No names no pack drill

I’ve been doing a whole lot more reading this weekend.

There’s a lot to catch-up on. There’s a lot of words to cover in each copy of the New Yorker. The delivery schedule is as relentless as it is reliable.

Reading is – this won’t come as a surprise to anyone – a gratifyingly mindful process. Thinking is slowed down to a nostalgically heady pre-2005 era. The heart rate plummets. New connections are made.

It hasn’t all been a pleasurable pursuit.

In amongst the comparative definitions of aspiration and ambition, a potted history of journalism, and a remarkable account of a lifelong journalistic inquiry into the life of Lyndon Johnson, Tom Yarwood’s long read on the Guardian has been in comparison quite harrowing.

It reminds me of a conversation with an old pal from school I had in Edinburgh after watching a play about male rape, staged in a chain hotel that triggered memories about similar experiences I’d struggled with as a teenager.

It was a tough time. I went to the GP. I went to see a psychiatrist and everything. It all got quite dark at one point.

I recognised what Yarwood said about shame and a sense of responsibility. Unlike him however, I don’t have to see the person responsible for the initiating act listed on concert hall programmes.

It’s a tough read, but a thought-provoking one. The ethical expectations on the industry are as a result very high. Appropriately so.

The pomposity of it all

I’ve been working on a review today, one I pitched to a publication a while ago.

I drafted the review a few weeks ago, but only returned to it today afresh after I sought out any others views online.

Discovered one other review, published on a reasonably recognisable platform (that’s as far as I’m prepared to identify the platform), read it and then gasped in amazement at the credit at the bottom.

“[NAME OF REVIEWER REDACTED] was on a press trip funded by [INSERT NAME OF FESTIVAL]”

I get why some platforms feel the need to detail what’s paid content, advertorials, paid reviews, or content marketing. I understand why its important to distance such content from ‘proper journalism’.

But let’s be clear about something. Most if not all international festivals (and a fair few UK festivals too as it happens) invite journalists, bloggers, influencers and the rest to their events with free tickets, and in some cases travel and accommodation. They don’t do it on the basis that they assume you’ll write favorably about their endeavours. They invite (and fund) on the basis that they want some kind of coverage. At least, that’s how I’ve always seen it.

And another thing. The same platform (which I’m fairly certain still doesn’t pay its contributors but happily takes its content) applies for press accreditations for their staff and accepts international festivals paying their travel and accommodation to attend, and yet those individuals don’t flag that their trip was funded by the festival they’re writing about.

Strikes me that such credits are less about protecting the independence and journalistic values of the platform, and more about distancing itself from the individual who has submitted the content in the first place.

Let’s be realistic for readers, festivals, and PRs. There’s precious little money available for writers. The people who are available to attend such events can’t fund their trips themselves, that’s why festivals set aside budgets to pay for writers to visit. That arrangement doesn’t influence my assessment on whether something I’ve listened to or watched. And if you’re a journo who thinks it does, then it probably says more about how easily swayed you would be in such a situation rather than what it says about me.

Such credits essentially discredit everything the person has taken the time to write about the event they were presumably pleased to attend in the first place.

The pomposity of it all.

No. Actually. The hypocrisy of it all. Tsk.

Different things to different people

In recent years, John Lewis and Partners has created a bit of a festive monster.

The retail brand’s 2018 Christmas advert illustrating the life of Elton John in a series of sentimentalised vignettes cut to ‘Your Song’ has a far more ambiguous message than in years gone by.

On Friday nights Gogglebox some dismissed it saying there is insufficient Christmas spirit about it, as though Christmas is something that can be manufactured and distributed accordingly like a gas.

Other commentators complain the advert is inaccurate: John Lewis doesn’t sell pianos; the cost of the piano is wrong; it’s unlikely such a small boy would be as excited to get a piano. At one stage on the day of the advert launch (the day all hell broke loose in Westminster the morning Dominic Raab resigned), some were defending John Lewis against the naysayers by thanking the organisation by underlining the importance of music education in the UK.

We’re unable (or unwilling) to play host to ambiguity it seems. We have no available time to reflect on what something means for us, demanding instead that we’re told what to think by someone else. If it’s billed as a Christmas advert then it should say Christmas and if it doesn’t it’s crap.

I see it as a well-loved institution inviting the viewer to consider one aspect of Christmas – giving – with an eye on the longer term.

The idea resonates with me. I’ve grown rather tired of the idea of giving presents as a way of fulfilling a need in the recipient; similarly, gifting to meet explicit wants. I’m now increasingly of the mind that gifts are gestures – the beginning of a journey. Some of those journeys don’t always get underway. Of those that do, the best gifts of all are the ones that keep on giving for the rest of our lives.

The John Lewis Christmas advert is a remarkable platform for Elton John to drive streaming revenue and sell his farewell tour of 2019. You wonder whether he actually needs something like John Lewis and Partners to do that. Perhaps John Lewis needs Elton John, more than Elton John needs John Lewis.

But I appreciate the ambiguity. It makes it possible for the advert to mean different things to different people.

