Southbank Centre’s 2019/2020 season revealed

A nerdy survey of the Southbank Centre new season announcement plus some personal highlights

The moment a venue’s season is unveiled is a pretty daunting one for any self-proclaimed cultural commentator. The bigger the venue, the more impossible the task. Adopting an angle and crafting a narrative through the myriad of events is a difficult thing.

And its made slightly more complicated when its the Southbank Centre’s season, because its residents and associate orchestras reveal their season programmes the same day. In amongst all of this noise some of the detail is inevitably lost.

To make matters worse for the Southbank Centre, yesterday they were competing with the seven MPs who decided to (try and) seize the agenda by walking out on the Labour party.

All this pissing and moaning on my part aside, here are some thoughts and reflections arising from three announcements (the Southbank, LPO and Philharmonia) yesterday.

Top line messages

Looking at the audience from the top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Southbank Centre press team leads on anniversaries. Beethoven 250 (brace brace, there’s going to be a lot of Beethoven next year – I’m expecting to hate the man and his output by the end of 2020) and a Ravi Shankar retrospective.

They also trumpet (boom!) their ‘Contemporary Edit’, a fashion/interior design world-inspired collection of contemporary music infused events illustrating one of the audience groups the SBC perceives to be important to its future success. Something reflected in the median age of their audience posted in the 2016/17 Annual Review: 30-35 (though it could be the case that I’m making a sweeping generalisation there that younger audiences are more ‘into’ contemporary music than older).

Sean Shibe

Their list of artists is impressive to regular concert goers and listeners, but seeing the likes of Vladimir Jurowski, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Alice Sara Ott makes me question to what extent newcomers are influenced by the big names or whether (as I suspect) the informed but irregular concert-goer is more likely to shell out for a recognisable name.

For my money, the interesting artists to watch are the electrifying Pekka Kuusisto, Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the LPO, Daniil Trifonov (I’m a fanboy), Mitsuko Uchida, and the fascinating Sean Shibe.

Newcomers

Southbank are also making a big play about their ‘innovative’ new scheme designed to bring newcomers to the concert hall in a series of Encounters classical music experiences. Leading artists perform to invited concert-goers who have received free tickets on the basis that they’re never been to a classical music event before.

The Southbank with then invite those concert-goers back for a second ‘taster’ on the basis that they bring another newcomer along with them. After which the Southbank will invite those newcomers along, and so on.

I’m slightly cynical about this.

It’s a reasonably nifty idea, of course. All done in the context of promoting the cause of classical music. At the same time its a wonderfully simple way of expanding the Southbank’s mailing list, helping them reach out to local communities, tackle the consequences of social inequalities, and meet their corporate and Arts Council responsibilities.

The Royal Festival Hall. Home to a stuffy private club, apparently.

But its a gamble, isn’t it? Speaking as someone who gives something away for free on a fairly regular basis, the challenge then becomes translating the free offer into ticket sales.

Where things went a little awry in the announcement was the use of pianist Stephen Hough’s quote:

Classical music concerts so often seem like a closed door (or several) to those who have never attended one. A stuffy private club: elitist, pompous and inaccessible. ‘Encounters’ is a brilliant, simple idea to destroy this perception and to fling those doors open. Classical music – with its passion, its emotion, its stimulation, its rich fascination – belongs to all of us and I’m delighted to be a part of this exciting new way of introducing people for the first time to its allure.”

Pianist stephen hough, southbank centre press release

Whilst this may seem like a rather negative point to flag, the intent is positive. My beef is the way in which the quote establishes the potential impact of Encounters from the perspective of their being a perception problem with the concert hall.

That perception is a construct, and even if it is proved its not a construct, stating it only serves to reinforce the stereotype and, effectively, slag off everything else in the past and present. It feels like an own goal.

Cheap(er) tickets

Elsewhere, the Southbank flags how 50,000 of its tickets across the 2019/20 season are priced at £15 or under.

If it’s assumed that there are 230 events across the entire season (the press release says 230+) and the capacity of the Festival Hall is around 2500, then their £15 or under offer amounts to nearly 9% of tickets sold (though the figure varies if you factor in the capacity of the QEH and Purcell Room next door – 916 and 293 respectively).

What would be interesting to learn (I’m not sure whether these figures will be) is the take-up of the Encounters initiative and the cheap tickets scheme.

