Its own EIF concert is another significant step in deserved recognition of the quality of the choir Christopher Bell founded, and which passed its quarter century anniversary during the strictures of the pandemic.
The early evening performance of two gems of the choral repertoire was preceded by a show-and-tell, a demonstration by Bell of some of the music education techniques employed by NYCOS, derived from the work of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, with choir members – and early arrivals at the Usher Hall – willing guinea pigs.
It would have been more interesting to see the charismatic conductor work his magic on a different crowd, truth to tell. Many of those there at 4pm for the pre-show were already invested in the NYCOS project, perhaps with family among the many young people whose lives it has changed. This lot were a little too good at the singing games and rhythm clapping to pass for rookie seven-year-olds being introduced to the Kodaly method for the first time, only to find themselves being able to read music fluently a few years later.
The proof of that came in the concert an hour later. The main work was the Requiem composed by Maurice Duruflé during the Second World War, a work of devotional intensity that calls for singing of muscular power as well as great tenderness. On the platform with NYCOS was the RSNO and two local soloists, Cardiff Singer of the World 2017, mezzo Catriona Morison, who had featured in The Magic Flute the previous evening, and baritone Paul Grant, whose recent career has included a run of roles at La Scala, Milan.
He had pivotal moments in the Offertory and the Libera Me, his role parallel to mighty crescendos by the choir, while Morison had the Pie Jesu, Duruflé following the lead of Fauré in that section of his Requiem. Teaming her voice with the low strings and featuring a fine solo from principal cello Pei-Jee Ng, it is one of the gentlest sections of the mass setting, only surpassed by the choir’s In paradisum at the end – surely one of the loveliest evocations of heaven in all music.
With a full-strength RSNO on stage, this choir was never in any danger of being swamped but nor did the ensemble sound ever seem forced. The balance between the pure toned sopranos and wordless accompanying chorus in the Lux aeterna was another memorable moment.
Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the concert, was sung by the most recent addition to the NYCOS stable of choirs, its Chamber Choir, in its debut recital at last year’s Lammermuir Festival. Setting the words of eccentric 18th century poet Christopher Smart to very inventive contemporary music in 1943, here was the bigger choir tackling the version orchestrated by Imogen Holst for an Aldeburgh Festival nearly a decade later.
The ear-catching words – “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry” began soprano soloist Emily Kemp – were on the supertitles, but the immaculate diction of NYCOS made then unnecessary. Holst’s arrangement, which retains the organ alongside a small orchestra of 32 strings with crucial wind soloists, made the piece, although very different, an ideal partner for the Requiem.
That finding of God in Smart’s pet was followed by alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith and tenor Euan McDonald seeing divinity in a mouse and flowers, before bass Joshua McCullough spelled things out in the text’s child-like alphabetical way. It is a great work for NYCOS to have made its own, the building-blocks of the poet’s faith echoing the lessons in musicianship we’d mimicked earlier.
On paper the third concert of the BFO’s residency at this year’s Edinburgh Festival looked a brief affair, with just half an hour of music before and after the interval. In practice it turned out to be a very complete evening, and that was down to more than the stage re-setting required for the different elements of the programme.
Most obviously that included bringing the concert grand to the front of the stage for Sir Andras Schiff to play the third and last of Bartok’s Piano Concertos. Designed by the dying composer as a legacy for his pianist wife Ditta to sustain her career in their US exile, in fact she quickly returned to Hungary after he succumbed to leukaemia and it was premiered by Gyorgy Sandor and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946.
It is a very different beast from his rigorous Piano Concerto No2 and Schiff took a characteristic chamber music approach to its performance, engaging audibly and visibly with the superb wind principals of the orchestra in the opening movement and revelling in the referencing of Beethoven’s late string quartet in the Adagio religioso. The delightful transition into the work’s lively closing movement heralded a real vibrancy, poignantly suggesting that the composer was earnestly hoping not to die soon.
