A rip-roaring fusion of musical styles documenting the travels of violinist Nicola Benedetti
Decca’s new release is a glorious recording of Marsalis’ captivating violin concerto, premiered in 2015, paired with his Fiddle Suite. The Fiddle Suite is good. Intense and intimate, hits the spot.
The focus on my attention has, since the first time I heard this recording, been on the concerto. Marsalis’ writing is efficient. Captivating drama abounds in a work brimming with tantalising textures and colours that evoke far-away lands.
The opening Rhapsody sees Marsalis combine a hint of English post-war pastoral style with Gershwin and a whiff of Copland, before easing the orchestra into a Bernstein homage replete with spidery solo line from the violin. A seemingly never-ending series of beautiful vignettes follows in a short space of time. Listening to this there are moments when I feel like I’m watching an MGM on a rainy Sunday afternoon. An cacophonous urban soundscape follows before we’re returned to something altogether more serene. A blissful harmonic indulgence nearly concludes the movement save for a whimsical jig squeezed into the final bars.
The second movement aptly-named Rondo Burlesque commands attention from the off with material which passes quickly through what feels like a subject, development and recapitulation all in the space of a few minutes. The candenza that follows – a dialogue between solo line and rhythm percussion is a gripping demonstration of Benedetti’s artistic commitment, and the ease at which she switches from one musical style to another. A tour de force performance of a gripping score. I’m sure I hear some rock reference in there somewhere towards the end.
Blues is a steaming theatrical number complete with vocal performances from the band and trombone imitations that concludes in what Marsalis describes as abject loneliness, but I prefer to look on as an introverts paradise.
And the last movement. A tub-thumping hootenanny that casts a shadow (albeit respectfully) on Copland’s Rodeo.
It amazes me the BBC Proms hasn’t snapped up this work yet. It must surely make an appearance in the next few years.
The concerto isn’t only a compositional triumph for Marsalis or another solid performance in the Bennedetti canon, but also something of a marketing win for Decca. In their 90th anniversary year I’ve struggled with the Decca narrative. They’re keen to celebrate their eclecticism, and seemingly desperate to emphasise their youth credentials. Some of the messaging around promoting Jess Gillam and Sheku Kanneh Mason has seemed a little obvious, for example; the content itself deliberately curated for mass appeal.
But this release feels like more of what I’d expect from the Decca brand: an exciting collaboration between two exciting creatives, aligning the work of a present-day jazz legend who knows how to create appealing new material with our most prized present-day UK classical musicians.
Nicola Benedetti’s recording of Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru is released on Decca on 12 July.
One press release about a music festival on the other side of the world triggers all manner of questions about a little known subject
At (yet another) febrile moment in the UK’s politics when a remainer Prime Minister clings on to power in a desperate bid to get her questionable Brexit deal over the line and cast the country off into the brave new world of global trade, news from China has piqued my interest.
Earlier this week International Trade Secretary Liam Fox sought to demonstrate his efforts in selling the UK’s strengths to the world with an announcement about how British music was ..
And yesterday, an announcement that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s 10th Music in the Summer Air Festival (2 – 15 July) featuring a selection of high profile UK classical music brands are venturing east to put their best foot forward.
I’m intrigued by the announcement. Not cynical. Obviously.
It’s more evidence of a strategy people were trumpeting at the ABO conference in Cardiff back in January 2018. Whilst most were picking over the various permuatations surrounding Brexit (they were, inevitably, doing a similar thing this year and will no doubt next year too), some management types were encouraging their peers to look further afield.
At the time this challenging outlook appeared pragmatic. Now I see it realised in another China-related announcement, its less of novelty and more of a thing that’s actually happening.
What raises my eyebrows is the way the existence of an familiar market on the other side of the world challenges my assumptions about classical music audiences across the world.
For all the understandable worry and lobbying around the catastrophic impact of Brexit, there are some in the industry who have done the only thing they think they can and seized the opportunity that greets them. What I’m interested in is who the audience is that the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony are pursuing out in China.
What is it about that market that is so appealing? Is it altruism? Is culture being used to deepen international relations? Or are there financial gains to be made, channels to be dug, and new audiences to be tempted? And what does the appetite for western classical music in the East say about the popularity of the music that originates from China? Where did that appeal originate? And what is Chinese symphonic music? Who are the people who are attending these concerts? What is the appeal to them? And how does the appeal they perceive for the music in China help compare to the classical music world here in the UK and the US, for example?
These are the kind of questions that fly around when another press release arrives in your inbox referencing China at the same time the UK is vacillating over a European outlook versus the supposed tantalising opportunities presented by free trade deals across the world. It’s probably a podcast. Or at best a series of interviews. Who knows, even an article for someone.
Music in Summer Air marks the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra‘s 140th anniversary and features a series of concerts given by China’s oldest orchestra, many of which will be in the Shanghai Symphony Hall which, now I search for pictures of it on Google, appears to be utterly gorgeous.
Very pleased to see composer Raymond Yiu making an appearance on the programme with his work Xocolatl in what amounts to a Last Night of the Proms-esque type programme with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Davis. Also good for Colin Currie and his band of merry percussionists taking Steve Reich to Shanghai.
The programme as a whole isn’t going to scare the horses. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mozart and Britten.
My attention is particularly drawn to the Shanghai Youth Orchestra appearances, because its there that some of the answers to that stream of questions could be found.
How a former mathematician’s curiosity shines a new light on the process of composing
“Music was always around me. But, as far as playing music was concerned, it was never on the cards. As a kid I was a maths prodigy. It was always assumed I would grow up a scientist, or a mathematician, or at worst a physicist.
Composer Alexey Shor speaks matter of factly about his transition from ‘prodigy mathematician’ to composer when we meet during the Malta International Music Festival.
“I started writing music very late in life and mostly for my own entertainment. And then by pure accident it got noticed by David Aaron Carpenter and he started playing it in all of his concerts and it went from there.”
