Women composers in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2019 (or lack thereof)

It’s going to take a brave producer in the commercial space to put something unusual or unfamiliar in the playlist and not then look at the RAJARs and wonder what impact that decision has had on the listenership.

The Daffodil Perspective is a blog and podcast that ‘champions gender equality in classical music’.

One post published yesterday has been doing the rounds and has caught my eye. In ‘Classic FM – Where are all the women?’, the author draws attention to the lack of women composers who feature in the publically voted ‘Hall of Fame’ chart Classic FM has since its inception.

It is a sad indictment (still) that women composers aren’t given the due prominence they deserve – both historical creatives and the present day. The work to increase their profile and their output will never cease to be required, but it has been my understanding (skewed possibly by being increasingly in attendance at women composer-focussed endeavours and concerts) that the situation is improving. Awareness is increasing.

There’s a quote from the post I take issue with slightly.

Don’t Classic FM (and the BBC, LPO, Wigmore Hall etc) have a responsibility to educate their listeners?

The Daffodil Perspective, 23 April 201

None of the arts organisations in the UK – nor across the world – have a specific responsibility to educate their listeners. Those organisations listed in the blog post might strive to educate (as in the BBC’s values – ‘inform, educate, and entertain’) but they don’t have a responsibility to. One could argue that an Arts Council funded organisation like the LPO has a contractural obligation to meet the expectations laid down by their funding body, but being privately funded, Wigmore Hall doesn’t (although its education programme is in itself very strong anyway – but then that’s because Wigmore Hall is brilliant, IMHO).

Importantly, Classic FM has absolutely no responsibility to ‘educate’ their listeners. That isn’t their raison d’etre. They’re a commercial exercise: a broadcast outlet for a specific audience demographic, part of a significant media organisation.

I’ve long since stopped regarding Classic FM (and its most recent sibling Scala) as being present in our lives first and foremost to satisfy listeners, rather than the advertising it sells and the profits its raise are its primary concern, and its stakeholders the ones the media execs are accountable to.

So what now? Will Classic FM continue to justify playing nothing but the same music year after year by using biased data like these polls?

Or can Classic FM exert their power as a major influencer of taste, creating more balanced programming and exposing the massive amount of awesome classical music written by women?

The Daffodil Perspective, 23 April 2019

As long as commercial radio is funded by advertising (like that’s ever going to change) then the playlist will always be the same. Commercial classical music radio stations might play classical, but they’re not their for the good of the wider classical music world. They can’t be. They need to appeal to the widest possible audience to drive reach and increase profits. That’s not to say that women composers music cannot appeal to the widest possible audience. Far from it.

But it’s going to take a brave producer in the commercial space to put something unusual or unfamiliar in the playlist and not then look at the RAJARs and wonder what impact that decision has had on the listenership.

Listen to the Thoroughly Good Podcast spotlighting six women composers and their work at the PRS for Music Wild Plum Arts Workshop

Listen to Dr Sophie Fuller discuss Trinity Laban’s Venus Blazing project

Marketers not preachers

Should we really care about Glyndebourne’s influencer post about opera-going fashion?

This weekend one or two us have got a little worked up about a tweet Glyndebourne put out, driving followers to a fashion bloggers tips for attending the opera.

Cue the cries of ‘Charlatans!’ I was one of those who not only rolled my eyes but helped spread the indignation across the internet.

It seemed a questionable thing to be putting out there.

Whilst one section of the industry is reaching out to new audiences by trying to play down perceptions of elitism articulated through attire, one of the sector’s world-renowned brands is embracing the very thing so many others berate the sector for and doubling down on it.

In case you weren’t already aware, it annoys the actual fuck out of me.

It’s annoying because I want us to be talking about the artform (whether its classical music or opera), not conforming to stereotypes which effectively distance new audiences from it.

Nobody talks about what to wear when they go and see a movie. If we’re trying to normalise the artform, why talk about fashion tips for attending opera?

The business of ticket-selling

In fairness, Glyndebourne does this quite a lot. A Google Image Search reveals a number of fashion-related content sites tapping into Glyndebourne buzz in order to drive traffic and relevance.

But there is another perspective I had overlooked. Cue Philhamonia Marketing Chap Tim Woodall’s tweet last night.

An interesting dichotomy emerged when I read that: one from the arts organisation perspective, and the second from mine.

Organisations like Glyndebourne are in the business of selling tickets. Their tickets give people access to experiences, of which seeing an opera is one element of a trip to the Sussex site. The rest is, whether we like it or not, eating food and drinking alcohol in the grounds beforehand.