A look over their Annual Reviews makes searching for specific figures predictably challenging. The review from September 2017 – December 2018 celebrates impressive milestones but doesn’t detail much in the way of specific ticket sales. I wonder whether this is a consequence of part of the site being closed whilst QEH and Purcell Room was refurbished. A look at the 2016/17 reveals a little more in terms of attendance to ticketed events: 591K but no specific line on what income was generated from ticket sales, only that 50% of events are free.

What’s raising my eyebrows

All of this nerding out about what goes on under the bonnet of my favourite concert destination overlooks the purpose yesterday’s announcement – to highlight next season’s concerts.

So, as a punter, what am I particularly looking forward to? A handy list follows.

Christian Tetzlaff playing Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia (September 2019)
British Paraorchestra with Charles Hazlewood (September 2019)
Weilerstein and the Trondheim Soloists (October 2019)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the LPO (October 2019)
Daniil Trifonov (October 2019)
Peter Grimes (November 2019)
Drumming (December 2019)
Sean Shibe (January 2020)
Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (January 2020)
OAE with Mozart 40 and 41 (February 2020)
LPO and Leila Josefowicz with Knussen Violin Concerto (February 2020)
Chineke with works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (February 2020)
LPO with Ingudsman and Joo (March 2020)
London Sinfonietta with David Atherton (March 2020)
OAE and Bostridge (April 2020)
BCMG and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla playing Varese (May 2020)
ROSL Annual Music Competition Gold Medal Final (June 2020)
Chopin and Ligeti from Julian Jacobson (June 2020)

Think like marketers

I’ve been doing a lot of listening this week. Interviewing necessitates that.

There’s little point in preparing a list of questions to ask an interviewee, asking them, and then not listening to the responses.

Its the responses that offer the more tantalising opportunities for follow-up. The follow-up will always surpass your original expectations. It is the follow-up that yields the insight.

Peter Donohoe

Four such interactions this week.

The first, a 90 minute conversation with pianist Peter Donohoe up in Solihull for a podcast.

Donohoe was an open, warm and willing contributor. He shared all sorts of things about performance that deepened my understanding of piano music. He put me at ease, unwittingly legitimising me as a reasonably knowledgeable punter. Ninety minutes of conversation that closed the gap I sense between auditorium and the stage.

It was also a conversation where I felt so completely ‘in flow’ that the previous ruminations about invoices, payments, and impending bills seemed like a world away.

Interviews then – the necessary process of listening – helps me refocus attention on the now. Not only are these experiences an opportunity to create meaningful content and demonstrate skills and services to those with a budget, but they’re also moments to deepen thinking.

Realising I’d fallen into a listening and questioning habit only really became apparent when I attended the Philharmonia concert on Thursday (review to follow). It was the conversation with a marketing type afterward in particular which brought things into focus for me.

The content of the conversation is of course off limits, but its impact isn’t.

The questions came easily.

It was an exchange which reminded me that the classical music world I occupy in my mind’s eye both here on the blog and in the podcast, has a different vista from that seen by those who seek to generate business in the art music world, for example.

The core classical music audience isn’t as large as I might picture it in my imagination. It also doesn’t represent the biggest ticket-buying awareness-raising opportunities. Those opportunities are to be found in those who don’t consider the concert hall as their go-to location; those who don’t seek out classical music experiences or who don’t come very often.

Concentrating on the wrong people

This valuable perspective shook me a little.

I am a content producer – sometimes paid, sometimes not. My ability to pay the bills is, through choice, directly linked to my content production strategy. And the success of that strategy is dependent on it being in concert with the strategies of marketers and PRs.

There is no point in striving to create content that seeks the validation of or satisfies those who already know about the genre, because those individuals aren’t representative of the kind of audience the wider industry needs to attract. Such an inward-looking strategy doesn’t really help me nor the industry I’m seeking work opportunities from.

Think like a marketer

I mentioned earlier that this insight shook me. Its initial effect was similar to the thinking I have indulged in the past and ended up succumbing to – that which usually ends up with me abandoning a particular path because of a sense of frustration or impatience.

But it went further than that for me. There are skills I have that are useful (ergo billable) to the industry I feel a part of now. That those skills aren’t getting snapped up yet is either because I’m not as good as I think I am (a possibility), or more likely because I haven’t found the right way to integrate them yet. And that means thinking from the same perspective as a marketer.

But 48 hours later I notice a slight shift in my thinking.

