Stand up and call it out

Earlier this week, new London Chamber Orchestra managing director Jocelyn Lightfoot announced a new policy on dress code for players at the orchestra’s season opener in Cadogan Hall.

“Every musician who plays with LCO is hand-picked for their professionalism and skill. When our orchestra walks out on stage, we celebrate the individual personalities and backgrounds brought to the performance by those musicians. Each person is a unique and valued ingredient that contributes to a magnificent whole. 

A significant part of achieving this is removing the anonymity of a uniform or dress code. We encourage the musicians to reflect the culture they identify with and how they interpret the occasion for which they are performing. This will enable them to be free to perform authentically and enjoy the experience to the full.”

Extending the invitation beyond the platform, Jocelyn said, “We urge our audience to reciprocate. It is crucial that we mirror the community that joins us at our live events and the beautiful variety of people that includes.”

Making an active decision to adopt a different approach to what players and audiences wear is an interesting and unexpectedly invigorating idea. That LCO have seized on it naturally helps them in raising awareness of their individual brand. It’s very LCO too (which makes me like them even more).

But the announcement also reinforces an insight I’ve learned over the past couple of years thanks to the work of Chineke! for example: the first step towards greater inclusion, diversity and representation is to see it illustrated on stage.

It’s an announcement that will no doubt prompt ‘critic’ Norman Lebrecht to reach for his keyboard.

Just this week he’s rattled off more nonsense to add to his growing oeuvre, this time focussing his sights on pianist Yuja Wang and the outfits she chooses to wear in her concert appearances.

Lebrecht’s personal attack on Wang’s appearance hints at something a little more unsettling.

Maybe, I’m thinking, he doesn’t find her as annoying as he professes; maybe privately he has a bit of a thing for her. Maybe we should read instead his critique as the words of an ever-hopeful sugar daddy, a self-proclaimed arbiter of sartorial good taste. “If Yuja Wang were to strip everything right down to the music, I have a feeling she could be a sensation.” Or maybe as one commenter has responded, its an article outlining Lebrecht’s ever-reliable strength of holding the music business to account, a sector that apparently treats her as ‘tinsel’.

Pianist George Fu responded:

This woman has scaled the heights of her industry and is one of the best pianists in the world, and clearly, all she is missing is the opinion of a very mediocre man

Originally tweeted by George Xiaoyuan Fu (@eyepitydafu) on 28th October 2021.

What has been interesting over the past twelve hours at least is who has engaged with the tweet I put out last night (flagged by double bass player Leon Bosch over on Facebook late last night). There has undoubtedly been a groundswell (in terms of my account activity) which has been reassuring. But amongst most (though not all) my ‘usual circle’ of friends, fans, artists, colleagues and business contacts, a surprising lack of engagement. It is as though they don’t want to be seen to comment on the content of Lebrecht’s words.

And that got me thinking this afternoon. Why wouldn’t people stand shoulder to shoulder and call this stuff out. Why wouldn’t they amplify a key underlying message that those who have engaged have mostly coalesced around?

The answer might be that they don’t want to be seen to rock the boat.

If classical music has an image problem (I get that this isn’t necessarily a widely held view) then it is quite possibly down to the gatekeepers, commentators, or mediators – those who write and talk about it. The image of the sector is created by those who seek to retain convention and tradition, preserving the live classical music experience as a kind of museum piece. Added to that they communicate another requirement, something I’ve long denied to be the case but find it difficult to ignore now: knowledge is a pre-requisite, so too educational background. If you neither of those then membership of the club is denied. Criticising the way a woman dresses on stage (or a man for that matter – though I imagine you’ll rarely hear that) is the privilege bestowed on those who see it as though prime responsibility to preserve this tradition, increasingly projecting it as irrelevant.

The irony is that the classical music world like that of the wider arts, has embarked on a journey to increase inclusion, representation and diversity in its workforce and its output. It’s not been an easy ride nor is it a journey that is over. By not engaging with criticism of an obviously sexist, misogynistic and ageist piece of twaddle, those with the power to bring about change are not only condoning and legitimising the content of such a view but reinforcing the position the commentator in question has appointed himself to.

If you’re committed to opening up classical music then why on earth wouldn’t you stand up to the person who continues to pedal the stuff that makes your work even more necessary?

The answer, I fear is that the person in question has skilfully created a dependency. The classical music world thinks it needs these kind of commentators, far more than the commentators respect the world on which they commentate.

As long as that goes unchallenged, the longer the problem persists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London Chamber Orchestra with Oliver Zeffman

London Chamber Orchestra plays Waley-Cohen, Mozart and Sibelius at Cadogan Hall

Technically speaking, this isn’t a concert review. Some of the experience was hampered by my unpredictable and still hacking cough, meaning I needed to duck out of the concert temporarily. Never have I been forced to leave auditorium quite so soon after a much-anticipated Concerto performance began, nor received such a clear signal so swiftly to do so as I did from the curmudgeonly audience member sat beside me.

So I ended up spending 30 minutes listening to George Li play Mozart 23 via the Cadogan Hall foyer monitors, clear enough to hear some moments of mildly disappointing intonation from the woodwind in the second and third movements; denied the opportunity to languish in LCO’s efficient lush string sound. Li’s encore (I forget what it was – Chopin?) was spectacular, prompting those of us in the foyer to lean in, focus and take a much needed moment to pause and reflect. Electrifying stuff.

Once a number of Strepsils had been administered I rejoined my plus one Lorna at the back of the auditorium for the second half performance of Sibelius’ 3rd.

Neither of us had heard it before. For Lorna it was only the second or third time at a classical music concert.

The back seat of the stalls isn’t a bad place to listen. The balcony overhang creates a cosy feel but doesn’t affect the acoustic adversely. The LCO played with spirit, enviable precision, warmth and ebullience – it makes a massive difference to me to see musicians visibly enjoying what they’re playing. Great energy exuded from the stage creating three movements of wonder and delight. I was transfixed.

The second movement in particular had a tenderness about it that was both playful and maybe even flirtatious. The gentle syncopation gave things a flirtatious feel. Deft. Listening back to Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic, it is the gentler pace adopted by conductor Oliver Zeffman with the LCO this week that I respond to more immediately. There was lift and drive, but a genteel kind of pace that created an appealing whole.

Word too on Zeffman whose generous confident conducting style seemed to draw out key musical lines throughout the concert, empowering musicians to shine. Sometimes I wanted him to take his time walking onto the stage in order to establish a more assertive presence when facing the audience. But there is a charming enthusiasm and pride in his work and the band he conducts. A strong horn section drove the Sibelius forward in the moments it needed it.

Freya Waley-Cohen’s UK premiere of Changeling displayed some enviable melodic lines for bass clarinet and violin, spikey string sequences, and enticing atmospheric scenes full of mystery and portent. A busy week for Waley-Cohen too – present at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday and at Wigmore Hall for a premiere the following day.

London Chamber Orchestra are back at Cadogan Hall on 9 February and 25 March 2020. They appear at St John’s Smith Square on 6 May 2020. They are heartily recommended.