Finding Haydn: Starting on an impossible journey

I’m embarking on a listening project, exploring all of Haydn’s symphonies in search of a specific work I remember listening to years ago. The truth is, I’m not exactly sure what the work is or whether Haydn actually wrote it. All I have is a vague memory.

I heard it first on a cassette I played on my car stereo back in ’95. It was the Sharp stereo ‘system’ I’d ripped from my mum’s Volvo. On the rare occasions she listened to music when she was driving, she would listen to either Richard Clayderman, Barry Manilow or James Last. This seemed like a flagrant misuse of the equipment and missed opportunity. So, one late Sunday afternoon during a weekend trip to see my parents I swapped out the radio-cassette player in my car with the comparatively higher quality Sharp stereo in my mother’s car. She never batted an eyelid – proof the act was legitimate.

It was only at the point of installing the stereo in my car I discovered the tone control dial had broken off. Consequently, what little fine-tuning I could impose over the sound quality demanded a delicate left-hand thumb and first finger whilst driving. I was a fearless driver. Hindsight informs me I was perilous too.

An impossible task

The music I heard had the sound of a well-positioned vase or picture on a wall. Due care and attention had been given to proportion and context. What I heard sounded perfectly formed and seemed to fit it’s surroundings perfectly. It made me gasp. It set sights higher.

I was driving at speed from Aldeburgh to Snape Maltings Concert Hall when I heard it. It was June 1995. I’d been in the orchestral management job for around 6 weeks – the first task handed to me on my first day was to book 50 or so musicians for an Aldeburgh Festival concert that year. I had a ring binder with telephone numbers, a database, a rehearsal schedule, a conductor, and a concert programme. It seemed like an impossible task.

The orchestra were meeting for the first day of their rehearsals in around about 45 minutes. The bus from Eversholt Street was due to arrive shortly. I needed to be there ahead of it.

The personnel list for one of the Britten-Pears Orchestra concerts in June 1995. This was the list of names I sent to the programme book editor for the print deadline. There are some names on this list who were never booked. But at that stage, if I’d been ‘accurate’ the orchestra would have been incomplete. So some creativity needed to be deployed.


I remember being nervous too. I wanted to know who was on the bus now so I could find out who was missing. Because there were bound to be people missing. It seemed absolutely impossible to me that people would actually turn-up like they said they would. Booking them hadn’t been an easy process. Unfamiliar names alongside telephone numbers.

I had to ring and sell the idea to people (I’d been surprised that musicians didn’t just say ‘yes’ instantly). And because the booking process had felt a good deal more tortured than I ever imagined it would be, I made no assumptions that everyone would turn up at all. As I recall, the stakes felt so high that if anyone failed to show up, then the fall from grace would be vast and the impact fatal. I was on probation. I couldn’t be seen to fail.

Young and inexperienced

Let’s clarify a few things right off the bat. I don’t (now) think the world revolves around me anymore, nor do I think that everybody’s out to get me. I am a believer (now) that we create our own reality. I was also 22 years old. A 22 year old with little experience of booking an orchestra. Actually, I had no experience of booking an orchestra. A 22-year-old with no experience of booking an orchestra of musicians, who had booked one for a concert that members of the public had bought tickets to attend. Terrifying responsibility.

Part of the programme included Verklarte Nacht. I’d heard Verklarte Nacht once before and couldn’t decipher it. This wasn’t what I wanted orchestral management to be. I didn’t want to be booking musicians for a concert I wasn’t going to enjoy. I wanted to the orchestra to perform music I wanted to hear (kind of missing the point of a training orchestra and the Aldeburgh Festival, I know). Surely, if they were playing things I wanted to hear then there was a higher chance other people would want to hear it too and, by extension, musicians would commit to playing more readily? If they were playing music I wanted to hear, then I wouldn’t be quite so anxious driving to the first rehearsal about whether or not the musicians would actually turn up.

