London Philharmonic Orchestra 2019/2020 season preview

A celebration of season-wide narrative arcs, print and content, plus a dreamy date with violinist James Ehnes

I despise the word preview.

Implicit in the word preview is the assumption that people need help to process through a brochure listing all of the events on offer. Or in the case of the especially disinterested, that those people need to be coaxed into picking up that brochure in the first place.

Then there’s the implication (as I see on some blogs and Twitter feeds) that my preview is somehow an occasion in itself. A self-important proclamation that what readers were waiting for wasn’t the season, but my take on it.

If art music is itself a subjective experience, then any picking over a season is going to be similarly so.

That’s the introduction out of the way – the blogging equivalent of the soundcheck for a podcast interview – now down to business.

Look for the why, not the what

Flicking through the LPO season brochure for next year two thoughts immediately sprung to mind.

First, until now, I’ve only ever looked at programme running orders for individual concerts to decide whether or not I was interested in the event – works first, then artists, then the date.

This seems a rather odd way of selecting a concert. I’m invariably going to settle on programmes where there’s something I vaguely recognise, works that have a vaguely NLP effect and trigger memories and feelings. Any decisions I make in this way will demonstrate the ever more reductive impact of self-selection. A strategy that narrows rather than broadens experience.

Second, why haven’t I ever paid any attention to the contextual/marketing information written for each concert? Historically I’ve always glossed over that part of the listing.

And yet, it’s the contextual information – the copy – that’s providing the ‘why’ for a particular choice of works in any given event. These sections are the text-based equivalent of having your own individual Petroc Trelawny reading out a season brochure on demand and on a loop.

First impressions

What I like most about the LPO’s brochure is its size. It’s unusual. The same surface area as my bullet journal, but slightly different proportions. Longer. It’s also got some weight (though not as much as the Proms brochure, which in comparison feels a little cumbersome and self-important).

And the artwork too. Whimsical. Trippy. Monty Python opening credits.

As a tactile creation, this ticks all the boxes and makes me want to read more.

Inside the visual style feels a little too close to the Southbank Centre (or at least the SBC’s style from a few years back before the logo changed) and that lets it down a little. Everything feels a little too pared back inside in comparison to the bold statement on the front cover.

It’s the contextual information – the copy – that’s providing the ‘why’ for a particular choice of works in any given event. These sections are the text-based equivalent of having your own individual Petroc Trelawny reading out a season brochure on demand and on a loop.

Also .. seeing a lot of these brochures as I do, I am getting quite bored of seeing the rather generic CEO/artistic director introduction inside the front cover. I get that the person behind the operation wants or needs to get the credit (and in fairness, Tim Walker cuts a rather dashing look in his picture – that tie is beautiful), but as a punter it makes me feel slightly disconnected from the events and, most important of all, the artists.

That got me thinking. Why aren’t there more articles in season brochures? Say like two. I get that the copy needs to be paid for, but would say an extra two pages filled up with artist profiles, interviews, and/or an article, really result in a punitive production bill?

Eye-catchers: Sheku, Ehnes and Ades

Sheku Kanneh-Mason with his cello (or, at least, a cello case).
Sheku Kanneh-Mason with a cello case.

There is one much-anticipated concert in the LPO line up which shone in the pre-publicity material (the accompanying email and press release from the Southbank Centre where the LPO are one of the resident bands): Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on Saturday 5 October.

It will be the first time I’ve heard him play in London and I’m hoping (no, fully expecting) it will finally put to rest my cynicism I’ve held about the intense (and presumably crushing) exposure he’s experienced over the past two years. To be clear: I don’t deny him; I worry for him.

James Ehnes playing the Walton Violin Concerto on Wednesday 9 October was another initial eye-catcher. I recall seeing Ehnes playing in Verbier a couple of years back (I think it was) and being completely transported by his unfussy presence on stage that seemed give the music full reign. What I think is broadly referred to as a ‘generous performer’. I’d love to test my memories. I often forget to actively listen to Walton’s music too.

It will be the first time I’ve heard Sheku play in London and I’m hoping (no, fully expecting) it will finally put to rest the cynicism I’ve held about the intense (and presumably crushing) exposure he’s experienced over the past two years. I don’t deny him; I worry for him.

And the prospect of Thomas Ades conducting Holst’s The Planets on Wednesday 23 October caught my eye too.

Ades is an interesting proposition, someone who in the early days of his composing career had a very active PR placing interviews and articles in all sorts of magazines beyond the cultural world.