The fact that when I attended I had a couple of sandwiches from Waitrose and shared a bottle of something reasonably-priced with a pal says more about my budget constraints than it does about Glyndebourne’s aesthetic.

Tim’s tweet (above) and the response from Will Norris (formerly OAE now Southbank Sinfonia) reminds me yet again that for the majority of arts marketers, selling tickets is what is important.

And, just as the Southbank seeks to increase reach by drawing people in with various retail and food outlets, so the likes of Glyndebourne have to capitalise on every asset at their disposal and reach out to various different interest groups.

To put it very crudely, if someone has the money to buy a ticket for an experience they can say they’ve been to even though they’re not especially interested in the core content, then are the marketers really going to turn their noses up at who’s buying the ticket? If the image-conscious are the ones with a budget they don’t mind denting, then why not target them?

Who’s catering for the choir?

It leads me back to some thinking I’ve been chewing over recently. If organisations are targetting those who are different from people like me (ie fully signed-up fans), then where are people like me feeling as though our values in the artform are being acknowledged?

Some will say that people like me don’t need to be persuaded because we will always love the artform, that it doesn’t matter about the negative impact targeted marketing might have, because the priority is ticket sales. I’ll buy tickets because of the works and the performers; others might consider buying tickets because of some other entirely different reason.

But the more I recognise this alternative perspective, the more I wonder where people like me are catered for in marketing and journalism.

I don’t consider myself a scholar, but I’m knowledgeable. I resent being described as a classical music geek or nerd, but I know stuff. I advocate based on that knowledge and experience. But that’s neither needed nor wanted because its not useful to selling a ticket quickly.

Maybe what this really means is that I should set myself up as a fashion blogger. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years.

What’s in store at Waterperry Opera 2019

Highlights from this year’s Waterperry Opera Festival plus exclusive working costume designs from their production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen.

One of things that has been thrown into sharp relief post-Proms launch last week is how much more appealing other events running over the summer now present themselves.

Summer at this point in time is about planning a season of activities, discoveries, and indulgences. Waterperry Opera Festival is one such event. I’ll be writing about one of the others – the New Music Biennial – later this week.

The frisson of excitement around Waterperry Opera is part down to its scale and its impact.

Only in their second year, the young team of young professionals have quickly established themselves at Waterperry Gardens near Oxford as an energetic bunch, driven but affable, relaxed but professional.

They make a product which is easy to endorse: talk to any one of them involved and the energy they exude is infectious.

If an outsider like me can feel welcome, then the same warmth is going to be felt by their audience.

What’s appealing about Waterperry then is it’s unfussiness.

There’s an Enid Blyton feel to activities on-site – post-graduate entrepreneurs seizing an opportunity to fill a hole in a local community and doing so with style, grace and a down-to-earth kind of sophistication.

There’s something honest about it all. A rural summer opera festival built for a local audience – a mix of connoisseurs and the curious. No airs and graces. The kind of thing that just sells itself.

In that way they could just as likely be singing from a telephone book and I’d happily endorse them.

I am also wondering whether Waterperry could be one of those events which will in time highlight the next wave of talent. That’s going to take a few years to see happen as personnel permeate throughout the industry, but I like the idea of it.

And I wonder there whether that suggests another part of the appeal of Waterperry: its potential.

Working costume designs for Waterperry Opera’s 2019 production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen by Simon Bejer.

Let’s not overlook the most important thing: the programme. Highlights below.

  1. Mozart’s Magic Flute. Tick.
  2. A re-run of Jonathan Dove’s hugely entertaining Mansfield Park performed in an actual Regency house. Tick.
  3. Britten’s Canticle ‘Abraham and Isaac’ (I’ve never heard it). Tick.
  4. Purcell’s Fairy Queen. Tick. (The costume designs revealed at the fundraiser night are a joyful creation in themselves).

What’s key to all of these productions is the proximity of performance. In both the purpose built amphitheatre and Waterperry’s regency ballroom the proximity of audience member to performer makes for a more immediate chamber-like opera.

Working costume designs for Waterperry Opera’s 2019 production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen by Simon Bejer.

But there is another aspect which is important to flag. There’s variety riven in the Festival’s apparent simplicity and accessibility, and that variety represents a careful balance between pushing the performers and the audience. It’s an endeavour which seeks to embed itself in a community. That its done so so very quickly is impressive. I put it down to alchemy.

