London Mozart Players and Sheku Kanneh-Mason at Fairfield Halls

Increasingly my concert-going experiences start long before the first note is played and extend beyond the music heard in the auditorium. Embarking on a trip to hear live music may even start the moment I set foot out of my front door. How does each experience compare? That’s the question that frames most of the posts on this blog for this year. London Mozart Players at Fairfield Hall – a ‘local’ venue – is as close to me in Lewisham as its ‘older sister’ the Royal Festival Hall is. Croydon’s arts centre seven miles south of central London is an entirely different experience. How did it shape up?

After a short dimly lit walk from East Croydon station, Fairfield Halls gleams in amongst unprepossessing surroundings. Inside the space is clean, airy, and accommodating. We could quite easily be stepping into a municipal swimming pool. The bar service is a little slow (there was an extended delay at the bar whilst my plus-one gently tussled with staff over the apparent inconsistency of being allowed to take in a plastic tumbler full of wine but a plastic bottle of sparkling water being a trip hazard) but there’s no queue for the toilets and plenty of places to sit down. The grand sweeping staircase that leads up to the mezzanine floor is uplifting. And the gentle murmur of the crowd hints at a regional ‘out of town’ orchestra gig feel – the perfect foil to the comparative freneticism of a central London gig.

Me and my plus-one for the evening amble to the auditorium. There is a mix of ages, overcoats and hair colours reinforcing the point that at a regional venue, you’ll see more clearly how a live orchestral concert brings together a community. For me, that’s important, because in these moments you get a sense of what a performing group as an actual business is doing in and for its audience in a way that perhaps at one of the bigger brand gigs an orchestra’s impact is lost in the percentage ticket sales and related spreadsheet items.

Inside Fairfield Halls Foyer

Inside the auditorium, the acoustics remain the best in London (as proclaimed by the owners when Fairfield reopened after extensive refurbishments a few years back. Seats are comfortable too, though the lack of carpet (which is presumably integral to the acoustic) means that municipal feel carries through into the auditorium. This doesn’t especially matter because what compensates is the atmosphere. In amongst the stalls looking onto a stage covered in bright pink light to match the fold-up programmes in our hands, it feels like we’re joining a group of stalwart friends. I feel like a visitor joining a group of people who have made an active decision to be present in the auditorium. There’s conversation with the lady at the end of our row who shares how her concert-going plans alternate between here and Wigmore Hall. Bubbles of conversation crop up all around. It feels far more welcoming than any central London concert.

Musically the programme consists of two toe-tapping works by Mendelssohn (Midsummer Nights Dream excerpts plus the Italian Symphony) in between which is sandwiched music by two pieces by Ernest Bloch (‘Prayer’ from Jewish Life, and Schelomo).

It’s the Schelomo I’m especially drawn to. Conductor Jonathan Bloxham gives an annotated introduction to the work with soloist Sheku – a continuation of a London Mozart Players format originated by pianist Howard Shelley who would introduce key moments in a concerto before performing it with the band during lunchtime concerts at St John’s Smith Square. The exchange between Bloxham and soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason feels a little stilted but the effect in this box-like interior reminds us in the audience that we’re watching actual human beings do things – human beings who speak as well as play.

Schelomo is a good fit for soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who seems most at home with the long meandering plaintive lines both in the solo cello and in the wider accompaniment. It’s as though the expanse of the material gives him the space to be himself. The effect is ever-more absorbing as a result. There’s a seriousness to the material – a mysteriousness perhaps – that gives the work a sense of emotional weight. There’s a sense of theatre too. This is where Sheku thrives, I think.

London Mozart Players at Fairfield Halls

It’s the first time my plus one and I have heard the work and in her case the Mendelssohn Midsummer Nights’ Dream too. She shares with me that the Midsummer Night’s Dream was her favourite in the first half, but that she found the Schelomo ‘bitty’. I can see how she arrives at the observation she’s made. I suggest the ‘bitty’ impression might be down to the different kind of musical melody the second work is based on – the Jewish feel to the melody. She concurs. I leave the auditorium feeling like we’ve both arrived at an understanding of what we’ve just heard just by daring to share what we both think without fear of judgment. I’m now wondering whether there’s something else I’ve learned about audience engagement: a discernible structure is what underpins comprehension; comprehension drives enjoyment.