The personal content of that late work was framed by the practical music-making we heard on either side of it. The concert began with two performances of a selection of Romanian Folk Dances, Bartok’s orchestral transcription of 1915 preceded by a rougher version of the same material played by a folk trio drawn from the ranks of the orchestra, viola chords and slap bass accompanying the fiddle top line. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard essayed a similar lesson in a concert with the BBC SSO some years ago but it was a little po-faced next to this foot-stomping demonstration of Bartok’s way with traditional sources.
Alongside all the Budapesters on the platform, the local lasses of NYCOS National Girls Choir faced a challenge in performing Bartok’s Seven Choruses for Female Voices and Orchestra – one which, of course, director Christopher Bell’s young choristers rose to magnificently. As immaculately disciplined as always, with diction that non-Hungarian speakers could only marvel at, they performed entirely from memory and clearly beguiled Ivan Fischer, the conductor barely bothering with his instrumentalists to focus entirely on them. Beyond their musical excellence, the Fringe’s comedy awards panel should have been present to hear 75 young women being funny in Hungarian.
Bartok wrote his choruses to complement his colleague Zoltan Kodaly’s education programme, the music tuition method used by NYCOS today, so it was appropriate that the concert concluded with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta. Like Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances they celebrate their traditional sources in the superbly-crafted arc of an orchestral suite, and once again those Budapest Festival Orchestra soloists were immaculate.
Nor was it quite the end of the night, as Fischer re-made his resources of human talent into a baroque band and choir of 20 plus voices. The link between the encore of Monteverdi and the singing we’d heard previously was in the lyrics rather than music, and their expression of female experience – and this was one the NYCOS girls will surely remember for many years to come.
Featuring a full complement of the Scottish orchestras, the presence of Scottish Opera, quality string quartets and more top drawer pianists than is quite decent, one of the few things the 2022 Lammermuir Festival is not about is debuts. Or perhaps it is.
With The Marian Consort, Sansara, The Orlando Consort and Dunedin Consort still to come in the chamber choir line-up, that strand began with the first public concert by the newest ensemble under the capacious umbrella of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.
Long in the planning, or at least in the aspirations of NYCoS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the NYCoS Chamber Choir takes his example of the pursuit of excellence with the young musicians of Scotland to another level. If the full forces of the senior choir have already impressed some of the world’s top conductors in performances in Edinburgh, London, Europe and the United States, this elite unit of between 20 and 30 young voices is a refinement of that success.
What Bell has done with the formation of the Chamber Choir is select the finest voices within the current cohort – and possibly recent graduates who are beyond the stipulated age-range in future incarnations – and created a group that can tackle specific repertoire. Who knows what that might be in the future, but this first concert set bold, contemporary parameters – putting, perhaps quite deliberately, clear distance between the NYCoS Chamber Choir and the other vocal groups at this year’s Lammermuir.
With Michael Bawtree at the organ for Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the recital, and the piano for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, which concluded it, the other two works were a cappella – James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow.
Only the Dove, which dates from 2000, could be described as a secular work, although some of the poetry he sets – Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson among the texts – is faith-inspired. It was an especially appropriate work, not just for an unintended allusion to the death of the Queen, but also because the setting of Dickinson’s Answer July seemed to be a mature version of the sort of songs NYCoS has commissioned as part of its invaluable training of young musicians over its 25 years.
That coming to maturity of the organisation is perfectly celebrated in the birth of this choir. If Britten’s fascinating 1943 work – commissioned by the same clergyman responsible for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and setting texts by troubled 18th century poet Christopher Smart – is not heard very often, it is because it is far from easy. Here too, though, step-outs from soprano Emily Kemp and alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith take the listener into a child-like world of cat and mouse, while tenor Alexander Roland and bass Christopher Brighty each made powerful solo contributions.
Kemp then supported fellow soprano Lorna Murray in the exquisite close harmony passages of the MacMillan, while all the female voices provided an ethereal underscore to solo tenor Lewis Gilchrist. With alto Morven McIntyre and tenor Jack Mowbray the solo voices in the Dove, this was a chance for individuals to shine, but mainly about the meticulous performance of the ensemble of young men and women whose musical abilities far transcend any “youth choir” or “non-professional” categorisation.
