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 lpo.org.uk. See the LPO 2019/20 brochure here.

Think like marketers

I’ve been doing a lot of listening this week. Interviewing necessitates that.

There’s little point in preparing a list of questions to ask an interviewee, asking them, and then not listening to the responses.

Its the responses that offer the more tantalising opportunities for follow-up. The follow-up will always surpass your original expectations. It is the follow-up that yields the insight.

Peter Donohoe

Four such interactions this week.

The first, a 90 minute conversation with pianist Peter Donohoe up in Solihull for a podcast.

Donohoe was an open, warm and willing contributor. He shared all sorts of things about performance that deepened my understanding of piano music. He put me at ease, unwittingly legitimising me as a reasonably knowledgeable punter. Ninety minutes of conversation that closed the gap I sense between auditorium and the stage.

It was also a conversation where I felt so completely ‘in flow’ that the previous ruminations about invoices, payments, and impending bills seemed like a world away.

Interviews then – the necessary process of listening – helps me refocus attention on the now. Not only are these experiences an opportunity to create meaningful content and demonstrate skills and services to those with a budget, but they’re also moments to deepen thinking.

Realising I’d fallen into a listening and questioning habit only really became apparent when I attended the Philharmonia concert on Thursday (review to follow). It was the conversation with a marketing type afterward in particular which brought things into focus for me.

The content of the conversation is of course off limits, but its impact isn’t.

The questions came easily.

It was an exchange which reminded me that the classical music world I occupy in my mind’s eye both here on the blog and in the podcast, has a different vista from that seen by those who seek to generate business in the art music world, for example.

The core classical music audience isn’t as large as I might picture it in my imagination. It also doesn’t represent the biggest ticket-buying awareness-raising opportunities. Those opportunities are to be found in those who don’t consider the concert hall as their go-to location; those who don’t seek out classical music experiences or who don’t come very often.

Concentrating on the wrong people

This valuable perspective shook me a little.

I am a content producer – sometimes paid, sometimes not. My ability to pay the bills is, through choice, directly linked to my content production strategy. And the success of that strategy is dependent on it being in concert with the strategies of marketers and PRs.

There is no point in striving to create content that seeks the validation of or satisfies those who already know about the genre, because those individuals aren’t representative of the kind of audience the wider industry needs to attract. Such an inward-looking strategy doesn’t really help me nor the industry I’m seeking work opportunities from.

Think like a marketer

I mentioned earlier that this insight shook me. Its initial effect was similar to the thinking I have indulged in the past and ended up succumbing to – that which usually ends up with me abandoning a particular path because of a sense of frustration or impatience.

But it went further than that for me. There are skills I have that are useful (ergo billable) to the industry I feel a part of now. That those skills aren’t getting snapped up yet is either because I’m not as good as I think I am (a possibility), or more likely because I haven’t found the right way to integrate them yet. And that means thinking from the same perspective as a marketer.

But 48 hours later I notice a slight shift in my thinking.

Digital natives who understand the positive impact an authentic digital publishing can have, are in the business of awareness-raising and community-building; we’re not contracted to sell tickets. What we say to raise awareness and who we say it too is what is important.

And that for me means looking wider that the world I consider home, recognising that classical music – whether it be live performance, recorded music, or the content that surrounds it – doesn’t exist in a bubble. It has to be considered alongside a great many other experiences.

If content producers are to raise awareness and build community around the subject they care passionately about, then they need to look wider than the subject itself. They need to think like marketers.

Generation Z

And by shifting that thinking and opening my mind to looking at classical music as an experience or product – from the perspective of sales and business – then the need for other information is necessary. As if by magic, Barclays Investment Bank on Twitter provided a useful primer on Generation Z, and today, Manchester Collective’s Adam Szabo writes on Medium about branding.

Paid for packages

The day after the marketing conversation began with an interview with Czech Philharmonic Education Manager Petr Kadlec about the orchestra’s work with Chavorenge and music director Ida Kalerova.

Chavorenge – a collection of Roma children given the opportunity to develop life skills through choral singing experiences – sang on the first day of the ABO Conference in Belfast a few weeks back. The paid podcast gig garnered some valuable material and useful introductions, of which this interview was one.

Twenty minutes on the telephone plus another two hours editing, and the finished product is pushed gently onto the internet. I finished around 3pm and started on a handful of household chores, not returning to listen again the finished product until the early evening.


