where the idea for noisenights had originated.

“We’ve been talking to lots of musicians about ways that we might sort of get into helping the music industry in one way or another. We’d had lots of ideas before lockdown but nothing really solid. Then lockdown happened, and we thought that this was our time to germinate a plan. We spoke to musicians about what they’d be willing to do. And I think it’s gone through a lot of different permuations.

“I suppose it’s just over a year of conversations and talking to loads of people about what they think would work. This is the one so far, seems to make the most sense. We’re just on a mission, really to get as many people going to concerts and enjoying them, and to help make our industry a success. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll do something else.”

“I think we need to get people talking about classical music at the moment,” says Jack. “We need them to talk about it before it actually gets underway. We need to get as much press for classical music as possible. And we need to get that message beyond the classical music network.”

“What matters most to me is, is the actual concerts, the music that’s played in them how good the music is, and what the experience of listening to music is like that and getting the audience in to have that experience. That’s what I care about.”

Through the Noise is gently shifting the responsibility for an electrifying classical experience onto the audience with their noisenight crowdfunding project. A very interesting prospect brought about by the smallest of changes. One to keep an eye on.

noisenights are on 9th July and 28th August 2021 – more information on the through the noise website

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.