He speaks softly, with a mildly percussive edge. There’s a simplicity to his tone. Dark eyes and a half smile give him a childlike look – someone curious about a new world.
He leans in to speak into the microphone. I do the same.
His ability to learn a new discipline quickly set him on a new career path six years ago.
“I always loved music. I’m a concert junkie. I probably go to two concerts a week when I’m in New York. At some point I was curious just to see how it is that music is written down.
“You go to a concert and its like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book. So, I wrote variations on a theme of Happy Birthday. It was so new and so entertaining to me that I could actually create music that I kept doing it without any ambition to be professional.”
Since then the American-Maltese composer has had his music recorded by various orchestras and now features on releases on Warner Classics with viola player David Carpenter.
Shor epitomises the on-demand information age we now live in: curiosity-driven learning that highlights the rarefied regard in which we hold the creation of art. There’s usually an answer to be found on the internet for any challenge we might be posing. A shortcut perhaps.
Using a book to crack the musical code seems in comparison like a retro-approach to feeding that curiosity. But there are plenty of other composers who have spent years studying and practising their craft, following conventional learning paths who, for one reason or another, give up on their craft. Has Alexey Shor found a different way of learning the creative process?
Possibly. What he also illustrates is a scientific perspective on the process of composing.
“What really surprised me is how coherent music theory is. It’s not created by scientists. It’s not created by people who since the age of five are being yelled at for every single logical mistake. There’s a body of good music written by some people, and then other people try to formalise it and turn it into a bunch of rules. That sort of endeavour by itself seems doomed to failure.
“You have a large body of work – take Shakespearean poetry. Then you tell someone who is nowhere near Shakespearean talent – take that poetry and work out how to write in that style. Probably nothing good is going to come out. But music theory is a good product. These people who were not Bach, they did formulate rules. You follow those rules and music comes out. It may be good music or bad music, but it is tonal music. I think it’s amazing that music theory exists.”
This different perspective challenges my own path to understanding and appreciating music and music history. Is there, it now dawns on me clawing for a well-worn British phrase in my head, more than one way to skin a cat.
“People who wrote the best music ever – like Bach – he was not aware of these rules. We don’t know what was in his head. Somehow people distilled his work down into a bunch of rules. Usually when that happens you end up with something like ‘Here is the rule but there are hundreds of exceptions, and even if you follow it nothing good will come out.’ But music theory does work. Chord progressions sound like they go somewhere. You can hear proper counterpoint versus wrong counterpoint. I was just amused and amazed that such a thing exists.”
“Do you consider yourself a rebel?” I ask Alexey.
Unlike other living composers, describing Shor’s music is by comparison unusually demanding. Comparisons often used to help prepare newcomers to a musical genre – a way of preparing the ear for something unusual to come. Music is either judged by its popularity or artistic merit, with popularity held in less regard. In an increasingly fractured on-demand world, labels have become a necessity. That labelling is problematic because of the conventional history of music we assume: one of ‘progression’. Progression is the is the story humans understand. But when the music seemingly subverts that story of progression by what has gone before to create something that appeals to as wide an audience as possible now, describing it isn’t just difficult but risks judgment.
You go to a concert and it’s like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book.
Shor’s music is rooted in tonality. It’s melodic. It’s easy on the ear. It follows convention. And it also sounds familiar. When I first hear it I can’t quite determine whether I connect with it or not. And that makes writing about it challenging.
Shor is forty-eight years old. Before that he was a mathematician, the son of two scientists in a family of non-musicians. His mother was reportedly shocked when he turned his back on science.
“My Mum said that when I was a kid she could have named twenty things I could have potentially been good at but music wasn’t on that list. Everybody was so used to the idea that things technical came easily to me and I enjoyed them. So given those things why would I do anything else?”
What was her reaction to the variations?
“She was amused. She was like ‘OK, so he has read another book and he’s remembered another bunch of things.’” Does that reaction bother him? “No, nobody expected it to go any further.” And when it did go further? “Then they were surprised.”
The turning point for Alexey was the discovery of his music by viola player David Aaron Carpenter who sought out the composer and asked him to arrange a piece for viola and orchestra.
“I couldn’t do it, but me and a friend did it together. David kept writing from the tour that he played the music on that it was going well, and that it was being asked for two or three times over, and that there were standing ovations.
“I thought, like, ‘OK, musicians. They’re prone to exaggeration.’ So, me and my parents went to one of David’s concerts at the Metropolitan Museum. Once he played that one piece of mine – he calls it his ‘replacement Cazardas’. It was a little shocking to me and my parents. That was the moment when it dawned on me, ‘maybe this isn’t a joke, maybe I should take it more seriously. It’s an amazing thrill to this day that my music is played.”
“I love writing for the orchestra. You’re not limited by anything. The orchestra can create all sorts of sounds. Whereas even if you’re writing for a piano, you’re still limited by what a human can do. I love the variety you can get out of the orchestra. I don’t know I would call it a machine like you say or a spectacle. It’s more the infinite variety I like.”
“Melancholy is very common for my music. Some kind of sadness is present in my music and life in general. This is all wonderful but this is all going to an end – that’s always in the background.”
Miran Vaupotic conducted the final gala concert in the Malta International Music Festival. We met shortly before the concert.
“Alexey’s music lacks pretension,” he explains. “It’s music people enjoy listening to. And the musicians who play it recognise that the audience are enjoying it.”
Our brief exchange about Shor’s work marked an important shift in my thinking. Classical music lovers and performers strive for a listening experience where a connection is established in the moment. Implicit in that hope is the expectation that establishing the connection will require active engagement in the art. Once the connection is established the pay-off is rewarding for both parties.
What if an audience member isn’t striving for a hard-fought emotional connection? Material that creates a connection between performer and listener that takes the latter where they want to go as quickly as possible seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition. It’s good business sense too. Live performance doesn’t necessarily mean being transported to another astral plane every time, does it? I know plenty of live performers whose repertoire pays tribute to particular genres or bands. They play to sell-out audiences, rocking, tapping, or fist-slamming. Why should classical music be any different?