Post-concert we’re invited to a drink with members of the orchestra up on the mezzanine in the Fairfield Halls foyer. In my arts manager’s memory talk of such events, post-concert were always met with a mix of fear and resignation by members of the orchestra (and the staff too). Today, I can see what value they bring, not least in introducing my plus one to an orchestral player and listening to the questions she needs the answers to after a concert. Much centres around the conductor and what he contributes to the whole shebang. There’s also something I often assume everyone knows – my blind spot – when my plus-one asks, ‘Aren’t all performances of the same piece of music exactly the same?’

Players mingle with one another – Sheku bounds into view at one point at which point there’s a modest ripple of applause. As we sink the remainder of our complimentary fizz, there’s a real sense that we’ve all of us, audience and players, spent an entire evening in each other’s company. It’s a long way since my first concert-going days when I recall I was racing to venues and listening for perfection in a live performance. Things have loosened up a bit for me. And I wonder whether we might want to be selling that kind of experience a little harder these days.

‘Quartet for the End of Time’ on Live from London’s Summer 2021 series

Lewisham, London

I’ve finally made a start catching up on Live from London’s Summer season. The streamed ‘recorded as live’ concert series, one of the first to launch after a couple of months into the pandemic here in the UK, is now well into its second year and thriving too.

The latest season combines filmed performances at the Voces8 Centre in central London, plus a selection of concerts from the Ora Singers, I Fagiolini, and The King Singers. There are a couple of orchestral appearances from Chineke!, London Contemporary Orchestra, and English Chamber Orchestra too.

I’ve started with Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, bringing together clarinetist Julian Bliss, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, pianist Katya Apekisheva, and violinist Jack Liebeck.

On the face of it, not an easy chamber work to render as a viewing experience (if you’ve heard it in performance in real life). However, the filmed performance benefits from some sensitive directorial decisions. The boom, close-ups, and pull focus shots provide arresting action placing the viewer at the heart of proceedings. There is an overall elegance and simplicity to how it looks on screen that gives the performance a sense of gravitas without being too pompous.

Including a pre-performance analysis of the work from writer, journalist and broadcaster Stephen Johnson with musical illustrations by the players dressed in ‘rehearsal’ gear, lends things a simple kind of authenticity which more than makes up for the lack of a physical audience. The inclusion of a post-performance natter between all the players and producer Barney Smith was a nice addition. Brimming with natural rapport, the exchange is good-humoured and informative without being formulaic or self-conscious.

Live from London Summer 2021 continues with the final concert with English Chamber Orchestra on 22nd August available until the last week in September.

Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and Sir Simon Rattle speak to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden about the needs of UK orchestras post-lockdown

Sir Simon Rattle to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden: “We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs.”

I read Sir Simon Rattle’s Times interview first thing on Sunday morning in bed as soon as I woke up. Take it from me this is not the best strategy. Not right now at least. Top line message from Rattle: orchestras will go to the wall; everything’s fucked.

Later in the day during a telephone chat with a pal of old, I glibly say that reading Rattle’s interview should be reserved until later in the day. It’s suggested to me that a similar strategy is being adopted by the theatre world to lay things on the line, to get the attention that’s needed to move things along.

I get this. And I agree with it. Later in the day I pick up an email pointing me in the direction of a meeting Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Sir Simon Rattle all have had with DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden last week to talk about what the UK orchestral sector needs right now. Put simply – other countries are moving already to make live performance happen because a) they’ve supported the arts during this period and b) they’re collaborating to find workable pragmatic interim solutions; we want to work with you; help us.

Combined with the Saturday appearance of Nicola Benedetti, CBSO general manager Stephen Maddock, Chi-chi Nwanoku, and Southbank’s Director of Music Gillian Moore on Radio 3’s Music Matters, this feels like a more concerted and coordinated effort than in recent weeks. It certainly reads more explicitly than the joint open letter Petrenko, Karabits, Brabbins, Jurwoski, and Sir Mark Elder put out last week. Why wouldn’t they all coalesce around one thing? Or did the emotive former prompt the more specific and practical latter?

Most compelling in Rattle’s contribution is the experiences he shares with other European orchestras right now. And specifically the idea of distancing amongst the band in a performance space. This tallies with another piece of news I picked up from Bamberg Symphony who in May were testing the reach of aerosols in a performance space. Spoiler: turns out wind instruments aren’t spreading the virus anywhere near as far as the two-metre distancing rule might lead you to believe. Bamberg Symphony plays host to the Mahler Conducting Competition from 29th June (albeit behind closed doors and streamed live on YouTube) as a result.

