Festive euphoria

Christmas is impossible to pre-empt in a blog post. Far easier to reflect.

After a family Christmas Eve supper during which carols were sung (I hung back with the introverts all equally uncomfortable flexing our vocal chords in the presence of a familiar but otherwise uncritical audience), and a visit to our neighbour for drinks and nibbly-bits, the big day proceeded quietly and calmly. Efforts in the kitchen were deployed equally between myself and The OH, together, in consonance and without incident.

This combined with the subsequent benefits of actively adopting a low-key and pressure-free Christmas meant that for the first time in many years a blissful air descended on both of us. The Christmas spirit isn’t a construction nor is it a euphemism. Goodwill is a realistic mindset and one to strive for.

The effects of this sometimes euphoric state were down to a combination of my own thinking, some of which driven by conversations I had with family members over the Christmas break.

Underpinning the season, was an overwhelming desire to make sure that Yuletide excess was avoided. Pleasure can be derived from adopting a far more modest approach. Instead of buying in gratification, why not look for the pleasure in what you have already?

During a telephone call this evening, my 80-something mother told me this was a sign of maturity. A relief to hear given that I’m 46.

These conclusions arrived at about excess and modesty haven’t been arrived at because of my my independent working life either, it seems. According to one recently retired family member at the Christmas Eve gathering, it’s what countless new retirees have come to understand quickly after their working lives changed. It’s also what most freelancers fail to acknowledge as an aspirational value.

Within these redrawn boundaries new personal needs and wants are contained. Discovering what those needs and wants are momentarily feels like the headiest kind of gift.

So it has been over the past few days. A mixture of warmth, contentment and intense love for the people, things, and traditions that make life complete.

Expressing that provokes a rush that is difficult to contain (and handle). The experience is something akin to the third movement of Rachmaninov’s second symphony. All-encompassing beauty which can render me an emotional wreck, and has as a result seen me avoid the symphony altogether simply because I couldn’t cope with the intense emotion that pours from the score.

When you recognise what it is that’s important to you – the constituent parts of it – you simultaneously appreciate how fragile that happiness is.

At the same time, the white heat of such intense understanding forges something new: a determination to embark on a new path, a recognition of what’s possible, and a commitment to making it happen in some form or other.

If this is adulthood, then its long overdue.

Aldeburgh Festival 2019 unveiled

Much excitement today. A press release with unexpected news about next year’s Aldeburgh Festival. A well-timed uplifting piece of comms, shining light on an otherwise grey news-less lunchtime.

Effective because in a split second of opening the email I was momentarily catapulted onto Aldeburgh beach in the early summer of next year. Home. New discoveries. Escape.

There’s a lot to plough through. When your primary motivation is discovery, it’s always difficult to pinpoint particular concerts, events or strands. It’s Aldeburgh. It’s all good, right?

What’s pulling me in early on before booking opens on 15th January is the inevitable Olly Knussen celebration. A year after his unexpected death and 50 since Benjamin Britten commissioned Knussen to write a work for the Festival, it’s right Aldeburgh spotlights his contribution to contemporary music. And, for those of us who have come late to his canon, it’s the first few steps along a new path. Something to look forward to.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the debut concerts of the Knussen Chamber Orchestra featuring Knussen’s Scriabin Settings and O Hototogisu! (11 June). Other tributes include Stephen Hough performing Prayer Bell Sketch in his solo recital (12 June).

Danny Koo and pianist Daniel Lebhardt’s Britten–Pears Young Artists concert performing Autumnal and Ophelia’s Last Dance (14 June); the Ulysses Ensemble  with Coursing (14 June) and Nicholas Daniel and friends present three of Knussen’s chamber works, including the revival of the unhappily titled Fire, the work for the 1969 festival that premiered just days after the new Snape Maltings had burned down (22 June).

Aldeburgh Cinema shows Oliver Knussen: Sounds from the Big White House, a Barrie Gavin film celebrating his 50th birthday (14 June).

There’s one thing doesn’t especially make sense to me.

Why on earth did Snape Maltings choose the New York Times quote (pictured above) for its Festival homepage? At best its a mealy-mouthed endorsement. At worst, its meaningless. Massively detracting from the brand.

Booking opens for Aldeburgh Festival 2019 on 15 January.

Review: Shiva Feshareki’s Unknown, Remembered

Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Unknown, Remembered …’ brought together the seemingly unrelatable Handel La Lucrezia with the story and lyrics from Ian Curtis’ Joy Division oeuvre in a mix of live baroque instrumentation and electronic soundworlds.

The creation was pure Andre de Ridder (Spitalfields Festival Artistic Curator), bringing differing stories, locations and sounds together in a mix of opera, theatre, and art installation, leaving the audience to create their own art.

As I recall from an interview with de Ridder, last year’s Spitalfields commission Schumann Street set out to achieve a similar goal. It was a great success. It went on to secure an RPS win in May 2018. A crowning achievement for de Ridder in his first year as artistic lead.

This year’s big festival statement didn’t resonate in quite the same way for me.

The elements were there. A dramatic location – a difficult to find empty warehouse space – in which theatrical performances told stories in multiple artforms sited in two rooms separated by a narrow corridor.

