John Bridcut’s Dame Janet Baker documentary

Full disclosure: I’m a John Bridcut fanboy. I admire the documentary maker’s interviewing technique (the way he asks short questions and then holds the space for the respondent to think before speaking) and his resolute unapologetic approach to telling the story of classical music master practitioners.

The recent Dame Janet Baker documentary is a prime example. In the 90 minute exploration of the mezzo’s life, work and early retirement, Baker reflects on formative childhood events and key points in her career via a series of honest and sometimes challenging pieces to camera that do much to present the classical music in a much-needed authentic light.

Within the first ten minutes she articulates the experience of live performance so succinctly that one wonders why, given that classical music is in the ascendancy, no one else is saying the same thing to sell the genre. Answer: Baker and Bridcut May get it and are clearly unapologetic about it, but the industry as a whole is still cautious about scaring newcomers away. In this way, the Baker documentary reveals the distance we have to go to before classical music is written about authentically in the mainstream (where it needs to be).

That resistance or nervousness was what I thought was behind not making a big deal about the doc in the run-up to broadcast. Compared to the largely disappointing ‘Our Classical Century’, Bridcut’s work documents Baker’s life and represents classical music and opera with integrity. Perhaps not flagging Bridcut’s documentary was a way of not drawing attention to how OCC could be seen as lacking editorially.

But having watched to the end of the documentary I’m wondering whether there might have been another reason. Avoiding spoilers is key here if you’ve not seen it, but given the programme’s deeply touching conclusion I now wonder to heavily publicise such an emotional story might have invited criticisms of crass insensitivity.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve not seen it then consider this the pre-publicity for your viewing. Watch it. It will make you cry.

BBC Symphony Orchestra to move out of historic Maida Vale studios

Announced today. The BBC Symphony Orchestra along with the BBC Singers will move into new premises in East London in 2022/23. 

It’s not a complete surprise. Many who work at the BBCSO’s present home have vigorously pointed to the former skating rink’s unsuitability as a base for the orchestra. In particular its music library which was, the last time I was in there, prone to leaks in the roof whenever there was rain over Maida Vale.

And given that most of the BBC’s other orchestras have purpose-built premises designed for their primary function as a radio orchestra, it seems only right that the flagship band gets an upgrade. 

But there’s a sting in the tail. The BBC’s Maida Vale studios may no longer be fit for purpose, but they are even more part of the Corporation’s fabric than Television Centre was. Historic recordings were made at Maida Vale (not just classical music but in multiple genres). It is an incredible location, and part of the organisation’s history.

I notice the press release makes absolutely no mention of Maida Vale, suggesting its another building the BBC will sell off. It’s a bold move to make such a break with the past. Celebrating the past is an absolute must. Maybe we’ll see that when the BBC marks its centenary in 2022. 

BBC Young Musician 2018: Strings Final

Left to Right: Torrin Williams, Stephanie Childress, Will Duerden, Elodie Chousmer-Howelles, and Maxim Calver


Some thoughts on the Strings Category Final on BBC Four last night.

1. Violinist Elodie Chousmer-Howelles had the toughest gig going on first. I think that was reflected in what at times felt like an overly-considered performance. Technically brilliant with flair and pizzazz – I found it difficult to connect with her performance.

2. Will Duerden on double bass is a heartfelt performer with an infectious self-assurance that helped generate a heartfelt and sometimes heart-wrenching experience.

3. Violinist Stéphanie Childress holds the stage with poise and style. In this way she maintains a more assured presence than Elodie was. Stephanie appears relaxed, enjoying the performance experience the most out of all of the competitors. That’s an engaging thing to watch.

4. Guitarist Torrin Williams was electrifying. This may have something to do with the guitar being a solo instrument and him as a musician having control over all of the voices we’re listening to. His focus when playing is stunning. I’d like to watch his entire performance to get a sense of how he maintained that focus throughout. (see below).

5. Maxim Calver on cello did have the edge in terms of a live performance. He displayed a remarkable maturity on stage, played with a warm generosity, creating a more inclusive experience.

One final down, another four to go

6. Josie D’Arby (presenter) is solid on her own; she’s not purporting to be an expert – I like that; she doesn’t do emoting backstage terribly well (who would – it’s a meaningless TV trope); the chemistry between D’Arby and Alison Balsom is a bit awkward but it got better.

7. It takes 15 minutes from the beginning of the programme before we see any performance. The quality of the programme has improved, but the amount of flummery is infuriating. Cut the first fifteen minutes of introductions and the repeated slow introductions of the judges, and include complete performances instead? In a 90 minute programme there would be sufficient available time.

8. The assessments of each performance work in as much that they just about help a knowledgeable viewer get their assessment confirmed. But, by and large these segments are safe bordering on the meaningless. Commentary needs to have a bit more bite (though I accept the series is probably already edited for broadcast so this point is too late to be implemented).


Playing full performances via the website on a Connected TV doesn't work as well as it might.


9. I’m told by the presenter that I can watch the full performances via the Young Musician website. I can’t play the full performances on my TV because the video is offered as part of the BBC iPlayer app (either Sky or native). The website video is being delivered using Flash ,not HTML 5 video (meaning TV browsers won’t play website videos because they don’t support Flash). That means I can only watch the full performance on a laptop not my mobile. I want to see the full performance as full scale as possible – watching on a laptop or mobile isn’t maximising the quality of the performance.

There’s no technical reason why the full performances can’t be made available via the BBC iPlayer app. For BBC people reading this – the video asset is in the iBroadcast system already (that’s why it appears on the Young Musician website) so the asset can easily be inserted into the iPlayer app. There’s just an unwillingness (an editorial decision made to not include it in iPlayer) to join the dots up and create a seamless experience for the audience. An easy win.

Watch the String Final on BBC iPlayer; the percussion category final is on BBC Four at 7.30pm on Friday 13 April

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.Me link. Tar.

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

Rob Cowan to leave BBC Radio 3 and join Classic FM in 2018

News from BBC Radio 3 tonight is that Essential Classics presenter Rob Cowan is to leave the radio station.  Cowan, who’s presented a variety of programmes during his 17 years with the BBC currently presents the weekday mid-morning programme Essential Classics. He joins Classic FM in the new year.

Replacing Cowan on Essential Classics is station favourite Ian Skelly who makes his first appearance as co-anchor with the marvellous Suzy Klein in a live Christmas Day broadcast.