Wigmore Hall and a full day of doing stuff

I’ve been in the office all day. The sun swung by around eleven-ish and burned its way across my monitor making the detailed website work I’ve been ploughing through today quite challenging. I impressed myself with a Britten-esque kind of resourcefulness, retrieving the remains of a superglue tube from the draw and fixing the window blind. Focus continued throughout the afternoon. Tea was made. More progress. Emails sent. Then the final task for today.

Playlist creation

I’ve always been rather cynical about playlists for streaming services. This isn’t necessarily a good thing to admit given that I’ve been commissioned to create one and write the contextual information about it. The truth is that I question whether anybody really cares what I think about what you should listen to. I’m all about personal discovery. That’s what classical music is at its heart. It’s a subjective thing after all. Therefore, you the listener need to put the hard graft in. You need to work out what it is you want to listen to. And, when you do listen, you need to be able to work out how it makes you feel. Bottom line. Why don’t people realise this?

Yet, the weird thing is, that creating a playlist for someone is a remarkably stressful process. You’re making a statement. It’s a reflection of yourself (even if contractually you’re not allowed to talk about yourself in the text you write. The copy you submit is then a constraint, even though the meat of the product is a personal selection.

An odd process. Enjoyable though. A little bit stressed about it. I am 24 business hours past my submission date. Actually emailed the editor asking for an extension. Felt like a fucking student again. So pathetic. Hope to God he replies (and pays up) otherwise I’ve spent a couple of hours doing something for no money.

More on that story later.

Festival dates

One of the other tasks for today was following up on a slew of emails from last week, one from a festival inviting me to consider attending a selection of their concerts in the spring. I browsed events with a slightly keener eye than I have done in the past, honing in on some Beethoven quartets and Bartok concertos. These things are never certain and I always feel as though I have to go the extra mile to express appreciation for being invited. It’s the right thing to do, after all. ‘Penned’ the email, was about to hit send, then thought about noting down the dates I’d asked for. It was at that point I realised I was asking to attend three concerts from Friday 29th March .. necessitating a flight to and from Europe.

Again. More on that story later.

Wigmore Hall 2019/2020

I was intending to write about three festivals in this post. But, what with the ‘stuff’ I’ve been banging on about above, I’ve really only got time for one. Bite me.

Wigmore’s 2019/2020 season preview brochure is a delightful piece of print to hold in the hand. Instantly recognisable Wigmore red covers with embossed gold lettering. The text is clear, the line-height optimised, and the artist imagery well-selected and well-positioned. This like no other season brochure I’ve seen recently means the Wigmore’s new season is the easiest to write about. Someone knows what they’re doing.

The line-up is tantalising. My attention is drawn first off to the Beethoven spotlight featuring violinst James Ehnes who I still haven’t seen in London and must (I saw him play in Verbier once – I remember his unfussy playing made his seemingly effortless artistry alluring). There’s also the marvellous Isabelle Faust and the white heat of Janine Jansen’s playing on offer too.

Leonidas Kavakos is there too and is for me another must-attend.

I see Michael Collins will be performing both clarinet sonatas with Stephen Hough (as a clarinettist myself this something I would love to see – both ravishing works for the instrument, much better than those viola arrangements). Clarinettist Martin Fröst’s terrifying musical talent also makes an appearance at Wigmore Hall. An opportunity to witness his circular breathing would be one too good to miss. Expect that gig to sell out quickly.

Iestyn Davies gets a 40th birthday concert too (I’m sure there won’t be any issues with the correct spelling of his name on the dressing room door – best make a mental note Wigmore Hall just in case though).

And the sight of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes staring out at me from page 13 with those steely grey Norwegian eyes is enough to make me buy up all the tickets on offer for both his pairing with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and his solo recital regardless of what the programme is. I’m that superficial.

Let’s coalesce around the values that music promotes

I haven’t written a blog post for what feels like ages.

In actual fact, the last on I published was early last week.

Perhaps what I really mean is that it feels like it’s been ages since I’ve felt compelled to write. Ages since I’ve felt sufficiently motivated to sit down and write without thinking.

Remembrance Sunday seems to do that.

I’ve written about Remembrance Sunday on the blog before now, a lot of the time accessing memories forged by the music of Rutter, Stanford and various others sung in church services at school.

