Tag Archives: Benedetti

Learning to live digitally

With little or no access to live audiences COVID-19 has forced classical music into the digital age. And there’s no going back, says KEITH BRUCE  

In the way of familiar journalistic overuse, the phrase “the new normal” was very swiftly denuded of any meaning, but it has been clear for a while, even to those most blinkered about the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, that long-term change is upon us.

For those who earn their livings in the arts there was an immediate huge short-term worry, with venues closed and performances cancelled because of the safety restrictions necessitated by the health emergency, and earnings abruptly curtailed.

At the same time, it was impossible not to be heartened by the outpouring of creativity that the situation precipitated. An online performance will never produce the same visceral thrill as the joy of hearing music played in a shared space, but the technology available at relatively little cost enabled talented musicians to produce work that could not be replicated in the recital room, multi-tracking themselves into large one-person groups or becoming a close-harmony ensemble without the help of even other family members.

Working in enforced isolation on opposite sides of the globe, new partnerships were forged as existing ones were maintained and expanded, digitally.

Scots and Scottish organisations have been inspiringly dynamic in much of this. As Nicola Benedetti told VoxCarnyx of her own education foundation: “We were always wanting to move things online, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that.”

At the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recently-arrived chief executive Alastair Mackie had been equally clear that the RSNO needed to embrace the possibilities of the digital future, before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Beginning with fun and games for young people and home-shot party-pieces by players, the RSNO plundered the cache of filmed recordings in its own recent archive to keep the orchestra’s output in the public eye.

Alongside the Benedetti Foundation’s video diet, the National Youth Choir of Scotland was also swiftly out of the blocks with a huge range of music tuition films for all ages and abilities, at the same time as it found ways of allowing its young choirs to meet online rather than cancel their school holiday sessions.

That education work became an early indicator of one of the other upsides of the enforced move to digital – its global reach. The Benedetti Foundation had not had ambitions outside of the UK, and the work of NYCOS, even with its network of area choirs across Scotland, stopped at the border. Now both found they were teaching, and receiving feedback from, young people around the world.

This, of course, raises funding questions as well as opportunities. Scottish Government money, business sponsorship and parental support sustains organisations like NYCOS for the particular benefit of the resident population – is it fair and desirable that parents from elsewhere are able to tap in to that resource?

These are the sort of questions that will have to be asked as the months of living like this stretch on, another acceleration of a process of digital adaptation that sits oddly with the sensation that life has slowed down.

With its current digital subscription season, the RSNO is in the forefront of testing the market. Salvaging some elements of the season it had already announced, as much in the commitment of star soloists as in repertoire, its series of ten concerts, pay per view at £10 each, with a pound-a-gig discount for booking the season, will be easy to do the maths with at the end of the run. Having its own new technology-ready venue to use, where the required space for playing under the current restrictions was available, has been crucial, as will be the loyalty of the orchestra’s live-music-starved fanbase.

Another thing we have learned from the pandemic is that jokes about silver-surfers and inter-generational adaptability to online platforms are so much patronising nonsense.  “Usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged,” Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan told Vox Carnyx in a recent interview.

For the time being the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is still broadcasting its concerts free, with an appeal for donations, which is the model many other organisations have adopted. Scottish Opera, which has also been a pace-setting organisation, has also made its high-quality offerings available for nothing so far.

The opera company was way ahead of the game. By sheer good fortune, it had a brand-new opera film, The Narcissistic Fish, already shot, edited and scheduled to show when that became the only game in town. Swiftly following it with a superb version of Menotti’s The Telephone for the online Edinburgh Festival, it then brought the Lammermuir Festival to a close with a filmed production of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, from the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

Filming of The Telephone, a co-production between Scottish Opera and EIF © James Glossop

When it was briefly possible, the opera company also leapt into the breach with live offerings – three compact Pop-Up touring shows (also free) and a fine La boheme in the car-park of its technical centre, for which the paid-for tickets were probably under-priced, given the demand.

