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.

Why the LPO’s Lutosławski 3 was such a special thing this week

Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the LPO’s season opener was the range of experiences one concert has yielded.

First, attending a concert where my ears convey one impression of an acoustic to my brain, and later the way a radio mix with added reverb reflects something entirely different.

For years I’ve unwittingly sought out ‘perfection’ in performance. It’s a sure fire way of guaranteeing disappointment.

Recorded music presents us with something dry and possibly detached from the composer’s original intention. In recent years, I’ve shrugged off the expectation for everything to be note perfect.

This week I come to realise that it doesn’t really matter if the BBC adds an effect to the broadcast. What’s consistent between the live in-the-hall experience and listening back on catch-up is that the music itself – Lutoslawski 3 – is such a gratifying listen.

Until Wednesday I was completely unaware of Lutoslawski’s third symphony. I didn’t even realise he died as late as 1994. It was only when I saw someone I know on Twitter post a reference to the work (if you don’t follow George Chambers on Twitter, then you should) that I was even aware of the LPO’s concert programme. That’s how simple a process it was to get me to the LPO concert and discover something new which, three days later, I’ve listened back to a grand total of five times. That’s all it took. One person’s mildly obscure tweet to pique my interest. Time for those orchestras to start cutting back their marketing budgets.

That’s another point about what’s been rather thrilling about the LPO’s gig this week. I’ve had numerous conversations with people about it. In that way, a performance which has taken us all (kind of) by surprise, has stimulated conversations.

And most importantly for me, it was a mixture of auditorium and catch-up experiences which made playing the work to my non-concert-going OH for the first time which sealed the deal. If something I hear for the first time turns out to be something I feel the need to play to him like its some kind of earth-shattering discovery, then that says something about the music and something about the performance. 

At the risk of sounding like a soppy twat, a piece of music I heard for the first time this week, first performed in 1983, nine years before the composer’s death has brought a network of people together. Nice.

On the one hand I was dissapointed to hear how many tickets were actually sold – a surprisingly low number. Also that the PRS has a fund available to ensure that composer’s new works get a second airing – that’s why we got to hear Thomas Ades’ compelling In Seven Days at the concert too. The similarities between him and Lutoslawski – their joyous love of sound – makes the concert a triumph of programming. That it didn’t sell quite as many tickets as I had originally assumed goes to show the resources necessary to keep an art form alive.

We have a great many people to thank for that. Bold resolute individuals.

Album Review: Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 / Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 / Aldo Ciccolini / London Philharmonic Orchestra

Slow and steady wins the race, so the fable tells us.

It’s also what’s been uppermost in my mind listening to the latest live recording from the London Philharmonic Orchestra released this month. Both of the late-Aldo Ciccolini’s performances on the album have a sedate elegance to them that yields detail in both the keyboard and orchestrations – an enlightening study.

Where that slow and steady strategy really pays dividends is during the performance of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto recorded in May 2009 when the pianist was 81.

It’s not an entirely faultless rendition. There are one or two duff notes in the left hand, and there are moments when orchestra and piano have a bit of a tussle over speed. It’s as though the orchestra doesn’t quite agree with the more deliberate pace the pianist has adopted. You might notice that most in the first movement when the broad expansive subject we all recognise the work for returns mid-way through.

The clarinet solo in the second movement with a tauter than normal tonal range depicts a lonely fragile figure uncertain how to approach the world. This is where the performance departs from most other interpretations to my mind. Most embrace the sentimentality in the melody and harmonic accompaniment and ramp it up.

The second movement in this performance goes the other way, reducing the sentimentality to create an emotional range that is far more compact than anything I’ve heard before, creating something far more personal and fragile in the process. That makes the narrative more believable – something we can relate to because it avoids cliché and pursues something more authentic.

When the delicate high strings return with the main melody shortly before the end of the second movement there’s a sense we’re clinging on by our fingertips.

The subdued conclusion we hear at the end of the second movement makes for a far less bombastic third movement – one that rejects the usual fast-paced self-absorbed bluster. At a slower pace we’re treated to the finer details of the orchestration especially in the celli and trumpets. Here we appreciate the detail in Rachmaninov’s rhythmic patterns – details usually lost in more fierce interpretations. The complexities in the piano line are revealed too underlining the Rachmaninov’s original compositional achievement.

Once again, by resisting the temptation to over-sentimentalise a sense of energy and drive is retained. As a result when we do reach the conclusion there’s a feeling of a job well done – a solid unequivocal kind of achievement.

 

Listen to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Aldo Ciccolini on Idagio

Listen to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 played by Aldo Ciccolini and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Idagio

The entire album is also available via Spotify

£35K raised for Refugee Council Children’s Centre by Child of Our Time Concert

Nice to see the Refugee Council Children’s Centre concert written about on Arts Professional yesterday – a gratifying £35K was raised by staging the event in January.

Reflecting on the event’s success, Glydenbourne’s Special Projects and Opera Production Manager, and LPO Marketing Manager Libby Papakyriacou write:

“The lasting impression we had was that, when given the opportunity to engage with an event such as this, our colleagues across the sector were genuinely happy to be able to use their professional abilities and resources to do so.

The night itself was a great success, with over £35,000 raised through sales and donations. One of the biggest positives to emerge from the evening, and one we hadn’t fully anticipated, was the opportunity the evening gave the charity to engage with its existing loyal supporters and a huge number of future prospects.”

Read a review of the Refugee Council Children’s Centre fundraising concert 

Selected London Concerts This Week (Mon 5 – Sun 11 Feb 2018)

I’ve been meaning to put together a timetable of concerts like the one above for a few months now.

The original idea was borne out of the frustration I find trying to keep track of what’s going on when across the capital. After last week’s marathon set of announcements – Southbank’s 2018/19 season plus the four resident and associate orchestras, Barbican, and Wigmore Hall – I revisited the original planner idea.

Caveats

It’s not meant to be exhaustive though could be if I scaled it up (something I wouldn’t mind trying eventually). Instead, it’s just a way for me to map out what’s going in a given period of time. It’s also deliberately meant to be analogue as opposed to digital. The very act of drawing out a timetable, searching through the listings and writing it into a chart increases focus, in turn helping make decisions about what to see and what not.

Note – the London Mozart Players gig is on Wednesday not Monday. We’re all allowed to make mistakes.

Scope, Range and Busy-ness

It became really obvious very very quickly (even restricting myself to just seven days) that there’s not only a lot of options to hear classical music live, but there’s also a lot of information to take in. Potential ticket buyers are having to process location, time, names of performers, and works. That’s a lot of variables being considered before deciding on what to go to.

As a freelancer I have a lot more flexibility now. Concerts on ‘school nights’ aren’t such a thorny issue like they used to be. Interestingly for me however, it’s the lunchtime opportunities which seem more appealing because I feel as though I can fit them into my day more easily where evening concerts present themselves as a commitment.

Must-Attends

What surprises me is how an event like Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky at Barbican this week could have completely gone unnoticed. The fact that it’s sold out makes getting a ticket at this late stage a bit of a challenge, but I’m going to give it a damn good shot. But the Marin Alsop conducting masterclasses is a must-attend. It’s free. And on a Wednesday lunchtime. Peachy.


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