Thursday, June 07, 2012

On the future of music journalism

Here are a few thoughts I've cobbled together in the wake of last week's panel discussion at Classical:NEXT. A few things I aired there, a few that happened there, some that there wasn't time to air and one or two that have come to mind since. Just a tuppence-ha'penny, really. (Below, a pic from the panel: L to R, Oliver, Carsten and me.)




On 1 April I put out a spoof blogpost announcing that henceforth every music critic would be obliged to audition as a musician for the conductor Valery Gergiev. Imaginary quotes took differing standpoints: readers deserved the assurance that those pontificating knew what they were talking about, but it’s also true that some musicians can’t string together a proper sentence. To my amazement, some people actually fell for this. Perhaps it inadvertently contained a little truth. What can the future hold for a specialised area that first of all depends on two skills – musical knowledge and writing ability – that are dwindling in the education system; and that secondly remains inextricably linked to the prospects for print journalism in general?

Music journalism may sound like an ivory tower, but the issues that affect it are the same ones that apply to everyone in the wider creative industries. The question of education, or lack of it, is especially alarming. The UK’s arts and humanities courses in higher education, including the music colleges, are about to lose all their state funding; and musical education at school is a lottery. As for grammar, my first advice to youngsters who want advice on entering music journalism is all too often: “Read Eats Shoots and Leaves.”

With classical music no longer an accepted part of everyday life, the topics we cover have changed in the past few decades. When I first went into music journalism, after an academic and pianistic training, I thought I’d be interviewing my favourite musicians and conveying their hoped-for words of wisdom. Now, though, this would be seen as something for specialists: space is limited and “good musician” isn’t reason enough to fill it. We have to find topics of wider general interest – and work with the trend rather than against it in order to keep this art in the public eye at all.

The future of music journalism depends on much more than our ability to do our jobs well. This came into sharp relief during our panel discussion at the new classical music trade fair in Munich, Classical:NEXT. My fellow panellists were two highly respected editors, Oliver Condy of BBC Music Magazine and Carsten Dürer of the German journal Piano News. Both passionately defended print, and Oliver Condy pointed out, quite rightly, that music journalism must be recognised as the skilled profession it is, and should be respected and remunerated accordingly. Up went a hand in the audience: a woman from New York told us that her younger friends and colleagues read only online, and won’t pay for anything. Another delegate suggested that the future may lie in streamed exclusive videos. Yet print journalists - and writers who love language for its own sake - aren’t always renowned for simultaneous expertise in digital film editing.

The Internet, obviously, represents the biggest shake-up in human communication since the introduction of the telephone, if not the printing press. It’s no wonder if there are teething problems while we work out what to do with it. An audience member asked about my blog and why I write it for free. Easy: it’s an accident. Eight years ago, when blogs were relatively new – it seemed a good way to keep in touch with friends in far-flung places. Today, though, Facebook and Twitter serve that purpose, and just about everyone blogs. So now it’s time-consuming and it doesn’t buy the cat food, but friends say I mustn’t close it down because it is “part of my personal brand”. 

Blogging has become a sort of “value-added” model: you hope that if readers find and like you, they’ll buy your newspapers, magazines and books. In the blogosphere too, though, things are in a state of flux. Discussion has grown more immediate: by the time a post is written, it’s likely the topic will already have been done to death on Twitter. Meanwhile this twilit world has morphed from a mutually supportive, creative environment to something more combative. Online anonymity is pernicious, promoting false “reader reviews”, cyber-bullying, prejudice and hysteria. I suspect one day it will be quashed once and for all – though something frightful might have to happen first.

Technology moves faster than we can. What we can’t afford to do is ignore that technology. We haven’t got it right yet, but we do need to seize opportunities to make this medium work for us, not against us. Obviously that’s easier said than done, but the first step is embracing the notion and ditching the fear. We’re supposed to be a creative industry; it’s up to us to be creative. And if we “creative people” lack the necessary business and technology skills – let’s face it, some of us would be mincemeat on The Apprentice – then perhaps we should jolly well learn some.

But there’s a future for music journalism, just as there’s a future for music. Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more classical music around now than ever. It’s the dated means of hearing and enjoying it that are fading out, not the music itself. And as long as it’s there, people will want to write about it – in one way or another.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Operalia finale - coming to a computer near you

The grand finale of Placido Domingo's Operalia competition is on Sunday 10 June. Reflect that this contest has launched the careers of Rolando Villazon, Joyce DiDonato, Nina Stemme, Jose Cura and many more in its past 19 years - this year marks its 20th anniversary - and you might well want to see what's going on. The competition is held in a different place every time and this year it will be at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, China, and will be streamed live on Medici TV. Ten young candidates will perform for an audience and jury led by Domingo himself. Remember, as a JDCMB reader you can benefit from a cut-price subscription to Medici TV: full details here. Fans can also see there a selection of films displaying some of those former winners since they've made the big-time.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Classical:NEXT takes wing with a whoosh



(Above, a news report from BRTV about Classical:NEXT - in German, and starring a Danish wind quintet, Carion.)