Although the Janacek was free to view – and is still available – Lammermuir was another important Scottish experiment in pay-to-view. Through its partnership with BBC Radio3 about half of its concerts, all from a church in Haddington with no audience, could be heard free, but watching the recitals online required the purchase of a £5 ticket, with a £33 season ticket available for all 12 of them.

A lot of supporters bought the passes, and the box office attracted around half the number of individual bookers the festival would expect, for fewer than half the number of concerts.

What astonished James Waters, who co-directs the festival with Hugh Macdonald, was the spread of the audience, from Switzerland, Bulgaria, Japan, Canada and the USA as well as across the UK. “How did they know about us?” he asks. “We had a vanishingly small marketing budget.”

Echoing Nicola Benedetti’s observation that recent experience has shown the long lead-times in classical scheduling to be non-essential, the Lammermuir online festival was given the go-ahead on August 3 and launched on August 20. Ticketing for the broadcasts proved straight-forward and communication with the online audience went more smoothly than Waters had expected.

The final sums have not been done, but the lessons of the digital experience are clear to him, even if it is possible to return to the previous model of live performance next year. “It would be unacceptable for us not to do something online next year. We’ve learned so much, and it might even pay for itself.”

It will surprise no-one who has experienced this increased digital life in Scotland that Waters reports some issues with establishing a solid, fast broadband connection for the concerts, which effectively dictated that the recitals were filmed and then broadcast “as live”.

That has become the usual model for the orchestras and smaller ensembles too, but there is a huge variation in the amount of lighting and post-production work that comes with digital broadcasting, and for some the nearer the experience remains to the raw live show the better. “If we’d had more time to think about it, we’d have had the chance to cock it up,” notes Waters sagely.

That distinction between “live” and “as live” also explains why the BBC SSO has not been shown to best advantage recently, with genuinely live broadcasting – at which it has so much experience – twice coming embarrassingly unstuck. And the BBC, as if it didn’t have enough problems at present, is the body that faces the biggest, and most pressing questions. Having had a virtual monopoly on live classical music and opera broadcasting in the UK for so long, it now has an obligation to share that playing field with a whole new league of competition.

When organisations need to gain revenue from their music through online broadcasting, can they continue to give the same product away free? Are streamed Wigmore Hall recitals, subsidised by the associated Radio3 broadcast, taking market share from ticketed chamber music? Should the BBC Scottish have delayed its season-opener, when it was clear it was going to hit the ether at the same time as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Quilter Cheviot-sponsored gala with Nicola Benedetti started their programme of concerts?Such questions, or ones very like them, will require answers in the months to come. Whenever the health emergency ends, and even though the return of shared experience in the same space cannot come too soon, there will be no going back to the musical diet as it was before.

Nicola Benedetti’s Solid Foundation

Lockdown has forced violinist NICOLA BENEDETTI to adapt to new ways of working, and it’s not all bad, she tells Keith Bruce

It was just a few days ahead of her return to live work that Nicola Benedetti and I talked on the phone, so a question about how she has coped with lockdown, and a complete halt to her usually hectic concert performance schedule, was really the only way to begin.She pondered for a moment, never a woman to give an off-the-cuff or unconsidered reply.“It’s been mixed, really. I am actually very busy at the moment, with a lot of different stuff going on. But it has been a mix of some quieter times and some much more intense times with all the education stuff that I’ve been doing.”

In fact it was within a few weeks of concert halls shutting their doors that the integration of the violinist’s professional career and the work of the Benedetti Foundation which she established to bolster music education began, as had always been scheduled. As the first step toward the launch of her latest Decca album, Elgar, featuring the Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski, she led her young students, wherever they were, through a party-piece performance of the composer’s Salut d’Amour, one of his best known tunes. Her own version, with pianist Petr Limonov, was released as a promotional single from the album and the sheet music was available for student violinists to download. A series of “Learn with Nicky” YouTube videos completed the package.