It’s probably worth clarifying a few things here too. I know all of that in the previous paragraph is tortured logic. But I was 22. My experience of classical music then was surprisingly limited even if I completed a degree and played in an orchestra. Obviously. I also adore Verklarte Nacht now. The unfamiliar has now become the indispensable. Now it’s a work I celebrate and advocate.

At the time, the music I was listening to in the car, the work I’m searching for now, soothed me. It was new to me, but it also used a comparatively familiar harmonic language. Unfamiliar as it was, it wasn’t far from my musical comfort zone.

The tape was a recording of the orchestra my predecessor in the role had booked for a previous concert. The orchestra sounded remarkable. The orchestra’s sound in this live recording was an aspiration and an impossibility. The idea something I was involved in would sound anything like what I was listening to was a pipe-dream.

The Challenge

I want to find that piece of music. I know I won’t find that specific recording. Or at least, I think I’m unlikely to. But I want to reconnect with it in the same way you might seek out an ex- or a former one-night-stand who you ended up being more into than you realised. I want to reconcile my memory of the music with a present-day real-life appreciation of it and see if both match-up.

But, without access to previous programme books from the Aldeburgh Festival, I’m going with my instinct. I know it wasn’t Beethoven or Brahms. It wasn’t late romantic.  It couldn’t have been. Britten-Pears didn’t have the resources then for that kind of scale orchestra (in actual fact, Britten-Pears didn’t especially have the resources when I was working there – unlike today).

So, it’s got to be Haydn. Or possibly Mozart. And I know it wasn’t a concerto – there was no solo instrument. And I know too there were a few movements in it. There might have been four.

I’m starting with Haydn’s symphony number one, and I’m going to listen to all 106. And if I go through all of them and haven’t found it I’ll start on the Mozart’s symphonies and go through them in numerical order too. If that doesn’t work then I’ll tap up Aldeburgh to get a root through their archives.

And I figure it might be quite interesting to document that process. Because, in addition to getting familiar with 106 symphonies I don’t actually know that well, you never know what you might also discover along the way.

Review: Hip Hop To Opera on BBC iPlayer

I started watching Opera Holland Park’s Hip Hop To Opera at 11.27 this morning. I was ‘properly’ crying by 11.32.

The 25-minute programme tells the story of what happened when a group of teenagers at an inner-city London school were exposed to opera for the first time packs a punch. It is a must watch.

The last opera-related preview I received, I was subsequently advised by the person who invited me), was extended to me in the belief that I hated opera. I couldn’t quite work out whether the person in question was having a laugh at my expense telling me, whether it was part of an elaborate process to expose me to a greater range of culture, or whether the invitation was a twisted joke.

That’s how some use opera – as a weapon – to belittle, or self-aggrandise. Few actually meet opera head on. Nor, encourage others to do the same.

I was reminded of all this watching Hip Hop to Opera. Seeing young people experiencing opera positively has had an unexpected effect on me. Hip Hop to Opera renews my faith in the next generation. (Obviously, what that really means is that I posessed a negative view of the negative generation. Where does that come from? I can only assume it comes from the media.)

The programme also triggers a wave of relief too: this art form is appreciated by newcomers. All that broadcast-related stuff drilled into digital content producers about young people only being prepared to watch 90-second content is (partially) laid to rest.

But all that only partially explains the sobbing. What’s most powerful in the programme is the immediacy of the personalities. They don’t say a huge amount. They don’t need to. Everything about them – their openness, warmth, intellect, willingness and curiosity is communicated through their eyes. Their eyes sparkle. Their smiles are wide. They put the rest of us to shame.

And the power of the eyes is everything. Last year in Kathmandu when I was making a film about a disabled children’s charity there I struggled to reconcile the plight and chaos around me with the love I saw in all the kids I pointed the camera at. At the beginning of this week, producing some material for a client, I filmed the work of an English Speaking Unit in Rusholme where refugees learn about work-related English language. There I saw vulnerability, isolation and fear in people’s eyes. They didn’t tell me about it. They can’t speak much English. I saw it in their eyes.

