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.

Jehovahs, Monte-Carlo, and NMC’s 30th anniversary

I’ve reconnected with my email spam folder. A galling discovery.

Discovered two missed podcast interviews from two very important people and a record label press release, sandwiched in between requests for help from a Crown Prince in Nigeria (I had no idea there was a Nigerian royal family) looking for money to fund a penis enlargement operation, and twenty-five year-old farm-hand ‘Geoff’ who I am told loves going to the gym and wrestling a lot.

In the inbox proper are eye-catching messages from the Monaco International Festival (their brochure artwork is a bit of a visual treat, and I see they’re doing a complete Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle and the BBC Symphony will be there too), news from Signum Classics about their collaboration with Cala Records (who until yesterday I am sorry to say I wasn’t even aware of but now discover possess some historical fascination like Stokowski conducting Beethoven 7), a couple of website quotation requests, and a pitch for a podcast.

Each email demands complete focus and comes with a self-imposed sense of pressure. And what that translates as is that emails take longer to respond to in most cases than they ever did before. More is riding on it than it ever did when I was at the BBC.

Interruptions

And then mid-response, there’s a knock on the door.

I open it and two elderly ladies in thick duffle coats introduce themselves, one adding, “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you as an adult, read the bible recently? What with how grim the world is at the moment, we think the Bible is a good thing to be reading.”

I explain that no I haven’t. I extend grateful thanks to them for stopping by and point out that, “I’m probably not your target audience really.” They ask if I know the people who live across the road. “Mohammed, you mean? Yes, we talk from time to time.” I comment on how cold it is today. They agree wholeheartedly. All pause to look at each other, they turn and leave, and I shut the front door.

Sing opera in whatever language you want

From Twitter, the marvellous Fran Wilson shared a Bachtrack piece by Mark Wigglesworth defending ENO’s policy of staging operas in English against detractors who argue for works to be performed in their originating language.

I read it on the train into London yesterday. I could feel myself getting enraged by it, at the same time as being rather dismissive about it even needing to be written in the first place.

Bachtrack proudly announces how important it is to reflect the debate at the top of the piece too, when the piece is ostensibly a PR rebuttal by ENO’s press team (at least if it wasn’t originated by them I don’t believe Mr Wigglesworth would haven’t written it without their blessing) that keeps the traffic going to Bachtrack’s site. Because really, at the end of the day, is the ‘debate’ serving the wider (potential) audience? Hint: No.

The naval gazing is so boring.

I’ve sat in enough operas sung in English, and plenty more in foreign languages with foreign subtitles to know that it isn’t about the spoken language more the narrative that emerges from the combined forces of music and words (irrespective of the actual language).

Some of them have been good productions too.

NMC Recordings 30th Anniversary

The boon to writing about press releases and announcements in this combined form is that there’s considerably less pressure: instead of writing posts for each anno (which always feels like a massive ball-ache), documenting what’s coming in when feels a lot lighter touch and a little more personal.

It also means I engage with the emails that come in. Perhaps that’s another challenge for PRs. In a self-publishing world awareness-raising is a real win from their perspective, even if the coverage isn’t the conventional preview or review.

So it is with NMC Recordings 30th anniversary stuff. I had no idea they’d been going for 30 years for a start. I wouldn’t have actively sought out their new music strand either, so being prompted to is a good trigger.

There’s a new Composer’s Academy release coming on 18th January. The preview track (Freya Waley-Cohen’s Ink) is a compelling listen with just the right amount of intrigue and spikiness to hook me in and helps reinforce collaborations with the Philharmonia and their association with cities outside of London, in this case De Montford Uni in Leicester.

Bernard Rands’ Dance Petrificada from the BBC Philharmonic’s album ‘Chains of the Sea’ is a fabulous thing, brimming with tantalising colours and textures, and a musical narrative that holds my attention throughout on a first listen. I see there’s a Cello Concerto on the release too – available on 8th February. It also gets a big tick for the artwork too.