Digital natives who understand the positive impact an authentic digital publishing can have, are in the business of awareness-raising and community-building; we’re not contracted to sell tickets. What we say to raise awareness and who we say it too is what is important.

And that for me means looking wider that the world I consider home, recognising that classical music – whether it be live performance, recorded music, or the content that surrounds it – doesn’t exist in a bubble. It has to be considered alongside a great many other experiences.

If content producers are to raise awareness and build community around the subject they care passionately about, then they need to look wider than the subject itself. They need to think like marketers.

Generation Z

And by shifting that thinking and opening my mind to looking at classical music as an experience or product – from the perspective of sales and business – then the need for other information is necessary. As if by magic, Barclays Investment Bank on Twitter provided a useful primer on Generation Z, and today, Manchester Collective’s Adam Szabo writes on Medium about branding.

Paid for packages

The day after the marketing conversation began with an interview with Czech Philharmonic Education Manager Petr Kadlec about the orchestra’s work with Chavorenge and music director Ida Kalerova.

Chavorenge – a collection of Roma children given the opportunity to develop life skills through choral singing experiences – sang on the first day of the ABO Conference in Belfast a few weeks back. The paid podcast gig garnered some valuable material and useful introductions, of which this interview was one.

Twenty minutes on the telephone plus another two hours editing, and the finished product is pushed gently onto the internet. I finished around 3pm and started on a handful of household chores, not returning to listen again the finished product until the early evening.


Ulster Orchestra Managing Director Richard Wigley introduces Ida Kelarova and Chavorenge with the Czech Philharmonic. Chavorenge offers Roma children the opportunity to sing together in life-affirming performances that seek to challenge prejudice in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

What I find pleasing listening back to it even now is the flow of the exchanges and the storytelling that emerges.

I like the occasional splashes of personality in the contributors characterised by the laughs, contrasted with the sheer wall of warmth and love that emanates from the singers themselves. That I remember ruminating quite a lot about the bills at the same time as editing makes the finished product all the more pleasing.

Obviously, there are one two technical errors with it. But that’s just the perfectionist talking, I like to thin.

New discoveries

One of my musical discoveries this week really touched me emotionally. When I first met the OH, his classical music library was small but proud. I don’t lay claim to having expanded his tastes – he’s done that himself through personal discovery (I like to think because classical music has been part of our regular music experience).

Over the past year or so I’ve seen him introduce me to unexpected delights. It is almost as though the emphasis has swung the other way in the relationship in that respect.

Mitsuko Uchida

So, yesterday morning as the pair of us sit down to read, he puts on some piano music.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Beethoven, I think.”

“Who’s playing?”

“Mitsuko Uchida.”

“Why did you pick this out?”

“I like the picture of her on the cover – the one that looks like she’s hanging on to her ears in case they fall off.”

It was electrifying stuff. My right hand started to grip the sofa cushion. I sat transfixed throughout the last movement of Piano Sonata No.30 – agonising beauty in the initial theme, extrapolated in an epic series of variations, including one Bach-esque fugue that cycles through some eyebrow-raising harmonic progressions.

It was the first time I heard it. What I heard brought tears to my eyes. Listened to it this morning and the same thing happened again.

Edmund Finnis

After that, a brief scoot through Edmund Finnis’s collection of new works on NMC, this year marking 30 years of supporting new composing talent.

The opening track, The Air, Turning  is a tantalising collection of textures that brings me alive, holding my attention throughout by presenting something that feeds curiosity with an imaginative world constructed with fascinating colours.

I want to spend a little more time paying closer attention to the release as a whole. It has a 70s concept album feel to it, the idea of which excites me a great deal. But in the meantime, be sure to listen to the gloriously eery Elsewhere. My current squeeze.

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.

Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 3 Ep.12: Visiting the Philharmonia’s Virtual Orchestra in Bedford

Funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Esmee Fairburn Trust, the Philharmonia’s award-winning multimedia digital is touring the UK with an exhibition dedicated to Holst’s Planet Suite and a virtual reality experience.

In podcast number twelve I talk to Events Manager Elizabeth Howard, Director of Residencies Jonathan Mayes, and Audience Development Manager Tom Spurgin at the exhibition’s current home in Bedford.

For more information on the exhibition visit philharmonia.co.uk/virtualorchestra.

A video recording of the unedited discussion between me, Elizabeth and Jonathan is now available on YouTube >> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=let6I4ZjXvY

More buzz please

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in. 

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