Prince Charles in a hard hat at the Royal College of Music

I recently participated in a PhD survey investigating how descriptive text used for the blind or partially sighted, deepened the understanding sense of recall when a sighted individual listened to it and looked at the corresponding picture at the same time.

Now whenever I see a picture I can’t help thinking what the audio description would be for it. The habit of describing literally what you see does risk draining some of the joy from a visual experience. At the same time it also injects a mild bit of humour into proceedings. As with the picture above: Prince Charles in a hard hat in a partially completed room.

For those in need of a slightly more useful description …
pictured above is the 150-seat Performance Hall, The Prince of Wales, Royal College of Music’s Chairman, Lord Black of Brentwood, and a collection of RCM musicians who performed Haydn’s March for the Prince of Wales (March in E flat major HobVIII:3bis).

It’s all terribly good news for the Royal College of Music as it illustrates another milestone in their ongoing building development works.

Now it’s the fit-out and the race to pick-out highly sought-out desk positions with the nicest chairs (and other such delights I vaguely recall when I was advised I had a desk in Broadcasting House a few years back).

And when it’s complete, it’s going to be quite the cracking transformation for both building, students and public alike. Much. Excitement.

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.

Review: Scala Radio’s First Day

Scala has a warm feel with some strong presenters, gentle fun and some engaging musical choices. Notwithstanding some playlist tweaks, they’re a more palatable listen than Classic FM and a good deal more with it than Radio 3 is with its latest schedule changes 

What Scala achieved on its first day (that Classic FM never really has) is that I’ve been able to listen to to the station all day.

That’s partly because I’ve wanted to test it (and me).

I know it’s not targeting the likes of me, but if I could enjoy listening to it for an extended period of time then that would say something: it must be doing something right.

It’s warm. It’s honest. It’s carefully .. oh so carefully .. curated too.

Nothing has been left to chance. And from the off that carefulness did pay off. The juxtaposition of classical pops with instrumental pop seemed to work, even if some of the pre-recorded hyperbole about classical music’s part in the history of the UK jarred. 

An uncomfortable conversation ensued between Simon Mayo and late-night presenter William Orbit as Scala’s owners Bauer sought to re-define classical music as anything (effectively) that had an orchestral instrument in it.

There was also a painful howler (or was it a gentle poke?) when Mayo read out composer Mike Batt’s email to the station, praising Scala as the egalitarian response to classical music’s snobs and cliques (an email in which he was effectively pitching his own compositions for playout). One wonders why Scala hadn’t sought his oeuvre out already.

Similarly, playing Einaudi within 33 minutes of the station’s start did much to make the challenge I’d set myself at the start of the day something not worth pursuing. I hear little joy in Einaudi’s music. What we heard today – his latest release – was ponderous. Rick Wakeman too. I remain unpersuaded.

Deft production saw a home-educated kid phone in his request to Simon Mayo close lunch time.. But this, like the genuinely warm chit chat and enthusiastic feedback from the audience was overshadowed by one glaring reality for me: an advert for ‘the world’s most beloved tenor Andrea Bocelli’ and his various arena gigs. I’m not the target audience, I had to remind myself.

What the station does underline however is that people like me are in the minority. That the majority of people are prepared to give classical music (and their definition of the genre) a go is what is more important here than keeping the likes me of me happy.

Scala has adopted a softly-softly approach without being apologetic. The fact that presenter Sam Hughes was happy to read out one listener’s email saying how they were ‘just happy you didn’t talk about relaxing music’ was enough for me to know that Bauer are reasonably knowing about what they were offering.

Mark Forrest at drivetime is well pitched. He has that gentle warm end-of-the-day thing going on that makes the end of the day less of a reason to feel guilty and more something to feel warm and cosy about. One or two moments of hyperbole and mindless inaccuracies, but still I was hooked. Why?

Because there aren’t that many adverts. I assumed I’d hear endless adverts. I assumed that the adverts would wrest me from what I was listening to to make the whole thing a rather sordid experience.

So I’ve spent very nearly the day listening to Scala. There are some good things about it too. It has defied my expectations. Stylistically, its less annoying than Classic, with some strong voices, and some sound scheduling choices. Sure, there are things about it that made me shout at the radio, but the difference is that they’re trying their best and I’m not really paying for them. So they offer an alternative. And I think they might just offer a reasonably solid and entertaining introduction to the genre.

Someone’s paying attention. Clearly.

Picture credit: Brett Spencer

Review: Guildhall School of Music’s 2019 production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ambitious programming, some strong voices, and a brilliant set. The direction didn’t always support voice projection. Bottom, strong.

I didn’t especially enjoy the Guildhall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream production last week. It’s probably best to just come out and say it straight off the bat.

This was ambitious programming, the challenge of which was undoubtedly met by the striking set design which did much to make use of Silk Street Theatre’s considerable perhaps even intimidating space.

It seems incredible to think that the first performance of the work in 1960 was in Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall – a much smaller space than that at the Guildhall’s theatre. The restricted available space undoubtedly will have influenced Britten’s composition in terms of resources. I had for example always considered MSND a chamber opera like Lucretia or Herring. Yet, in the Silk Street Theatre, the production gave the work a larger scale symphonic feel.

This wasn’t altogether successful. There were some moments the direction had positioned solo voices were positioned at the back of the raked stage, sometimes characters singing side on to the audience. From time to time diction was lost and the orchestra dominated.

The set design probably didn’t help in this regard. A design which reduced the active stage area may well have imposed restrictions on the direction which in turn may have supported the voices a little more.

Collin Shay (Oberon) caught my ear quite early on. A demanding role it seems to me which exposes the performer right from the off. What I appreciated most in his performance was the way it developed throughout the production. Though a confident presence on stage, I did wonder whether nerves had got to him initially. Subsequent appearances saw his delivery get progressively stronger.

Those scenes featuring the Rustics (for those unfamiliar with Britten and Pears’ libretto this is where Bottom has his starring role) were when energy was resolutely on stage. The ensemble was tight, rich, and warm. Collective confidence brought their scenes to life.

Christian Valle (Bottom) played a distinctive character. Unorthodox, daring but also charming. William Thomas (Quince) proved a suitable foil making Bottom’s awkwardness lovable.

Performance attended: Wednesday 27 February 2019
Picture credit: Clive Barda

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.