Remembering Grenfell Tower

The unimaginable terror of being trapped in a burning tower block hangs low this week.

Displaced residents search in desperation for missing loved ones. The rest of us look on the high-rise tomb on Latimer Road – a now potent monument to inequality, and ineffective leadership. We ponder what part we played in permitting this state of affairs.

Music-making tradition often seeks to reflect on tragic moments in the performance of meaningful works – classical music’s way to pay respect.

But what works? And how to remember?

The Problem with Elgar

Elgar seems trite in his noble aspiration, a musical representation of the detachment this tragedy highlights. That residents feel so angry at their lack of support in the days after such brutal loss that they march on council offices and Downing Street, then the country hangs his head ashamed. If we can’t get that right, we’re going to find it difficult to look people in the eye across the world with pride, hope, or even regret.

Elgar feels like an anachronism right now.

Mahler 9 – Fourth Movement, Adagio

The adagio from Mahler’s 9th symphony acts a twenty-five exploration of our place in all of this. Painful, torturous beauty. A meditation that highlights a complex mix of thoughts and feelings in response to the stories which have unfolded since Wednesday 14 June.

Stitched into every melodic line is sorrow, regret, and determination. The solo violin around five minutes in, is exquisitely channelled rage of the kind I’ve heard in the voices of commentators and journalists all this week.

Strauss and Britten

Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen written in the closing months of the second world war, establishes a sombre mood but concludes with an ill-fitting sense of resolution.

The Lacrymosa from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on the other hand, maintains an emotional incongruity throughout, and in true Britten style it’s finished just as we recognise it’s healing effects.

Brahms German Requiem

The exquisite but restless opening of Brahms’ German Requiem brings a much-needed moment of calm, underpinned by a sleeping giant that could, if provoked, rise up in retribution. “Blessed are they who bear suffering” sings the chorus.

The restlessness continues in the solemn funeral march Brahms wrote for the second movement of the requiem “For all flesh, it is as grass”. And here the anguish of those who are left behind come into play: a funeral march for those who will never be identified or whose remains will never be recovered.

Mahler’s 5th symphony, Adagietto

Mahler’s intensely personal writing is what I keep to returning to. The adagietto from the 5th symphony – a breathtaking creation in and of itself – focuses attention back on the victims, casting them in a moment of imagined happiness. A futile attempt to bestow on them a modicum of respect after such a barbarous demise.

Queen’s Birthday Honours for Chi-Chi Nwaoku, Mark Elder, and Gerald Finley

A total of 1109 awards were given out in today’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

From the Prime Minister’s list, the following come from the orchestral, operatic, and music education world:

Mark Elder – Conductor, Halle Orchestra – CH Companion of Honour
George Benjamin – Composer, Conductor, Performer – Knighthood
Sarah Connolly – DBE
Colin McClatchie – VP Scottish Opera – CBE
Julian Getty – Hymn Writing – OBE
Chi Chi Nwanoku – OBE
Roderick Williams – OBE
Ian Dean – MBE – Composer
Gillian Dinsmore – MBE – Music in Hospitals UK and Convenor Music in Hospitals Scotland. 
Ian Imlay – Organist – MBE
Rosemary Johnston – Violinist – MBE 
Marian Harris – BEM – Musical Director, Milford Haven Amateur Operatic Society
Gerald Finley – CBE – Opera Singer
Claire Garnett – MBE – Peebles Youth Orchestra

From the Foreign Secretary’s list of awardees:

Mrs Justine Bryer, Co-Founder & President, The European Union Youth Orchestra – OBE

I’m especially pleased for Chi-Chi Nwanoku, a passionate advocate, a brilliant bassist, and someone who always nods hello in my direction at functions if she’s engaged in important small talk with whoever she’s talking to. That kind of willing engagement in those around her is why Chineke Foundation is the success story it is. Chineke Orchestra – UK’s first BME ensemble – performs at the BBC Proms on 30 August.

The complete list of honours is available on the website.

Royal College of Music seeks £16 million to complete £40 million building, innovation and talent development fund

The Royal College of Music has used the symbolic start of building works for its improvements to facilities, to highlight reaching 60% of its £40 million fundraising target.

The RCM’s More Music is searching for an additional £16 million from private donors which, when combined with the college’s investment of £40m, will see a tidy total of £80m used for scholarships and bursaries, improved teaching and digital innovation, and – most tangibly – for enhanced buildings and facilities.

The architect’s 3D-modelling appears to transform a building which is at present quite pokey into something more befitting a world-renowned learning centre.

