Wigmore Hall and a full day of doing stuff

I’ve been in the office all day. The sun swung by around eleven-ish and burned its way across my monitor making the detailed website work I’ve been ploughing through today quite challenging. I impressed myself with a Britten-esque kind of resourcefulness, retrieving the remains of a superglue tube from the draw and fixing the window blind. Focus continued throughout the afternoon. Tea was made. More progress. Emails sent. Then the final task for today.

Playlist creation

I’ve always been rather cynical about playlists for streaming services. This isn’t necessarily a good thing to admit given that I’ve been commissioned to create one and write the contextual information about it. The truth is that I question whether anybody really cares what I think about what you should listen to. I’m all about personal discovery. That’s what classical music is at its heart. It’s a subjective thing after all. Therefore, you the listener need to put the hard graft in. You need to work out what it is you want to listen to. And, when you do listen, you need to be able to work out how it makes you feel. Bottom line. Why don’t people realise this?

Yet, the weird thing is, that creating a playlist for someone is a remarkably stressful process. You’re making a statement. It’s a reflection of yourself (even if contractually you’re not allowed to talk about yourself in the text you write. The copy you submit is then a constraint, even though the meat of the product is a personal selection.

An odd process. Enjoyable though. A little bit stressed about it. I am 24 business hours past my submission date. Actually emailed the editor asking for an extension. Felt like a fucking student again. So pathetic. Hope to God he replies (and pays up) otherwise I’ve spent a couple of hours doing something for no money.

More on that story later.

Festival dates

One of the other tasks for today was following up on a slew of emails from last week, one from a festival inviting me to consider attending a selection of their concerts in the spring. I browsed events with a slightly keener eye than I have done in the past, honing in on some Beethoven quartets and Bartok concertos. These things are never certain and I always feel as though I have to go the extra mile to express appreciation for being invited. It’s the right thing to do, after all. ‘Penned’ the email, was about to hit send, then thought about noting down the dates I’d asked for. It was at that point I realised I was asking to attend three concerts from Friday 29th March .. necessitating a flight to and from Europe.

Again. More on that story later.

Wigmore Hall 2019/2020

I was intending to write about three festivals in this post. But, what with the ‘stuff’ I’ve been banging on about above, I’ve really only got time for one. Bite me.

Wigmore’s 2019/2020 season preview brochure is a delightful piece of print to hold in the hand. Instantly recognisable Wigmore red covers with embossed gold lettering. The text is clear, the line-height optimised, and the artist imagery well-selected and well-positioned. This like no other season brochure I’ve seen recently means the Wigmore’s new season is the easiest to write about. Someone knows what they’re doing.

The line-up is tantalising. My attention is drawn first off to the Beethoven spotlight featuring violinst James Ehnes who I still haven’t seen in London and must (I saw him play in Verbier once – I remember his unfussy playing made his seemingly effortless artistry alluring). There’s also the marvellous Isabelle Faust and the white heat of Janine Jansen’s playing on offer too.

Leonidas Kavakos is there too and is for me another must-attend.

I see Michael Collins will be performing both clarinet sonatas with Stephen Hough (as a clarinettist myself this something I would love to see – both ravishing works for the instrument, much better than those viola arrangements). Clarinettist Martin Fröst’s terrifying musical talent also makes an appearance at Wigmore Hall. An opportunity to witness his circular breathing would be one too good to miss. Expect that gig to sell out quickly.

Iestyn Davies gets a 40th birthday concert too (I’m sure there won’t be any issues with the correct spelling of his name on the dressing room door – best make a mental note Wigmore Hall just in case though).

And the sight of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes staring out at me from page 13 with those steely grey Norwegian eyes is enough to make me buy up all the tickets on offer for both his pairing with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and his solo recital regardless of what the programme is. I’m that superficial.

Reflections on #ABO19

I don’t want to be one of those people who talks about how busy they are.

I see it a lot on various Facebook groups I’m a member of – ones intended to make freelancers like me feel ‘less lonely’.

What the protestations of busy-ness usually end of doing is triggering my Cynicism Gland.

It is, as far as I can make out, a similar malaise as the twenty-somethings I used to follow on Instagram whose postings consist of pouting lips and cocked heads.

Instead, I’d rather say I’m a bit anxious about the remaining work I must get through. Unfinished projects aren’t good. Imagining potentially unhappy clients tapping their fingers on imaginary desks is enough to increase the heart rate.