So it is with Hip Hop to Opera. The emotion is at the forefront. The sentiment. Which is neat. Because that’s exactly the point Michael Volpe (General Manager of Opera Holland Park) is making in the programme to his guests and to us the viewers.

Of course, one of the most powerful reasons the programme has so much impact isn’t only because of the contributors but because of the rapport the director and interviewer has with the people he’s speaking to. Meaning what we see on screen is a reflection of the spirit of each relationship. And its Volpe who does the lot, including the editing at the end. The finished product reflects the very art form the man loves; the art form he’s advocating.

This programme comes highly-recommended. It speaks to me in the way I like to work. It reflects the stance me and associates of mine who advocate classical music and opera have adopted. It demonstrates neatly what is involved in capturing emotion on camera, and shows how you don’t need big resources deployed to produce such content.

But more than any of this, it neatly reinforces the point I made to Opera Holland Park’s marketing team when I sat in a windowless meeting room with them earlier in the week talking about why OHP as a brand resonated with me. “It’s accessible, it’s honest, it’s authentic,” I said, watching the people in front of me furiously scribble in their notebooks. “OHP lacks pretension, but still conjures up a magical sense of occasion at every single performance. I don’t think that’s a miracle. I imagine that can only be an extension of the personalities of its management.”

I hadn’t watched Hip Hop To Opera until this morning. Turns out I was right on the nose.

Hip Hop To Opera is available via BBC iPlayer or YouTube

Verbier Festival 2018 unveiled

The programme of events and activities for this year’s Verbier Festival – the 25th doncha know – was unveiled to UK press earlier this week at a delightfully stylish event at the Swiss Embassy.

All the attendees were stylishly dressed, except for one individual who arrived in jeans and a jumper. I must and will try harder next time.

Such events are phenomenally difficult to write about. Whatever is written in anticipation of a concert or festival will risk becoming nothing more than regurgitated press releases. Previews of festivals seem a rather odd notion given that concerts and masterclasses are one-off events, the enjoyment of which is as much down to the to the audience member as it is to musicianship of the performers on stage.

Verbier’s festival makes things a little easier.

There is no battle with Verbier. As a concert-goer, you’re not having to negotiate public transport not working. There isn’t a jostle for the bar or the toilets. There is calm order to proceedings. A natural buzz emerges as a result. An easy style is acquired just being up in the mountains too. For a town that necessarily largely attracts the moneyed, it is surprisingly low on pretension too.

There is a consistency to the experience. That’s in part down to the jaw-dropping beauty of the location (the twisty-turny approach to the town will knock you for six), the rejuvenating clear air, and the comparative simplicity staying there for a few days in the summer, intensifies listening. Attention at breakfast in any one of the hotels in the town is focussed solely on the priority of the day: which event to attend, how far away it is, and how steep the incline is. Distractions are left far below in the valley or, if you’re a pro, at Geneva Airport.

Verbier is where I finally appreciated the powerful connection of chamber music. The Église de Verbier is my preferred location. A capacity of 500 seats with concerts sometimes scheduled three times a day, the location has played host to some personally transformative performances, the most potent illustration of how the connection between audience and performer has been revealed.

Verbier has introduced me to the immediacy of live performance underpinned by a combination of proximity and clarity of thinking – a sort of hyper-live performance with an addictive quality.

Masterclasses – held in homes, restaurants, offices, and hotels – are held every day and free to attend. They also provide those of us with an increasing appetite to understand the mechanics of musicianship with rich insights. And its in masterclasses a nurturing connection is formed between audience and performer that extends throughout the festival and beyond.

Verbier speaks proudly of its ‘family’ of performers, the roots of which are to be found in the Verbier Festival Academy’s masterclasses and orchestras.

