Every episode in this podcast series is an experience. A snapshot in time. And in that moment, a reflection of both my curiosity and ignorance, and importantly the willingness of the contributor or contributors to meet that curiosity and fill in the void.
When I listen to the recorded conversations back my thinking develops. In that way, the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast is one long sector-wide learning opportunity for me. The fact that other people enjoying listening back to it too is an unintended and serendipitous boon.
It’s a reflection of where my listening state is. I don’t really care if I know something or if I don’t. In some respects I’d prefer it to be completely unfamiliar. I’m interested in discovering how someone else’s art, their viewpoint, or their process helps develop mine. I want things to have impact on me. And when they do, I want to reflect on why.
What emerges from all of these conversations is that I’m increasingly fascinated by what connects audience member to performer, what role and responsibilities each brings the listening experience to create the art that moves us. And, when we’ve ascertained that, how we going about marketing that very experience in a way that’s authentic, respectful, and celebratory.
This conversation with Manchester Collective Managing Director Adam Szabo nudges me a little bit closer to that goal.
I first met Adam at a Kings Place concert (gig event experience – I’m not sure what to call it) where the music was varied, the volume was loud, and the impact was considerable. It brought me closer to the fundamental principle of what we’re dealing with here: sounds impact humans; the impact they have is what is important.
Adam and I met for a brief coffee in a noisy bookshop somewhere in Soho a few weeks later. After which we sat down for a podcast recording. This time with a bottle of wine. Red, of course.
Listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast on Audioboom, Spotify or iTunes.
Contemporary classical is fast becoming a much-needed antidote to the irritations of the mainstream. The return of PRS Foundation’s brilliant New Music Biennial this July is a welcome opportunity to escape into thrilling new worlds.
When I was a kid, languishing on the Norfolk Suffolk border wondering why my parents had chosen to settle on the edges of Fenland, there was one village event I looked forward to. I could see it from my bedroom window.
The Weeting Steam Engine Rally: a weekend-long celebration of steam engines accompanied by a myriad of stalls, catering tents, crafts, meaningless tat, farming ‘demonstrations’, and a huge fun fair. It was the one time of the year when the flat, meaningless and pointless area of the world we lived had any purpose.
The ‘rally field’ would be set up over a monthly long period in the run up to the event. From my bedroom window I could count down to the weekend by keeping a careful eye on how things were shaping up. Only the Eurovision Song Contest (until it became a source of bitterness and resentment) came close in the anticipation stakes.
The New Music Biennial shares a similar trait. I stumbled on it two years ago and was immediately captivated by its openness, its playfulness, and blisfully simple innovation. Every piece of music lasts no longer than 15 minutes and is played twice in between which a panel, often including the composer, discuss the work. A glorious way to immerse yourself in something new. No pressure. No expectation. And importantly for all (I think), its free.
Hearing about its imminent return last week prior to the Proms launch, illicited an unexpected reaction in me. Warm and fuzzy. That kind of thing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until I realised that it was a) two years since the last one (obviously), b) the point when I experienced the last one was the first few days of my new self-employed life and c) that marks nearly two years of a renewed impetus in the Thoroughly Good Blog and the relaunch of the Thoroughly Good Podcast. Time has passed quickly.
There’s more to it than that though.
The innovative approach to performing new works (a nod to the monumental challenge contemporary composers experience getting their works performed a second time) is one thing.
But its the peer-to-peer element about the weekend, two years on, I now finally understand. Composers converge to listen to one another’s works, but to learn from one another too. And for those of us who have an insatiable appetite to live vicariously through the talents of others, the New Music Biennial is a no-brainer.
And for anyone who considers themselves as a creative and who thrives on gaining insights from those working in parallel artforms, its a gloriously immersive kind of experience. Be sure to bring your notebook.
Most anticipated event? It’s actually an installation: Music for Seven Ice Cream Vans. “A beautifully nostalgic score floods the Southbank Centre Site, as a fleet of ice cream vans call out to one another. The vans, each with their own individual harmony, create a mesmerising symphony of different clustered sounds and a shared soundscape for unsuspecting audiences.” Bliss.
I can’t wait. I’ve missed it. And in its the diary.
Sometimes it takes someone else to introduce you to something you never thought of listening to.
I don’t normally stray from my classical comfort zone – Western European tradition, avant-garde, etc.
Minimalism – save for the forefathers of the genre Reich and Glass – can in the present day be so minimalist as to be meaningless and unsatisfying.
But, composer Alex Groves defies my relatively tough assumption-fuelled expectations with his latest release on Bandcamp – a piece written in collaboration with Eliza McCarthy in 2017 and now released for the first time – Curved Form (No. 4).
Alex’s track description is as good as I would ever be able to write, so I’ll include it here:
Inspired by the visually-charged artwork of Bridget Riley with its bold repetitions of simple forms, Alex’s Curved Form series takes as its starting point a singular set of musical DNA. Each work grows in a different direction but they all share these common ancestors.
In Curved Form (No. 4), the aim was to create a ‘blissed out drone piece made with hammers’. The pulsating chords gradually morphing into one another, receding into the background and allowing the ever-shifting resonance of the piano to take over.
That all-consuming soundworld goes places, taking me on a gentle but unequivocally uplifting journey. It doesn’t drown out the terror and struggle of everyday life but instead repositions me somewhere to the side of it, so that I can observe what’s going on from a safe distance.
By the time you’re approaching the middle of Benjamin Tassie’s 80s-PC infused remix, the melodic cells at the heart of Groves and McCarthy’s original concept have an altogether comforting feel.
There’s excitement in Matt Huxley’s reworking – a sense of hope driving that same melodic idea forward – with arresting treatments which gently subvert our expectations. This, like Tassie’s remix and the studio version before it, maintain their distinctiveness with elegant touches and a rich soundscape.
It’s a rare thing that contemporary music can leave me wanting more. Maybe my attention is shifting to a different genre. In some respects, I regret not haven’t pursued it until now. Still, I’m on only 46. Perhaps there’s still time.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.