Shor draws on the music he responds to and composes in such a way that evokes all of those styles. The first music I heard by him mid-way through the festival had a curious quality to it: melodic material that conjured up multiple eras all in one cell – the musical equivalent of a video jump cut. It worked, even if instinct suggested otherwise.
Later in the interview, I ask Alexey about his compositional process. I feel uncomfortable being quite so nosey. If anyone asked me how I wrote a blog post in an interview I’d feel slightly put out.
“Sometimes I have a lot of clarity about what it is. Sometimes I’ll have a musical idea and I don’t know what it is. Maybe a day or so later I look at it again, and most of the time I just delete the file. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think maybe this should have a life. In some way I write for an audience of one which is me. I imagine myself in a concert hall and think, ‘if I heard this would I enjoy it? Would I ever want to hear it again?’ If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then maybe this piece has a future.”
I can’t argue with this logic. I adopt the same stance myself in my creative endeavours. If the output doesn’t satisfy you as an audience member, then who will it satisfy?
But Alexey’s compositional process exposes another outdated assumption I hold about creativity: creative ideas are seemingly only valid if they exist initially on paper. Despite knowing that composers use Sibelius and other music-writing software, I’m aware that I’m making an unconscious judgment about those who do. Why can’t writing music be approached in the same way as a recipe, or writing computer code?
Members of the Trio Wanderer – three Parisians on their first visit to Malta performing a programme of Schubert and Saint-Saens – help me contextualise Shor’s writing with reference to the seven-piece Trio they were playing in the concert.
In the last movement – Schubertango – Shor takes familiar Schubertian melodies and gives them both a Latin American feel. Every now and again, melodies I recall from my student days seem to bound and flash around like a television being tuned from the 1960s.
“It’s an odd thing,” I say to pianist Vincent Coq after the Trio’s rehearsal, “I hear the melodies and it’s almost like as soon as I’ve heard them they’re snatched away from me again. It makes me want to reach out for the original. I can’t put my finger on what it is.”
“We hear it as a musical joke,” replies violinst Jean-Phillipe. “The composer is taking fragments of melodies he likes and playing with us. It‘s very effective. I think it’s an homage to Schubert. An homage to all the composers Shor likes.”
The word ‘homage’ resonates with me. A sort of musical fanboy creation. The kind of creation that perhaps we don’t get to hear in the UK classical music scene. Suffocated before its given air to breathe.
There is an evident resourcefulness to Shor’s methodical and process-driven approach. Throughout the Malta International Music International Festival, we’ve heard not only musical references to composers of the past, but repurposed material by Shor himself.
The first movement of the ‘Seven Pieces for Piano Trio’, for example, entitled Addio – a tender melody exchanged between violin and piano – becomes a heartfelt pang for soprano and orchestra. Whilst the Trio Wanderer’s expressiveness created character in the melodic lines, the orchestral setting in the gala concert gave a fuller, more satisfying feel to the end product.
Indeed, in most regards the larger the forces, the easier it is to discern the intent, material, and the form. Another song in the gala concert – Natalie’s Waltz – part Viennese, part Italian Verdi-esque cast an unexpectedly captivating spell over the audience at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. Sweet and touching, if you’d have looked at the list of programme listed in the programme and seen Shor you’d be forgiven for thinking he was alive at the same time as Verdi.
And that surely is the rather astute thing.
In an ever fractured on-demand world audience requests are demanding ever more specific requirements and more quickly. If the existing ‘standard’ repertoire comes with a perceived knowledge requirement, maybe it’s perfectly pragmatic and eminently business-like to write music in a language that appeals to audiences quicker. Perhaps the answer isn’t that marketers need to find the answer to the impossible question of how best to sell high-art music to the newcomer, but instead commission and perform music that the newcomer is most likely to enjoy and pay tickets to listen to.
And that’s one aspect of Alexey Shor’s ability that I admire and am possibly a little jealous of too. Just like the peer at school who was able to listen to a piece of music and play it from ear, Shor possesses the ability to capture the characteristics of a genre, mechanics of a framework, or the style of a melody, and recreate it in a format that audiences will respond to.
If there are people who want to enjoy an orchestral experience but want the music they hear in it to get to the point quickly, then there’s a need for composers to write in a style that’s accessible for just the right amount of time. The skill is delivering the right product under those particular constraints. That’s just what composers of British Light Music achieved in the 1940s and 50s. Why not now?
Dreams and aspirations
“Where would you like to go next?” I ask Alexey.
“It would be nice to write an opera, but even if I had an offer, I’m not sure I would take it. If you mean dreams then opera is an amazing dream to have. It may never happen.”
I ask him about what the motivation is behind that dream. Is it about scale or legacy?
“I love opera. I love the sound of human voice. At the same time, it is much easier to sit down and write an orchestral piece, than write a collaborative work. That’s why it’s more of a distant dream.”
“There are a lot of things that need to happen before an opera can happen. If I was in this world for 50 years as opposed to 6 then chances are I would have all sorts of friends amongst whom there would be a librettist with whom we see eye to eye. Then there is a question of language. Italian is an amazing language for opera, but I don’t speak Italian.”
On my journey home I’m reminded of something else conductor Miran Vauptic mentioned in my interview with him. We raised the point about how if Alexey Shor was writing film music then I wouldn’t feel the need to ask how others should be categorising his output. “What he needs next,” said Vauptic, “is a commission for a TV soundtrack.”
When the plane touches down at Gatwick Airport, a message pops up on my phone. A tweet from Scala Radio, advertises their chart show rundown on-air later in the morning, featuring “classical and classical-inspired music”. Is this the label I’ve been looking for all week?
