Summer’s on its way: New Music Biennial 5-7 July 2019

Contemporary classical is fast becoming a much-needed antidote to the irritations of the mainstream. The return of PRS Foundation’s brilliant New Music Biennial this July is a welcome opportunity to escape into thrilling new worlds.

When I was a kid, languishing on the Norfolk Suffolk border wondering why my parents had chosen to settle on the edges of Fenland, there was one village event I looked forward to. I could see it from my bedroom window.

The Weeting Steam Engine Rally: a weekend-long celebration of steam engines accompanied by a myriad of stalls, catering tents, crafts, meaningless tat, farming ‘demonstrations’, and a huge fun fair. It was the one time of the year when the flat, meaningless and pointless area of the world we lived had any purpose.

The ‘rally field’ would be set up over a monthly long period in the run up to the event. From my bedroom window I could count down to the weekend by keeping a careful eye on how things were shaping up. Only the Eurovision Song Contest (until it became a source of bitterness and resentment) came close in the anticipation stakes.

The New Music Biennial shares a similar trait. I stumbled on it two years ago and was immediately captivated by its openness, its playfulness, and blisfully simple innovation. Every piece of music lasts no longer than 15 minutes and is played twice in between which a panel, often including the composer, discuss the work. A glorious way to immerse yourself in something new. No pressure. No expectation. And importantly for all (I think), its free.

Hearing about its imminent return last week prior to the Proms launch, illicited an unexpected reaction in me. Warm and fuzzy. That kind of thing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until I realised that it was a) two years since the last one (obviously), b) the point when I experienced the last one was the first few days of my new self-employed life and c) that marks nearly two years of a renewed impetus in the Thoroughly Good Blog and the relaunch of the Thoroughly Good Podcast. Time has passed quickly.

There’s more to it than that though.

The innovative approach to performing new works (a nod to the monumental challenge contemporary composers experience getting their works performed a second time) is one thing.

But its the peer-to-peer element about the weekend, two years on, I now finally understand. Composers converge to listen to one another’s works, but to learn from one another too. And for those of us who have an insatiable appetite to live vicariously through the talents of others, the New Music Biennial is a no-brainer.

And for anyone who considers themselves as a creative and who thrives on gaining insights from those working in parallel artforms, its a gloriously immersive kind of experience. Be sure to bring your notebook.

Most anticipated event? It’s actually an installation: Music for Seven Ice Cream Vans.A beautifully nostalgic score floods the Southbank Centre Site, as a fleet of ice cream vans call out to one another. The vans, each with their own individual harmony, create a mesmerising symphony of different clustered sounds and a shared soundscape for unsuspecting audiences.” Bliss.

I can’t wait. I’ve missed it. And in its the diary.

The New Music Biennial is from 5-7 July 2019 at Southbank Centre.

Review: Philharmonia plays Schoenberg, Bartok and Péter Eötvös’s Multiversum

Eötvös isn’t the most inspiring of conductors to watch on the platform. More methodical and pragmatic than inspirational or visionary.

Sure, I know it’s not cricket to be quite so negative. At least, not in the first para of a review. But it is at least honest.

There is more to conducting than merely beating time. And what was striking from the off was how some of the vision was lacking from the podium. And how much I wanted to see it.

Schoenberg’s Film Music

What I perceived to be lacking may have contributed to what felt like a tentative start to the relatively unfamiliar Film Music by Schoenberg. Music written without a film to accompany it, started in 1929 and completed in 1930.

In the performance, some of the entries seemed a little flabby and indistinct, particularly in the upper strings. At times I heard an ensemble mildly out of sync between celli and keyboard too. Some of the drama stitched into Schoenberg’s score was lost somehow. It didn’t quite land in the way I was expecting it too.

Bartok’s Dance Suite and Stravinsky’s Three Movement symphony

Where the Philharmonia came to life was undoubtedly during the Bartok Dance Suite that followed. Here the strings approached the work with attack and a reassuring confidence. What this energy subsequently revealed, as in the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements that followed, was Eötvös’s tendency to rush the end of phrases and new textural landscapes.