This and his cultural pairing with Oliver Knussen always projected an air of edginess in my then limited experience of modern music.

I’ve always been fascinated too about the way he has combined composing and conducting and wonder to what extent his conducting goes under-reported or under-acknowledged.

2020 Vision

London Philharmonic Orchestra pictured playing Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 27th January 2019

The LPO’s celebration of music from the first 20 years of the 19th, 20th and 21st century spans the first 10 years from January until April, and the remaining ten in the autumn of 2020. This was the part of the brochure that not only hooked me but provoked all manner of thoughts.

There’s something about the prospect of combining a significant work from each of the three centuries in every concert that makes for an enticing offer. The idea of combining new works with familiar ones isn’t especially new – its a way of selling tickets – but by creating an additional constraint of the twenty-year time period seems inventive and audience-focussed too.

2020 Vision is the real strength in this season unveiling and, in comparison to the broader Southbank announcement, presents itself as a strong statement with a coherent and enticing narrative arc.

No surprise that I marked down all of them in the list – a year by year survey starting on Saturday 8 February 2020 with Beethoven 1, Eotvos’s Snatches of a Conversation and Scriabin (really interested to explore more of Eotvos’ works after the recent Philharmonia gig), Beethoven 2 with Knussen’s Violin Concerto on Wednesday 19 February, and Beethoven’s Piano No. 4 with Enescu’s first symphony (I know no Enescu) on Friday 28 February. Comparing Ives’ Unanswered Question, with Ades’ Seven Days and Beethoven’s 6th looks like a tantalising prospect too.

Hurrah for narrative arcs

2020 Vision is the real strength in this season unveiling and, in comparison to the broader Southbank announcement, presents itself as a strong statement with a coherent and enticing narrative arc.

Years ago, I remember marketing people at the BBC Proms announcing that in the new Roger Wright era ‘there will be no themes in the Proms season’.

It always seemed like a bit of a shame to forgo season-wide narratives on the basis that the idea of them might alienate audiences or prevent programmers from introducing variety.

It will be interesting to see whether my assumptions, expectations and needs are reflected in audience numbers at the Royal Festival Hall.

Tickets go on sale to LPO Friends on Monday 18 February and general sale opens at 10am on Wednesday 27 February.

More information from lpo.org.uk. See the LPO 2019/20 brochure here.

Southbank Centre’s 2019/2020 season revealed

A nerdy survey of the Southbank Centre new season announcement plus some personal highlights

The moment a venue’s season is unveiled is a pretty daunting one for any self-proclaimed cultural commentator. The bigger the venue, the more impossible the task. Adopting an angle and crafting a narrative through the myriad of events is a difficult thing.

And its made slightly more complicated when its the Southbank Centre’s season, because its residents and associate orchestras reveal their season programmes the same day. In amongst all of this noise some of the detail is inevitably lost.

To make matters worse for the Southbank Centre, yesterday they were competing with the seven MPs who decided to (try and) seize the agenda by walking out on the Labour party.

All this pissing and moaning on my part aside, here are some thoughts and reflections arising from three announcements (the Southbank, LPO and Philharmonia) yesterday.

Top line messages

Looking at the audience from the top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Southbank Centre press team leads on anniversaries. Beethoven 250 (brace brace, there’s going to be a lot of Beethoven next year – I’m expecting to hate the man and his output by the end of 2020) and a Ravi Shankar retrospective.

They also trumpet (boom!) their ‘Contemporary Edit’, a fashion/interior design world-inspired collection of contemporary music infused events illustrating one of the audience groups the SBC perceives to be important to its future success. Something reflected in the median age of their audience posted in the 2016/17 Annual Review: 30-35 (though it could be the case that I’m making a sweeping generalisation there that younger audiences are more ‘into’ contemporary music than older).

Sean Shibe

Their list of artists is impressive to regular concert goers and listeners, but seeing the likes of Vladimir Jurowski, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Alice Sara Ott makes me question to what extent newcomers are influenced by the big names or whether (as I suspect) the informed but irregular concert-goer is more likely to shell out for a recognisable name.

For my money, the interesting artists to watch are the electrifying Pekka Kuusisto, Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the LPO, Daniil Trifonov (I’m a fanboy), Mitsuko Uchida, and the fascinating Sean Shibe.

Newcomers

Southbank are also making a big play about their ‘innovative’ new scheme designed to bring newcomers to the concert hall in a series of Encounters classical music experiences. Leading artists perform to invited concert-goers who have received free tickets on the basis that they’re never been to a classical music event before.