Edmunds Finnis’ The Air, Turning is a similarly descriptive and evocative creation with hints of film music enhancing a strong piece of storytelling. Also on Finnis’ NMC release out on 8 February, a recording of Finnis’s Four Duets featuring clarinettist Mark Simpson. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group also feature on the album, which reminds me …

Salaries

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group are looking for an executive director with a top whack salary of £36K. That figure is commensurate with the sector (though is smaller than some of the bigger brands who look for people at that level). But it got me thinking about who would be applying for that kind of role, the kind of person BCMG would need to develop the group’s roster and portfolio, and whether the ideal person would be expecting more than that.

And that got me thinking about the conversation I had during the coaching meeting with an executive coach I know writing a PHD about organisational coaching and leadership development.

“I do believe quite passionately,” I said to him, lightly tapping my sternum, “that there are negative consequences for inviting applications for leadership development schemes – perhaps even calling them leadership development schemes in the first place. What about those who put themselves forward but don’t succeed?” He nodded in agreement. “Given how coaching has benefited both of us, isn’t it important that this work we do is accessible and affordable to all?”

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.

Tidying Up

Started watching ‘Tidying Up’ a couple of nights ago on Netflix – a lower-rent version of BBC Two’s brilliant ‘Life Laundry’ from years back.

In it, Marie Kondo talks about shedding stuff and ordering what remains in beautifully laid out drawers and shelves.

Prompted me to intersperse my writing with some real-life editing.

Ditched the concert series preview brochures; hung onto anything with programme notes in it – the result is print-based evidence of fruitful relationships with effective classical music PRs over the years.

The pile I threw away was mildly distressing. I see the effort in that print. I project a sense of pride onto their creation. I picture the people who have done the research, and the interviewing, and the writing, and the sub-editing. I stare at the pile of magazines I no longer want (because I haven’t looked at them in six months) and think to throw them away seems like such a shocking waste of everyone’s time, money and effort.

Why even write if the tangible evidence of your creation will, eventually, get thrown away?


This is all at odds with the big classical music journalism thing this week – Ariane Todes announcing plans for a new magazine she wants to put together about the artform and with a specific audience in mind. It’s a great thing, and one I’ve no doubt she will pull off too. It’s also much-needed.

But as much as I love print – I feel reassured by its tactile quality – it’s not lasting. It requires consumers like me to hang on to it in order for the work that was involved putting it together to continue to receive recognition. To discard that print feels disrespectful. Ungrateful. Doesn’t it?

The New Year has come with a whole host of unexpected thought processes, all of them loosely connected around value, purpose, and frugality.

An irony presents itself. The very thing which derives such pleasure for me (and seems to come reasonably easily) – writing – is the same thing that can be discarded so straightforwardly.

Writing is a pleasure, and something I don’t doubt I can do to a reasonably good level (note the use of ‘reasonably‘). It’s my safe haven amid the screaming. When I get paid for it the circle is complete.

What’s odd is the idea of wanting to write when you know that the potential fruits of your labour could be so easily forgotten and thrown away.

At least I hung on to the programme notes, I suppose.

2018 / 2019

Three cheers this year. Brace for the year to come.


As 2018 comes to a close its time to do the thing that seemingly everyone does now, and reflect on the year. Or at least my year.

It’s a tradition. Convention. A habit. Something I’ve been doing for a few years now. It’s usually interesting (for me), though as in previous years I can’t guarantee that’s necessarily the case for readers.

This year I’ve separated things out into events, artists, and discoveries.

At the end there’s the customary checking this year’s objectives against achievements, and documenting some plans for 2019.

Events

There’s a strange contradiction for arts bloggers, I’d suggest. If you’re a punter then attending events is central to your core offer. That means being in attendance at an event more than being present at home.