Waterperry Opera Festival runs from 25 – 28 July 2019. Booking opens Monday 22 April. Tickets will go fast.

Why I’m not signing the petition to reinstate Pears’ name to the Britten Foundation

Dropping Benjamin Britten’s partner’s name Pears from a soon to be merged organisation managing the composer’s estate has caused people to get hot under the collar. But it’s not evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

First, the issue.

There’s a petition doing the rounds. It was reported in Gay Star News. Also in the East Anglian Daily Times.

The Britten-Pears Foundation is merging with Snape Maltings in a business development which should really have happened years ago and which benefits both the Britten estate, the Aldeburgh Festival and the Snape operation.

But there’s a problem: the new name for the organisation post-merger isn’t the Britten-Pears Foundation like it used to be, but the Benjamin Britten Foundation.

Gay men are up in arms, so too a number of straight people.

Why? Because Pears – Britten’s lifelong partner and creative muse – isn’t referenced in the future-focussed branding.

A few people registered surprise, some unease (myself included) when the announcement was made. But a few others have run with it, set up a petition. That kind of thing.

The claim? That Britten’s homosexuality is being ‘straight-washed’. The petition’s originator is clear that he doesn’t think that was the intent , but still the claims are made. Dropping Peter Pears from the name of Britten’s estate is evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

Ben Baglio, from Aldeburgh, who launched the petition added: “Britten and Pears’ relationship meant a huge amount to gay people everywhere.
“They were an ‘out’ couple in an era where it was illegal. It seems a bizarre decision to me.”

East Anglian Daily Times, 19 April 2019

Just so that we’re clear, Britten and Pears were far from an ‘out’ couple when the pair were alive. Being ‘out’ as we know it today would have been regarded as a massive risk.

That they lived together was something of an open secret and a reflection of local attitudes relaxing at the time. But being out would have risked arrest.

In addition, speak to anyone who lived in the town when Britten and Pears were alive and stories would be recounted with predictable dewy eyes. Both of the men would have been described as ‘friends’. A running joke ensued amongst the students who visited the Britten-Pears School in the late nineties: a local euphemism begging for ridicule.

As a gay man myself you’d surely expect me to be signing up, banging the drum and making arrangements for the march. Maybe I’m just a shit homosexual. Maybe I’m letting the side down.

But Pears isn’t being ‘dropped’. His name, role, or equivalence isn’t being exorcised. He’s not being overlooked. Noone’s being denied.

Leading on Britten’s name isn’t evidence of low-level homophobia. The two organisations are merging. Implicit in that is the assumption that at some point even Britten’s name will drop from the name.

As far as I can see, what Snape and Aldeburgh need to do is raise the profile of Britten. They need to drive more people to the location the composer adopted as home. Of course, Pears plays a crucial part in Britten’s output and his worldwide reputation, but the likes of Snape and Britten Foundation aren’t selling their product to those in the know, whether they’re classical music enthusiasts, experts or locals.

They’re reaching out to the people who haven’t considered visiting Britten’s home, or the Snape Maltings site. Those people are going to be unaware of who Britten was, and by extension completely unaware of who Pears, his partner, was.

And sure, whilst Pears inspired much of Britten’s work, his legacy – his estate – is Britten’s achievement, fuelled by various muses of which Peter Pears was undoubtedly his most significant. Not featuring Pears in an organisation’s name isn’t a conspiracy, isn’t homophobia, and doesn’t need a petition to turn around either.

BBC Proms 2019 Brochures

Post-BBC Proms 2019 Launch

It’s still a little weird grabbing print from a BBC event.

I look at it and think about how I should be feeling – how I remember feeling.

Then there’s a jolt and I’m reminded how I feel seeing it now – largely anger and disdain. To explain the difference would be massively dull and boring to read. So you know, consider yourself saved.

What’s key here is the unexpected experiences had at this year’s launch event: people coming up to say hello, to introduce friends and colleagues, and to ask when camera rehearsals start for the TV coverage.

Fools.

One or two still don’t realise it was an April Fools Joke; those that did just remind me how much I want to do it.

No matter – that ship has sailed. The bloke producing this year’s coverage is the same bloke who produced UK Eurovision years gone by. So clearly, that’s not going to happen.

I started the day dismissive of this year’s #BBCProms season.

I end the day (with a few glasses of wine inside me) feeling a little more warmly towards what is a fundamentally dull offering.

“It’s the money,” said one orchestra bigwig, “there’s no money for the interesting stuff. Not anymore.”

There needs to be more money for it in future. This year we’re selling the genre short.