The Southbank with then invite those concert-goers back for a second ‘taster’ on the basis that they bring another newcomer along with them. After which the Southbank will invite those newcomers along, and so on.

I’m slightly cynical about this.

It’s a reasonably nifty idea, of course. All done in the context of promoting the cause of classical music. At the same time its a wonderfully simple way of expanding the Southbank’s mailing list, helping them reach out to local communities, tackle the consequences of social inequalities, and meet their corporate and Arts Council responsibilities.

The Royal Festival Hall. Home to a stuffy private club, apparently.

But its a gamble, isn’t it? Speaking as someone who gives something away for free on a fairly regular basis, the challenge then becomes translating the free offer into ticket sales.

Where things went a little awry in the announcement was the use of pianist Stephen Hough’s quote:

Classical music concerts so often seem like a closed door (or several) to those who have never attended one. A stuffy private club: elitist, pompous and inaccessible. ‘Encounters’ is a brilliant, simple idea to destroy this perception and to fling those doors open. Classical music – with its passion, its emotion, its stimulation, its rich fascination – belongs to all of us and I’m delighted to be a part of this exciting new way of introducing people for the first time to its allure.”

Pianist stephen hough, southbank centre press release

Whilst this may seem like a rather negative point to flag, the intent is positive. My beef is the way in which the quote establishes the potential impact of Encounters from the perspective of their being a perception problem with the concert hall.

That perception is a construct, and even if it is proved its not a construct, stating it only serves to reinforce the stereotype and, effectively, slag off everything else in the past and present. It feels like an own goal.

Cheap(er) tickets

Elsewhere, the Southbank flags how 50,000 of its tickets across the 2019/20 season are priced at £15 or under.

If it’s assumed that there are 230 events across the entire season (the press release says 230+) and the capacity of the Festival Hall is around 2500, then their £15 or under offer amounts to nearly 9% of tickets sold (though the figure varies if you factor in the capacity of the QEH and Purcell Room next door – 916 and 293 respectively).

What would be interesting to learn (I’m not sure whether these figures will be) is the take-up of the Encounters initiative and the cheap tickets scheme.

A look over their Annual Reviews makes searching for specific figures predictably challenging. The review from September 2017 – December 2018 celebrates impressive milestones but doesn’t detail much in the way of specific ticket sales. I wonder whether this is a consequence of part of the site being closed whilst QEH and Purcell Room was refurbished. A look at the 2016/17 reveals a little more in terms of attendance to ticketed events: 591K but no specific line on what income was generated from ticket sales, only that 50% of events are free.

What’s raising my eyebrows

All of this nerding out about what goes on under the bonnet of my favourite concert destination overlooks the purpose yesterday’s announcement – to highlight next season’s concerts.

So, as a punter, what am I particularly looking forward to? A handy list follows.

Christian Tetzlaff playing Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia (September 2019)
British Paraorchestra with Charles Hazlewood (September 2019)
Weilerstein and the Trondheim Soloists (October 2019)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the LPO (October 2019)
Daniil Trifonov (October 2019)
Peter Grimes (November 2019)
Drumming (December 2019)
Sean Shibe (January 2020)
Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (January 2020)
OAE with Mozart 40 and 41 (February 2020)
LPO and Leila Josefowicz with Knussen Violin Concerto (February 2020)
Chineke with works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (February 2020)
LPO with Ingudsman and Joo (March 2020)
London Sinfonietta with David Atherton (March 2020)
OAE and Bostridge (April 2020)
BCMG and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla playing Varese (May 2020)
ROSL Annual Music Competition Gold Medal Final (June 2020)
Chopin and Ligeti from Julian Jacobson (June 2020)

Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 5 Ep 28: Conductor Jessica Cottis

A new opera – The Monstrous Child – by composer Gavin Higgins and author Francesca Simon, opens at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre on Thursday 21 Febraury.

Jessica Cottis conducts the Aurora Orchestra. Jessica and I met in the Linbury Theatre during a break in rehearsals on Thursday 14 February.

In podcast number 28, Jessica and I talk about the opera, we discussed the connection between science and the arts, orchestral scores, the thrill of being in the orchestra pit, and polyhedric structures. 

For more information and ticket availability visit the Royal Opera House website

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About that Guardian letter

The classical music industry is working together to shout the cause of music education. But we should remember that its newest cheerleaders are still in development.

Saxophonist Jess Gillam’s letter to the Guardian. It’s a fundamentally good thing. The message is strong.

It’s not an especially new message. Plenty of others have been saying the same thing for a long long time now.