Several people have said to me: "What do you do at Classical:NEXT?" Back from Munich, I could make a few suggestions.

First of all, you talk. You talk and talk. And talk some more. Seven hundred delegates assembled at the Gasteig, 60 per cent from outside Germany. You meet them. You make appointments to see people you know by email,  blog or repute from the other side of the world; they make appointments to see you. Or you just bump into them in the foyer; it's relaxed enough for this to be easy (unlike the London Book Fair, which is rather like Euston Station at rush hour). You introduce your friends to each other and in turn they introduce one another to more friends. Or you just read the name labels and bounce up to someone. And you drink a lorralorralorra coffee.

You listen to talks and discussions. The future design of music venues, for instance - can we afford huge multithousand-seater halls today? Do we need them? Is that, in any case, the best way to listen to music? Or the inspiring Alan Bern from Weimar on the correlation of classical and folk music - try his exciting ensemble The Other Europeans.

Oliver Condy of BBC Music Magazine, Carsten Durer of Piano News and yours truly discussed Perspectives on Music Journalism - a panel from which we can conclude that we live in very interesting times. Olly and Carsten passionately defend print. A lady from New York puts up a hand and declares that none of her younger friends and colleagues read anything but online, and won't pay for it either. I attempt a little realpolitik in between. How do we survive in a world that's determined to have something for nothing? How does a profession that depends on good writing and musical expertise survive in a time when both skills are desperately run down in the education system and about to be run down still further?

You bring your spheres together. I saw my lovely editor, Serhan Bali, from Andante magazine in Istanbul. I met Ilona Oltuski from New York, where she's started the Get Classical Lounge at the Rose Bar, a classy yet informal salon setting in which music enthusiasts can listen to gifted young musicians. I met Fritz Wunderlich's daughter, Barbara, who runs Wunderlich Media, and I became no doubt the latest of several million to tell her with tears in eyes how much we love her father's voice (I listen to his recordings at home even more than to Kaufmann or Calleja). Plenty of pals turned up from Denmark, including the irrepressible Jesper Buhl of Danacord and our old friend Lone Ricks of Travel Art, Copenhagen, who is now an orchestral tour manager - if you are indeed an orchestra on tour, you need this woman, because she has been known to rescue, in person, precious cellos from luggage destined for an aircraft hold. I hung out with Ian Roberts of A Star PR: trapped together in delays at Gatwick for three hours, we held our own mini trade fair in the South Terminal's branch of Apostrophe. 

You can be "mentored" if you so wish: many of us could do worse than spend a few hours learning how to use social media more effectively, for instance. Or you can listen to showcases. Musicians with new projects have about half an hour each to present themselves in the concert hall. Everything from the Sjaellend String Quartet (told you there were a lot of Danes) to the Dutch pianist Daria van den Bercken, winner of the Amsterdampreijs 2012, who has been popping up around Holland with a piano on which to play Handel.

And a new online project, Open Goldbergs, launched at Classical:NEXT. It's a crowd-funded recording by Japanese pianist Kimiko Ishizaka of the Bach masterpiece, offered free of charge, along with associated illuminating technology. Kimiko performed the music while the audience followed the score on its laptops and mobile phones using open-source software MuseScore.com. In its first three days Open Goldbergs had 200,000 listens and 50,000 downloads. More info and downloads here on their site.

Yes, the world wants something for nothing, yet music practitioners still have to eat. Hey - we're the creative industries. It is up to us to be creative. Talking and meeting and mingling traces new pathways in the brain (or something like that). You start cooking up ideas. Couldn't we have a regular music world network in London that meets, for example, once a month? Couldn't we mix more with representatives from other genres of music, share ideas and build bridges? It's all very well building communities online - but it is still in person, over coffee, that the real progress can be made. And after a while, it seems that anything is still possible, if only we can make it happen. It's up to us to create the future ourselves. That's what you do at Classical:NEXT.  

Prost!

Monday, June 04, 2012

Messing about in boats...

I don't think it was really meant to be funny. But I found myself glued to the webcast of yesterday's Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in the hope that someone, sometime, might bring on Captain Mainwearing and reveal the whole thing to be an episode of Dad's Army.

