Thoroughly Good Podcast 3.2: What good is a comfort zone anyway?

In the second episode of this (still) new series of Thoroughly Good Podcasts, I speak to recital series founder Ian Rosenblatt about his love of classical music, how he was introduced to it, why he thinks there’s snobbery in the classical music scene, and why his Rosenblatt Recital series is about entertainment, not narcissism. The 2016/2017 season of Rosenblatt Recital is announced today – more details in this post.

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Thoroughly Good Podcast 3.1: Intense Introductions

This new series examines my lifelong love of classical music, what got me (as well as others) hooked, and how we can introduce others to a genre most dismiss as elitist, boring, or inaccessible.

Beginnings are always the most difficult. After the relative ease of making seven podcast letters about my trip to Eurovision in Stockholm this year, getting a new series about classical music underway has been a little more challenging.

So, just like the first day in a school year, I’m easing myself (and you) in easily with a 20 minute orientation session. Think of this introduction to the third series of Thoroughly Good Podcasts as the first lesson of term when the teacher dished out the new text books.

In the first episode, I explain how an old friend introduced me to his considerable music collection. Is a short intense burst of the unfamiliar the best way to introduce someone to something new?

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Review: Mozart Piano 27 / Strauss ‘Metamorphosen’ / Benjamin Grosvenor / Britten Sinfonia / Milton Court

The Britten Sinfonia’s Milton Court concert on Sunday 1 May saw an inventive and intense programme celebrate its leader Jacqueline Shave’s ten years with the band.

Bartok’s second string quartet opened the concert, a working made up of energy, seduction, and urgency. This was muscular playing right from the off,  creating a visceral performance, in turn establishing high expectations for the rest of the concert. The Britten Sinfonia didn’t disappoint.

The world premiere of Elena Langer’s Story of Impossible Love – solo violin plus chamber orchestra – combined ravishing pastoral splashes with melodic and harmonic language reminiscent of Britten and, at times, Vaughan Williams. Langer’s musical language has a gritty realism to it, depicting a world slightly out of phase with that we regard as vaguely recognisable. At the same time, she maintains an immediacy to her writing, ensuring accessibility isn’t sacrificed. Haunting melodic lines in the oboe, chilling decorations in the piccolo, and seductive string textures underpinned what was a compelling work.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.27 – a deceptive work riven with musical complexities – saw the Britten Sinfonia’s breathtaking ensemble work come to the fore. Rapport was quickly established between soloist/director Benjamin Grosvenor and the Britten Sinfonia, the relationship between the two was clearly based on mutual respect. What emerged was a gratifyingly democratic relationship.

Throughout the first movement Grosvenor’s trademark fluid lines were delivered with poise, never sacrificing personality (watching his hands on the keyboard is a real delight). The arresting quality of the second movement’s subject demanded we stop and reflect and reminded us of the theme which seemed to string the concert together as a whole: the complexities and contradictions of life are difficult to fathom out, but we should at least try. Here, the acoustic revealed more than I’d previously understood about the work, not least the magical moment when the subject is played on the keyboard, first violins and the flute.

The third movement was taut but never fraught, with a precision in the keyboard that cast a spell over the auditorium. It was at this point that the Britten Sinfonia’s distinctive approaching to playing really shone: pulling out all of the over-arching lines that straddle the work as a whole, going beyond the shape of each melodic line and pointing to something altogether more fundamental. This was an incredibly special and personal interpretation contributed to by everyone on stage.

The Britten Sinfonia’s total engagement in the music they’re playing, already demonstrated in this concert, gave a hint to what we might expect during Strauss’ Metamorphosen. They didn’t disappoint. This is an unrelentingly work, shifting from sorrow and regret to warmth and beauty and stopping off at everything in between. The work’s deceptive tensile strength allowed for a robust interpretation. The same level of commitment and enthusiasm was present here as with everything else they’d played during the evening. This was an intoxicating performance, enveloping the audience with a strength with sought to reassure us that the vulnerability Strauss’s music had invoked in us wasn’t a weakness but a strength. The Britten Sinfonia played to us and cared for us at the same time in the Strauss.

The Britten Sinfonia are the classical music cognoscenti’s private passion. They’re also the classical music world’s PR dream. If ever there was a group who demonstrated how vital the UK classical music scene is to this country, it’s the Britten Sinfonia. The audience bore witness to some tremendous music making last night. This orchestra should never be overlooked, they are something to be incredibly proud of.

The Britten Sinfonia Milton Court concert featuring Benjamin Grosvenor will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 9 May 2016.

Rosenblatt Recitals 2016: Javier Carmarena / Angel Rodriguez

Tenor Javier Carmarena opened the penultimate 2016 Rosenblatt Recital with a powerful flourish from Rossini’s Le compte Ory which at times felt out of balance for the otherwise accommodating Wigmore Hall.

Je crois entendre encore from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers imposed a gratifying mood change and saw Carmarena recalibrate his vocal power for the auditorium. What was resulted was exquisite: the taut fragility of his top register and the showman-like dynamic range he deployed, made the lyricism take on an almost miraculous quality in places.