Set in the context of the ISM’s recent State of the Nation report Jess’ letter is prescient too, though I’m not entirely convinced the timing is accidental.

There are a number of other necessary bandwagons on the road to reinstating music education in the curriculum, the wheels of which are still turning, some slower than others, some considerably more squeaky.  

The letter to the Guardian refers to some of those other campaigns, along with Jess’ appearance at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Music Education established and maintained by the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

What impresses me is the way it appears that the industry is collaborating, marshalling resources and messages, timing their dissemination to support one another’s endeavours.

Record labels, membership organisations, and broadcasters are supporting one another to send out a clear message to politicians: music education needs to be reinstated in the curriculum.

But there’s grit in the tank.

Jess, like her BBC Young Musician cohort cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, is in classical music terms hot property. Since signing to Decca they’ve cropped up in all sorts of places on TV and various public events, usually coinciding with an impending album release

Both Jess and Sheku are valuable assets to record labels. Whilst we applaud their achievements and how they’re helping raise the profile of an artform and music education, they are valuable to record labels because these altruistic acts provide an opportunity to drive business.

And whilst that in itself isn’t a bad thing, there are some implicit messages surrounding Jess and Sheku’s appearance on-air and in-print which we should as a community remain vigilant about.

Both musicians are hugely talented and have come to prominence just at the time when pressure has rightfully increased to tackle various social justice issues head-on. What both musicians are able to achieve in raising awareness, influencing, and driving change is incredibly important. But to be clear, such endeavours on their part also help content distribution organisations drive streams and raise revenues.

What worries me (and this be me being over-protective here) is the way in which they are projected: as musicians who have completed their journey and ‘made it’ just by virtue of having won a competition and made various TV appearances. These musicians are are still in development as performing musicians. Had they not signed to a record label or won BBC Young Musician would their voices still be heard?

Jess’ letter to the Guardian is a positive message. It’s necessary. But I’m uncomfortable seeing it only in the context of music education. I see Jess’ letter as part of a much broader marketing and PR strategy to raise profiles that in turn increase revenues, drive advertising sales, and importantly allows a large-scale brand be seen to align itself with a common cause.

And that raises ethical questions for me about the way in which artists in development who could themselves be struggling to come to terms with the attention they now receive, at a point in their lives when they’re still developing their practise.  

Review: Philharmonia plays Schoenberg, Bartok and Péter Eötvös’s Multiversum

Eötvös isn’t the most inspiring of conductors to watch on the platform. More methodical and pragmatic than inspirational or visionary.

Sure, I know it’s not cricket to be quite so negative. At least, not in the first para of a review. But it is at least honest.

There is more to conducting than merely beating time. And what was striking from the off was how some of the vision was lacking from the podium. And how much I wanted to see it.

Schoenberg’s Film Music

What I perceived to be lacking may have contributed to what felt like a tentative start to the relatively unfamiliar Film Music by Schoenberg. Music written without a film to accompany it, started in 1929 and completed in 1930.

In the performance, some of the entries seemed a little flabby and indistinct, particularly in the upper strings. At times I heard an ensemble mildly out of sync between celli and keyboard too. Some of the drama stitched into Schoenberg’s score was lost somehow. It didn’t quite land in the way I was expecting it too.

Bartok’s Dance Suite and Stravinsky’s Three Movement symphony

Where the Philharmonia came to life was undoubtedly during the Bartok Dance Suite that followed. Here the strings approached the work with attack and a reassuring confidence. What this energy subsequently revealed, as in the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements that followed, was Eötvös’s tendency to rush the end of phrases and new textural landscapes.

I didn’t want to linger or languish necessarily. I just wanted a moment to savour the delights of some unusual bristling orchestrations. This mattered more to me in the Stravinsky – a glorious combination of colours and surfaces, sights and sounds, all revealed like we’re embarking on a late Sunday afternoon drive around a mysterious unexplored town.

Eötvös’s Multiversum

Where Eötvös was in his element was undoubtedly in the UK premiere of his three movement sound world Multiversum – a musical representation of parallel universes.

I adored it. A captivating and fascinating listen full of complex and thought-provoking orchestrations. A performance begging for an annotated score.

I especially loved the mild acid-trip combination of church and Hammond organ. Reminiscent of family holidays in the late 70s/early 80s, trips made more bearable by a series of Famous Five adventures on cassette tape.

Multiversum was a three-dimensional celebration of sound. Film music without an actual film getting in the way. Loved it.

The Philharmonia performed at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 7 February 2019.