Quotes from this article are taken from a podcast recorded with Alexey Shor on Wednesday 7 May 2019. The full podcast interview will be released as a Thoroughly Good Good Classical Music Podcast in the coming weeks.
It’s still a little weird grabbing print from a BBC event.
I look at it and think about how I should be feeling – how I remember feeling.
Then there’s a jolt and I’m reminded how I feel seeing it now – an odd mixture anger and disdain. To explain the difference would be massively dull and boring to read. So you know, consider yourself saved.
What’s key here is the unexpected experiences had at this year’s launch event: people coming up to say hello, to introduce friends and colleagues, and to ask when camera rehearsals start for the TV coverage.
One or two still don’t realise it was an April Fools Joke; those that did just remind me how much I want to do it.
No matter – that ship has sailed.
I started the day dismissive of this year’s #BBCProms season.
I end the day (with a few glasses of wine inside me) feeling a little more warmly towards what is a fundamentally dull offering.
“It’s the money,” said one orchestra bigwig, “there’s no money for the interesting stuff. Not anymore.”
There needs to be more money for it in future. This year we’re selling the genre short.
My worst fears are confirmed: I’m not the archetypal Proms audience member. At least, not anymore.
Nearly all of the hopes and dreams listed in my previous blog post have now had line drawn through them. I fear I’m no longer the Proms ideal audience member.
But, because the Proms is an old familiar for me, I’m going to have a scoot through the this year’s events for anything that takes my fancy and share them in this post.
Other associated thoughts and feelings included as you would expect and, as others will no doubt roll their eyes at.
Can a seemingly bland season transform itself?
There’s a good reason for taking this systematic approach to documenting thoughts and feelings in response to the Proms.
In my experience – this will be the fifteenth consecutive year I’ve blogged about the ‘classical music’ festival – my enthusiasm builds between launch day (today) and First Night (mid-July).
In that way I’m anticipating there will be a change in my thinking about the season (its happened most years).
I’m interested in tracking how that enthusiasm changes on the day of launch, from reading a press release online late at night, to scrolling through the listings first thing in the morning. Does a launch event (this evening) change my outlook? What about when I have the brochure in my hand? And come July, will the words on the page have turned into an uplifting sense of anticipation?
You can’t fake it if you don’t believe it
I’m with Andrew Clements on this. I never really thought I’d say that. I normally kick against what’s said in the ‘mainstream’. But there isn’t anything here that excites or delights me. There’s little intrigue. And very little to fuel curiosity. Most programmes feature standard repertory (good for the newcomer to the art form), and whilst there is key performing talent dotted throughout the season, there’s nothing that leaps off the page as a must-attend event. (Well, maybe Rattle and the LSO. Maybe the Vienna Philharmonic.)
If I was coaching for performance, I’d say ‘fake it until you make it’. Here, I’m of the mind that you can’t fake enthusiasm if you don’t genuinely feel it. And so far at 9am on the launch day, I’m not sensing the enthusiasm yet.
Some of this might be down to any number of alternative perspectives I’m pondering (which are also worth throwing into the mix here) – questions and statements which genuinely fascinate me.
I’ll list them. It looks neater that way.
Have I grown out of the Proms?
Was the Proms always ostensibly a gateway to the classical music world only I didn’t realise it 15 years ago?
As I’ve become more familiar with the repertoire, different genres and performers, has the Proms served its purpose for me as an audience member?
The BBC Proms has to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to meet is public service mission.
Am I basically an impossible audience member to serve? I imagine the BBC Press Office would concur.
It’s all about the young people. I’ve moved into the older bracket now, only perhaps I just hadn’t realised it.
Part of a wider strategy
There’s also a line of thought that says that the Proms season is just another ‘content block’ which provides the BBC with an opportunity to align what’s broadcast with its BBC Sounds app strategy.
I’ve written about BBC Sounds app before and how, broadly speaking, its a technology-based way of changing the way audiences perceive the BBC.
Radio networks will, as far as I can make out, be phased out, and in its place people will come to the BBC Sounds (or whatever its called then) in search of themed content around programme brands, according to mood, or genre. In this way, building concerts around themes that appeal to a wide audience base is key (this being different from theming concerts around an anniversary or artistic vision). That’s valid, of course. That’s the BBC ensuring it reaches the most people not just, as in the case of the Proms, those inside the concert hall.
And I can see how if on-demand content is available via the BBC Sounds app, how it would be possible should the need arise in the future (say when the BBC charter is next reviewed) to start charging a subscription for on-demand, leaving live broadcast free-to-air.
The Proms provides a testing ground for the carving up of broadcast content in such a way as its appeal is optimised via the BBC Sounds app and the rate of audience engagement with it is increased.
The impossibility of the Proms
And this reminds me of another point. The now impossibility of the Proms. It has to sell tickets so that the Licence Fee season subsidy doesn’t increase. That subsidy can’t increase. If anything it’s going to go down.
In this way the BBC Proms needs to be even more of a commercially-rooted proposition. It has to strive to stand on its own feet more than ever before. That means guaranteeing ticket sales. That also means programming concerts that people want to buy tickets for. And its got to be content which people want to listen again to because of the content itself, not because its the Proms. Because, the biggest gains are to be found by reaching the majority who aren’t like me or my classical music-loving peers.
If you were trying to set up the Proms for the first time today, you probably wouldn’t do it. That’s the impossibility of it. Maintaining the brand means reflecting shifting audience curiosities. And because reach is all important, those shifting curiosities are going to be entirely different from mine.
All this said, my initial scoot through the programme has been via artists rather than running orders. I’ll revisit the brochure in weeks to come and post on the blog accordingly. In the meantime, a handful of things which has caught my eye (just).
Martha Argerich Legend. I’ve seen her at the Barbican in chamber music. I’ve seen the Netflix documentary made by her daughter. She is a terrifyingly brilliant woman. I’m placing a bet on her concerto appearance being a pre-season artist change.