In this way, its possible to see the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people dependent not on the development of a vaccine or the reduction of the R, but instead reliant on those with the power to make small changes to listen to spokespeople from the sector, and for those to be persuasive. Seen from this perspective, the return to live performance should be driven by those with an eye on the science and who can come up with workable solutions. Is the UK industry doing that? I’m genuinely not sure. I’ve not seen obvious evidence of that.

Meeting statement in full

We know you know the terrifying hardship and uncertainty the classical music sector faces. That an entire, complex ecosystem of musicians, composers, behind the scenes creators, managers, technicians, festivals, venues, orchestras, choirs, education & outreach leaders, publishers, marketers etc. are not only unable to work, but unlike many other industries, have absolutely no concept of a timeline to work towards. It is making any semblance of getting back to work, and saving our industry from collapse impossibly and increasingly hard.

However, we are aware that you know the phenomenal contribution arts and culture brings to our GDP, £10.8 billion in GVA (source Arts Council England).

As you’ve already referenced today, we know you recognise the weight and importance our cultural landscape holds, both worldwide and to the British public.

But all of us representing the classical sector today are here to say that with the right financial support, and workable social distancing guidelines, our entire industry is united, ready, prepared, and desperate to get back to doing what we do best.

People all over the country are in need, people are in crisis. Classical music itself is steeped in history and tradition, but we are agile, dedicated and reactive. And we want to help ease people out of this impossibly difficult time. 

There are countless examples we could list of what people and organisations have already been doing, but hopefully you will have been keeping up to date with these.

Looking to the immediate future, there are so many areas of opportunity within which we can work with government, and there is so much we want to offer – individually and collectively. But we can only do so with the right support and collaboration.

We know we can provide national moments of unity and uplift, and a coming together of mass music participation and appreciation.

We can help be a vital part of the emotional and psychological recovery for ALL people of the UK, but in particular for our elderly and vulnerable population.

When unified, we can be an unbelievable force for developing creativity and resilience in our next generation through education.

We can deploy musicians in innovative ways, through digital and inventive performance spaces reaching people in all parts of the country.

And of course, our substantial and growing track record for using music to positive effect in mental health and wellbeing speaks for itself. 

We have all been humbled by this experience, and are more understanding of our role in society than ever.

Morale, creativity and energy will be needed from all walks of life to find ways out of this crisis. It’s not just about managing circumstances in a reactive and stagnant way – let us tap into the part of the brain artists and musicians use all the time. We problem-solve through creating new pathways, and the country desperately needs that right now. 

Please work with us!

But we need money, we need a clear timeline to work to, we need guidelines that are both safe and workable and we hear there’s plenty of evidence specifically pertaining to our industry we are simply not making use of, some of which Sir Simon Rattle speaks more on below. 

– We need meaningful collaboration with creative leaders in the digital field 
– We are willing and indeed desperate to collaborate with scientists and experts and leaders in all fields to ensure we’re on the front foot of what’s possible to do, safely
– We want to look seriously at workable proposals
– We need to work out a timeline and business model for venues. Unlike in many parts of Europe, our venues by and large cannot open without significant support
– And from now until the moment where they can viably open, we still need to be making music for people, wherever that may be. What about licensing agreements to perform in car parks, warehouses, parks, etc.?

What Sir Simon Rattle said DCMS’ Oliver Dowden on post-lockdown orchestral life

Sir Simon Rattle said: “Orchestras need to play and play soon. Like dance companies or footballers, we have to train. We are a collective. We can do a great deal even before we are back in public, but even then, we have to be match ready! However, without workable distancing plans, an orchestra as such will not be a possibility.

On this subject it has been a surprise even for us how little aerosols or droplets are emitted while playing wind instruments, considerably less than normal conversation, for instance. We would ask that wind distances are a generous two meters maximum, and strings just one meter. In this way some kind of return to playing would be practical. The latest Danish scientific calculations suggest 0.5 meters for strings and 1 meter for winds as a perfectly safe arrangement. 

Over the last two weeks I played my first orchestral music in over three months in two European cities: first in Munich, in a studio, very distanced, but with a whole string section followed by a wind section of 13. The winds were 3 metres distant from each other which was like sending smoke messages between mountains: but we played! In Prague we played with a full orchestra, not distanced as everyone had been tested in the previous three days. There was an audience of 500, all masked but sitting together, and most shockingly of all, we shook hands on stage, something I had almost forgotten how to do!