The group also gives Bell access to a whole realm of repertoire, including the newest piece in this programme, the setting of verses from Psalm 84 by America’s composer-of-the-moment, Caroline Shaw. And the swallow is a gorgeous piece which seems to take the sound-world of Whitacre or Lauridsen into a more sophisticated sphere, not least in the imaginative and specific vocal techniques it demands.
Choir supremo Christopher Bell tells KEN WALTON about the exciting new NYCOS initiative he’s launching at the Lammermuir Festival
No sooner has the buzz of the Edinburgh International Festival dissipated than the Lammermuir Festival bursts into action with a programme of equal calibre. From 8-19 September all the big Classical Music action is in East Lothian, opening on Thursday with the compelling pianism of Jeremy Denk in Dunbar, and an operatic rarity – Massenet’s Thérèse – courtesy of Scottish Opera in St Mary’s Church, Haddington.
Elsewhere over the next 12 days regular morning coffee concerts include a series of song recitals by various star vocalists partnered with pianist Malcom Martineau; the chamber music programme ranges from string quartets Quatuor Mosaïques and Quatuor Agate to such invigorating couplings as cellist Laura van der Heijden and pianist Tom Poster; larger scale events extend from Bach cantata performances by the Marian Consort and Spiritato to orchestra programmes by the RSNO, SCO, Royal Northern Sinfonia, and the BBC SSO.
Among this cornucopia of delights, however, there’s one event that deserves special mention. It’s at Loretto School Chapel this Sunday (11 Sep), and it might take a second glance at the billing to appreciate that this isn’t just by any old National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) ensemble, but a brand new initiative that its artistic director Christopher Bell expects will personify excellence. Bell makes no apology for the selectivity of its 24 members. “They have to be at the top of their game to be chosen,” he says.
This is NYCOS’ “First XV”, singers taken from the current flagship National Youth Choir who are deemed the star players. Bell recognises that such a strategy goes against the inclusive brigade who’s view is you shouldn’t be leaving people out. “I’m quite surprised that 25 years on from founding NYCOS I’m still making the argument that to get the vey best results you have to have the very best singers,” he says.
His methods are tried and tested. The current lead ensembles – which also include the National Girls and National Boys Choirs – have performed at the highest level, from the BBC Proms and Edinburgh Festival to highly-acclaimed appearances in the USA. They have even been the choir of choice for Sir John Eliot Gardner and his Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
To get them to that level, Bell’s preferred model is pyramidal. At its base are the 14 regional choirs that eventually feed the national ones. But there are also parallel strands that address inclusivity. “Everybody at school should experience singing, which is why we run a programme of general access educational work where we’ll do singing days and teach teachers through workshops. Alongside that there’s the progressively-structured choir activity.
“But it’s like when a school wants a winning football team. Yes, everyone’s done PE, but you want the players that will get the ball in the net. When it comes to choosing a choir, particularly when it’s outside school, you want the best singers.”
One of the express aims of the new Chamber Choir is to tackle some of the most testing and varied repertoire. Sunday’s recital will include Britten’s slightly mad cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Jonathan Dove’s Passing of the Year. “Jonathan’s piece is really brilliant, very thoughtful, but joyful too,” he explains. “It’s about the arc of the year expressing the arc of life in symbolic terms. The funeral march near the end will break your heart.”
For this, Bell has been very specific in the voices he has recruited. They have to suit the repertoire of a given programme. “But it will be horses for courses,” he adds. “”It won’t necessarily be the same 24 people all the time. If we decide to do a more operatic programme, we choose the right voices. For a more churchy programme, a kind of Tenebrae meets Tallis Scholars, again we choose the best voices for the job. I even reserve the right, if there isn’t the right level within the group, to bring some NYCOS alumni back to ensure it’s of a decent level.”