Ulster Orchestra Managing Director Richard Wigley introduces Ida Kelarova and Chavorenge with the Czech Philharmonic. Chavorenge offers Roma children the opportunity to sing together in life-affirming performances that seek to challenge prejudice in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

What I find pleasing listening back to it even now is the flow of the exchanges and the storytelling that emerges.

I like the occasional splashes of personality in the contributors characterised by the laughs, contrasted with the sheer wall of warmth and love that emanates from the singers themselves. That I remember ruminating quite a lot about the bills at the same time as editing makes the finished product all the more pleasing.

Obviously, there are one two technical errors with it. But that’s just the perfectionist talking, I like to thin.

New discoveries

One of my musical discoveries this week really touched me emotionally. When I first met the OH, his classical music library was small but proud. I don’t lay claim to having expanded his tastes – he’s done that himself through personal discovery (I like to think because classical music has been part of our regular music experience).

Over the past year or so I’ve seen him introduce me to unexpected delights. It is almost as though the emphasis has swung the other way in the relationship in that respect.

Mitsuko Uchida

So, yesterday morning as the pair of us sit down to read, he puts on some piano music.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Beethoven, I think.”

“Who’s playing?”

“Mitsuko Uchida.”

“Why did you pick this out?”

“I like the picture of her on the cover – the one that looks like she’s hanging on to her ears in case they fall off.”

It was electrifying stuff. My right hand started to grip the sofa cushion. I sat transfixed throughout the last movement of Piano Sonata No.30 – agonising beauty in the initial theme, extrapolated in an epic series of variations, including one Bach-esque fugue that cycles through some eyebrow-raising harmonic progressions.

It was the first time I heard it. What I heard brought tears to my eyes. Listened to it this morning and the same thing happened again.

Edmund Finnis

After that, a brief scoot through Edmund Finnis’s collection of new works on NMC, this year marking 30 years of supporting new composing talent.

The opening track, The Air, Turning  is a tantalising collection of textures that brings me alive, holding my attention throughout by presenting something that feeds curiosity with an imaginative world constructed with fascinating colours.

I want to spend a little more time paying closer attention to the release as a whole. It has a 70s concept album feel to it, the idea of which excites me a great deal. But in the meantime, be sure to listen to the gloriously eery Elsewhere. My current squeeze.

The Philharmonia, faux-vegan pies, and Mahler 6 at 9.20am

I’m waiting for the oven to get up to temperature.

On tonight’s menu, an experiment. Fresh savoy, red onion, and egg pie made with vegan pastry. Why do I have to go full-vegan? Who says? Who’s writing the rules? (For anyone who doesn’t already know, vegan pastry doesn’t last well in the fridge.)

It’s a while to wait until the pies can go in. Good job. There’s a lot to catch up on.

I’ve written notes (unusual for me) in readiness – on the back of a Philharmonia mailout received over the weekend.

Philharmonia

Not bad as a marketing strategy goes. Why bother spending loads of money mailing everybody on your customer database with an entire season’s worth of material? Better to adopt a targeted approach. And whoever came up with that idea knows me surprisingly well (or they guessed well).

Either way, someone let Yehuda know from the previous podcast. Some ensembles are doing data-driven marketing. I don’t remember being asked what I was curious about, but the Philharmonia seems to have worked it out.

Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok, plus a premiere by Péter Eötvös whose name I can’t pronounce which makes the event on Thursday 7 February all the more alluring. Then, later in February Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto (24 February) and a smattering of Debussy, Berio and Ravel (28 February).

Unsolicited feedback

Since I last posted, there have been many meetings. Many emails. Much unsolicited feedback. Complimentary things about the podcast shared face-to-face and over email.

And, importantly, in one conversation something that unexpectedly both rang true and acted as a timely reminder.

My professional career (in my head at least) is littered with illustrations of me not sticking at things for the long game.

Orchestral management, LBC, applying for jobs at Radio 3, the Graham Norton Show, and the producer job in BBC Multiplatform. I can point to any of those moments in my career and recall thinking, “if I’d had more resilience to stick at it, who knows what I’d be doing now”.

There’s no regret there. Not at all. I see variety as key to what I can offer to people now. Specialism isn’t all its cracked up to be.

The podcast is something I have stuck at though. So too the blogging (especially over the past three or so years). And when someone you meet up with reflects that commitment back to you unprompted, something clicks inside. Someone’s recognised what you’re doing. Stick at this.

I’ve been doing a lot of podcasting (and editing) over the past week or so. The ABO preview is me re-connecting with the joy of editing – all very polished. Lots of rapid turnaround. Swift editing. Umms and ahhs instinctively jettisoned.