Soprano Kathryn Manley cut and lonely and sometimes crazed figure in amongst the audience that wandered around during the performance. The combination of Liam Byrne (viola de gamba) and Marianna Henriksson (harpsichord) set apart by Haroon Mirza’s art installation gave each instrument suitable prominence, exposing textures and allowing an unusually close relationship with each instrumentalist.

The storytelling was more immediate in the second room during the considerably more theatrical tape recorder sequence. There was a chilling kind of solitude as the audience watched Krapp (Richard Strange?) pore over his many tapes, listening to soundbites generated by Feshareki at the mixing desk.

The concluding sequence was mildly disturbing. Making use of the vacant office space in Studio 9294, Lucretia appeared trapped in a sealed room whilst dry ice swirled all around us.

But arresting and well-produced as these were in the moment, there was something lacking. I felt as though I was observing something I couldn’t quite make out. I didn’t feel able to rise to the artistic aspirations because the intention wasn’t immediately obvious without reaching for the accompanying programme notes. This was one of those rare occasions when the art itself didn’t immediately speak to me, meaning I struggled to create the art myself.

It might be fair to include some caveats here. First (and this might at first seem irrelevant), I arrived at the venue annoyed. I’d walked from Stratford International across Queen Elizabeth Park to Hackney Wick at a fair pace, but struggled (even with Google Maps) to find the venue, only finding a Spitalfields banner after I’d stumbled into another audience member experiencing similar levels of difficulty.

In addition, I struggled to read some of the programme notes – white text on a black background, in particular,are phenomenally inaccessible in a dimly lit room. I get that edginess is central to the brand, but simple accessibility measures like readability and venue signage remain important.

So, I could have been irritated before proceedings got underway. My focus could well have been some place else.

Having said all of that, what Spitalfields do well is piquing interest. The programme book for example is written in such a way that it yields information about past events even if you haven’t attended them.

Unknown, Remembered … succeeded in stoking the curiosity in three different works I had previously never even considered exploring. That ability to create content that lasts beyond a live performance event is Spitalfields’ USP.

Spitalfields Festival is a content producer’s dream. I’m not entirely sure whether they realise that.

Philharmonia begins search for new Artistic Director as Esa-Pekka Salonen moves to San Francisco Symphony

Boo. Esa-Pekka Salonen is stepping down from his role at the Philharmonia as Principal Conductor & Artistic Advisor in the 2020/21 season.

Sure. It seems like a long way off. We’ve got sodding Brexit to claw our way through yet (or not), two more Proms season and three Christmases. Why worry about this now? These things take time to set in motion. A band with an international brand needs to make the right decision. The right decision takes time. Might the right decision be a woman at the helm?

It’s tempting to exaggerate a departure of key personnel like Salonen, though in this case it’s deserved. I have it on good authority that the Philharmonia’s innovative spirit has a lot to do with his presence. That there is often a challenging artistic strategy underpinned by rich supporting material that deepens understanding of the art form is also a Salonen thing.

And whilst its inevitable that after 13 years, Salonen will want to look for new opportunities (and has one with San Francisco Symphony), all eyes will be on how the Philharmonia looks to consolidate its current successes and with whom. A tough act to follow.

Next Salonen appearances: Bartok cello and orchestra concerto on Sunday 24 February, plus Ravel’s Shéhérazade on Thursday 28 February, both at Royal Festival Hall.

The pomposity of it all

I’ve been working on a review today, one I pitched to a publication a while ago.

I drafted the review a few weeks ago, but only returned to it today afresh after I sought out any others views online.

Discovered one other review, published on a reasonably recognisable platform (that’s as far as I’m prepared to identify the platform), read it and then gasped in amazement at the credit at the bottom.

“[NAME OF REVIEWER REDACTED] was on a press trip funded by [INSERT NAME OF FESTIVAL]”

I get why some platforms feel the need to detail what’s paid content, advertorials, paid reviews, or content marketing. I understand why its important to distance such content from ‘proper journalism’.

But let’s be clear about something. Most if not all international festivals (and a fair few UK festivals too as it happens) invite journalists, bloggers, influencers and the rest to their events with free tickets, and in some cases travel and accommodation. They don’t do it on the basis that they assume you’ll write favorably about their endeavours. They invite (and fund) on the basis that they want some kind of coverage. At least, that’s how I’ve always seen it.

And another thing. The same platform (which I’m fairly certain still doesn’t pay its contributors but happily takes its content) applies for press accreditations for their staff and accepts international festivals paying their travel and accommodation to attend, and yet those individuals don’t flag that their trip was funded by the festival they’re writing about.

Strikes me that such credits are less about protecting the independence and journalistic values of the platform, and more about distancing itself from the individual who has submitted the content in the first place.

Let’s be realistic for readers, festivals, and PRs. There’s precious little money available for writers. The people who are available to attend such events can’t fund their trips themselves, that’s why festivals set aside budgets to pay for writers to visit. That arrangement doesn’t influence my assessment on whether something I’ve listened to or watched. And if you’re a journo who thinks it does, then it probably says more about how easily swayed you would be in such a situation rather than what it says about me.

Such credits essentially discredit everything the person has taken the time to write about the event they were presumably pleased to attend in the first place.

The pomposity of it all.

No. Actually. The hypocrisy of it all. Tsk.