Two different cities with different solutions: but both with scientific underpinning and immense care. And although both cities are further in their COVID journeys, the science remains the same. The aerosols move in the same way wherever they are in the world, which is why I would beg the UK to take note of the very thorough investigations from all over the world, rather than starting from the beginning. In other words, deal with the necessities of orchestral distancing not just the superstitions.

Orchestral rehearsal venues are willing and ready to transform into modern film and recording spaces which can follow the guidelines – but only if the guidelines are not impossible.

And finally, we will need some extra support over the next 12-18 months while we start performing to necessarily smaller, distanced audiences, and transition towards whatever our new world will be.  On the other side of all this, we will be alive and kicking and ready to take on new challenges once more.”

The resilience, work ethic and tenacity of people working in our industry is bountiful and deeply moving.

We really, really do not want to be left behind here, and have our world-class industry fall by the wayside whilst European cultural institutions are being protected.

We shouldn’t be penalised for our increased autonomy and our commercially viable business models. 

We don’t want more money for nothing. We don’t want our lights to stay dark. We want and need cash, support and guidelines in order to GIVE. To give to the public, to help people, to provide solace, comfort, uplift and art.

Fundamentally, we want to work with you. We don’t want to sit and complain and moan. We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs – but to also help lift people out of this awful situation.

BBC Proms 2019 – 11: Sheku’s Elgar Cello Concerto and Dieter Amman’s Piano Concerto

The crazy perfection of Dieter Ammann’s piano concerto, Sheku’s much-heralded performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a double dose of dodgy TV presentation

I’ve been on holiday this week, escaping from work by holing myself up in a hotel with a book. So my listening has been limited to a handful of concerts. There’s a greater bias towards broadcast presentation in this post, but that’s only because there have been moments when my heart rate has, disappointingly, reached scary new heights.

Jonathan Dove / Dieter Ammann (Prom 43)

High point of my week’s worth of Proms listening was undoubtedly the double bill premieres of Jonathan Dove’s We Are One Fire and Dieter Ammann enthralling Piano Concerto.

Dove’s work for the BBC Symphony Chorus secures the composer and his output as my new favourite thing from this year and, looking ahead, a back catalogue I want to explore further. We Are One Fire illustrates the composer’s love of storytelling, his desire to connect with the audience and the enthusiasm he has writing for voice. There was some joyous celebrations in this work – a present-day musical evocation of the universal themes expressed in Schiller’s Ode to Joy – that had an infectious inclusive feel even on catch-up. Loved hearing it. Haven’t stopped listening to it all week.

In a similar way, German composer Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto (a co-commission with a variety of orchestras and venues in addition to the BBC) was a miraculous thing on a first listen. Driving rhythms, enthralling textures, and arresting sound worlds made this a dazzling work with a fascinating narrative.

CBSO and Sheku Kanneh Mason (Prom 46)

I listen with interest to Sheku’s performances. I’ve written before about how I think he is (like a couple of other recent Decca signings) heavily- perhaps even over-marketed at a point in time when he is still in the early stages of his musical development. His exposure is important for the sector and for music education, of course. At the same time, I think its important to pay close attention to performance as with any other professional musician.

If I was coaching a client who was saying this to me, I’d be reminding them about the old adage that we see what we’re looking for. In other words, if I am approaching a performance from a cynical perspective I’m almost certainly going to find fault with something. So I feel as though I have to (in case of the rare chance that he or a member of his family actually reads this) work hard to keep my usual curmudgeonly-ness in check.

The Elgar comes with baggage undoubtedly. Jacqueline du Pre’s landmark recording casts a shadow across the work for surely any cellist long before they’ve reached for the manuscript, let alone lifted the bow to the strings. And whilst I know that this is described by Sheku as his favourite recording of the work, I wonder whether it would have been better to avoid discussing it before the live performance. Certainly, hearing Andrew McGregor say in the pre-recorded interview, “I have to ask you about .. ” means that minutes before we hear Sheku play Elgar’s iconic work, we are as listeners even if we don’t mean to, comparing Sheku’s interpretation with our memory (perceived or otherwise) of du Pre’s.

The third movement was undoubtedly the most rounded section of the work, with warm tones, tender phrases and an aching autumnal heart to it. But intonation slips in the faster solo phrases of the first and second movements distracted attention from the emotional intent of the solo line. The main subject in the allegro of the fourth movement lacked the gravitas I’ve come to expect from the work (though this is not to say it’s what is required). Similar intonation slips in some of the exposed lines of the fourth movement increased the pressure in what sometimes felt like a rushed movement.