Yesterday’s announcement reveals a future plan which strikes me as so sensible I’m amazed no-one has thought of it before now: ‘acoustically treated bedrooms’.

Why fork out money to create additional practise rooms to meet demand of the college’s 840-strong student population, when a more valuable investment might be transforming some of the student’s living accommodation to make it multi-purpose?

I also really like the introduction of two additional performance spaces at the RCM, giving the public access to a greater number of concerts, recitals, masterclasses and rehearsals. As a classical music consumer the prospect of having greater access is something that really entices me – the opportunity to observe more talent-creation up-close.

The reality of music education is underlined by a fact printed in the RCM’s fundraising pack. “Over 50% of students benefit from financial support from an array of scholarships”. That surprises me a bit. It saddens me too, reminding me of the extent to which the higher music education (and music education as a whole) has been squeezed by austerity.

That the RCM are fundraising to support its investment in bursaries and scholarships demonstrates how difficult it is for future young UK talent to have their potential protected.

Read more about the Royal College of Music More Music Campaign. 




Rosenblatt Recitals come to an end at Wigmore Hall

Tonight’s Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall – given by Argentine bass Nahuel Di Pierro – marks not only the end of the 2016/17 season, but the recital series as a whole.

Throughout its 17 year history, the recital series has introduced new talent and established international artists to appreciative audiences at various venues in London, most recently at Wigmore Hall. In excess of 200 performers have appeared in the series.

Baritone Jacques Imbrailo, sopranos Ailish Tynan, Angel Blue, and Pretty Yende are just a selection of some of the big names who have stepped onto the Rosenblatt platform. Twelve CD recordings featuring Angel, Ailish, Lawrence Brownlee, Ailyn Pérez, and Francesco Meli also make up the Rosenblatt canon.

Last year, recital series founder Ian Rosenblatt answered my questions in a Thoroughly Good Podcast about his love of vocal music, and what drove him to set up the series in 1999.

Twelve months on its a bit of a bittersweet listen. I’ve always rather appreciated the recitals for their straightforward authentic offering: a gateway to repertoire I’ve not naturally gravitated to, the performance and appreciation of which has always seemed a little intimidating. Rosenblatt received an OBE in 2016 for his ‘philanthrophic services to music’.

What the Rosenblatt series seemed to manage rather well was to take all of the snootiness out of proceedings, and make it perfectly acceptable to like a performance or a work or not, without having to worry about what others would say or think about you. Accessible programmes meant prior knowledge wasn’t a requisite, but promised an introduction to a wide range of repertoire.

To attract the kind of performing talent it did throughout it’s history was a considerable achievement. Not having that kind of patronage around seems a bit of a shame.

The Rosenblatt recordings are available on the Opus Arte recording label. 

Ayres No.42 (In the Alps – an animated concert) / Brahms Symphony No.1 / Aurora Orchestra

The Aurora Orchestra are rocket fuel for the UK classical music scene.

The most exciting orchestra around – the Aurora Orchestra – is brimming with youthful vigour and drive. A reflection of their tousled conductor Nicholas Collon no doubt, whose enthusiasm, charm, and poise is underpinned by a powerful vision and enviable self-belief.

Richard Ayres comic melodrama No. 42 (In the Alps) combined silent movie visuals with chamber orchestra and voice, in an engaging piece of entertainment. Ayres’ efficient story-telling supported a pacey plot, suggesting a context for the inspiration Brahms found for the fourth movement horn solo of his first symphony. A pleasing flight-of-fancy that made for a compelling programme. Ayres deploys an inventive, rich, and resourceful compositional technique and creates a sophisticated piece of entertainment – a gateway for the wider repertory.

Aurora’s performance of Brahms 1 had a sense of urgency about it. It was brisk, taut and precise too. There might even have been grit too (though my plus one for the even thinks there are negative connotations with the word grit). Standing up and playing from memory – the band’s USP – meant that everyone had the space to express. The sound was expansive, the dynamic range breathtaking, and the resulting applause unequivocal and insistent.

It’s a treat to see so many musicians so engaged on the platform, not only with their conductor, but with one another. The players engage with the audience. We engage with them. Everyone ends up leaving the concert venue having had a riotously good time. The Aurora Orchestra conjure up something magical on stage.

Special words should be committed for some cracking programme notes: unorthodox design, playful, and utterly refreshing. Lovely work people. Lovely work.

The Aurora Orchestra are appearing at the Grange Festival from 25 June in a production of Britten’s Albert Herring conducted by Steuart Bedford.