“There’s capacity for the new choir to do really hard music, for us to make recordings of very different repertoire. This concert is the official launch of that idea: an idea we put to the Leverhulme Trust who came up with a very nice amount of money, which means that for the next three years we will be able to do it.”
The Chamber Choir sneaked in a soft launch recently in St Andrews and will do the same in Helensburgh this Saturday. But Sunday is the big moment when Bell introduces his newest choral initiative to a discriminating Lammermuir Festival audience. Thereafter it has a Scottish tour planned and recordings that include one for the BBC. “What we are not looking to do is crash in on already existing ensembles,” Bell stresses. “We’re looking to find maybe a niche, one that gives the really experienced NYCOS singers a chance to do yet more detailed and high level work, and not to stand on anyone’s toes!”.
The new NYCOS Chamber Choir launches at the Lammermuir Festival on 11 Sep (3pm) in Loretto School Chapel, Musselburgh. The Festival runs in venues around East Lothian from 8-19 Sep. Full details on www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk
In any typical year for the Edinburgh International Festival, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana would hardly be considered a genuine heavyweight opener to the Usher Hall orchestral series. Even for this historic 75th anniversary event, and in its more immediate relevance as the back-to-life adrenalin shot after two years of pandemic suppression, it is a cantata more generally regarded as a populist blast – to some extent the German composer’s one-hit wonder – offering more quick-hit than deep-rooted resonance.
It avoided that pitfall on two counts. This high-octane programme opened with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, affording a psychedelic wonderland of orchestra colouring, moments of seething harmonic adventure, and yes, its own brand of unadulterated thrill. The Orff, itself, had as its messenger the ravishing combination of the BBC SSO, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, NYCOS National Girls Choir and a glorious trio of soloists under Sir Donald Runnicles’ magisterial baton. No absence of emotional impact, then, but justified by its general excellence.
The Pines of Rome – a lustrous sequence of responses to Roman life set against the binding metaphor of the ancient trees that dominate its landscape, and one of the Italian composer’s trilogy of Rome-inspired works – is a stirring creation, its sound world reeking of Mediterranean warmth, historical mystery and sun-filled optimism.
As such, it was right up Runnicles’ street. He inspired a swashbuckling performance, red hot from the offset, a kaleidoscopic feast that explored every level of aural titillation from quietly succulent to feverishly terrifying. No more so than in the final moments, a seemingly limitless crescendo in which the gradual addition of rearguard offstage brass (spread liberally behind the dress circle audience) and the thundering might of the organ drove the decibel level to delirious heights.
This was adequate preparation for the primal force that is Carmina Burana. For so many of us, more used to the deliberately modest stage forces preferred in the recent exit-from-Covid months, it was a glorious sensation – the massed vision of the orchestra and choirs made all the more electrifying by the vivid combination of red-shirted NYCOS choir and black-clad adult choir and orchestra.
The singing was just as exhilarating, the wholesome precision of the Festival Chorus offset by the pristine projection of the youngsters, especially in such famously fervent numbers as Tempus est iocundum. Not every moment held perfectly together, with some panic-rushing by the men near the start and moments of under-projection from the women, but the sheer vocal ebullience that spilled out from the stage, and from the resplendent SSO, was mesmerising.
Then there was the tastiest icing on the cake from three perfectly-matched soloists, the soprano Meechot Marrero, tenor Sunnyboy Dladla and baritone Thomas Lehman, whose theatrical antics brought a lascivious edge to what were already riveting musical presentations. Marrero and Lehman hammed up the Cours d’Amours no end, flirting mercilessly in the process. Dladla, too, realised the dramatic potential in his caricature Roasted Swan showpiece.
It was exactly what the doctor ordered, intoxicating escapism to wash away the prevailing gloom and welcome joy, mindless or not, back into our lives.
The guy who does Christmas, NYCOS artistic director Christopher Bell, talks toKEITH BRUCE
The artistic director of the National Youth Choir of Scotland is in ebullient mood when I call him.
