Meeting John Rutter

On paper spending £30 to go to Oxford on the train and see the recording of a Christmas concert by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra seemed like a bit of an extravagance.

The Oxford Philharmonic’s programme is short, contains some old familiars – Abide with Me, Hallelujah Chorus, You’ll Never Walk Alone. And what Christmas concert is complete without some Rutter too. All of it dedicated to the work of those developing the COVID vaccine.

Compared to the last time I was in Oxford to attend a Beethoven Symposium (was it this year or last?), the live music-making experience is entirely different. Programmes are different – pragmatic artistic responses contained within a 16×9 crop, varying angles, a range of different coloured lights if the budget allows, and if you’re really lucky a bit of depth of field too.

No longer do I find myself sitting in a rehearsal wondering how best to write about a piece of music in order to get more people to consider experiencing it live. Now I sit in a kind of hermetically sealed box watching musicians shift through a series of postures in their seats according to whether they’re playing or waiting to play. When they play, the textures they create individually and collectively suggest that everything is just as it was. When they stop and wait for the producer to issue the next instruction across the talkback, they sit back and relax, waiting in silence for the next command.

This stop-start approach to music making is of course necessary. It’s a recording session. Some orchestras and ensembles have made a point of saying how they’re recording as live. Others adhere to creating recorded experiences.

“I come from the Glenn Gould school of performance,” said Oxford Phil conductor Marios.

“Oh. What’s that?”

I really should spend a bit more time researching. Or even reading.

“Gould hated audiences.”

What I’ve overlooked in a lot of my listening and thinking and writing over the past few months is that recording is as a process something that some musicians enjoy. I and a lot of others this year have spent a lot of time moping around about the ‘lack of live’, some even bemoaning how pre-records are a poor substitute. The point is that they’re different. And both are valuable.

Proceedings get underway inside the Sheldonian Theatre with two sing-throughs of Abide with Me with choristers from Merton College Oxford who stand the obligatory two metres apart from one another in the gallery overlooking the audience. The intense melancholy spun out by bows sweeping gently across strings brings an irony into focus. We’re sat here in our distanced seats, watching a similarly distanced orchestra and choir record music for a digital concert dedicated to scientists who have discovered a vaccine which could help get us out of this mess. Music sung by choristers who quite rightly observed social distancing inside the building, but didn’t need to outside whilst they waited outside. The rules that bring everyone together for this now familiar ‘live’ musical experience aren’t about safeguarding one another’s health, they’re about insurance policies. The rules are more the thing the music world is doing battle with, not the virus.

When John Rutter glides into the Theatre in his white bow tie, mask and coat tails, there’s a distinct change in energy. Rutter and the world premiere recording of his newest Christmas gift – Joseph’s Carol – is the main event for this rather strange afternoon jaunt to Oxford. He sets down his worn brown leather briefcase on the floor and bends down to open it, revealing the modest tools he needs to bring his work to life.

Rutter. A name synonymous with Christmas. A name burned into the memories of countless individuals who mark Christmas, childhood memories set to beautiful melodies, and touching harmonies. A composer who has shaped so many people’s experience of Christmas. A composer who actual exists in real life and is there down there below me stood on a podium with his open briefcase on the floor behind him.

“Is there anyone you’d like to speak to Jon?” asks Nicky the PR who had invited me for the afternoon.

This question has a surreal edge to it though Nicky doesn’t realise it at the time.

Earlier on in the day I was arranging interviews with two other high profile performers for a different story, arrangements being made via two, three or maybe four intermediaries all of whom believed that an interview could only go ahead if the questions were pre-agreed, an outline of the twenty minute interview experience was detailed and agreed. If there’s anything that is guaranteed to drain the energy from any interaction it is the assumption that it can only work if everyone knows precisely what is going to be talked about in advance. That isn’t journalism. It’s also not content.

I came to Oxford with no expectations to speak to anyone. I came only to be in amongst musicians, to get a sense of an event and to capture the resulting experience. That was enough for me. And now I’m here, sat here in a tatty jumper with a stupid mask stopping much-needed non-verbal communication being asked if there is anyone I’d like to talk to before I leave. There are only three people potentially: the Oxford Philharmonic music director Marios, tenor Bryn Terfel, and Rutter himself.

“Mr Rutter perhaps?” I say to Nicky almost apologetically. “Maybe Mr Terfel?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” And then she disappears. All very Nicky. Textbook Nicky.

And then it all gets exciting again. In a flash I’m transported back a year to all those trips that marvellous classical music PRs have invited me on to talk to wonderful people about the thing I love. All of them opportunities to be present in a space where magic happens so that the magic of it can be documented and shared wider. The crushing silliness of over-engineered ill-informed ‘interviews’ are in turn a distant memory. In its place the casual spontaneity built on trust and rapport that yields the richest of content opportunities.