But that kind of writing is based on the assumption that the memoir is interesting to read because the person writing it has done something interesting or valuable already. What good is memoir?

This Remembrance Sunday presents a different opportunity.

Here we are, 100 years after the end of the First World War, engaged in the impossible task of remembering people who willingly sacrificed themselves amid circumstances the like of which we will never experience.

We’ve watched it our political leaders break from the self-induced madness of ongoing negotiations, battling with the wilful ignorance, arrogance, and belligerence that characterises 2018, lead by Theresa May, our present-day appeaser.

These are the kind of moments I find increasingly difficult to contend with.

I see on the faces of those in control is total incomprehension. Nobody seems able to make sense of it. Nobody is able to beat a clear path.

It’s the language of music which seems to fill the void.

I’ve been thinking this for a while now, but the only truth I can put my finger on are the emotions I hear in the music I listen to. Eric Lu’s Leeds performance of a Chopin Ballade is one example, so too Cedric Tiberghien’s Armistice Recital at Wigmore Hall on Saturday night – a deft collection of careful selected works written during by the First World War.

Thought provoking stuff. Music that holds a mirror up to all the thoughts, feelings and assumptions you never realised you hold.

I foolishly expect music to illustrate an event I have no first-hand experience of. But the music I heard on Saturday night challenged the assumptions I hold generated by the histories of this gruesome period. How can composers who live through this period generate such arresting art? And what will the music be (and when will we hear it) that brings our present-day splintered communities together again?

The irony for me today is that it’s music that makes the most sense to me right now. Music captures, triggers and reflects the emotions we feel, signposting the core values we all collectively hold if only we were all brave enough to coalesce around them.

I hope to God we’re not destined to repeat the same mistakes again. Imagine. All that talent; all that waste.

Esme Quartet win Wigmore Competition

I’ve followed three differing competitions over the past ten years, all spanning a range of musical genres. All of them, the most recent being the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, are linked by a similar personal experience: investing in the process, backing a winner, hearing the result, after which an intense feeling of self-loathing descends.

In the case of the Wigmore winners tonight – the Esme Quartet – I was surprised they won, but not in any way disappointed. There are no weak players in a competition like the Wigmore. Its an impossible competition in that respect. We’re observing differing levels of musicianship, different interpretations, and different sounds. It’s those differences which are at the heart of the listening experience that makes the ranking of competitors a (kind of) redundant process.

What I’ve enjoyed most this week is the opportunity to get closer to chamber music. It’s been like discovering me and the OH have another floor in our house on which there are number of new rooms to peer inside. I really value those new opportunities. Such new excursions are what keep me sane(ish). Listening to contrasting performances has flexed my listening muscles (so to speak).

I was backing the Goldmund Quartet. I adored their playing and found their presence on staging captivating. But I’m not sorry they didn’t come first (that would unsporting to the Esme and incredibly mean-spirited to third place Viano). What helps sustain this art form is the idea demonstrated once again here that different people hear things in different ways.

There’s the chance to watch over the whole thing again tomorrow and see what I missed too. Maybe then I’ll process through the odd sense of self-loathing I’m experiencing – that unsettling feeling of having regretted getting quite so involved in and enthused by something which is now at an end and forgotten about. More on that story in a future post.

2018 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition Final streamed live on Facebook and YouTube

Yesterday saw three semi-finalists selected for the Grand Final of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet. The three quartets who've secured their place in the final – Goldmund, Esme, and Viano, have already won a cash prize. Who gets awarded what is decided in the final that starts at 6pm tonight, streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.

I attended the first semi-final at Wigmore Hall yesterday afternoon. Right from the start I was blown away by the Goldmund Quartet who opened the competition with Beethoven's Op.59 No. 2 in F minor. They opened with an unequivocal commitment, energy and drive that was arresting in the concert hall. And, now I come to watch it back on Facebook, I'm relieved I didn't imagine their prowess either. There is an undeniable drive to their playing. The second movement triggered the tear ducts yesterday – its done the same today. Based on the semi-finals my money's on them to win the £10K first prize. 

In this way, the Goldmund Quartet set the bar high for the first semi-final. Quartuor Tchalik who followed didn't seem able to reach the same emotional depths – the dynamic range was undoubtedly there, but some of the intensity was missing. The third movement cello pizzicato solo in Beethoven's Op.59 No. 1 certainly brought the group into the right groove, but even then I still wanted them to go further. Emotionally, I wanted to be put through the ringer, so to speak.

