Balance between risk and reward

Professor Linda Bauld (Bruce and John Usher Chair of Public Health in The Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh) talks to Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell on Broadcasting House on Sunday 5 September 2021 about research into the spread of COVID at large-scale events

Off the back of a short package previewing the Proms Festival Orchestra appearance later this week at the Royal Albert Hall, Broadcasting House presenter Paddy O’Connell spoke to Professor Linda Bauld about early research published by the Events Research Programme which has been investigating the risk of COVID at mass gatherings and live events.

The news is broadly good with the spike in cases recorded at the Euros this year explained by the unique characteristics about the footballing tournament where fans congregated in pubs, homes, and stadia. In one case a total of 9000 cases were reported in the run up to and two days after one event. No surprise perhaps.

“It’s a balance between risk and reward, isn’t it?” asked Paddy O’Connell.

“Governments don’t want to locker down again, ” replied Professor Bauld. “We don’t want these musicians not to work again. Let’s say if you’ve got very high levels of covid in a particular place that has to be taken into account. You can see that from the Programme. Many of these events happened when there were very low levels of COVID in the community. When its much higher you have more infected people attended and the risks are not zero and an event could add to infections rising in a location.”

Manchester Collective at the BBC Proms 2021

An epic night. Wild rhythms and visceral textures from the Manchester Collective – their debut at the BBC Proms – and Mahan Esfahani. Listening to the broadcast felt like earwigging a textbook Proms gig, the kind where excitement and anticipation spill out from stage and auditorium, evident too online.

That excitement is in no small part down to the sincerity of the offer Manchester Collective consistently brings – a reflection of founders Adam Szabo and Raki Singh vision evident right from the start of their creative endeavour. There is integrity and authenticity to their work which results in them creating concert experiences that are fascinating and compelling. There was a sense that those I knew in attendance in the hall were there to witness a significant milestone in the group’s five years of existence.

Three standout performances in this Prom picked out below with illustrative clips.

Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto

There was a rock-gig feel to Mahan Esfahani’s keyboard work in Gorecki’s Harpischord Concerto, the music of which holds absolutely no prisoners with a driving incessant rhythm. The rust-like feel in the combined textures of harpischord and strings gave proceedings a creepy edge. The frenzied cacophony had a tinge of madness about it that was magnetic and repellant. Music that brings about strong contradictory emotions. Efficient writing. Electrifying playing.

Joseph Horovitz’s Jazz Concerto

I studied Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina for Clarinet when I was a student and loved his playfully light combination of classical and jazz. The same approach is evident in his Jazz Concerto for Harpishord and Strings, only this work has all of those trademark elements of Horovitz’s musical language really ramped up. None more so than in the final movement (opening clipped above) when the harpsichord lets rip, fingers crawling up and down the keyboard with all sorts of unexpected chromatic notes that theoretically shouldn’t be there but fit the bill for those who see a cranky miraculous world only just hanging together.

Kilar’s Orawa

Especially captivating in Manchester Collective’s encore Orawa by Polish composer Kilar was the extreme textural contrasts, heard in this clip at 7 seconds in.

I adored the dry sequences that seemed to favour a percussive textural effect over any discernible pitch, a texture I wanted to carry on indefinitely even though I knew it couldn’t – the musical equivalent of wanting to devour an entire family bag of your crisps after you’ve taken just one bite.

Be sure to watch the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s equally compelling lockdown recording of the piece (below) published last year.

Listen to the Manchester Collective Prom via BBC Sounds

Incredible

Not the greatest day. MPs reconvene in the House of Commons to debate the complete balls-up in Afghanistan, seemingly happy to overlook mask-wearing and social-distancing, whilst UK orchestras still have to be distanced in concert venues.

It appears that orchestral musicians are more of a risk to the health and safety of society than politicians.

Víkingur Ólafsson Mozart 24 with the Philharmonia at the BBC Proms 2021

Víkingur Ólafsson’s sizzling performance of Mozart Piano Concerto No.24 needs a quick noting down in the journal.

The detail in Víkingur Ólafsson’s playing itself I enjoyed most was most evident in the first movement where the piano part wasn’t always the dominant voice. That meant we got to hear alternative or ‘lesser-heard’ voices given more attention. There were many times when the piano, in particular the right-hand upper notes, were reduced in volume by Ólafsson, giving more prominence to the flute in some places.

And in one sequence clipped below it was being able to hear a melodic line in the ‘middle’ of the piano that really took me (pleasantly) by surprise, almost as though Olafsson had lifted the bonnet of the car he was driving and was pointing excitedly at the fuel injector.

Ólafsson and the Philharmonia with Järvi play Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24

There’s a directness or firmness to Ólafsson’s tone too which I’ve not heard in a performance of this concerto. And I rather like that too. The Guardian’s Andrew Clements didn’t agree who described the performance as ‘bizarrely anachronistic’.