In Donizetti’s Tombe degli avi miei…Fra poco a me ricoverò Camarena’s voice had settled and opened out – fortissimos now suited the interior perfectly, and he succeeded in crafting a plaintive quality with a most remarkable whisper-like articulation on the word ‘morte’.

Similarly, Ed ancor la tremenda porta and Ah! mes amis! Quel jour de fête! saw Camarena steer us through another change of mood with remarkable poise and a gratifying lack of pretension.

The second half took on a darker mood, with Tosti’s Quattro canzoni d’Amaranta altogether more reflective and in places mournful. In the third canzona, In van preghi, in vano aneli, the tenor demonstrated his ability to draw the audience in and leave us hanging with an amazing dynamic range: we weren’t left stranded; only dangled over a precipice, safe in the knowledge that we would, eventually, be pulled back. That is quite some achievement.

The remaining Mexican songs by Lara awere, for me, a bigger gear-shift. These felt more like encore material. In places, the Lara seemed rather polite, almost too western, lacking a much-needed authenticity in order to help the musical transition. Moral’s Besos robados and No niegues que me quisiste were, compared to the Lara, less light in musical style which helped round-off the programme.

Rosenblatt Recitals are consistently uplifting affairs; the audience sees to that. Effortless performers make reviews an uphill struggle. Thursday night’s shimmering applause for Javier Carmarena was undoubtedly well-deserved for an amazing treat. Sometimes, that’s all that needs to be said.



What us classical music audiences take for granted

Earlier this week the London Symphony Orchestra announced details about a free open air concert in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 22 May.

The concert, the fifth concert in the Orchestra’s annual BMW LSO Open Air Classics series and conducted by Valery Gergiev, features an all-Tchaikovsky programme, including the 1812 Overture and Symphony No 4. There’s also an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake suite for which 42 young musicians from East London from the LSO’s On Track programme, and 23 musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama play side-by-side with members of the LSO.

Expect thousands at the event which has sustained an enviable air of celebration about it. For the fifth year running a UK orchestra with a global reach is rooting itself in a now iconic public space in London. The event is fast becoming an annual tradition, a reminder when London and its population was transformed by a string of communal artistic endeavours and played host to the Olympics in 2012.

BMW’s involvement is key, making it possible for people to experience live music for free. That isn’t new, nor is it unusual. But, like the last phases of the OAE’s crowdfunding project this week, it is a situation which concert-goers either aren’t aware of, or take for granted.

For all the moaning about ticket prices and concerts not being accessible enough (whatever that really means), the reality is that orchestras up and down the country are already subsidised and its that which, to a greater or lesser extent, makes it possible for them to stage the concerts in the first place.

The OAE were looking for around £1600 for their 2016 Night Shift Pub Tour – a Night Shift concert in a London pub every month (see their promotional video above). At the end of yesterday they’d exceeded their search and pulled in £1881 from 58 backers in 28 days. It’s that money which helps maintain their ticket prices at £10, in turn making it an attractive proposition to potential concert-goers. Without the funding, the concerts can’t go ahead.

They’re not the only ones of course. There are a great many other orchestras who know, for example, that the limitations of the venue they’re performing in means that the cost of staging the concert won’t be met by ticket sales even if they’re playing to a capacity audience. Each concert staged is done so knowing its going to make a loss.

This is not an earth shattering revelation. It’s the reality that keeps marketeers and fundraisers awake at night. But it is something I sometimes forget as a concert-goer. And if I forget it – or rather, if I take it for granted – I wonder just how many other concert-goers and classical music newbies do the same.

That got me thinking. Do orchestras need to be a little more transparent about the way they work to the average customer? Do they need to be less austere and less pompous about their need for funding? Do they need to be less apologetic with their audiences about the realities of their business model? Why not be as clearcut as the OAE have been since 2011 about their Night Shift Tour: in order to X, we need Y, so that you, audience member, only have to pay Z to hear great music.

Stop presenting ‘giving’ as something retired people (if they have the funds available themselves). Instead, speak directly to the punters and explain the realities of how your organisation works. Stop putting your donations section at the end of the programme book bought at concerts, and lead with it instead. Tell the story of how it was possible the orchestra came to be on stage tonight, instead of making it part of the appendix.

Perhaps orchestras and venues think they are doing it enough already. Personally, I think they can go further. There is no shame in talking about money and your lack of it (just make sure you don’t come across as pompous, entitled, desperate or overtly political).

Without that critical subsidy, such joyously communal experiences like the LSO Trafalgar gig, and a whole host of other events we’ve come to take for granted, would be impossible to stage.

The LSO Open Air Classics Concert is on Sunday 22 May 2016 at 6.30pm in Trafalgar Square, London. The programme consists of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, an arrangement of his Suite from Swan Lake, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. Valery Gergiev is conducting. More details on the LSO Open Air website.