And having heard two performances of Beethoven's Op.132 in A minor, I think that both the Marmen Quartet who followed in the first semi-final and Quatuor Amabile who concluded the second semi, chose works with uncompromisingly demanding openings. In the case of the Marmen quartet it felt like there was some timidity at the start which made me feel uneasy; Quartuor Amabile pulled off a more convincing start in comparison. 

This isn't a foregone conclusion

That's not how the decision is necessarily made. As with each stage in this competition, I've been reminded about how something you think sounds amazing doesn't necessarily register with the jury. And, seeing as its live performance, just because a group blew you away one day, doesn't necessarily mean they'll do the same the following day. The final features new repertoire not previously heard at the competition – romantic repertoire throughout. So, it could be that another group shines brighter in the final this evening.

It's an addictive experience

That's one of the things that has pulled me into this competition a whole lot more deeply than I ever imagined it would. Having a range of performances and groups to compare and contrast makes for a far more immersive, and I'd also suggest addictive, concert experience. Hearing contrasting groups has helped me better understand playing practise, the impact chemistry (or a lack of it) has it on a performance, and it's resulted in me hearing a whole lot more chamber music by Beethoven in one day than I've heard in a long long time. 

Trust your listening instincts

I've also been reminded about how engaging with this art form is about learning to trust our own individual listening instincts. When I heard the Goldmund in the Wigmore I knew immediately I loved what I was hearing. But, as much as I love writing (loads of copy), I'm not sure I could exactly pinpoint the mechanics of that musical creation (probably a good thing for all concerned).

I assumed when I sat down to watch the second semi-final on YouTube that I'd struggle more to have an instinctive feel for who I connected with and who I didn't. But it didn't turn out to be that way. There is a feeling you get when something special is happening on stage whether you're there in person or watching online. I still find it difficult to explain, but its what I'm always looking for as a listener.

Nearly half as many more viewers on Facebook than YouTube

What really surprised was the number of people watching on Facebook rather than YouTube. I notice at the time of writing that there were over 1K viewers of the second semi-final on Facebook as opposed to approximately 600 on YouTube. My assumption was that more people would be watching on YouTube as the app offers more opportunity to cast to connected TVs. Inevitably, I'm now fascinated to know what the demographic is watching on Facebook. 

The finalists of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition 2018 are:  The Goldmund Quartett, the Esmé Quartet, and the Viano Quartet. 

Watch the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition final on Sunday 15 April from 6pm, streamed live on the Wigmore Hall YouTube channel or via the Wigmore's Facebook page. 

Catch-up on Semi-Final One and Semi-Final Two via the Wigmore Hall's Facebook page or via YouTube.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition 2018 Shortlist Revealed

It seems incredible that two and half years have passed since the Van Kuijk Quartet won the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet competition (pictured above).

Today, details of the 2018 competition have been revealed, including the shortlist of quartets competing for the £10K prize.

Callisto Quartet (USA)
Eliot Quartett (Germany)
Esmé Quartet (Germany)
Gildas Quartet (UK)                    
Goldmund Quartett (Germany)         
Idomeneo Quartet      UK/Switzerland/Spain
Marmen Quartet (UK)                         
Quartet Amabile  (Japan)
Quatuor Tchalik  (France)             
Solem Quartet (UK)                    
Vera Quartet  (USA)                  
Viano Quartet (USA)

Preliminary Rounds

10, 11, 12 and 13 April 2018, at the Royal Academy of Music, London
Free admission to the public

14 April 2018, 2pm and 7.30pm, at Wigmore Hall, London

15 April 2018, 6pm, at Wigmore Hall, London

In addition to the £10,000 prize (donated by the Dorset Foundation), winners of the competition will secure a UK concert tour, residencies at the Banff Centre, Canada and Avaloch Farm Music Institute, USA  and a place at the McGill International String Quartet Academy.

The judging panel includes Jonathan Brown, András Fejér, Nobuko Imai, Bjørg Lewis, Heime Müller and Károly Schranz, chaired by Wigmore Hall’s director John Gilhooly.

Further details available on the Wigmore Hall website.