Like when the royal barge was turning round, just that wee bit weirdly, and nobody on the announcing panel seemed very sure whether or not it was meant to be doing what it was doing - "It's going sideways! Isn't that amazing!" Or when Tower Bridge nearly didn't do its thang in time (we do love Last Minute here). And a phalanx of increasingly desperate and chilled (in the wrong way) BBC reporters uttered the phrase "The rain can't dampen the spirits" so often that, had this indeed been a comedy script, it would have signalled a character's self-delusion that enough repetitions make something true. Now, I'm sure plenty of people indeed didn't mind - we're a tough nation, aren't we. But at the end, according to Channel 4 News, docking priority was given to the open boats with suspected hypothermia sufferers on board.

Meanwhile the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are getting on in years, but stood on their freezing barge throughout - never have the words "God Save the Queen" seemed so appropriate. Someone needed to save her, fast. Or at least take her a nice cup of tea.

June is the UK's monsoon season. We all know this. We just don't want to admit it. But if you plan a big outdoor event, which requires young singers to stand on the roof of a boat belting into microphones, it is surely your responsibility at least to let them borrow a brolly? The poor choir from the RCM gave Land of Hope and Glory everything they'd got, but they were absolutely sodding drenched. The people in the 1m-strong crowd lining the riverbanks had a choice: to be there or not to be there (incidentally, I know people who wanted to be there and tried to go, only to be told by the police that they might as well go home!). But the performers didn't.

The LPO-on-Thames was dry indoors, but I'm not sure about the musicians on other boats because we saw zippity-plunk of them on the TV. You know that joke about the holidaymakers at dinner? "This food is terrible," says one. The reply: "Yes - and such small portions." So, the BBC audience heard a bit of the Dambusters March while a chap from Horrible Histories rabbited through some  shtick. And we caught a glimpse of LPO-o-T, while the royals jigged about to the Henry Wood Sea Shanty piece. Just long enough for me to recognise the leader of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra at its helm, and for BBC News to say it was the LSO, and for @Queen_UK to credit the RPO, and for Norman Lebrecht to reveal on Twitter that it's looking for a new PR...

For about four seconds, earlier, a faint echo of Water Music emerged as the Academy of Ancient Music sailed by. The Royal Marines' brass band was slightly more audible - that's the nature of trumpets. Yet, dear readers, I'd tuned in wanting to hear the specially written new compositions by a raft (so to speak) of extremely fine British women composers - among them Debbie Wiseman, Rachel Portman and Jocelyn Pook - yet the BBC's TV coverage conveyed not a single note of them. Why not? Is contemporary music deemed too difficult for us poor uneducated general public to appreciate, or what? A desultory tweet from one of their performers went "Just spent 2 hours playing them and getting soaked" - followed by a plea of: "Could you really not hear any music?"

No, my friend. Not a bloomin' squeak. Only a special performance by a choir of sailors of a sea-shanty that said they were heading for South Australia, which seemed like rather a good idea.

But this is Britain. And what a day it was. Extraordinary. Unforgettable. Ever so British. World records were set. Boats were well messed about in. It was wonderful entertainment, just maybe not in quite the intended manner. I'm wondering who will be the first media person to crack, call a spade a spade and admit that it was a washout. Naturally, to misquote Oscar Wilde, I'm happy to say that I have never seen a spade.

[Photo: Press Association]


Saturday, June 02, 2012

In Darcey's shoes?

Tonight Kenneth MacMillan's last full-evening ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, opens at Covent Garden after being missing for a generation. It's so much associated with Darcey Bussell, whom it propelled to stardom, that to step into her shoes is a tall order. I talked to the leading ballerinas Marianela Nunez and Sarah Lamb about what it's like to try. Here's my feature from today's Independent.

And here is the adorable Marianela in rehearsal, filmed in the Royal Ballet's entire day of live webcasts in March (on her birthday).



Meanwhile, it's Diamond Jubilee time. Of course, this being London in June, it's raining and the forecast for tomorrow's River Pageant is 13 degrees... Readers overseas might like to know that there are flags everywhere. The whole of London has sprouted up looking like it's the Last Night of the Proms. Union Jacks are all over the city centre, where the Christmas lights usually go, and plenty of people have hung bunting outside their houses. The atmosphere is wonderful, despite the rain, or perhaps because of it. Let's face it, the Queen is a remarkable woman who has been doing the same job for 60 years with a professionalism that puts the politicians to absolute shame.

As far as the River Pageant is concerned - 1000 carefully-chosen boats on the Thames - they could have come up with a more imaginative musical programme, really, although there are some nice premieres. You may have missed my "jeepers-who-came-up-with-this-UKIP-style-fantasy" piece about the music on the ten boats, written when the programme was announced. I'd nurtured a faint hope that the then-still-TBC Ninth Boat might hold a waterborne world premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Ninth Symphony. It doesn't. Just as well. Now, several months later, it's evident that all of this is just aural wallpaper. Probably there'll be so much noise that nobody will be able to hear anything anyway.