At the start of this year the Foundation took its potentially life-changing operation out on the road for the first time, with hundreds of young people galvanised into taking the learning of their instrument seriously by the charismatic presence of Nicky and her hand-picked team of dynamic cohorts. At the same time Benedetti had made it clear that this work was going to be a priority for her, and her availability for orchestral concert engagements and the learning of new repertoire would be adjusted to accommodate that.With her live bookings cancelled to the end of the year because of COVID-19, like those of every other musician, and any online behind-closed-doors work a matter of complete rethink once that even became possible, it turned out to be a back-to-the-drawing-board moment anyway.

As far as the work of the Foundation was concerned, she says, “it sort of solidified what we had wanted to do anyway; it just propelled us to do it quicker.

“We were always wanting to move things online, and have a really significant online presence, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that. The content of what we do has not been changed at all, but the numbers have grown massively and quite quickly. We are very happy about that and surprised by how little compromise there has been on quality – we are just seeing a lot more people.

“The setting up of an online structure that is functional and works well – we had to do all that very quickly. Our whole ethos was of year-round advocacy and communication with all sorts of different charities, individuals, schools, teachers and students, but then we have our workshops. These are explosive events that have the potential to be quite life-changing for people.

“They are very much seen as one-off things, but in the last two months we’ve been running those on almost a daily basis, communicated with almost 12,000 young musicians and taught them directly. But we will be going back to our live workshops, it is just a case of when. There is no question that it will happen.”As far as the album release was concerned, she thinks the coronavirus epidemic made little difference.

“So much of an album release is done remotely anyway. Fewer interviews happen in person, so the feeling of that wasn’t all that different. For the release of an album, especially an orchestral one, it is very rare that you’ll have a ‘launch event’ moment.”Having those legions of young Elgar players can’t have hindered its prospects, and the album went straight to number one on the classical charts on release, at a time of Decca label dominance of the top ten. Benedetti, however, seems a little sceptical about what that means in terms of real listeners, and sales. She had been due to play the concerto often over the summer.

“I was really sad not to play the Elgar in Edinburgh, and at the Proms and in Europe on tour. I always find it difficult to gauge the success of things in terms of numbers of clicks or likes and views. How in-depth are people listening to something? It’s a real shame we are not doing that tour – then it would really be selling!”

When live music began to happen again, Benedetti was, characteristically, in the first wave of players testing the water. She was part of the limited season of live BBC Proms performances at an audience-free Royal Albert Hall, playing baroque music with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and as soloist on a streamed session from the Philharmonia, playing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. So when Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili was unable to play that virtuoso violin showcase at the Last Night of the Proms through illness, Benedetti stepped in at the last minute and stole the show.

Shortly after that the violinist was in Scotland to work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on a condensed approximation of how that ensemble’s season was supposed to open.The SCO’s barn-storming opener at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and then Glasgow City Halls, backed by investment managers Quilter Cheviot, was to have been Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, preceded by Bruch’s First Violin Concerto and opening with John Adams’s The Chairman Dances. Instead there is an online concert performance of the Bruch, billed as the Quilter Cheviot Benedetti Concert, filmed and recorded behind closed doors at Perth Concert Hall, and first broadcast at the time the Usher Hall concert was due to begin on Thursday September 24.

“Some orchestras and concert halls were very quick just to cancel an entire project and didn’t enter into those secondary discussions about what’s going to be in its place, but that was never the case with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra,” says Benedetti. “They always were looking at what else they could do and how else they could do it. Obviously to have the opportunity to produce a concert is great and I’m sure they’ll do an excellent job of getting it out to all their patrons and supporters, so that even if there is nobody in the room, people will be able to enjoy the concert in another way.”

As it happened, she was the last guest to appear with the orchestra before the shutters came down, playing and directing the Mendelssohn Concerto in a programme of Mendelssohn and Mozart with violist Lawrence Power in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in March.

“We had just done the Mendelssohn Concerto before lockdown, and I played the Sinfonia Concertante for the first time, and I enjoyed that week so much. I feel like I had a bit of a rebirth in my relationship with the Mendelssohn Concerto through my experience with the SCO.”

