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.

Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 5 Ep 28: Conductor Jessica Cottis

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. 

For more information and ticket availability visit the Royal Opera House website

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Think like marketers

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 more tantalising opportunities for follow-up. The follow-up will always surpass your original expectations. It is the follow-up that yields the insight.

Peter Donohoe

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.

Generation Z

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.


Ulster Orchestra Managing Director Richard Wigley introduces Ida Kelarova and Chavorenge with the Czech Philharmonic. Chavorenge offers Roma children the opportunity to sing together in life-affirming performances that seek to challenge prejudice in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

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.

New discoveries

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.

Mitsuko Uchida

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.”

“Who’s playing?”

“Mitsuko Uchida.”

“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.

Edmund Finnis

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.

How do composers sleep at night?

There’s a link I’ve identified between web designers and composers.

Britten’s diaries, letters and various biographies document the emotional roller coaster of the creative process.

I remember first reading about Britten’s inner-most thoughts back in 1997 and feeling slightly voyeuristic. I rolled my eyes at the diminished self-belief and the strained relationships. I rather liked that. I liked the way the comparatively banal detail of his everyday life afforded me the opportunity to puncture the loft reputation post-humously bestowed on the composer.

Just so we’re clear, I’m a Britten fan.

Last night, an unexpected thought. I was looking at a website I’ve been working on over the past few weeks for a client. It has been a hugely pleasurable process. Distracted from the usual office politics, I’ve been able to focus on the articulated need and the detail and complete on the contractual promise.

When the website finally goes live, the feeling is something odd. That’s the moment in time when the ship has left the berth. Sure, I can keep tweaking and correcting (that’s how Web 1.0 works after all), but the moment the website goes ‘live’ is the moment when as a creative individual you feel most exposed.

The paradox is that the period prior to putting a website live – building the website on a ‘test server’ – invariably involves using a web server which is available to anyone who happens to possess (or find) the necessary website address. It never concerned me that people might see what I was doing when I was ‘building on test’, yet the moment it’s moved to a difference public webserver suddenly I’m incredibly self-conscious.

It was late when I looked at the finished product ‘on live’ last night. True to form (at least I’m aware of it) I immediately zoned in on the margins and gutters – there’s really nothing worse than a misaligned block of text – and descended into a spiral of self-loathing.

I mounted a personal intervention and stopped proceedings before clambering out of my pit of self-induced despair and turning my attention to Witless Silence on BBC One.

Come the morning, my view on the very same website was … entirely different. The tweaks necessary were inconsequential and swift, and when complete triggered an unexpectedly overwhelming sense of pride.

It got me thinking about composers. How did they deal with the exact same creative process? Would any of them past or present dare to admit to tiredness-induced self-doubt? Would they dare to describe in such intimate terms the experience of crafting a new composition (in itself a battle of conflicting internal dialogues) and what interventions they mount to right the metaphorical ship? Would they dare to reveal the emotions experienced in the run-up to and during the first rehearsal and subsequent premiere?

There are a couple of podcasts yet to be published with composers about which I have this vague recollection I may well have asked the question. I hope so. Because I think anyone who gets the opportunity to have their work realised by a whole other team of professionals has a far more stressful working day. I’d like to know how they deal with it.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

The Philharmonia, faux-vegan pies, and Mahler 6 at 9.20am

I’m waiting for the oven to get up to temperature.

On tonight’s menu, an experiment. Fresh savoy, red onion, and egg pie made with vegan pastry. Why do I have to go full-vegan? Who says? Who’s writing the rules? (For anyone who doesn’t already know, vegan pastry doesn’t last well in the fridge.)

It’s a while to wait until the pies can go in. Good job. There’s a lot to catch up on.

I’ve written notes (unusual for me) in readiness – on the back of a Philharmonia mailout received over the weekend.

Philharmonia

Not bad as a marketing strategy goes. Why bother spending loads of money mailing everybody on your customer database with an entire season’s worth of material? Better to adopt a targeted approach. And whoever came up with that idea knows me surprisingly well (or they guessed well).

Either way, someone let Yehuda know from the previous podcast. Some ensembles are doing data-driven marketing. I don’t remember being asked what I was curious about, but the Philharmonia seems to have worked it out.

Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok, plus a premiere by Péter Eötvös whose name I can’t pronounce which makes the event on Thursday 7 February all the more alluring. Then, later in February Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto (24 February) and a smattering of Debussy, Berio and Ravel (28 February).

Unsolicited feedback

Since I last posted, there have been many meetings. Many emails. Much unsolicited feedback. Complimentary things about the podcast shared face-to-face and over email.

And, importantly, in one conversation something that unexpectedly both rang true and acted as a timely reminder.

My professional career (in my head at least) is littered with illustrations of me not sticking at things for the long game.

Orchestral management, LBC, applying for jobs at Radio 3, the Graham Norton Show, and the producer job in BBC Multiplatform. I can point to any of those moments in my career and recall thinking, “if I’d had more resilience to stick at it, who knows what I’d be doing now”.

There’s no regret there. Not at all. I see variety as key to what I can offer to people now. Specialism isn’t all its cracked up to be.

The podcast is something I have stuck at though. So too the blogging (especially over the past three or so years). And when someone you meet up with reflects that commitment back to you unprompted, something clicks inside. Someone’s recognised what you’re doing. Stick at this.

I’ve been doing a lot of podcasting (and editing) over the past week or so. The ABO preview is me re-connecting with the joy of editing – all very polished. Lots of rapid turnaround. Swift editing. Umms and ahhs instinctively jettisoned.

Like the music the content I make is inspired by, every opportunity to revisit the tasks I love doing accesses happy memories and reinforces new, more robust, beliefs about the self.

It is, if you need an analogy at this point, like trusting your partner to make arrangements for a holiday.

When you arrive at your destination discovering its the most perfect place, the kind you probably couldn’t have selected yourself: you can’t quite believe you’ve got here; you’re hoping the days won’t run away from you too quickly either.

All this content-making reveals one other rather disappointing truth however: I am struggling to remember the last time I actually went to a concert. Making good content takes time. Does that make open to claims of fraudulence?

No.

In the event there are those who remain unconvinced, I have two ‘show and tells’ to make amends with.

Argerich and Mahler

We watched ‘Bloody Daughter‘ (‘Argerich’ on Amazon Prime) last night. Pianist Martha is both terrifying and seductive at the same time. Mesmerising technique at the keyboard and a wilful kind of self-aborbtion and obliqueness that ocassioanlly drove me wild. Daughter-documentary maker Stephanie created something utterly compelling on a par with the great Christopher Nupen. It’s something I want to watch again (before the 30 day rental period is up) and I want more of my pals to pick over too.

And this morning. Mahler 6 from MusicAeterna. Released last year. Streamed from IDAGIO after I gave the cats their medicine this morning. 9.20am I’m sobbing quite unexpectedly at the second movement, aware that crying seems like an odd thing to do at that time of the morning, aware that I have precious little to actually cry about, and yet unable to contain my reaction to what I’m listening to.

A new classical music radio station?

Does the UK need THREE classical music radio stations? Scala Radio (launching 4th March) seems to think so.