Like the music the content I make is inspired by, every opportunity to revisit the tasks I love doing accesses happy memories and reinforces new, more robust, beliefs about the self.

It is, if you need an analogy at this point, like trusting your partner to make arrangements for a holiday.

When you arrive at your destination discovering its the most perfect place, the kind you probably couldn’t have selected yourself: you can’t quite believe you’ve got here; you’re hoping the days won’t run away from you too quickly either.

All this content-making reveals one other rather disappointing truth however: I am struggling to remember the last time I actually went to a concert. Making good content takes time. Does that make open to claims of fraudulence?

No.

In the event there are those who remain unconvinced, I have two ‘show and tells’ to make amends with.

Argerich and Mahler

We watched ‘Bloody Daughter‘ (‘Argerich’ on Amazon Prime) last night. Pianist Martha is both terrifying and seductive at the same time. Mesmerising technique at the keyboard and a wilful kind of self-aborbtion and obliqueness that ocassioanlly drove me wild. Daughter-documentary maker Stephanie created something utterly compelling on a par with the great Christopher Nupen. It’s something I want to watch again (before the 30 day rental period is up) and I want more of my pals to pick over too.

And this morning. Mahler 6 from MusicAeterna. Released last year. Streamed from IDAGIO after I gave the cats their medicine this morning. 9.20am I’m sobbing quite unexpectedly at the second movement, aware that crying seems like an odd thing to do at that time of the morning, aware that I have precious little to actually cry about, and yet unable to contain my reaction to what I’m listening to.

A new classical music radio station?

Does the UK need THREE classical music radio stations? Scala Radio (launching 4th March) seems to think so.

Ian Page, China’s first International Music Competition, and Saffron Hall

I may not have attended an actual concert yet this year, but I have recorded a podcast about one on 29 January, received a couple of new releases for review (Peter Donohoe’s Mozart collection, plus Emma Johnson and Friends, both on SOMM for release later in January). And I feel as though I’m keeping a closer eye on incoming press releases. In short, I feel like I’m a little more across things than I have been in the past. This is a good thing.

Part of this is to do with finding a way of talking about classical music announcements in a way that fits the mild shift in direction the Thoroughly Good Blog has taken in the past month or so.

PRs have a tough job

For all our pissing and moaning about some PRs efforts, I do think on the face of it they have a phenomenally difficult job. They’re issuing announcements about a comparatively niche art-form for inclusion on a limited number of platforms. They have to ensure that their language satisfies the intellectual aspirations of the recipient, and maximises exposure for the ultimate audience – the ticket buyer. They’re also (largely) having to enthuse about one-off events that the majority of people won’t attend. It’s a tough sell.

I see lots of people regurgitate press releases. I find this frustrating. I browse through some websites reluctantly because I feel I ought to be, if not reading then certainly seeing what everyone else is writing. When I see a blog post with the same structure as the press release I have in my inbox on the same subject, I gasp a little. Where’s the joy for the writer? Copying and pasting might help keep the wheels in motion, but it starves the self-publishing process of any creativity. Given that there’s little or no money in digital content, you’ve got to cling on to the creative opportunities however small whenever you can, it strikes me.

So I see myself responding to press releases now on an instinctive level, this signalled by the recent Aldeburgh announcement which was so well-timed that it took me by surprise and increased my heart rate slightly as a result. Similarly the SCO announcement a couple of days ago. Both of these rays of sunlight in what feels a grey part of the year.

Yesterday’s news

And yesterday, a string of announcements and releases which raise the eyebrows and get the creative juices flowing.

First, those SOMM recordings from Peter Donohoe and Emma Johnson.

Then, news that Saffron Hall (which I still haven’t visited even once yet) is running a series of dance events including names I’m wholly unfamiliar but at the same time demonstrate how the arts venue under the auspices of chief exec Angela Dixon is continuing to grow in confidence artistically. I do also think they have a beautifully simple website too. Pleasingly unfussy.

And after that, the big news of the day: China and its first international music festival in May later this year. This discovery came after the podcast record yesterday (more on that in a bit) which meant I was focusing more on the podcasting opportunities. As stories go I find it fascinating, especially if we are to assume the unlikely that Theresa May’s Brexit Homework does get a reluctant B- from MPs and our attention as a country starts to shift more beyond European shores. I make no apology for the fact that this is *straightens tie* something I’d love to feature on the podcast. I mean … just imagine .. a classical music competition in Beijing. What would that be like?

