Be in a symphony

Take a wander around the Southbank Sinfonia whilst they play Beethoven 3 on 27 March. Also, post-concert party. Bethnal Green. See you there.

I normally balk at writing-up press alerts, a joyless process that necessitates deciphering what the message is, rewording it (to pass it off as your own), or coming up with a new angle entirely.

When you’re not deriving money from your art resentment isn’t far below the surface.

The decision to write up a PR’s email is often decided upon based on other factors. It’s worth sharing those ideas here. You know, in the spirit of full transparency.

  1. Do I like the brand?
  2. Do I like their print?
  3. Do I like the person sending the email?
  4. Do I like the idea?
  5. Is there an idea?
  6. Are they trying hard?
  7. Have they committed a massive howler?
  8. Do I want them to be better?
  9. Is there something unusual and/or engaging about what they’re sharing?
  10. Does the event include pianist Eric Lu?
  11. Do I want to attend the event?

In the case of the Southbank Sinfonia’s gig on 27th March in Bethnal Green, I am delighted to announce that seven of the ten criteria have been met. Easily.

The Sound Within (part of their deftly tagged #ConcertLab season) captures the spirit and joy of the Philharmonia’s Virtual Orchestra installation I visited in Bedford last year.

Only here, Southbank Sinfonia ventures north to the Oval Space (where I interviewed Anna Meredith for a podcast) in Bethnal Green and gives audience members the chance to wander around the orchestra as they doing their playing thing. There’s even a party at the end of it.

It’s basically like taking a trip down Youth Orchestra Lane.

Aurora to play special gig in Belgium on the night UK leaves the EU

No real surprise here.

I spoke to the Aurora Orchestra’s Chief Exec John Harte at the ABO conference in January in an interview during which he revealed Aurora’s plans to play a gig in Belgium on the night the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, assuming Theresa gets her way.

The concert programme – the closing concert in the Brussels Klarafestival and staged at BOZAR concert hall – includes works that symbolise the UK’s connection with Europe despite the political situation – Britten’s Illuminations, Tavener’s Protecting Veil and Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.

It’s a nifty opportunity to exploit a strong news-line that could give Aurora bit of a boost in the national press and broadcast media. Just one thing necessary: Theresa May’s deal goes through. If outlets are looking to reflect on what Brexit means for the UK on the day we leave then it will be good to see an exciting British orchestra included in the coverage.

That Aurora have made the announcement suggests too that they anticipate a soft Brexit is on the cards, and that they are sufficiently confident about arrangements during the transition.


It’s been lovely to see so many people respond to death of pianist, composer and artist Andre Previn. The classical music world has coaslesced around an individual.

Nobody’s quibbling. Some are grandstanding (inevitable). But most agree: Previn was a good man.

The memory of him is prescient too. He reminds a few generations of classical music fans of the way we’d like the art form to be advocate: unapologetically, with a mix of reverence and self-deprecation, and easy on the precious.

If only those with the power and the budgets could remember that today. That’s the way to speak to people new to the art form.

For those who care, my go-to Previn is his Rachmaninov Paganini with Ashkenazy. One of the first CDs I bought after I heard the NYO play it at the Barbican in the late 80s. It is perfection. Everything else that came after pales into insignificance by comparison.

Going to but not necessarily participating in proceedings

When you take a journalling approach to blogging the frequency can taper off. And it has done here.

I’ve focussed a lot of attention on audio just recently whether that means actual editing, thinking about work, or imagining content. In fact, in recent weeks it feels like the audio stuff has gone into overdrive. No surprise then that the copy has taken a back seat.

On the one hand, the lack of actual writing about classical music might at first seem like evidence of a lack of committment to the art form. The reality (at least in my minds eye is entirely different).

Being part of the classical music world

That podcasting work – Donohoe, Cottis and Howard last week, plus a recording in front of an audience last night at the Barbican – has rooted me back in the classical music world like I was back in 1997. Gratifyingly, I don’t feel like an observer looking in. At least, not all the time.