So, I’m keeping this post reasonably tight. Back to normal ramblings on announcements and releases in the days to come.

Demanding but rewarding

Why the workload is causing mild anxiety is partly down to last week’s totally absorbing Association of British Orchestras conference in Belfast I attended.

Conferences are, once you get into the swing of them, both demanding and distracting.

Listening to presentation after presentation through headphones (I was capturing events for the ABO Podcast – episodes out on Mixcloud over the next few days) demanded focus.

Trying to edit material in amongst the melee was also similarly demanding.

I was there to work, to learn, to curate, and to network, the combination of which was – this isn’t a moan – exhausting.

Back to core principles

The highlight for me was the appearance of Sir Roger Scruton in the final ABO session ‘Recapturing the Audience’.

I sat at the front of the audience listening to what he saying on headphones, keeping an ear out for any unwanted sounds which might then need to be subsequently edited out. The result of that focus was something rather magical. Take a listen.

Roger Scruton explores listening, hearing and the mystery of music


Scruton is a controversial figure whose criticisms he robustly rebutted early last November. But in his closing ABO speech he went back to core principles, describing sounds, and the difference between hearing and listening in a compelling way. His evocative script had a hint of neuro-linguistic programming in it, putting me as a listener at the heart of the music he was annotating in an arresting and thought-provoking way. I found it a suitable closing – a return to the foundations of what classical music means to me – that stripped away the noise created by the necessary business of selling classical music and the confusion that business sometimes creates.

Other #ABO19 highlights and notables

Reflecting on the impact a conference has does, I think need to be done in the days that follow. I tried to do it on the flight back from Belfast International Airport but it was all too manic and the challenge of getting back from Gatwick Airport to Lewisham on a mixture of train, tram and buses all too distracting (I succeeded by the way – it cost me £4.70).

Now I look through my notebook, some thoughts seem worth sharing now, thoughts which arose from conversations with others, and attending presentations. More in a special Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast in the coming week.

  1. Advocating classical music means more than just saying everything is brilliant, it also means being able to say that something hasn’t quite worked.
  2. Playing rank and file in youth orchestra was described by one now professional musician as an experience which tamed the ego; I remember it fueling mine.
  3. It surprised me when some people I spoke to for the first time told me that they followed me on Twitter. I forget that. It did stopped me in my tracks momentarily.
  4. I met a PR hero from the past – someone I knew of from 25 years ago but have never met face to face in the intervening period. It was quite by chance. It was incredibly invigorating. She has quite the most remarkable energy about her.
  5. I interviewed one person who runs one particular orchestra whose clear vision is demonstrated in the orchestra’s activities. And that vision is to a large extent an illustration of the kind of person that individual is: warm, open, interesting, and engaging. Those people aren’t necessarily in the limelight. I wonder whether they need to be.
  6. There’s a disconnect between the language used some in arts management and the language the audiences some ensembles are reaching out to in order to drive ticket sales. My assumption is that a more unified (and simplified) language would be more efficient – cleaner, if you will.
  7. Everyone seems to be coalescing around the classical streaming story currently bounding around. It is fundamentally a positive story. But I question whether its the orchestras who are necessarily benefitting financially from that story. Or whether they will in the future.
  8. Classic FM’s reputation is broad and solid. It’s messaging (reflected in multiple sessions I attended) is strong, concise and very clear. It’s a stark contrast to the sometimes confused messages some ensembles put out. I see Classic FM more as a platform than a radio station as a result.
  9. I did wonder at various points whether against the present backdrop of streaming and Classic FM, that at some point BBC Radio 3 as a network would eventually die. What might we be left with? Two commerical classical music radio stations, with the BBC providing broadcast orchestras for its summer-long classical music festival. If streaming is enabling discovery of an art form in a new audience demographic, what’s the point in a radio station?
  10. The human impact of a potential no-deal Brexit on lives, livelihoods, and organisations is saddening. Individual stories about how Theresa May’s deal could impact on day-to-day life in Northern Ireland worrying.
  11. Bumping into a Youth Orchestra contemporary in a lift and surprising her with the connection she hadn’t previously realised we shared was a delightful moment I shall treasure for a while to come.
  12. Also, the Chavorenge Children’s Choir (see below) are heartbreakers.