This is champion, because no-one does ebullience quite like Christopher Bell, as anyone who has attended any of the Christmas Concerts he conducted over the past quarter of a century will know.
Not this year, it’s true, and we’ll come to that.
The cause of Bell’s upbeat mood is not the start of a vaccination programme that should ultimately see the many-tiered organisation he founded and developed operating as intended, with highly trained young-voices impressing audiences, critics and conductors in packed halls across the nation and the world – or at least not the direct cause.
Whether as a result of the new mood of optimism abroad or not, Bell can now start planning for residential courses for his National Boys and National Girls Choirs in April, because one of the schools in Edinburgh that regularly hosts them had just made clear that it is ready to welcome the young musicians through its doors in the Easter holidays again.
This is in stark contrast to the situation a couple of months ago when his attempt to find even an outdoor playing field or sports ground willing to host a gathering of socially-distanced singers was meeting with a frosty response.
NYCOS has far from shut up shop, of course. When the coronavirus struck, just before last year’s Easter courses, the organisation very swiftly moved its work online, and its invaluable education of Scotland’s young folk at a local and national level, and from toddlers to twenty-somethings, continued. It continues still, with a weekend of online singing by the latest recruits to the National Boys Choir just ended and one with the National Girls Choir about to start.
“Suddenly, things seem a lot more hopeful,” says Bell. And fortuitously NYCOS has a Christmas recording poised in the blocks and ready to remind everyone what an essential treat music-making by young voice is at this time of year. (See review by Ken Walton elsewhere on Vox Carnyx)
The lead single from the seven track Signum release is a Paul Mealor original, I Pray, which features the solo voice of tenor Jamie MacDougall and the highlight of a set recorded seven years ago.
“Christmas is the time when you miss people who have gone, and this Christmas we are all going to miss people because we can’t link up with them. This song that Paul Mealor has written is about the people we are missing and the people we’ve lost. I lost my own father on Christmas Day, so that makes I Pray particularly special for me,” says Bell.
“The music is from a book, called Carols for Everyone, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and published by Novello in 2013. The idea was that these arrangements could involve an SATB choir, or a children’s choir, or both. We were contacted by Tern TV to record a few tracks for the Watchnight Service they were filming in Aberdeen. We got a choir together and we recorded all the songs in the book.
“This year I got in touch with Tern TV and asked what we were allowed to do with the tracks, and they were quite happy for us to use them.”
It is the latest in a sequence of releases that has kept NYCOS in the public ear, including a July 4 selection of music by Aaron Copland and Irving Berlin and a St Andrew’s Day double A-side. The sequence started with an album with the RSNO featuring Sir James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados alongside songs by Eric Whitacre, Thea Musgrave and Sir Michael Tippett.
“Cantos Sagrados reached number 13 in the Classical Charts and had brilliant reviews, including one in Gramophone Magazine” says Bell. “The releases have been very important in terms of keeping the NYCOS sound alive in the year that NYCOS can’t sing in public. It is about awareness, and I think I Pray could do well.”
Mischievously, Bell compares that the current situation for choirs to the resourcefulness of Catholics after the Reformation, meeting in secret to sing the Mass in Latin.
“There are people still singing and keeping the flame alive, and we are trying our best to keep Scotland’s young people singing. We are just having to do it online. The NYCOS regional choirs across the country have been rehearsing online since September, and have had online Christmas events.”
After detailed risk assessments, one choir met outside, in a park. Groups of no more than 20 gathered to a strict timetable for half an hour of singing, and then had to return, by a different route, to the carpark where parents waited.
“At the end, it left us thinking that those choirs working in areas in Tier 1 and 2 could feasibly have outdoor events.”
There has been a positive side to learning to work online as well.
“For NYCOS it has been a huge opportunity. When we did our Kodaly teaching in August, we had 300 participants including people in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, England, Ireland, and Scandinavia. People joined our online courses who wouldn’t have been able to do it.
