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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been doing a lot of listening this week. Interviewing necessitates that.
There’s little point in preparing a list of questions to ask an interviewee, asking them, and then not listening to the responses.
Its the responses that offer the moretantalising opportunities for follow-up. The follow-up will always surpass your original expectations. It is the follow-up that yields the insight.
Four such interactions this week.
The first, a 90 minute conversation with pianist Peter Donohoe up in Solihull for a podcast.
Donohoe was an open, warm and willing contributor. He shared all sorts of things about performance that deepened my understanding of piano music. He put me at ease, unwittingly legitimising me as a reasonably knowledgeable punter. Ninety minutes of conversation that closed the gap I sense between auditorium and the stage.
It was also a conversation where I felt so completely ‘in flow’ that the previous ruminations about invoices, payments, and impending bills seemed like a world away.
Interviews then – the necessary process of listening – helps me refocus attention on the now. Not only are these experiences an opportunity to create meaningful content and demonstrate skills and services to those with a budget, but they’re also moments to deepen thinking.
Realising I’d fallen into a listening and questioning habit only really became apparent when I attended the Philharmonia concert on Thursday (review to follow). It was the conversation with a marketing type afterward in particular which brought things into focus for me.
The content of the conversation is of course off limits, but its impact isn’t.
The questions came easily.
It was an exchange which reminded me that the classical music world I occupy in my mind’s eye both here on the blog and in the podcast, has a different vista from that seen by those who seek to generate business in the art music world, for example.
The core classical music audience isn’t as large as I might picture it in my imagination. It also doesn’t represent the biggest ticket-buying awareness-raising opportunities. Those opportunities are to be found in those who don’t consider the concert hall as their go-to location; those who don’t seek out classical music experiences or who don’t come very often.
Concentrating on the wrong people
This valuable perspective shook me a little.
I am a content producer – sometimes paid, sometimes not. My ability to pay the bills is, through choice, directly linked to my content production strategy. And the success of that strategy is dependent on it being in concert with the strategies of marketers and PRs.
There is no point in striving to create content that seeks the validation of or satisfies those who already know about the genre, because those individuals aren’t representative of the kind of audience the wider industry needs to attract. Such an inward-looking strategy doesn’t really help me nor the industry I’m seeking work opportunities from.
Think like a marketer
I mentioned earlier that this insight shook me. Its initial effect was similar to the thinking I have indulged in the past and ended up succumbing to – that which usually ends up with me abandoning a particular path because of a sense of frustration or impatience.
But it went further than that for me. There are skills I have that are useful (ergo billable) to the industry I feel a part of now. That those skills aren’t getting snapped up yet is either because I’m not as good as I think I am (a possibility), or more likely because I haven’t found the right way to integrate them yet. And that means thinking from the same perspective as a marketer.
But 48 hours later I notice a slight shift in my thinking.
Digital natives who understand the positive impact an authentic digital publishing can have, are in the business of awareness-raising and community-building; we’re not contracted to sell tickets. What we say to raise awareness and who we say it too is what is important.
And that for me means looking wider that the world I consider home, recognising that classical music – whether it be live performance, recorded music, or the content that surrounds it – doesn’t exist in a bubble. It has to be considered alongside a great many other experiences.
If content producers are to raise awareness and build community around the subject they care passionately about, then they need to look wider than the subject itself. They need to think like marketers.
And by shifting that thinking and opening my mind to looking at classical music as an experience or product – from the perspective of sales and business – then the need for other information is necessary. As if by magic, Barclays Investment Bank on Twitter provided a useful primer on Generation Z, and today, Manchester Collective’s Adam Szabo writes on Medium about branding.
Paid for packages
The day after the marketing conversation began with an interview with Czech Philharmonic Education Manager Petr Kadlec about the orchestra’s work with Chavorenge and music director Ida Kalerova.
Chavorenge – a collection of Roma children given the opportunity to develop life skills through choral singing experiences – sang on the first day of the ABO Conference in Belfast a few weeks back. The paid podcast gig garnered some valuable material and useful introductions, of which this interview was one.
Twenty minutes on the telephone plus another two hours editing, and the finished product is pushed gently onto the internet. I finished around 3pm and started on a handful of household chores, not returning to listen again the finished product until the early evening.
What I find pleasing listening back to it even now is the flow of the exchanges and the storytelling that emerges.
I like the occasional splashes of personality in the contributors characterised by the laughs, contrasted with the sheer wall of warmth and love that emanates from the singers themselves. That I remember ruminating quite a lot about the bills at the same time as editing makes the finished product all the more pleasing.
Obviously, there are one two technical errors with it. But that’s just the perfectionist talking, I like to thin.
One of my musical discoveries this week really touched me emotionally. When I first met the OH, his classical music library was small but proud. I don’t lay claim to having expanded his tastes – he’s done that himself through personal discovery (I like to think because classical music has been part of our regular music experience).
Over the past year or so I’ve seen him introduce me to unexpected delights. It is almost as though the emphasis has swung the other way in the relationship in that respect.
So, yesterday morning as the pair of us sit down to read, he puts on some piano music.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Beethoven, I think.”
“Why did you pick this out?”
“I like the picture of her on the cover – the one that looks like she’s hanging on to her ears in case they fall off.”
It was electrifying stuff. My right hand started to grip the sofa cushion. I sat transfixed throughout the last movement of Piano Sonata No.30 – agonising beauty in the initial theme, extrapolated in an epic series of variations, including one Bach-esque fugue that cycles through some eyebrow-raising harmonic progressions.
It was the first time I heard it. What I heard brought tears to my eyes. Listened to it this morning and the same thing happened again.
After that, a brief scoot through Edmund Finnis’s collection of new works on NMC, this year marking 30 years of supporting new composing talent.
The opening track, The Air, Turning is a tantalising collection of textures that brings me alive, holding my attention throughout by presenting something that feeds curiosity with an imaginative world constructed with fascinating colours.
I want to spend a little more time paying closer attention to the release as a whole. It has a 70s concept album feel to it, the idea of which excites me a great deal. But in the meantime, be sure to listen to the gloriously eery Elsewhere. My current squeeze.
I’ve been doing a whole lot more reading this weekend.
There’s a lot to catch-up on. There’s a lot of words to cover in each copy of the New Yorker. The delivery schedule is as relentless as it is reliable.
Reading is – this won’t come as a surprise to anyone – a gratifyingly mindful process. Thinking is slowed down to a nostalgically heady pre-2005 era. The heart rate plummets. New connections are made.
It hasn’t all been a pleasurable pursuit.
In amongst the comparative definitions of aspiration and ambition, a potted history of journalism, and a remarkable account of a lifelong journalistic inquiry into the life of Lyndon Johnson, Tom Yarwood’s long read on the Guardian has been in comparison quite harrowing.
It reminds me of a conversation with an old pal from school I had in Edinburgh after watching a play about male rape, staged in a chain hotel that triggered memories about similar experiences I’d struggled with as a teenager.
It was a tough time. I went to the GP. I went to see a psychiatrist and everything. It all got quite dark at one point.
I recognised what Yarwood said about shame and a sense of responsibility. Unlike him however, I don’t have to see the person responsible for the initiating act listed on concert hall programmes.
It’s a tough read, but a thought-provoking one. The ethical expectations on the industry are as a result very high. Appropriately so.