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?”

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Wagner and Sibelius from the BBC Philharmonic

I’ve pencilled in a few concerts next week I could attend in person. My comfort zone at the time of writing seems to be a mixture of iPlayer ‘catch-up’ and listening live. Today’s exploits were a mixture of Wagner/Sibelius from the BBC Philharmonic, and the organ Prom from Sunday.

The Wagner – the overture from Die Meistersingers – is defiant, proud and a triumphant kind of opening. Against all odds things are and will be OK. Here a performance not only accessed feelings but gave them a label.

Transparency is important here. At the same as listening to the Wagner, I was watching the Swedish activist refusing to allow a plane leave the tarmac so that a man threatened with deportation to Afghanistan had another chance at life. Tears rolled down my cheeks, just like everyone else who saw that footage I imagine. 

All of this was a much-needed release the ‘events‘ of yesterday had provoked a sense of panic (fuelled by a hefty dose catastrophisation). I’d spent most of the morning worrying about the future instead of focussing on the now. The irony? What was actually important was focussing now on what needed to be done in the future. 

This shift in thinking stands the best chance of happening when listening to classical music. It’s not that it promotes a relaxed state. It’s more to do with the way musical narrative provides focus.

In the case of Sibelius’ seventh symphony, it’s the quality of the sound and my connection with the notation, harmony and the texture and the resulting effect. By focussing on the emotional impact of Sibelius’ creation that the underlying thoughts and feelings reveal themselves.

What emerged listening to Sibelius 7?

Fear. Panic. The painful reminder that I constantly compare myself to others on the internet. Fuck knows why. It doesn’t help me at all. 

It worked once. It spurred me on to practice harder and secure my Grade 7 clarinet when I was a teenager.

But it’s a tricky drug to manage. Comparing yourself has a destructive effect if you don’t keep it in check. 

Sibelius 7 – tempestuous, sometimes agitated, at other times musical ideas are tossed around different sections, eventually coalescing around a sort of climax and then heading off towards something different. The resolutions are never resolute. That’s what makes Sibelius so brilliantly real and keeps me coming back for more. 

Social media relies on its audience comparing itself with its contemporaries. The thing that keeps the platform alive is the thing we should be on our guard about. 

What I do post on social media? Largely unflattering stuff – candid, open, brutal and authentic. Rarely pretty.

That’s valuable. If you’re going to spend time writing for no money, write something authentic and distinctive that cuts across the bullshit.

I need to remind myself to adopt the same reading social media as I do writing for it. 

Thanks Sibelius 7. You really helped.

BBC Proms 2018 Diary: Prom 4

Finally, the Proms is properly underway for me. Mark Simpson on clarinet playing Magnus Lindberg’s effervescent and wibbly-wobbly clarinet concerto, matched with Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony from the BBC Philharmonic and Juanjo Mena.

I like the relative simplicity of the programme – one work in the first half, another in the second. I like the way one has influenced the other in terms of its selection, and excepting the complexities of Lindberg’s scoring for the solo clarinet, I also like the unfussiness of the concert.

And, most notably for me, I like Simpson. I admire the way he’s followed a distinct path ever since winning Young Musician – a commitment to new and contemporary music both in his own composing career and his playing. It could have been so easy to follow a predictable path – I see him as choosing not to do that. And that’s reflecting in his social media too – one of only a handful of classical music people who get how use the tool to project an authentic and likable personality.

The Shostakovich Leningrad shone summer into the Royal Albert Hall at last, odd given the militaristic subject matter of the symphony. But Shostakovich’s symphonic works do that – its something about the harmonies and the textures I instantly associated with long, hot demanding summers.

Really enjoyed the Shostakovich. Prompt. Resilient. Defiant. Listened to it three times over on iPlayer. Loved it.

BBC Proms 2016 / 33: Elgar Symphony No. 1

Returning home from an interview early this morning, I sat on the platform waiting for the next overdue service to Catford. I had a thought about my waistline. I was reminded me of the double chin which presents itself whenever I get my picture taken. The spectre of exercise reared itself soon after. Yes, I might have a sore elbow which prevents me from riding my bike, but I should probably make more of an effort to get moving.