Tthe listening path is worth documenting too. I watched first on TV. Josie D’Arby is by far the best Proms presenter on TV (sorry Katie, Tom and Jess), achieving that rare balance of authority, accessibility, sincerity and warmth. The audio felt as though it battled for my attention with the visuals so I didn’t really pick up on the detail in the playing (it was the Stradal arrangement of a Bach Organ Sonata that worked best on TV). It was only later listening to the radio broadcast I got to the detail in the sound production.

It’s the second time in a week that actively ‘leaning in’ to the detail in a live broadcast has brought me out of a motivation-less fug. It is by listening for detail that my mood is transformed, resulting in renewed impetus (hence the post about Thoroughly Good in a Nutshell). That merely listening in a focused way can have this transformative effect is another reminder of how I draw so much value from this genre.

Listen to Víkingur Ólafsson with the Philharmonia and Paavo Järvi playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor via BBC Sounds.

What matters most

As I write I’m listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven 6.

I’ve no idea how many times I’ve heard this work, but this feels fresh. Particularly the second movement.

So much character is created in the different textures in the strings, right from the beginning when the gossamer lines, undulating movement, and gentle industry make me feel as though someone’s pushed a boat out onto a lake.

In the basses in particular there’s depth, bounce, and lift created by resonant plucked notes. After a gentle take-off at the beginning of the movement, it is as if we’re gliding high above an idyllic pastoral scene.

BBC Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins, Friday 13 August 2021 at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms

It is the detail in the playing that matters to me most.

The way a high bassoon playing a short solo with the upper strings creates the most exquisite textural combination. Or elsewhere, the way chords ’emerge’ when flutes join clarinets. Or the sweet warm oboe intertwined with a melodic line in the flutes. Or the utterly divine clarinet solo slap bang in the middle of the movement, packed full of heart that the rest of the orchestra supports instinctively as one.

It’s the detail that is so easy to overlook in the familiarity of the music. I don’t especially love Beethoven 6. I would never pick it out to listen to it. Not really. Not like I would with pop music. But when I listen attentively to something that has detail I’ll hear it, see it or even think I can touch that detail. That’s when it comes alive.

Just like any Beach Boys album, when you ‘lean in’ and pay closer attention to the constituent parts somehow there’s even more joy to discover. It is the listening equivalent of stopping to take your time consuming a plate full of carefully selected cheeses.

It is perfection, especially in the final few chords that end the movement – gentle insistent musical ‘staples’ exquisitely placed by multiple players simultaneously playing as one. Miraculously uplifting stuff.

This is the magic at the heart of classical music I often feel goes overlooked, misunderstood as ‘knowledge’ about the genre when it is only evidence of attentive listening in the moment. This is where joy emanates from. This is our starting point.

This is the listening experience that grounds me. Listening attentively, with awareness and curiosity is all that is required in order to surface the power of this art form. Listening experiences like these are what ground, restore, and sustain me. It is these kinds of experiences I care most about that I want to others to see, feel and touch.

This is where the joy that comes from discovery is to be found. Anything else is a bolt-on. A distraction.

All this is in stark contrast to how was I feeling (and what I was thinking) before I began listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven 6. That feeling of wretchedness and the negative thinking that spirals as a result of fatigue, worry and stress (the details of which don’t need to be outlined here) seem like a distant land. I am reminded that energy levels bring about negative thinking. It’s not the other way around.

I’m reminded too of one other pertinent insight. It isn’t the music itself that transforms mood or thinking or indeed energy levels. It is the practice of listening that engages the brain. It is the detail that brings the joy. Listening releases the much-sought-after serotonin.

Listening is what matters most.

Yet one question lingers. Who wants this? What organisation values this? Who is prepared to sit with exactly what all of us knows about this uplifting art form and put their money where their mouth is to sell the music in the way it moves us individually and personally?

There are so many who assume such detail is anathema to the art form and its appreciation. People associate listening with expertise. Expertise is expected of those on stage, but seen as a problem amongst those who appreciate the art form.

Listening is what matters most. And we all need to get a little more comfortable about celebrating that, I think.

A Rookie Error

It appears that I have been rather foolish.

Not only have I fallen into the trap of being an incensed middle-aged white male barking online about a performer’s concert attire, but I’ve managed to pitch myself deftly and efficiently as a classical music fan who is part of the very problem classical music is trying to rid itself of.

And I’ve achieved this in a short series of Tweets posted shortly after I left the Albert Hall last night, before I reached South Kensington tube station (which was closed, by the way).

Last night’s Aurora Orchestra was something I was looking forward to following rave reviews of the band’s Saffron Hall ‘sister concert’.