James Ehnes, Royal Academy of Music, Juillard School I’m including this for four reasons: first, it’s James Ehnes whose playing I fell for at the Verbier Festival a few years back; second, he’s playing Britten’s violin concerto; third, I like the idea of the Royal Academy and Juillard coming together in a concert; and fourth, the Royal Academy were the only organisation to send an embargoed press release about their appearance in the Proms ahead of the season launch (the BBC didn’t – at least not to me) which meant their event gained greater (and well-deserved) prominence as a result. Nice work Royal Academy of Music Press Office. Take tomorrow off. My treat.
Nora Fischer I’ve interviewed Nora for a Dutch Centre/DG promo last year. She was fascinating. And the album she was promoting then – Hush – remains on my regular playlist. I haven’t seen her in the concert hall before.
Pekka Kuusisto This might sound a little odd to say, but Kuusisto is the only musician around today who when he plays – no matter what he plays – a charge goes through my body. He is the hottest player with a captivating madness about him I absolutely adore. He could play a C-major scale and I’d be enthralled.
Solomon’s Knot Under the embarrassing sub-header ‘The Will-It-Go-Wrong-Prom‘ Solomon’s Knot’s are described as singing from memory, people who look you in the eye when they perform and, according to Proms director David Pickard, “They’re a young baroque group, who’ve just sprung up but have quite a big following.” My understanding was that they had been going for quite a few years, and had worked hard to build their audience because of their distinctive and energised approach to performance. Maybe that kind of copy doesn’t really work for the curious audience member. Even so. Solomon’s Knot are brilliant. Saw them last year in Guildhall.
Tenebrae And because I’m a fanboy, seeing Tenebrae doing a Late Night Prom (now renamed as a ‘Late Night Mixtape’ with music that will ‘calm the mind) feels like something I might consider going to. If not, I’ll listen on the radio. Tenebrae are brilliant.
Big night tomorrow night. Kinda. I’ve already received one embargoed press release about the BBC Proms (I haven’t read it yet by the way).
So, assuming I might receive another before midnight (unlikely), I figured I’d list my aspirations for this year’s season. They don’t care, obviously. It’s too late to change anything anyway. They’ve not only gone to print but the printers have almost certainly gone to bed.
This year, I’d like the BBC Proms to …
1. Be like it used to be in the Kenyon days
Surprise me. Delight me. Challenge me. Give me stuff to rail against. Don’t make it easy.
2. Not do any cheap tie-ins with record labels or BBC properties
The Proms shouldn’t be about cheap promotion.
3. Tell inspirational stories about the value of classical music
Don’t just say it’s amazing, show how it is. Journalism not marketing. Marketing is boring.
4. Introduce me to something niche
Go on. I dare you.
5. Stop overlooking the likes of me because you think the only way to secure the next generation is to put the next generation on screen
Maturity has value. Heritage counts for something. You saw the Briduct/Baker doc didn’t you?
6. Restyle the Last Night
It’s an embarrassing own goal. An anachronism.
7. Make me feel a part of the Proms again
This one is difficult for the Proms. It’s not all them. It’s partly me too. But for a few years now I’ve felt like a kind of an irrelevance. It’s made me wonder whether you’ve lost touch.
8. Stop assuming that criticism of you as a brand is personal criticism of your team
This. Isn’t. New. Only last week a ‘BBC REPRESENTATIVE ON THE PAYROLL’ took me to task about a tweet I published. I was mortified. It was a very awkward conversation. And it’s the second conversation I’ve had of that ilk. The one behind was about my comments concerning the Eurovision. I shit you not.
The stuff the Proms puts on is not about the people who put it on, it’s about the art. And the art should be open to comment. Because if it isn’t, it’s not really art.
9. Know that the wine (when it’s free) can be mediocre, because that’s not important
Spend the money on the artists. That’s what’s important.
Three cheers for this year. Brace for the year to come.
As 2018 comes to a close its time to do the thing that seemingly everyone does now, and reflect on the year. Or at least my year.
It’s a tradition. Convention. A habit. Something I’ve been doing for a few years now. It’s usually interesting (for me), though as in previous years I can’t guarantee that’s necessarily the case for readers.
This year I’ve separated things out into events, artists, and discoveries.
At the end there’s the customary checking this year’s objectives against achievements, and documenting some plans for 2019.
There’s a strange contradiction for arts bloggers, I’d suggest.
If you’re a punter then attending events is central to your core offer. That means being in attendance at an event more than being present at home.
That hasn’t been the case for me this year. In some senses I feel a little guilty about that. At the same time it prompts me to reflect on the reasons why. They’re largely financial. I don’t want to plead poverty here, arts events cost money to attend – even in terms of travel. Even if you benefit from ‘invites’, the outlay on getting to events makes a dent, especially if you’re on a reduced income. That outlay is only going to be more for those who live further from cultural hubs. Next year, I’d like to be a little more strategic about events, maximising travel. At the very least, I’d like to see whether it’s possible and to see how that develops my appreciation for the artform.
This aside, a list of memorable performance-related moments from 2018:
The Monte Carlo International Festival was the first of many surprise trips in 2018. The experimental approach to programming (in one case bringing multiple instrumentalists to a recital to provide contributions to a running order) was interesting but perhaps not as successful as it could have been. Monaco is a strange place. Discovered the music of Charles Ives here.
The highlight of the year – attending the Aram Kchataturian Music Competition. A trip that challenged many of my assumptions, exposed me to a good deal more cello music than I’ve ever heard before. This is probably where I felt most alive.
It also reminded me that there is a natural disconnection between practitioner and audience which marketing people seek to bridge. Musicians bond over repertoire and technique; audience members seek to fill the gaps in their music-making knowledge and experience. That’s a bittersweet thing: it draws both audience and musician together and maintains a distance between them.
Armenia will always be remembered for the difficulty I experienced leaving the country. “You are fatter in real life than in your passport picture,” said the security guard at the airport. “That picture was taken nearly ten years ago,” I replied. “Yes, but you are still fatter now.”