I didn’t want to linger or languish necessarily. I just wanted a moment to savour the delights of some unusual bristling orchestrations. This mattered more to me in the Stravinsky – a glorious combination of colours and surfaces, sights and sounds, all revealed like we’re embarking on a late Sunday afternoon drive around a mysterious unexplored town.

Eötvös’s Multiversum

Where Eötvös was in his element was undoubtedly in the UK premiere of his three movement sound world Multiversum – a musical representation of parallel universes.

I adored it. A captivating and fascinating listen full of complex and thought-provoking orchestrations. A performance begging for an annotated score.

I especially loved the mild acid-trip combination of church and Hammond organ. Reminiscent of family holidays in the late 70s/early 80s, trips made more bearable by a series of Famous Five adventures on cassette tape.

Multiversum was a three-dimensional celebration of sound. Film music without an actual film getting in the way. Loved it.

The Philharmonia performed at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 7 February 2019.

Pictures at an Exhibition: Concrete Dreams at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Concrete Dreams exhibition runs as part of the programme of events celebrating the re-opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, occupying backstage artist spaces with archive material both physical and projected, tracking the venue’s 50 year past.

It’s a scintillating experience for those of us with a weakness for memos typed in triplicate, architectural drawings, and hand-written ticket sale ledgers. I kid you not. They were writing down individual ticket sales in a ledger in 1968.

The lovingly-presented exhibition takes the visitor through the new artists entrance, into the old green room, and up into wood-panelled dressing rooms and cell-like bathrooms. The exhibition concludes with a clever multi-layered projection and choreography in the Purcell Room that reveals the QEH’s surprising heritage.

The part-guided backstage tour, part multimedia exhibition is an enjoyable one (though be aware that the close proximity of the big projections in the Purcell may well induce a bit of nausea) that goes some way to illustrate the important role Southbank as a whole (not just QEH) has played in the cultural life of London and the south.

Archivists have been working on this project for two and a half years now and are rightly proud of their achievements. They're also keen to point out there is a lot more material to be discovered, something that reminds me of the extent to which we take the Southbank for granted.

Concrete Dreams exhibition is open to the public from Tuesday 10 April. A weekend of music, dance, workshops and talks celebrating the history of the QEH runs from Friday 27 – Sunday 29 April. More details at

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Inside the refurbished Purcell Room and Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre

A refurbishment that successfully retains the QEH’s original design aesthetic, celebrating the features that shape the building’s identity. Concrete has never looked quite so good. I like a good set of refurb pics – permanent records of an untarnished architectural endeavour. Artistic vision fully realised, preserved in a moment potent with anticipation and brimming with pride. Pictures of concert halls without an audience make the location irresistible – moments when concert halls are seen in all of their magisterial beauty.
Inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – wood french-polished, concrete treated with latex poultice. Tasty.
Concert halls don’t need to be opulent. They don’t need to be spaces with gilded edges, velvet cushions or busts of composers dotted around. They are locations for special events. Their interiors should be not like any other you would normally step into. The senses need to be come alive when you step inside them.
The Purcell Room feature the most comfortable concert hall seats in London, possibly even the UK.
Both the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room return to use in early April. Pictures have been released today along with the list of works that have been completed that give the venue a much-needed refresh. The restoration includes: fully refurbished and updated auditoria; refreshed and redesigned back of house areas; a new artists’ entrance; a revamped foyer able to hold 1000 people. Improved access, and new ventilation, lighting systems
The newly restored QEH foyer can hold up to 1000 people
Concrete has been restored using Arte Mundit, a latex poultice more commonly used on classical sculptures and stone conservation projects. New timber lining to the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage will improve the acclaimed acoustics for performers on stage. Aluminium and leather seats have been re-upholstered by hand.
New dressing rooms backstage at QEH
Artists and performers get new accessible dressing rooms a brand new artists’ entrance and a backstage bar.
New artists entrance
Backstage area for the artists
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Southbank and especially for QEH. I love the Brutalist architecture (not many do), and I adore the elegant simplicity of the interior. The restoration – work carried out by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBStudios) with Max Fordham, Arup and BAM Construction – celebrates the elements which make this such a special destination. The project was funded by the support of the public, Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, plus National Lottery players, corporate partners, trusts and foundations and individual major donors. Chineke! Orchestra opens the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a concert of Daniel Kidane, Benjamin Britten and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 on Monday 9 April at 7.30pm The first event in the Purcell Room is on Sunday 29 April. Fifty Poems from Five Decades will celebrate the opening of both QEH and Purcell Room.  All pictures credit: Morley Von Sternberg

On Richard Littlejohn and the Southbank Centre’s advert in the Daily Mail

Richard Littlejohn writes in today’s Daily Mail about Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black’s announcement on Instagram. The headline was enough to get my back up and my eyes focused: “Please don’t pretend two dads is the new normal”.