What took me a little by surprise and subsequently drew my eye throughout the first work was Pavel Kolesnikov’s bright orange Nike trainers. Rarely has concert attire drawn my eye quite so much, triggered so much thought and reflection, and in so doing distracted me from the sole purpose of the event I was attending in the first place.

Pavel’s footwear was, I understand from incoming correspondence, a clear sign to reach out to younger audiences to make classical music appear more approachable. From my seat in the stalls it feld oddly contrived and a bit arch. It was a distraction.

Even writing that now … in.an.actual.blog.post … gives me the fear a bit. I can hear the shouts across the internet heading my way. I can see whatever reputation it is I have disappearing down a plug hole.

Maybe one of those correspondents was right when she asked whether I might consider deleting my Tweets.

But then again. Maybe she wasn’t. My comment wasn’t rude. It wasn’t offensive. I was hardly spreading misinformation about COVID or vaccines. I was just expressing an opinion in the moment. I think that’s still OK. We should all of us be able to do that.

There is for me a good reason why everyone on stage by and large wears all one colour (a uniform if you like) or a pallet of colours. It’s to reduce distraction. I’m not advocating penguin suits or dinner jackets, nor evening dresses (these always strike me as distinctly uncomfortable to wear at a point in time when performers need to be ‘freed-up’). But against a neutral backdrop of players on stage at a venue like the Royal Albert Hall say, it’s hardly surprising that the introduction of a bright pair of trainers is going to draw the eye – to the feet rather than the keyboard.

I can now see producers rubbing their hands together with glee, others rolling their eyes with derision. Those with a proven track record in passive aggression will also be looking at this and no doubt thinking, “Well we had to wait a long time but it paid off – he’s finally made an idiot of himself saying this. He really is part of the problem.”

What Aurora’s concert has highlighted to me is that I’m surprisingly and comfortably conventional and orthodox. I’m attuned to contrivance. And I’m reminded that I’m less inclined to think that appealing to a younger audience is best done through fashion choices.

I still hold that the music should speak for itself. It’s just music. Listening is all that’s required. That and a properly funded music education system that introduces music at primary school level. That would help a great deal.

Beethoven 4 from the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms 2021

A high point of the BBC Philharmonic’s first outing at the BBC Proms this year was the orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. Packed full of detailed, precise and clear articulation, the dry whispering strings, warm wind and brass, and punchy timpani-line really exploited the cavernous interior of the Royal Albert Hall. This felt like a theatrical performance, with an occasional spotlight on highly complex musical lines like the terrifying bassoon solos in the last movement. The performance had a youthful and uplifting feel too, in a way I hadn’t really noticed in Beethoven’s fourth symphony before. An odd thing to admit to I know: I’ve heard this work many times before – it’s not like the musical material itself had changed, so what instead was different about this performance?

Proximity to the stage no doubt played a big part. With the stage extended to accommodate a distanced orchestra, The ‘H’ section in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall is, bar a handful of seats to my left, basically like being on stage with the musicians, making the listening experience feel more immersive than any Promming experience in the past ten years.

There’s also the empty space in the Royal Albert Hall which adds to the atmosphere. The auditorium seating wraps around a large central space extending from floor to mushroomed-ceiling. Sound reverberates off the hard surfaces and rests in that space, giving the music a sense of depth I often forget about after an extended period away from the hall. Usually that period away amounts to say 9 months. This time it was a 18-month hiatus. Little wonder the senses were enlivened on this visit.

But perhaps more potent was things that were ever so slightly different from normal.

The top-level circle near to the arena – usually full for something like a Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn programme – was entirely empty all around the hall. Some heads popped up in the boxes; up in the gallery above, I counted three or four people. In the Arena (no TV so the equipment was gone and the Prommers were able to extend to their full-ish space) there was maybe a maximum of 100 people, with considerable gaps in between each line.

I explained to my partner how these seemingly insignificant observations actually made me feel unsettled. Put very simply, “It’s like when you see someone who’s dyed their hair just that wrong shade of brown for the colour of their skin and your brain can’t quite work out what’s wrong and also can’t stop staring whilst it tries to work it out.”

There was a sense that things weren’t quite right yet. We’ve got access. We’ve got our live musicians and the musicians have got some of their audience. But without the tourists, and the people dropping in for a concert after work, or the students, or the retirees, and the fundraisers shouting out their running total for Help Musicians UK, we’re missing a few pieces in the jigsaw. There was a party on but not all of the invitees felt able to attend. And I missed them. Everyone in the auditorium is as important to me as those on the stage.

Physical space, ambience, and the absence of others created a theatrical backdrop for the BBC Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. There was poignancy in the background and youthful exuberance in the foreground. And whilst it was utterly fantastic to be back wandering the corridors of the Royal Albert Hall, without more people present some of the buzz is lacking at the moment. It’s like Tim Woodall – former Marketing Director at the Philharmonia – tweeted on the First Night, “Got to be patient.”