That hasn’t been the case for me this year. In some senses I feel a little guilty about that. At the same time it prompts me to reflect on the reasons why. They’re largely financial. I don’t want to plead poverty here, arts events cost money to attend – even in terms of travel. Even if you benefit from ‘invites’, the outlay on getting to events makes a dent, especially if you’re on a reduced income. That outlay is only going to be more for those who live further from cultural hubs. Next year, I’d like to be a little more strategic about events, maximising travel. At the very least, I’d like to see whether it’s possible and to see how that develops my appreciation for the artform.

This aside, a list of memorable performance-related moments from 2018:

Travels

Monte Carlo

The Monte Carlo International Festival was the first of many surprise trips in 2018. The experimental approach to programming (in one case bringing multiple instrumentalists to a recital to provide contributions to a running order) was interesting but perhaps not as successful as it could have been. Monaco is a strange place. Discovered the music of Charles Ives here.

Armenia

The highlight of the year – attending the Aram Kchataturian Music Competition. A trip that challenged many of my assumptions, exposed me to a good deal more cello music than I’ve ever heard before. This is probably where I felt most alive.

It also reminded me that there is a natural disconnection between practitioner and audience which marketing people seek to bridge. Musicians bond over repertoire and technique; audience members seek to fill the gaps in their music-making knowledge and experience. That’s a bittersweet thing: it draws both audience and musician together and maintains a distance between them.

Armenia will always be remembered for the difficulty I experienced leaving the country. “You are fatter in real life than in your passport picture,” said the security guard at the airport. “That picture was taken nearly ten years ago,” I replied. “Yes, but you are still fatter now.”

Karlsruhe

A fascinating trip to an area of Germany I’d never heard of before, to learn about the work of the now defunct Experimental Studio at Polish National Radio.

A trip tinged with a little sadness: I lost my lucky travelling companion of old – Travel Cat.

Katowice

The trip to Armenia was a highpoint because it felt like venturing to a far-away land to make new discoveries. My three days in Katowice, Poland was invigorating: NOSPR concert hall is a joy to behold both aurally and visually. It was a great opportunity to move swiftly into content production mode. The video montage (below) was something I was particularly pleased with.

Trondheim

This really was a last minute trip to Norway. Unexpected. Very interesting. It introduced me to a composer I’d never heard of before – Andre Gretry. I bought my most expensive glass of wine here – £13 – and discovered first hand what it’s like to be somewhere in the world where the light is subdued most of the day. I returned from Trondheim with flu.

Leeds Piano Competition

A magical magical experience.

A week attending the Leeds Piano Competition seeing remarkable musicians, being introduced to unfamiliar repertoire, and revelling in the joyous atmosphere the Leeds audience brings to proceedings. I adore this trip, not least because for a few days I lived like a student again.

Also, winner Eric Lu is a remarkable pianist whose Chopin Ballade was the most amazing live performance I’ve ever heard.

Artists

During a recent conversation with a colleague at the BASCA Composer Awards during which I discussed podcasting rates and the best way to minimise production costs, and so maximise ‘profits’, I was reminded about how recording a podcast this year has brought me into contact with all manner of artists.

During our conversations, they’ve shared their experiences of doing the thing they love and how they’ve maintained that over time. I’ve found these insights invaluable.

Below is a list of artists who have had an impact on me throughout the year; the things they’ve brought to my listening experience and my understanding.

Jonathan Swensen (Cello)

A remarkable musician with incredible focus and energy. His second round performances at the Aram Khachaturian Music Competition were electrifying. I was fascinated by how he managed to maintain such a compelling spirit on stage, and discovered during interview that what we saw in performance was pretty much him in real life.

Eric Lu (Piano)

See above. Lu is an amazing performer. From another world.

Calidore String Quartet

The podcast I recorded with the Calidore Quartet before I headed out to Karlsruhe was enlightening. I had no idea that being a member of a quartet brought with it so much commitment, nor that it was such a fragile experience. The lasting memory from the podcast: “Play every concert as though its going to be your last.”