Part of that is down to self-confidence. And that’s partly fuelled by having to constantly listen back to yourself and what others are saying. The process is more immediate when you’re listening back to audio (or video), compared to reading over copy.

But it’s also down to buildings.

Here’s the unexpected joy I’ve managed to identify just these past seven days. The thing we overlook. The thing marketers forget.

It is possible to imagine you’re experience a classical music or operatic experience without actually sitting in the auditorium and watching or listening.

This statement maybe anathema to the purists – that’s assuming that it makes sense. But I’ve found it reassuring these past few weeks. In the midst of a surprisingly busy day-to-day existence, I see how the classical music experience competes with my other everyday concerns, like establishing a business or paying the mortgage.

This isn’t a poor me story. It’s not a rant. But the reality is: I can’t get to as many concerts as a supposed classical music buff would like to. Other things get in the way. Budgets demand alternative closer-to-home activities.

Take this past Saturday.

Going but not participating

After a long walk from Lewisham to Canary Wharf me and an old University friend (University Music Society President ’97) meet up with other Music Society peers (and friends) Abigail and Sophie at the Royal Opera House fifth floor bar. The sun was low and the tourists scuttling around Covent Garden below us.

We drank rosé. We reminisced. We talked about concerts we’d played in. We talked about concerts other people had played. We talked about how good other people were at university. I thought about opera. I thought about how nice it might be to actually go to an opera instead of just interview people about them.

Basically, we just sat there in the Royal Opera House, sort-of-adjacent to the auditorium and enjoyed each others company. You know, like people who go to pubs where there’s a theatre on the top floor do. Going to but not necessarily participating in proceedings. There’s no shame in that, is there?

It’s quite nice really

I don’t see what the carping about the Royal Opera House’s strategy opening up of its social spaces is about other than a thinly veiled attacked on perceived elitism. People want to have a dig. Complaining about the price of a cup of tea seemed like an easy win.

What I saw was something different – opera-goers, shoppers and tourists converged on the top floor bar to natter, read and look over the London skyline. True, I didn’t buy the wine at our table. But the opportunity to ‘drop in’ on a venue in this way does much to make a cultural space feel like its for you, regardless of whether you’re there with a ticket or not.

The National Theatre has long made its public spaces open to the public during the day, so too the Royal Festival Hall (a condition, I understood, of receiving Arts Council Funding). Before I went self-employed, these buildings were only places I went to with a ticket. Now I go there to meet people. I like that.

Barbican 19/20

And yesterday, I recognised the same about the Barbican. By day it’s home to an army of freelancers, and by night a wide range of cultural visitors.

These venues – the Barbican, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, and even St Johns Smiths Square – are my present-day cathedrals.

Last night, at the Barbican Members Event, Alison Balsom said a similar thing about her relationship with the City of London estate.

She and I had already competed on stage (I was presenting the 19/20 season launch event) about our earliest Barbican experience – mine 30 years when I saw the National Youth Orchestra with Edward Downes, hers 3 years before that when she saw Hakan Hardenberger.

Since then Alison has studied at the next door Guildhall School, performed on the Barbican stage and the recently opened Milton Court on Silk Street.

The Barbican differs from all of those other venues I mentioned because of its grandiose space. The joy of such public venues is their cavenous spaces – a building that triggers the imagination as a result of being present in it.

The reality is that I can’t, unlike the man I met yesterday who I learned spent the equivalent of my monthly outgoings on an extensive range of concerts in the Southbank’s 19/20 season, spend a great deal of money on tickets.

As urgent as the live experience is, sometimes just being present in a venue’s public space’s is all I can spare.

And that’s OK. From time to time I will venture into to its beating heart. I promise. At all other times, I’ll happily spend a few quid (or allow others to) in its retail outlets in order to spend quality time with friends. It, and everything that goes on in and around it, is that important to me.

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 See the LPO 2019/20 brochure here.