A fascinating trip to an area of Germany I’d never heard of before, to learn about the work of the now defunct Experimental Studio at Polish National Radio.
A trip tinged with a little sadness: I lost my lucky travelling companion of old – Travel Cat.
The trip to Armenia was a highpoint because it felt like venturing to a far-away land to make new discoveries. My three days in Katowice, Poland was invigorating: NOSPR concert hall is a joy to behold both aurally and visually. It was a great opportunity to move swiftly into content production mode. The video montage (below) was something I was particularly pleased with.
This really was a last minute trip to Norway. Unexpected. Very interesting. It introduced me to a composer I’d never heard of before – Andre Gretry. I bought my most expensive glass of wine here – £13 – and discovered first hand what it’s like to be somewhere in the world where the light is subdued most of the day. I returned from Trondheim with flu.
Leeds Piano Competition
A magical magical experience.
A week attending the Leeds Piano Competition seeing remarkable musicians, being introduced to unfamiliar repertoire, and revelling in the joyous atmosphere the Leeds audience brings to proceedings. I adore this trip, not least because for a few days I lived like a student again.
Also, winner Eric Lu is a remarkable pianist whose Chopin Ballade was the most amazing live performance I’ve ever heard.
During a recent conversation with a colleague at the BASCA Composer Awards during which I discussed podcasting rates and the best way to minimise production costs, and so maximise ‘profits’, I was reminded about how recording a podcast this year has brought me into contact with all manner of artists.
During our conversations, they’ve shared their experiences of doing the thing they love and how they’ve maintained that over time. I’ve found these insights invaluable.
Below is a list of artists who have had an impact on me throughout the year; the things they’ve brought to my listening experience and my understanding.
Jonathan Swensen (Cello)
A remarkable musician with incredible focus and energy. His second round performances at the Aram Khachaturian Music Competition were electrifying. I was fascinated by how he managed to maintain such a compelling spirit on stage, and discovered during interview that what we saw in performance was pretty much him in real life.
Eric Lu (Piano)
See above. Lu is an amazing performer. From another world.
Calidore String Quartet
The podcast I recorded with the Calidore Quartet before I headed out to Karlsruhe was enlightening. I had no idea that being a member of a quartet brought with it so much commitment, nor that it was such a fragile experience. The lasting memory from the podcast: “Play every concert as though its going to be your last.”
Lewis Wright (Percussion)
Fascinating man who grew up just a few miles from where I did in West Norfolk. The first of many insights this year about how creating stuff takes time. Satifrom his release of duets with Kit Downes is something I’m still playing a lot.
Australian Chamber Orchestra
The podacst with Richard Tognetti from the Australian Chamber Orchestra was a bit of a shot in the arm. Feisty. Spirited. Opinionated. Massively refreshing compared to the often hand-wringing air the classical music world falls back on. It prompted a musical discovery too – the ACO’s recording of Mozart’s last symphonies. Jaw-dropping.
Sophie Webber (cello)
Sophie features in a podcast to be released early in the new year. We met following her contacting me about her recording of Bach cello suites earlier in the year. What I really admired about Sophie (in addition to her playing) is her awareness, ability and track record in managing her own career, generating interest in her work. No easy feat. A demonstration of what musicians have to do to generate income from their talent.
It’s been a pleasure to revisit some of these discoveries for this post. If I had to pick one in particular, it would be Philip Sheppard’s Fall from Earth, very closely followed by Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony.
Worth mentioning Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Maconchy. I can’t pick out single works that I’ve really connected with necessarily. Rather, that one conversation with a podcast contributor – Dr Sophie Fuller at Trinity Laban – opened the door on a whole collection of women composers who I’ve yet to listen to in-depth. What I’ve heard so far excites me. And that’s all down to Dr Fuller.
What was on the list for 2018? Here’s a reminder.
Be bold; be distinctive; be focused; don’t compare
Think of digital content as strands as opposed to standalone posts
Get to Aldeburgh Festival, Dartington, and the Edinburgh International Festival this year.
Get more video commission and motion-graphic work
Drive the funding strategy so it at least covers the annual costs of running the blog
Build your immunity
Don’t panic – opportunities come from all sorts of places
Launch the podcast
Crack the fear of money
Acknowledge the terror and pitch some book ideas
Pretty much succeeded on nearly all of these objectives including the launch of the podcast, cracking the fear of money and not panicking about work. There have been one or two video commissions too, and the blog has secured some funding for its ongoing development (many thanks to supporters, especially the ‘in-kind’ ones) and, I now realise, its been legitimised in my mind.
My relationship with the blog and the content on it and my Twitter account has changed quite a lot over the past year. It’s easy to look at other writers on the subject and worry about the differences between this blog and theirs. Yet, there’s something to celebrate there I think. Maintaining a distinctive voice and style is vital. I’ve become more settled in my preference for journalling, reflection, and reasonably strong(ish) views. It’s been fulfilling to focus on listening discoveries. The travelling has fuelled my writing and I hope that’s something I’ll expand on in the new year.
Here are some of the things I’ve planned out for 2019.
Be more strategic on selecting arts events to reflect on; outline what links content discoveries; resist getting irritated by the wheat and the chaff.
Focus more on building content around coaching on the Thoroughly Good Coaching website; ring-fence time spent on Thoroughly Good (Classical Music) content and maximise that time.
Tackle the garden; grow plants from seed; build replacement decking (this is a massive undertaking – so let’s not hold our breath here).
Increase revenue by 35%.
Use buses whenever is possible; reduce London travel costs by 25%.
Keep the impact of Richard Wilson’s 20:50 at the Hayward Gallery’s Shape Shifters exhibition in mind with everything you say and do in 2019.
Continue producing the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast, but experiment with different hosts: truly ‘produce’.
Meet more people. Visit new places; travelling is where I discover the most.