Recording a podcast with Mozartists artistic director Ian Page

Which brings me to the other thing that happened yesterday. The podcast recording with Ian Page from the Mozartists/Classical Opera talking about his 27 year project documenting the good and the unknown of Mozart’s entire canon plus some of those works that were in his orbit. Their next event is on 29 January at Southbank Centre.

“Have you been on the radio?” asked Ian before we started. “Have I heard you on In Tune?”

“I’ve been on In Tune once,” I replied, “to promote an Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gig years ago. I always wanted to be on the radio … ” I explained (and what I said next was the thing which really surprised me) ” … but never really got my foot in the door at Radio 3. I do sometimes wonder whether those who recruit probably have a good idea that someone who wants to be on the radio probably isn’t the kind of person they want on a production team.”

It was the first time in maybe 12 years I’d reconciled myself about the radio thing in such a calm, collected and grown-up way.

Ian is a fun contributor for a podcast which feels as though its found its feet now. Chat is the order the day. Easy exploration of shared passions. Allowing the contributor to introduce their subject using enthusiasm. Letting rapport lead the way means that the knowledge and expertise never slaps people across the face. Some surprising connections made in our conversation and I can’t wait for it to come out (although obviously I will have to).

What is it that you do?

When we finished the recording and I headed up to Barbican to speak to Jo Johnson from LSO about the Find Your Way leadership development scheme for the ABO conference podcast, one thought did strike me – a personal challenge I tussle with from time to time. It hung around when I was heading home to SE6 too.

At the risk of sounding like a show-off, work (paid and unpaid) involves a range of different activities, this underlined during my last engagement of the day – a visit to the dentist – which began with the question from the hygienist preparing me for the injection:

“What do you do for a living?”

I listed the things I find myself doing at the moment: “I shoot video, write about classical music, produce podcasts, coach people, and design and build websites.”

The hygienist looked at me with a blank expression. I took this to mean she wished she hadn’t asked.

The reality is that I love the variety that my work provides. But summing it all up in a way that makes it all sound enticing (and generates more of it) is tough.

Thoughts from BASCA’s 2018 British Composer Awards

The BASCA British Composer Awards are a jolly affair, possibly because it’s one of those rare occasions where the writers get all of the limelight. The cumulative effect of all of that effervescent positivity can be, especially in ambient surroundings like the Great Court at the British Museum, a little overwhelming.

A record-breaking 600 applications were listened to by a panel of industry types looking, I have it on good authority from one panellist for originality and impact. In true Everyman style, I asterisked every excerpt I heard during the ceremony that I liked: out of 35 nominees I listened to the first time, I picked out 19 I liked.

Top tip: new music is as difficult as you the listener assume it’s going to be before you listen to it.

Honourable Thoroughly Good Mentions therefore go to:

William Marsey for Belmont Chill
Dominic Murcott for The Harmonic Canon*
Roxanna Panifnik for Unending Love
Conall Gleesob for Solace*
Liam Taylor-West for The Umbrella*
James Weeks for Libro di fiammello e ombré*
Oliver Knussen for O Hotogisu!
James Dillon for Tanz/haus
Simon Lasky for Close to Ecstasy*
Robert Laidlow for Lines Between
Rebecca Saunders for Unbreathed*
Oliver Searle for Microscopic Dances
Jeremy Holland Smith for The Caretaker’s Guide to the Orchestra
Finlay Panter for Time
Graham Fitkin for Recorder Concerto
Julian Anderson for The Imaginary Museum
Gavin Higgins for Dark Arteries Suite
Lucy Pankhurst for Mindscapes
Simon Dobson for The Turing Test*

* Winners

Awards ceremonies are difficult things to write about. Anyone who’s got the drive, commitment and determination to create a work and then submit it for judging is a winner already – a potent reminder of my own creative ineptitude. Such events also illustrate how those who create possess both an innate talent and an unshakeable need. Giving up isn’t really an option.

There is a bittersweet aspect to these showcases, however. I still can’t contemplate the kind of resilience a composer needs to have to create something new, to hand it over to someone else to bring to life and then reconcile him or herself with the idea that its next outing may not be for a good long while, if at all. How it is it that doesn’t kill the creative process I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.

Big love for Sally Beamish who when accepting her British Composer Award for Inspiration paid tribute to her mother: “It’s because of you [Mum] that it simply never occurred to me that little girls couldn’t be composers.” And special moment of the evening goes to Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble winner Cassie Kinoshi who, owing to being on a flight to Cuba at the time of the awards ceremony, was unable to collect her trophy. So, Cassie sent her proud parents instead. Nice.

Top night catching up with old friends and familiar faces. Peachy.