Like pre-COVID days. Like the ‘old days’. Back in the game.

Me and Mr Terfel speak. I try to build rapport by drawing attention to a mutual friend of old from Suffolk Youth Orchestra days, his reaction masked. We talk about the Sondheim Prom ten years ago, him playing Sweeney, politics and the unintentional impact of vaccine developments on freelance musicians and their plight. At one stage I wonder whether he might reveal the details of his tax bill, but fortunately we end up talking about he’s become a whole more interested in video and audio production this year and how he might start kitting himself out next year. “That technically means we’d be in competition Mr Terfel,” I quip. “Yes, I suppose so.” “Well look, I’d recommend you go for the cheaper end of the market, you know?”

He signals he’s got the joke with a hearty Terfel chuckle and we pose for the customary selfie. It’s Terfel, I tell myself. This moment needs to be captured.

I find myself pacing whilst I’m waiting to speak to Rutter. A familiar feeling from Eurovision days returns in a flash whilst I mentally clock how much the other journalist in the space has had. This seems a rather futile process given that I like everyone else has suffered an internal body clock malfunction this year. The overriding emotion is one of impatience. Possibly even a sense of competition. Utterly ridiculous I tell myself. But so very familiar when you’re given the unexpected opportunity to connect with a celebrity who actually means something.

Rutter is as I expect. Softly spoken. Mild-mannered. Irritatingly modest. And as I predicted to a friend in a WhatsApp message minutes before, more than attuned to rhetorical questions asked by a fanboy. Of course he is. He went to Cambridge.

We talk about his year, his industrial nature, explaining how he chose to turn his attention to ‘painting the garage’ during lockdown – a witty metaphor for the keyboard arrangements he’s made this year of his most popular choral music. It appears in hearing him speak so modestly about his contribution to a universal experience of music that he is either unaware or unwilling to let himself get in the way of the music. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the manifestation of his music. Or maybe his music is a manifestation of him. Either way, I’m not going to get to the bottom of it in ten minutes, so I go for the full on clumsy, ham-fisted approach: “Do you have any sense of how much joy your brings?”

And when that doesn’t yield much, I go for “Do you think you have the best job in the world?”

“I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid.”

“And what would you like to take from 2020 into 2021?”


Boom. Thank you Mr Rutter. We stand for another selfie.

After a short break, me and the other members of what I now realise was a bit of a pre-embargo press junket convene distanced seats back in the gallery. A hush passes over the Theatre. Rutter steps up to the podium. We hear Alex the producer speak from somewhere we can’t see him. “OK. Thank you very much. In your own time.”

The music Rutter has written is classic. Warm strings create a soft reassuring pillow on which Terfel’s carefully-placed voice gently rests. Beautifully balanced melodies that caress the soul supported by harmonic progressions that edge us to and fro from melancholy, hope, pain and pain. It’s difficult not to hear the carol as something that goes beyond Christmas. An anthem for a city proud for the vaccine its University has discovered. As we tread carefully through the final verse and a modest descant stretches the bittersweet tension just a little bit further, there’s a glimmer that all is not lost. Those vital connections which have proved so important over the past few years are still there. And they’re still active.

Later on, during the short trip home, I spend a lot of time beaming at the composition of the selfie – how unusually chipper I look in the shot. Maybe I’m not quite so fat around the face as I thought I was. Maybe I have still got a jaw. Better that Rutter with his still strong chin is in the background slightly out of focus.

Hear John Rutter’s Joseph’s Carol on 18th December via the Oxford Philharmonic’s YouTube and Facebook page.

Thoughts arising from the Oxford Philharmonic Beethoven Festival Symposium

The only way to learn stuff is to immerse yourself in it. Just don’t ask any questions.

My Beethoven odyssey continues.

I’ve been in Oxford today at the Beethoven Festival Symposium at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building in St Hilda’s College.

It was the first time I’ve been in amongst academics for a long time, so too in a conference style atmosphere – listening to papers read out, discussed, challenged, and picked over. Lots of hand-shaking. Warm smiles too. Some odd hair. Mild unnecessary curmudgeonly-ness at times. Fascinating. And one or two unexpected tidbits, highlights of which I share below along with a few thoughts.

Beethoven and numeracy

During a delightfully detailed presentation about the numbering and mis-numbering of variations, one tidbit surprised me: Beethoven wasn’t terribly good at multiplication it seems, but was stronger instead adding and subtracting. We know this because of his ‘conversation books’, books he scribbled down his exchanges, notes and ideas (?) with his friends once his deafness had taken hold.

Academics aren’t necessarily great presenters.

Some of the delivery styles masked the academics’ considerable knowledge and expertise.