Lewis Wright (Percussion)

Fascinating man who grew up just a few miles from where I did in West Norfolk. The first of many insights this year about how creating stuff takes time. Sati from his release of duets with Kit Downes is something I’m still playing a lot.

Australian Chamber Orchestra

The podacst with Richard Tognetti from the Australian Chamber Orchestra was a bit of a shot in the arm. Feisty. Spirited. Opinionated. Massively refreshing compared to the often hand-wringing air the classical music world falls back on. It prompted a musical discovery too – the ACO’s recording of Mozart’s last symphonies. Jaw-dropping.

Sophie Webber (cello)

Sophie features in a podcast to be released early in the new year. We met following her contacting me about her recording of Bach cello suites earlier in the year. What I really admired about Sophie (in addition to her playing) is her awareness, ability and track record in managing her own career, generating interest in her work. No easy feat. A demonstration of what musicians have to do to generate income from their talent.

Discoveries

It’s been a pleasure to revisit some of these discoveries for this post. If I had to pick one in particular, it would be Philip Sheppard’s Fall from Earth, very closely followed by Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony.

Worth mentioning Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Maconchy. I can’t pick out single works that I’ve really connected with necessarily. Rather, that one conversation with a podcast contributor – Dr Sophie Fuller at Trinity Laban – opened the door on a whole collection of women composers who I’ve yet to listen to in-depth. What I’ve heard so far excites me. And that’s all down to Dr Fuller.

2018 Objectives

What was on the list for 2018? Here’s a reminder.

  1. Be bold; be distinctive; be focused; don’t compare
  2. Think of digital content as strands as opposed to standalone posts
  3. Get to Aldeburgh Festival, Dartington, and the Edinburgh International Festival this year.
  4. Get more video commission and motion-graphic work
  5. Drive the funding strategy so it at least covers the annual costs of running the blog
  6. Build your immunity
  7. Don’t panic – opportunities come from all sorts of places
  8. Launch the podcast
  9. Crack the fear of money
  10. Acknowledge the terror and pitch some book ideas

Pretty much succeeded on nearly all of these objectives including the launch of the podcast, cracking the fear of money and not panicking about work. There have been one or two video commissions too, and the blog has secured some funding for its ongoing development (many thanks to supporters, especially the ‘in-kind’ ones) and, I now realise, its been legitimised in my mind.

My relationship with the blog and the content on it and my Twitter account has changed quite a lot over the past year. It’s easy to look at other writers on the subject and worry about the differences between this blog and theirs. Yet, there’s something to celebrate there I think. Maintaining a distinctive voice and style is vital. I’ve become more settled in my preference for journalling, reflection, and reasonably strong(ish) views. It’s been fulfilling to focus on listening discoveries. The travelling has fuelled my writing and I hope that’s something I’ll expand on in the new year.

2019 Objectives

Here are some of the things I’ve planned out for 2019.

  1. Be more strategic on selecting arts events to reflect on; outline what links content discoveries; resist getting irritated by the wheat and the chaff.
  2. Focus more on building content around coaching on the Thoroughly Good Coaching website; ring-fence time spent on Thoroughly Good (Classical Music) content and maximise that time.
  3. Tackle the garden; grow plants from seed; build replacement decking (this is a massive undertaking – so let’s not hold our breath here).
  4. Increase revenue by 35%.
  5. Use buses whenever is possible; reduce London travel costs by 25%.
  6. Keep the impact of Richard Wilson’s 20:50 at the Hayward Gallery’s Shape Shifters exhibition in mind with everything you say and do in 2019.
  7. Continue producing the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast, but experiment with different hosts: truly ‘produce’.
  8. Meet more people. Visit new places; travelling is where I discover the most.
  9. Write more articles; you’re as good as anyone else who does so.
  10. Drink less wine.