This year, 8 instrumental soloists per instrument, two ensembles, and around 16 vocal soloists will all benefit from masterclass tuition from 2018 faculty including Richard Goode, Andras Schiff (piano), Pamela Frank and Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello) and Thomas Quasthoff (voice).

From 1600+ applications 97 places for the Verbier Festival Orchestra will be awarded to training musicians between the ages of 18-25 from across the world.

The ‘family’ extends to the concert performances too. All the performers with a connection to Verbier –  Academy alumni or visiting artists to the town over the Festival’s 25-year history – makes this experience almost unique. This festival isn’t a series of concerts with performers shipped in and out according to schedule. Verbier is a destination for performers to develop their art. We get to witness it.

It’s a big deal for the town too. Off-season, snow may only dust the peaks, but the financial return of a Festival with a budget of 10 million francs was in 2014 a cool 32 million. That budget comes from an impressive range of sponsors, including Swiss private banking group Julius Bar, Nespresso and Neva Fondation – a telling reminder of the financial necessities underpinning such an endeavour.

Highlights from the billings include Valery Gergiev taking on the role of the Festival’s third music director, a debut for conductor Christoph Eschenbach alongside festival favourites Ivan Fischer, and Giannado Noseda. Martha Argerich returns, plus Radu Lupu, Grigory Sokolov, and Evgeny Kissin. Daniil Trifonov also appears. On violin, festival stalwarts Maxim Vengerov, Janine Jansen and Leonidas Kavakos also return.

  • The 25th Verbier Festival runs from 19 July – 5 August 2018
  • Some concerts are streamed live via Medici.TV and Idagio
  • Listen to Christian Thompson (then Director of the Verbier Festival Academy) in a Thoroughly Good Podcast interview
  • Read 10 Things I Learned at the Verbier Festival 2016

Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 5 Ep 5: Damian Iorio and Alexander van Ingen

Episode five of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast features conductor Damian Iorio, currently the music director of the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, and Alexander van Ingen of the Academy of Ancient Music.

During the conversation we discussed the ups and downs of freelance life (at length). The decline of the dictator conductor, the life of a record producer, how conductors handles jokes in rehearsals, also featured, so too what links box sets with classical music. Alexander also introduced us to some for Academy of Ancient Music’s forthcoming concerts.

Listen to the podcast via Audioboom (below), via iTunes or Spotify.

HRH The Prince of Wales awards musical honours in his 25th year as President of the Royal College of Music

A big day for the Royal College of Music yesterday. Carpets vacuumed, ties straightened, breath double-checked. HRH The Prince of Wales drops in for a spot of handshaking, doctorate-giving, and amiable repartee in his official role as President of the Royal College of Music.

Various luminaries obtained scrolls, gowns and a firm handshake, including pianist Nicolas McCarthy, Lord Winston, Sir András Schiff, BBC Radio 3 In Tune bon-viveur Sean Rafferty MBE.

All the awards were made in recognition of the contribution made by recipients to the musical life of the College. Nicholas McCarthy‘s quote is especially potent in a sector rightly concerning itself with diversity, inclusion and representation.

“I hope this recognition will serve as a positive example for other disabled musicians and help me in my continuing campaign to get more disabled musicians into the arts.”

The ceremony included a concert featuring the RCM’s new organ designed and built by Flentrop Orgelbouw as part of the College’s transformative More Music development  also featured performances from exceptional recent graduates: recorder player and Queen Elizabeth Rose Bowl recipient Katie Cowling, bass-baritone Julien Van Mallaerts, recipients of the prestigious Tragore Gold Medals, and Marmen Quartet violist Bryony Gibson-Cornish. Composer and pianist Eduardo Andrade, an RCM scholar who has scored 25 projects internationally in the past two years, was the recipient of the President’s Award.

Pictured top left to right with HRH The Prince of Wales are Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Katie Cowling, Julien Van Mallaerts and Eduardo Andrade.