Beside me on the platform bench, I glanced a picture of Rio 2016 Olympic Bronze medallist Tom Daley’s torso, skimpy swimming trunks perched on an unfairly lean frame. Irritating white teeth glinted in the sunlight. Damn you and your stupid thumbs-up to the crowd, Daley. I don’t need you to remind me how I really ought to be pushing myself a little harder.

By pushing myself, I really mean squeezing at least some exercise into my day. The thing is that I can’t even lift a pillow without feeling a twinge up my arm. It’s the latest in a long line of stupid middle-age ailments which have afflicted me this year. Everyone is bored of hearing about them. The daily pill-popping is equally tiresome.

The 22-day push-up challenge was a non-starter. Maybe I should run instead.

The fact is that I hate running. Running is the only pastime guaranteed to test my stamina which will nearly always be found to be lacking when I’m sweating, puffing and generally looking like a twat. Fortunately, the NHS recommends walking before running anyway, and suggests a good beginner’s target for getting the 8required exercise is 10K steps a day. I follow up with an email to a colleague – a poster girl for dramatic walk-induced weight loss – asking her how many steps she advocates a day. “I’m asking for a friend,” I say. She recommends between 11K and 15K.

I make a private bid to walk to tonight’s Prom, but am unexpectedly diverted by peer pressure. A colleague has unexpectedly announced her departure. She doesn’t realise it at the time, but my world momentarily shuddered, I was so unprepared for it. Shall we all follow up with a drink, she proposes? Everyone is agreement. Yes, we would meet in the Green Man.

It would have taken 45 minutes to walk to the Royal Albert Hall. I could have left at 6.30pm but – schoolboy error – I end up staying for another half. I stare at myself in the mirror of the gents and promise myself I’ll never wear the chinos and denim combination again. It does nothing for me, not least because the colour of the shirt fails to cast a much-needed shadow under my chin.

A timely Uber gets me deep into Hyde Park, somewhere near the Serpentine Gallery. “What time do you need to be where you’re going?” asks the driver. Despite my best intentions, I still find myself trotting to the concert hall, only minutes to get to my seat.

I explain all of this because I think the detail rules. In addition, in stark contrast to other recent concert experiences, I want to illustrate the kind of banality can get in the way of moments of great artistry.

Dutilleux is, without doubt, my new most favourite composer. The man loved sound, and revelled in creating all sorts of exotic and evocative soundscapes. The opening of what amounts to his cello concerto was tense. At the same time, the opening sequence deftly illustrated the melodic and textural range of the instrument. Within minutes I was convinced: this was far more engaging than Elgar’s rather staid concerto. Taut harmonies followed in the second movement over which a strung out melody hovered high above. It was a combination that shimmered as miraculously as the filament in an electric fire from the 1970s. The third contained sparkling woodwind sequences combined with more evidence of the extent to which Dutilleux loves the cello and its range. The fourth movement was a blissful escape – tortured but cathartic at the same time. There was a fifth movement, but to be honest, I didn’t write any notes about that.

It was the Elgar symphony in the second half I’d really come for. The opening theme remains both enigmatic and somehow the most potent piece of melodic writing Elgar ever penned. It is arresting. Captivating. It will always remain, as Tom Service said a few years ago live on BBC Four, “proper Elgar”.

The slow movement – the third – transported me. This was the moment the BBC Philharmonic created something miraculous and much-needed. If magical moments are characterised by people stopping in their tracks and collectively holding their breath, the third movement adagio was it.

I closed my eyes. Tears rolled down my face. It wasn’t all to do with the music, of course. Some of it was enabled by the lager I’d consumed earlier in the evening. Regardless of who or what ultimately takes the credit, it was an incredibly special moment. There was a release.

The symphony finished ahead of time. I hit South Kensington tube three minutes to ten. I’ll complete the long 54-minute walk from the Royal Albert Hall to Charing Cross Station another time.