Stop Funding Hate has identified today’s advertisers in the Daily Mail and tweeted them a picture of Littlejohn’s piece. Among those advertisers is the Southbank Centre.

I’m not a Daily Mail reader. I can’t stand the publication. It makes my heart sink when I think of the people I know who do read it.

It used to infuriate me when the Daily Mail would criticise the BBC in its editorial. Teams of people would prepare responses for a bit of social media bite-back. I was often engaged in the production of those materials. That work’s success would feature in tiresome evaluation sessions. The day after the BBC would be seen advertising free DVDs from the newspaper’s banner.

The Daily Mail is an oily rag, but its one that serves a purpose for a great many organisations because of its reach. That’s why the BBC actively sought promotion in the newspaper. That’s also why the Southbank Centre advertises in the paper because its marketing department knows that some people who enjoy reading the Daily Mail may also enjoy visiting the Southbank Centre.

Speaking as someone who writes about classical music, wants more people to enjoy it, or at the very least wants more people to enjoy the communal atmosphere at a building that is open (free) to all, it’s more important to me that the Southbank Centre pays to advertise in a newspaper that provides access to the greatest audience share than not.

This is not a popular view, and that last sentence is quite long too. Sorry.

Art in all its forms reflects back on the individual engaging with it. That kind of engagement has the potential of changing people. It may not be the kind of dramatic immediate change the likes of Stop Funding Hate quite understandably seek, but its meaningful individual change nonetheless.

We live in an incredibly polarised society fuelled by outrage and indignation. None of us are listening to one another, preferring instead to revel in our own self-righteousness. All of us are responding to ever more simplistic views of the world constructed by those with an agenda, or under the cosh of a tyrannical running order.

But other people take on viewpoints for different reasons because they perceive the world in a different way from us. Isn’t incumbent on all of us to listen to others and, as we do so, see how their views challenge and potentially reshape our own?

The hate in Littlejohn’s column isn’t about whether or not two men should be fathers. The hate nestles cosily in the way he describes Daley and Black as “Bill and Ben”. That’s on the same level as Alan Partridge’s line “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Painfully unreconstructed middle-age uneducated white male uttering a belief that he is right and the rest of the world has gone mad. Littlejohn: wearing your ignorance like a badge of honour isn’t decent and it isn’t honest. You’re celebrating your own dimness.

But, Littlejohn’s column does unearth one point which I hadn’t considered. The idea that Daley and Black’s Instagram posting makes no reference to the fact that there is a woman involved in the process of them becoming parents. Contractual arrangements make that a necessity, of course. It’s an odd kind of celebration when looked through Littlejohn’s prism.

It is possible to identify a different narrative in that image other than the positive LGBT role models demonstrating that gay men can be parents. What Littlejohn’s column highlights is how one PR person’s strong defiant message can be seen quite legitimately as something completely different.

Personally, I found the picture nauseating. I see the image of a perfect-looking couple living a perfect life blissfully happy all of the time. It’s Hello Magazine for the next generation, only on Instagram. But that’s largely because I have a core need for things to be authentic, real, and possibly a little spikey and uncomfortable around the edges. I question things that are too polished.

And because that line between legitimate message and defiant message of equality is blurred, different groups of people with different perceptions of the world will express different views of it. And that means for some, news like celebrity gay men announcing they’re soon to be parents is a green light for cynicism.

But cynicism isn’t hate. I still want people who think Elton John and David Furnish’s children are trophy children to visit places like the Southbank Centre and experience the thing I love. Because I’d rather meet them, look them in the eye and tell them I’m not scared of them, than throw stones from the other side of the playground. At least that way I’ll have listened to them.