Write more articles; you’re as good as anyone else who does so.
LSO’s performance of Gruppen at the Turbine Hall demonstrates a rare thing in the classical music world we need more of: buzz
I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).
At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.
None of this is me moaning, by the way.
There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a
tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.
It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events.
People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”
That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.
And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.
Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto – in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in.
I wonder whether such blog posts are the New Year equivalent of Christmas letters. I see more and more of them this year. All healthy stuff, of course. Good for the soul. But are people getting bored of them?
I hope not. As it happens I rather like both Christmas Letters and annual reviews.
So, in time-honoured Thoroughly Good tradition, here’s a review of this year against my original 2017 objectives, a few blog successes, a concert high-point, and some actions for next year. Consider it the appendix to the Thoroughly Good Blog User Manual.
Face change with boldness; feed challenges with an open mind.
Totally did this. Left the BBC behind. It appears I’m more at ease with change than I had previously given myself credit for. But let’s regroup in a year’s time on this point. If I feel the same way in a year’s time then all is definitely OK.
Be an architect, not a victim.
If you can’t make your own decisions about what you think is right for you when you’re 45, when exactly can you?
A difficult one to quantify. I mentored a graduate in Kathmandu, and coached various people.
4. Seek out freedom; eradicate addiction.
I didn’t so much seek out freedom, as avoided those things which had a whiff of freedom being denied.
I’ve understood addiction more. My addictions are not what I assumed they were at the beginning of the year. Awareness is the first stage. I’m not sure the word ‘eradicate’ really helps. Understanding behaviours and making mindful decisions seems like the right way to go.
Reduce my digital footprint.
Hmm. Well. No. Failed on that one.
Review in (around about) 208 words
Went to Kathmandu, made a film, and mentored a chap out there. A remarkable experience. Saw a country I’d never seen before. Something I want to repeat.
Left the BBC.
Had worried I’d been institutionalised. Worried I would pine for it. Concerned I would flounder.
The outside world feels a little more raw than I had originally seen it inside the BBC.
A lot of the BBC’s flaws are more apparent when you’re a licence fee payer. I’m much better working for myself.
Got selected for the first stage of the Penguin Write Now Scheme.
Established Thoroughly Good Coaching – a new coaching business. Worked one to one with a variety of businesses, public sector and higher education organisations. Also secured associate work. Acquired my Coachy Accreditation.
Secured some video commissions – want to do more of this kind of work in 2018. I really enjoy it.
Played the clarinet solo in Rachmaninov’s second symphony. Got a bit emotional. No surprises there.
Developed some new ideas for the Thoroughly Good Blog, developed a funding strategy to take it to the next stage in its development. Started producing a new podcast for launch in the new year. Uncovered some core editorial strands for my classical music writing. Always useful.
Redecorated the living room, hall way and bits of the upstairs at home. Colours me and the OH have lived with for 20 years are now gone. A new dawn.
Blog traffic is up 50% on last year’s total, rising dramatically in July (around the time I devoted more time to the blog, reached out to new content sources, and started expressing stronger (for me) views on the classical music world.
These posts defy some of the assumptions I started the year with about classical music writing.
Readers are prepared to go with long reads, the classical music world isn’t the perfect world most might assume it is, and readers do seek out a personal perspective.
I don’t think that’s restricted to my blog necessarily. I see it on a few others of note where longer-form content is successful.
Thinking ahead, I think there’s undoubtedly a sweet-spot to be reached in terms of content where sentence length is optimised but authority isn’t sacrificed. Also, its increasingly important to remove as many barriers to the actual music as is possible.
Not being motivated by what the traffic is or might be undoubtedly helps shape editorial into something distinctive and authentic. Obviously, we don’t everyone doing that otherwise being distinctive will be ever more challenging.
Underneath it all
The most striking insight for me where the blog was concerned was the extent to which writing passionately about how I interact with the classical music world made me confront a side of my personality I didn’t especially like.
I see an encouraging rise around July in both accounts in terms of confidence and I recall there being a renewed sense of vigour throughout the summer and into the autumn.
The real come-down came in early December when the reality of what I had written in Classical Music’s Biggest Problem essentially appeared as an actual real thing at various events – elitism and snobbery amongst its own ranks.
Taking an objective stance on that might suggest that I created my own self-fulfilling prophecy – that has to be borne in mind. Or it might just mean I was right.
People I met and their impact on me
Potential new business leads are fascinated about the BBC. This was an odd experience when, shortly after leaving, the one thing I didn’t want to talk about was the Corporation. These conversations did reinforce my appreciation of the skills I have, and shone a light on the slightly odd expectations society still has on people who work freelance. My parents for example, refer to me leaving the BBC as me ‘retiring’.
There’s an assumption that coaches are the experts, that they’ve got life sorted out, and that if only the client could be like the coach then everything will be fine. My clients this year have helped me in my own personal development too. It is because of a coaching session that further personal learning is demanded. I like that.
I spent years at the BBC assuming things about my musical contacts. I also definitely feared PRs (largely because within the BBC a lot of PRs exert a lot of necessary control over the projects they run). Outside the BBC I’ve discovered that isn’t quite how the PR world works. That’s made making new contacts and developing new ideas a breeze. That’s something I really value from this year.
And then there are the actual musicians and the writers. I’ve really felt supported by the people I’ve reconnected with and been introduced to in the second half of this year. It’s been invigorating. That’s something I really wasn’t expect when I changed direction in July.
This seems like a slightly odd thing to write about given that most people weren’t present at it and (unless you’ve got a login to Medici.TV) you may never see it.
But the most touching concert experience this year was undoubtedly at Verbier, Shostakovich trios in the first half and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in the second. The experience developed my listening skills in quite a profound way. I adore Verbier and the musical magic that emerges there.
This one’s a difficult one to get across. The music was brilliant. Pianist Mitsuko Uchida was a revelation on stage at the Usher Hall. I was moved to tears.