“The NYCOS philosophy and NYCOS publications have been winging their way to the four corners of the world as a result of being able to do our courses online. We are currently talking about how we can capitalise on that in the new year.”
And there have been more specific practical benefits in learning to operate online.
“Boys’ voices change, and between our auditions in November and course in April is long enough for significant changes in the voices of the boys we’ve chosen. So frequently at the start of the course I have a mad morning listening to 40 or 50 boys to hear whether their voices have changed since I last heard them. Zoom is going to allow me to do that in the days before the course.
“Singing teachers are now able to do consultation online, and share resources. We are going to be able to be better at what we do as a result of Zoom. Nobody wanted to do a singing lesson online prior to March, but this has opened our eyes to the fact that it is possible.”
But the Christmas concerts that were another aspect of Christopher Bell’s career are another matter.
He has a good story about being recognised at his local petrol station with the question: “Are you the guy that does Christmas?” His interrogator went on to say that a family outing to the RSNO’s Christmas Concert at the Usher Hall always marked the official start to his festive season.
Bell had handed on the mantle of chorusmaster at the RSNO Junior Chorus and his staff link with the orchestra before the current crisis, but the days of conducting as many as 18 Christmas concerts are understandably on his mind at the moment, and technology cannot replicate the thrill of those events.
“It was about engaging with the audience, giving people that warm feeling at Christmas time. I need the orchestra, the choir and the hall; we inspire each other to create a unique experience.
“I did RSNO Christmas concerts for 25 years, and I will need to find something to replace it next year. I’m not sure if Christopher Bell’s Christmas Concerts would have marketing appeal, but maybe we’ll test the market.”
The NYCOS mini album Until We Meet Again and the single I Pray are out now on Signum Classics.
We may not have had the thrill of experiencing the National Youth Choirs of Scotland (NYCoS) live this year, but the successive release during 2020 of four recordings on Signum Classics has kept the vision espoused by Christopher Bell’s brilliant young singers well and truly alive.
The latest issue (released on 10 December) is the apposite and timely Until We Meet Again, a heart-lifting EP of Christmas songs, gift-wrapped in sophisticated piano-accompanied settings that show off the wholesome perfection of Bell’s choristers and give a fresh lick of paint to some familiar seasonal tunes.
These are not recent performances, captured originally in 2013 for a televised Watch Night service on the BBC, but as newly packaged recordings they maintain their compelling immediacy. The Bell fingerprint – a hotly-disciplined, full-blooded choral sound from both the flagship mixed choir and amalgam of its children’s choirs – informs every bar of music. On piano, Oliver Rundell is a super-efficient linchpin.
Seven tracks are on offer, from the seething restlessness with which Thea Musgrave underscores Boris Ord’s famous melody for the advent carol Adam Lay Abounden, to Kenneth Hesketh’s well-seasoned treble voice version of Three Kings, the full-fat extravagance of its piano writing almost inviting the same giddiness one gets from too much Christmas pud.
That the latter follows John Duggan’s artful pseudo-medieval colouring of the Angel Gabriel, the mellifluous nursery rhyme charm of Christopher Robinson’s Infant King, and a Silent Night in which arranger James Whitbourn offsets the calm simplicity of its melody with a strangely intoxicating Brahms-style accompaniment, places it in perfect context.
Which brings us to perhaps the most beautiful, and certainly most sentimental, of the tracks, Paul Mealor’s enchanting I Pray, which craftily weaves Silent Night through an original setting of his own words. Featuring the popular Scots tenor Jamie MacDougall, it’s a magical Christmas moment, unashamedly dewy-eyed, with a poignant message – thoughts of absent friends – for these pandemic times.
Recognising its commercial potential, NYCoS has also released I Pray as a Christmas single. It’s not the final number in this excellent album. That honour goes to Richard Allain’s upbeat jazz makeover of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and a rip-roaring performance that lifts the spirits, but also reminds us what we’ve lost in the muzzling of choirs this year. Ken Walton
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.
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.