I see a heartfelt message about the gift of music, its effects on us as individuals, and the role it plays in our everyday lives, something all of us regardless of genre take for granted in an on-demand world.

I like the fact that Christmas is referenced but not front and centre. And what it leaves me considering is that whatever it is we strive to achieve at Christmas, we might strive harder to sustain all year round and beyond.

Review: Raoul Barbe Bleue

A co-production between Versailles Baroque Musique Centre and the Baroque Early Music Festival in Trondheim, of Andre Gretry’s/Sedaine opera-comique setting of Perrault’s telling of the Bluebeard fairy tale.

Charming entertainment unconstrained by painstaking reconstruction, employing modern-day cultural references to give a moralistic tale a present-day context.

For the curious, it threw light on an otherwise unfamiliar composer. For the newcomer, in particular, it provided a signpost for further exploration of a period in art that goes unmentioned in most conventional music histories.

Throughout Raoul Barbe Bleue, Gretry’s writing is rooted in instantly likable melody, underpinned by a vaguely familiar Mozartian style. Unsurprising perhaps: Mozart listened to many of Gretry’s works during the European tour his father mounted for him.  That a lot of Gretry’s work pre-dates Mozart means the French composer demands more recognition than perhaps he’s hitherto received.

So as a musicological anomaly, this staging of a relatively unknown Gretry opera was an appealing proposition.

The production wasn’t entirely without its flaws. Some disconnection between orchestra and voices was evident in the faster sections of the opening act, though the ensemble between the two leads tightened up at the beginning of the second. This was when the energy ramped up a little more, especially in the duets between Madame Isaure’s lover Vergi at Bluebeard’s castle disguised in bright red Mary Poppins-esque garb complete with high-heel boots and brolly. Rapport was solid and precision clearer. Chantal Santon-Jeffery conveyed moments of tenderness with a warm rich voice and a commanding presence on stage.



Some initially jarring elements of direction became less of an issue once I became more accustomed to them. The two comedy knights who walked stiffly in plastic armor with a whiff of Monty Python’s Holy Grail about them seemed like an ambitious piece of direction which didn’t quite succeed in execution initially. But, within the context of the production, there was a lovable quality to their interactions with one another that created lasting endearing characters.

This like one or two technical issues with lighting spots and set moves during the second and third act were initially disappointing, but importantly posed inevitable questions that mirror present-day expectations.

Should we expect a work which probably wasn’t originally staged with high production values to be performed with high production values today? Do the works of light opera necessarily need big budgets and high expectations to deliver the spirit of the original intent? Are moments when things are a little rough around the edges all part of the spirit of the piece even if they’re not intended?

Paramount is the delivery of the message. Similarly, attention needs to be maintained and punters entertained.

This production remained true to the show’s roots, playing to the intimate interior of Trondheim Theatre’s strengths. Raoul Barbe Bleue delivered on entertainment too.


Matthieu Lecroart gave us a tragic and momentarily forgivable Raoul with a hunch back, long pointy nose and terrifying stare. And whilst Chantal Santon-Jeffery as Isaure and Francois Rougier as Vergi led the company with conviction, the powerhouse performance undoubtedly came from Manuel Nunez-Camelino who’s energy in movement and dialogue was impressive. Also included, a spot of old-fashioned vaudeville magic.

Special note to the second and third act set design – Alice in Wonderland with lopsided doorways and a delightfully over-sized key – and to Raoul and his henchmen’s costumes and make-up. An enjoyable performance that helped introduce an unfamiliar composer and his canon.

Pictures: Leikny Havik Skjærseth


I’ve found a new way of lulling myself to sleep: drafting blog posts. This one – responding to 24 hours of outrage (some of which was mine) about Patrick Sawer’s shonky write-up of the OAE’s latest publicity drive – resulted in the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time. Way to go, etc.

The topline for those who are unaware of the ‘furore’: musicians will introduce the music they’re about to play to the audience from the stage in a move that Patrick Sawer describes as innovative; Twitter erupts with a mixture of outrage and disdain – its hardly an innovative move as its been done for years; one arts manager defends the OAE by pointing out that more of this newfangled presenting from the stage needs to be done; a former Radio 3 presenter points to the work he’s done for the past 20 years; the world still turns.

I care about stupid journalism as much as I care about dumb unimaginative PR. There’s a lot of both about. Both works against imaginative marketers, and innovative programmers. What results is noise. It’s distracting. It’s dumb. It’s boring.

Contextualising a concert from the stage is useful. Personally, I think its best achieved when the musician does it because that creates a closer connection between audience member and the music (presenters are a step removed).

Loads of people do it already. It isn’t innovative.

Audience tastes have changed meaning that concert convention probably needs to shift accordingly in most cases. At the same time, we should celebrate and protect those concert experiences where meditative and contemplative atmospheres contribute to the performance. One size doesn’t fit all – it doesn’t need to be ‘standard‘. Everybody, let’s just calm the fuck down.

We should be wary of something else too. The consensus should be around the art – the core content. Shouty disagreements about how best to present it only distance existing or potential audiences from the very thing we’re trying to get more and more people to enjoy. The noise makes some of us look a bit weird.