But, the man who sat in the row behind me didn’t like it when I uncrossed and crossed my legs, momentarily blocking his view of the platform. So he punched me hard on the shoulder.
So I turned around and told him to fuck off.
Be bold; be distinctive; be focused; don’t compare
Think of digital content as strands as opposed to standalone posts
Get to Aldeburgh Festival, Dartington, and the Edinburgh International Festival this year.
Get more video commission and motion-graphic work
Drive the funding strategy so it at least covers the annual costs of running the blog
Build your immunity
Don’t panic – opportunities come from all sorts of places
Around this time of year I relish the opportunity to reflect on my experiences throughout the year. The outcome is an annual blog post published between Christmas and New Year – a way of bringing the year to an end, and looking forward to the next year. A self-imposed appraisal, now something of an annual tradition.
Content Highlights from 2016
What was the stuff I enjoyed creating throughout the year? This part of the process is fairly light touch – just looking over blog post titles and seeing which triggers what emotion. The following ten highlights are those which triggered some happy memories.
I loved producing these short podcasts for the ESC Insight website in the run-up to and during my visit to Eurovision in Stockholm this year. Surprisingly for me, I do still enjoy listening to them too.
The ESC Insight podcasts encouraged me to make more of my own Thoroughly Good Podcasts this year. The most recent one – an extended unedited interview with pianist and conductor Howard Shelley – is my favourite.
Who doesn’t like a word map? This post was a personal exploration inspired by International Women’s Day started whilst I was recovering from pneumonia. I was amazed by the things I learnt about myself during the process.
This maybe my most favourite post of the year. It’s short and to the point – a hint of the kind of stuff I’d like to do more of in the next twelve months. Brevity is rather pleasing on the eye.
The other surprising thing about the post is how it summarises one of the defining characteristics of the year – celebrity deaths – and does so before the full onslaught got underway.
Looking back on the year’s pictures (some published, some not) triggers different memories.
While we’ve confronted the divisions caused by the referendum and the surprise victory of Donald Trump, so things closer to home have had a disruptive whiff about them too.
Eurovision in Stockholm
In the years I’ve been writing about Eurovision, the contest has changed a tremendous amount. This year more than any other I’ve been aware of how its become something of a pilgrimage for those of us who ‘get it’.
This picture brings a smile to my face every time I see it. On the left is my partner of nearly 20 years, Simon, who was attending his first Contest. It was the first contest for Jess on the right too. We met in the arena before the Final. It was a very exciting during which I ended up drinking quite a lot of alcohol. Most unlike me.
On my way back from Verbier in the summer, I dropped in on former colleagues at the European Broadcasting Union. It was my first visit to the spiritual home of the contest and, whilst trotting around what is quite a dull building, I had a chance to lift the trophy. The smile says it all. I was, quite frankly, made up.
2016 was undoubtedly the year I understood the link between stress and illness, specifically how extended periods of low-level anxiety can damage the immune system. I wasn’t quite prepared for pneumonia, nor the slew of related illnesses which followed.
Recuperating was rather difficult: I wasn’t used to having to tell myself to not do anything and just rest. Colleagues sent me flowers and told me not to logon to work email.
Reconnecting with School
My demons with school have been laid to rest. This picture, taken at a school reunion, is proof.
Not everyone was able to get along to our school reunion this year. Marcel (above) was one of them. He and I were good friends back st school but lost touch. Social media connected us and during a lightning visit to Suffolk during the summer we met up for a beer in Cambridge. I don’t normally smile like this.
Becky (left) and Emma (middle) were two very important friends of mine at University. We hadn’t seen one another for ten years when we met up in Yorkshire. Our trip consisted of a lot of nattering, some gentle hill-walking, and visits to local pubs. It was a delight.
I went to the Wimbledon LTA Tennis Championships for the first time this year with the adorable Hannah whose generosity of spirit is something I aspire to. We spent all day there. I wouldn’t normally use the word awesome to describe things, but in this case it’s appropriate.
This is the interior of MUPA – Budapest’s newest concert hall. It has a majestic quality both inside and out. It was the sight which greeted me shortly before I stepped into the auditorium to watch my first ever Wagner opera -Das Rheingold. I found a deeply moving experience. I saw two other operas in the Ring Cycle before returning home a convert.
I was invited back to Budapest to write about another music festival later in the year. I love the travel opportunities I get and especially appreciated my extended time in Hungary’s capital. I really hope there are more opportunities like these in 2017.
During my second trip to Budapest I started exercising regularly, running along the banks of the Danube every morning. I never imagined I would ever enjoy the process. But now, three months later I find I feel restless if I haven’t run. It’s helped me develop a strategy for tackling procrastination, and it’s transformed my mood.
Last year I set out my intention to be more mindful about what I published, to use email less, and to be bolder with my fiction writing. I was successful – distancing myself from my own copy was healthy, it’s helped me understand what interests me. It’s also changed the way I write – more concise, less verbose. I no longer look on email with suspicion. I use the phone far more to discuss things. Far more healthy.
The unexpected things are worth documenting here to. I’ve found myself pushing back in a lot of areas in my life, establishing personal boundaries. It’s the equivalent of having previously present at the village fete and this year having had the opportunity to set up my own stall there. I’m not entirely sure what I’m selling at the fete, but the opportunity to have a retail space is rather nice.
Some thoughts for 2017
In the spirit of concision, this year’s objectives are in list form.
Face change with boldness; feed challenges with an open mind.
Be an architect, not a victim.
4. Seek out freedom; eradicate addition.
Reduce my digital footprint.
I published 184 posts in 2016 (compared to 165 posts in 2015, and to 158 in 2014). The increase in numbers of posts is because unlike the year before I didn’t run a live blog for Eurovision or for the duration of the BBC Proms.
Total page views for 2015 were 27,591 (compared to 30,889 in 2015, and 30,774 in 2014).