The real big thing

Most important – perhaps the big headline for me coming away from the conference – was an overwhelming feeling of being a part of a community I worried that I’d abandoned twenty odd years ago and, as a result, would struggle to feel a part of again.

Bumping into people I half know, with whom I felt comfortable sharing and developing ideas with about a subject I feel at home with, left me with a sense of completion – the opposite of imposter syndrome. A reward for time spent scribbling, talking and editing.

I returned to London feeling invigorated. I felt like a legitimate part of the community. And I don’t even run an orchestra.

Plans for the Centre for Music in London

Seeing as I expressed my views about Scala Radio earlier on today, I figured I’d do what I should have done last night about the plans for London’s newest concert hall.

Full disclosure. I’m not one of those buffs who slams his fist on the desk to complain about the lack of good acoustic spaces in London. Any concert hall feels like home to me.

Sure, I’m a purist, but I’m not an evangelist.

And, if I was being a complete pain in the arse, I’m not sure I would necessarily seek out where they’re looking to build the new Centre for Music. Unless, like the area around King’s Place in King’s Cross, such a development would finally make sense of the space.

Anyway. I’ve complicated this already. Basically. I love this design. I want this to be built. I want our version of Elbphilharmonie.

What do I love most about the Centre for Music? It’s the top floor (see helpful graphic above).

I want to be there now. I don’t care who plays. They can play out of tune for all I care. I want the thing to be built. Now.

Worth noting (for those who care). I didn’t receive a press release about this. You know, I don’t really have a problem about that. Not really. No. Really. I don’t.

Ooh, Scala Radio

Good on Bauer Media announcing the impending arrival of the UK’s third ‘classical music’ radio station – Scala Radio – yesterday early evening.

At various points overnight when I’ve woken up to go to the bathroom, I’ve pondered about the announcement with uncharacteristic excitement and not a hint of cynicism.

And I’m not being sarcastic, either.

Scala Radio. It’s not a bad name. Not shiny. Eclectic. Like those independent pubs set up in former post offices. All mismatched cutlery and old steel tube office chairs with taught woven backs.

Why invest so much effort to start up a third classical music station? Does the UK need another classical music radio station? I thought radio listener figures were dwindling anyway. Can the industry sustain another station?

Looked at from another perspective, all Scala Radio really represents is the reassignment of bandwidth from one music genre to another, complete with the marketing costs necessary to raise awareness about it.

It would be all too easy to see this through rose-tinted public service specs, but the reality is that like Classic FM’s owners Global, Scala Radio is part of a commercial media organisation in direct competition with Global. And since the BPI’s announcement about an increase in streams for classical music last week, the industry as a whole sees an opportunity. A market worth investing in.

There is then the possibility of Scala Radio illustrating a canny strategic move to exploit a perceived rise in mainstream popularity of ‘classical music’ and raise advertising revenue.

It seems like a bold move to take. Classic FM’s dominance is, as far as I can see, unassailable, in no small part down to its considerable digital strategy which is much-loved amongst the audience it tirelessly serves (or should that be relentlessly pursues?)

Maybe it’s not just about making a dent on the audience share in a bid to please shareholders. Maybe it’s also about driving streaming requests and giving the mainstream labels ‘classical’ properties more exposure. I’m not sure. The figures seem so low as to be inconsequential.

Whatever the strategy, that classical is even being seen as a viable enough genre to support a fledgling brand, says something about how perspectives have changed. My assumption is that the playlist will be pretty similar to Classic FM’s so it probably won’t divert my attention from my preference for discovery and curation via streaming services.

I’m interested too in the possibility of ‘entertainment’ and classical music. I don’t think Classic FM does this in an especially authentic way – or at least not in a way that makes me able to listen to it any longer than an hour or so. There is then an opportunity to create the as yet unattainable: an engaging combination of classical music and speech that doesn’t sound awkwardly knowing.

In this regard, Simon Mayo’s billing makes that possibility a little more likely. That Mark Kermode joins the line up too only reinforces that point. I don’t believe Kermode would do something he thought was potentially a bit shit, for example.

And whilst the sight of one member of the presenter line-up pictured above throws me into an uncontrollable rage, I do think the reappearance of Goldie and what Bauer says he’ll be contributing to the output is an interesting proposition.

I am intrigued and .. though I hate the use of the word … excited by what Scala sounds like when it arrives on 4th March.

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.