The Elgar on BBC Four

I’ve listened a few times to the catch-up recording on iPlayer Radio, and complimented that with the TV broadcast, partly to make sure I haven’t misheard but also to see what the overall story the BBC has told ‘in vision’.

A rather awkward pre-title introduction featuring Tom Service, with Sheku and his sister Isata introducing one another. Post-titles up in the gallery, anchors Tom and Isata looked rather uncomfortable talking with one another, Isata’s lack of TV presenting experience evident in some dry pieces to camera and lack-lustre questioning with pundit Kathryn Knight. This is not Isata’s fault by any means – she is a musician not a presenter. Her presence seemed rather odd because she was the soloist’s sibling – any objectivity we might have hoped for from the presenters about the work and the performance after it was complete were dashed.

If its annoying when a radio presenter shares their opinion of the work we’ve just heard, then its pointless to hear glowing remarks come from a family member as their sibling soloist takes their bow. That’s a conflict of interest.

If promming at the BBC NOW concert a couple of weeks ago reconnected me with the BBC Proms, the TV coverage with Tom and Isata distanced me. I saw this as a commissioning decision rather than a directing/producing error. The programme served the needs of a record label (for whom it was imperative to promote both Isata and Sheku in the same programme) rather than the audience. And that must have been knowingly entered into – it couldn’t have been an accident. And I can’t believe that experienced TV people wouldn’t have at some stage in proceedings paused and thought, isn’t this going to look a little odd?

If its annoying when a radio presenter shares their opinion of the work we’ve just heard, then its pointless to hear glowing remarks come from a family member as their sibling soloist takes their bow. That’s a conflict of interest.

For casual readers (or those unaware of the way I’ve approached these Proms blogs this year), this experience is important for me. The Proms (and perhaps even classical music?) relies to a great extent on advocacy by its fans. This was an episode where I as an advocate felt alienated. Until someone says otherwise (given that a considerable number of the independent production TV company behind the coverage were those who up until a couple of years ago had worked inside the BBC producing the same coverage), the only thing I can conclude is that this is a deliberate move. Maybe people like me are more of a pain in the arse than I had realised. Certainly what I feel at the moment is that in pursuit of doing something different (in the belief that this will attract a different audience) the thing I love is being trampled on spectacularly.

Meeting Hannah French

For every gushing Proms presenter that brings me out in hives, there are always new ones who fit the bill and make me clap excitedly.

Dr Hannah French is a leading contender for the Proms Commentator of the Year Crown (a new award initiated just this week). Hannah brings personality to the job but leaves ego behind. She delivers a punchy script with verve, knowledge and objectivity.

I let out a sigh of relief when I heard her introduce Solomon’s Knot’s concert on 14th August. So, when I caught sight of her in the commentary box as I left the Ulster Orchestra Prom, I couldn’t help but do what I normally do in such situations.

“Are you Hannah?” I asked her, leaning across the Radio 3 banner separating stalls from box.

“Aren’t you Jon Jacob?” she replies

“Yes.” I point at her and say, “You are very good at this. Really. I think you’re brilliant.”

Her hands clasp her cheeks. She says thank you. We hug. I say hello to her commentary box ‘plus one’. Thank her again. And then scarper.

Up until this moment I have never hugged an actual Proms commentator in situ at the Royal Albert Hall. An important moment.

The BBC had better sign her up for next year. And for more. And whilst we’re at it, Dr Hannah French needs to be on TV too. Get her to do everything. You might as well.

Proms on TV

Proms Encore (episode 4) has been the best episode of the series, it has to be said.

Lloyd Coleman’s sequence with Martyn Brabbins discussing the role of the conductor was a confident exploration of the art of conducting. As much as I like Rachel Parris (Mash Report), her package spotlighting Queen Victoria’s piano with Stephen Hough was a little disappointing. Using the clip of Rachel swaying around next to Stephen in the ‘menu’ of the programme made me wriggle uncomfortably – contrived and a little unnatural.

Guests Odaline de la Martinez and Peter Edwards were natural and engaging (Odaline especially so). My connection which Robert Ames veered through a range of a emotional reactions based on not knowing who he was, to finding his hair fundamentally annoying, to then wanting to berate the presenter for asking Robert about his hair, and finally screaming at the television to Robert, “If you don’t know what to do with your hair in a concert then get it cut!” If I ever catch myself asking such banal questions during a podcast interview I will cease interviewing anybody ever again.