When we spoke, before the SCO rehearsals and filming, the violinist was anticipating a similar experience with the Bruch, and her first collaboration with Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev did indeed deliver a delightfully fresh and vibrant interpretation of that often-played work.

Readjustment, one way or another, is certainly the order of the day, and like many people, Benedetti sees dangers in the post-COVID landscape as well as opportunities she is keen to exploit.

“There are individuals and smaller organisations – or indeed larger organisations that have been very successful in managing their finances thus far and are therefore not prime candidates for rescue packages from the Arts Council or Creative Scotland – that are at risk. To get through this period without any casualties is highly unlikely, but it is an opportunity for people to refine themselves and double down on their fight for their existence and their worth.

“This has been an eye-opener for everybody, and lots of people have made life adjustments that they won’t give up now. I think for me there’s been a massive appreciation for time spent with family, and it’s a gift for me to see how much it is possible to do from your home.

“It’s also been interesting for me to see that everybody says you have to plan a concert two years in advance and suddenly we’re seeing that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Next year still looks like it did on my schedule, but of course I’ve no idea how much of that will actually stay. Anything I am doing now has been a recent invitation, put together within the last month or so. It’s a whole new way of working.”

OAE/Cohen/Benedetti

Royal Albert Hall, London

IF the self-identifying “traditionalists” barking about Rule Britannia at the Last Night really knew and cared about the BBC Proms, rather than merely being attention-seeking blowhards, they might have noted an imbalance in the selection of the music in the live concerts that has made it to the limited season behind closed doors at the Royal Albert Hall.

Although the number of events that stray far from the classical heartland of the “world’s largest music festival” has increased markedly in recent years, it has never been proportionately as large as in the face of the pandemic. Fine though the concerts featuring Anoushka Shankar and Laura Marling have been, their distance from the established Western orchestral music canon that Sir Henry Wood created the Proms to celebrate is unarguable, even if exactly how much of any year’s programme in the 21st century would have tickled his fancy could probably fuel a healthy debate.

It is not so very long since the programme played by period music specialists the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which was originally to have featured Alina Ibrigamova duetting with Nicola Benedetti on a sequence of double concertos by Vivaldi and Bach, would have been a specialist taste in the Proms programme. This year, however, it looked almost mainstream, so it is important to remember that such music remains substantially the province of a few dedicated.

Of the two violinists, it is Ibrigamova who has more form in the world of baroque bows and gut strings, particularly with the quartet she leads, the Chiaroscuro, while Benedetti, with her Elgar concerto album recently topping the classical charts, is associated in the public mind with much later repertoire. So when Ibrigamova pulled out of the concert following the death of her father, LSO emeritus double bassist Rinat Ibrigamov, Benedetti’s role as sole headliner was a weighty one.

Contemporaries at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the violinists had played the Bach double under Menuhin’s baton in their teens (in Paris, at the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but the rest of the programme was new repertoire, which Benedetti now found herself playing with soloists from the ranks of the orchestra, Rudolfo Richter, Kati Debretzeni and Matthew Truscott. Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphrys added a Vivaldi oboe double to a programme that also included a Concerto Grosso and Passacaglia by Handel, and – rarest of all – a Concerto Grosso by Tyneside composer Charles Avison.

If the ensemble was a little ragged in places, the projection of the group’s sound on television was far superior to that achieved for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo at the beginning of the series, if not quite as sumptuous as that the of the LSO and Simon Rattle at the start of the week. Benedetti’s fearlessness and self-confidence, under the circumstances, was matched by the authority of her playing, and her sympathetic partnering of the others who had stepped up to the plate. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was the Bach that seemed to fare least well of the works, missing the partner Benedetti knew.

The Prom concert was the first of a run of very similar programmes that the OAE and Benedetti then took to Snape Maltings and Saffron Hall. As events sadly turned out, it would probably have benefitted from coming after the out-of-town run.
Keith Bruce