Some might see that as me poking fun or being mean-spirited (come get me), but there is a surprising twist to all of this.

Just as people like me (and considerably better people with much bigger networks) are called upon to articulate the art form in a manner that suits a particular audience, so I’m reminded how academics can sometimes need their ideas articulated in slightly plainer or, in some cases, slightly more engaging language. So we all need each other. Which is nice.

Beethoven 9 as four movements plus a conflated symphony

I have always struggled a little with Beethoven 9. It’s never really hung together in the way I assumed a symphony should be. There are jarring moments.

I know that’s a bit presumptious. I mean who the actual fuck am I to dare question Beethoven’s greatness?

But Professor David B Levy – the best speaker of the bunch by far today – offered a useful primer in his survey of the origins of the symphony, and the way its been ‘used and abused’ to meet a variety of cultural and political agendas.

In addition to simply describing the five movements in terms of the emotional content each touches upon, ie first movement – tragedy, second movement – farce, third movement – lyricism, and the fifth movement – joy (where the ‘fourth movement’ is a transition sequence), he also pointed to a range of other analyses of the last movement that depicted it as symphony in itself. You may not necessarily buy into the view. And let’s be honest, I may not necessarily have grasped the finer points of his presentation because this was an academic paper, but it was quite a neat look on the work.

Keyboard maker guillotine inventer

Turns out that piano maker Tobias Schmidt was also the inventor of the guillotine, and realised quite quickly that he was going to make more money from the patent for the guillotine than any piano he made and sold. Tut tut.

Was Beethoven a better businessman than he realised?

If I’ve understood Elaine Sisman’s paper correctly, Beethoven was quite focussed on making sure he got credit for his own work, so much so that the discussion around opus numbers for his work (normally a retrospective labelling of a composer’s output after death?) was robust whilst he was alive. Does that mean that Beethoven had an eye for his own legacy? More reading necessary I suspect.

A new discovery: Piano Sonata No.32 (and No.24)

This was a free lunchtime recital given by one of the speakers – William Kinderman – who provided an annotated introduction before performing the extensive two movement sonata.

I’m fascinated with those moments when I connect with something unfamiliar. What was the element in Kinderman’s performance that pulled me in? The opening of the second movement . The word ‘repose’ had been used a great deal during Kinderman’s introduction. The stillness of the opening arietta signifiied repose – a musical depiction of utopia? And it had that effect: time slowed down; stillness; completeness; serenity. It wasn’t twee: we weren’t listening to a fine tune which went through a series of permutations. It was a musical argument expressing a complex series of emotions. There was chromaticism. Nothing settled. But my attention was completely hooked. I ended up listening to No.32, No. 23, and No.24 from Brendel’s landmark collection on Decca on the way home. I think I’m hooked.

Emotion not melody

This seems a bit of an odd observation to share on the face of it. But I’m increasingly of the mind that maybe a way of appreciating Beethoven as a newcomer (ie me) is to think of the emotional quality of his music first. If one were to listen out for melody first – ie listen to Beethoven like one might approach Mozart on a first listen, then Beethoven’s unorthodoxy, especially in his later works, is going to make Beethoven perhaps seem like a tall order. There is so much emotion in it, as in the piano sonatas, and so much narrative, that to only listen out for the mechanics of constituent parts is to miss the point of Beethoven entirely. This thought is essentially the musical equivalent of the advice a playwright friend of mine gave me before I watched an unfamiliar Shakespeare: “listen for the gist – be very light touch about it”.

Why so much attention?

Obviously, I get it’s Beethoven 250 this year. We all love an anniversary. But a question arose for me part way through the day: why do so many study the man and his music so closely and so much? Is can’t be just because he’s widely accepted as a genius. That doesn’t really account for the fervour or the range of views contained in the endless tomes. Is it possibly because there’s a lot of evidence to pick over? Is Beethoven a musicologist’s Aladdin’s Cave?

I like it though. I like the forensic attention. I like the year long immersion. And I’m reminded that what hooks me in is the three dimensional world that a musicologist exists in and, through their work, perhaps unintentionally creates.

The turning point in the day was seeing one of Beethoven’s early sketches for Eroica. Nothing especially moving in and of itself. Rather, the sight of his initial ideas for a work that is so very well known brought a man known from a bust careering into the present day. The handwriting made the herculean effort of a man from the past, a more human thing. The evidence made it real. In a split second, two hundred and fifty years didn’t seem quite such a long time ago.

And when those things from the past arrive in the present all shiny and new, there’s an electric charge. Exploring Beethoven further has all the addictive qualities that soaking up the life and work of Benjamin Britten in the early 2000s.

In our on-demand time-poor attention deficit world, it seems so tragic that something so wonderfully absorbing and enriching is going overlooked because of a false assumption that no-one is interested in detail. We really must try harder.