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. It’s this that works the hardest to sell an event to those who want to broaden their experience or challenge their thinking.

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. It’s this that works the hardest to sell an event to those who want to broaden their experience or challenge their thinking.

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. Importantly, it was the section of the brochure where I learned something just by virtue of the theme’s curation: what was written when.

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.

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