In my galley-years of service as a critic, I’ve recognized concert events which have taken place on board ships, or beside ships, or thematically about ships – however I’d by no means recognized one beneath a ship. Till, that’s, final summer season when an enterprising younger conductor thought the dry-dock house below the Cutty Sark in Greenwich is perhaps fascinating as a makeshift auditorium.
All of us sat with the nice hulk of the Sark suspended in mid-air above our heads, preferring not to think about what would occur if the engineering failed. For these with fragile nerves it was alarming. However the Philharmonia Orchestra performed unfazed by means of a programme of appropriately sea-related music. And regardless of the sinister presence of a small military of ship’s figureheads assembled like extras from a horror movie behind the performers, it was splendidly uplifting. As, I’m glad to say, have been the assembled struts/nuts/bolts that stored the Sark in place.
The younger conductor who made all this occur was Oliver Zeffman, an entrepreneurial tour de drive who first drew consideration as a young person devising crazily bold concert events of recent British music – Maxwell Davies, Adès, Anderson – for a precocious orchestra he’d pulled collectively from assorted associates. Quick-talking and persuasive, with an endearingly optimistic perception that something was potential when you tried, he had the can-do qualities to make issues like this work. And so they did, impressively.
Now 30, he hasn’t wasted the intervening years. And his live performance below the Cutty Sark was the fruits of a mission to stage filmed performances in visually engaging locations – notably museums, which he finds extra fascinating than live performance halls, and accordingly referred to as ‘Music x Museums’. The outcomes have simply come out, 4 within the assortment, on Platoon, Apple Music and Viking TV. They’re not your common live performance movies. And though made by totally different administrators, they observe Zeffman’s line that ‘right here’s an orchestra in a corridor, right here’s a violinist’s fingers on the strings or a percussionist hitting one thing’ isn’t sufficient.
‘I needed a powerful visible sense and expressive give attention to individuals’, he says, ‘not a lot their fingers, which is why I began out working with Stewart French who specialises in stunning, intimate fly-on-the-wall documentary model. The Cutty Sark movie is by Andy Staples, best-known as a singer however branching out into directing and – within the course of – bringing to it a musician’s sensibility. So I can really say this stuff look good, and in a approach that’s totally different.’
Sounding good was, evidently, fairly essential too, and from the outset Zeffman made some extent of selecting outstanding collaborators. The primary of the 4 movies, shot within the Victoria & Albert Museum, options countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and the Academy of St Martin within the Fields. The following two, shot within the British Library and Science Museum, have the Academy once more, with pianist Peter Donohoe and the Bach Choir amongst others. And sharing that claustrophobic house below the Cutty Sark with the Philharmonia is mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.
‘It was essential’, says Zeffman, ‘that the music fitted the environment. On the time, the V&A was working an exhibition about masculinity in trend: “Undressed, Overdressed, and Redressed”. So we thought the gender points raised by countertenor singing could be appropriate. For overdressing we had Lully’s music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Underdressing was the pared-down neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète. And redressing was a Caroline Shaw piece primarily based on a conventional minuet and trio.’
In the meantime, the British Library programme tied in with a Beethoven exhibition working there; the Science Museum supplied ‘ordered chaos’ by means of the sonic lens of Birtwistle and Terry Riley; and for Cutty Sark it was Elgar’s Sea Photos.
Getting all this collectively – from elevating the cash, discovering manufacturing companions, gathering venues and contracting artists, by means of to the conclusion of directing the performances – was no small endeavor. However then Zeffman isn’t wanting expertise.
He created his orchestra, the Melos Sinfonia, aged simply 16 when he was nonetheless a Highgate schoolboy in North London. Seven years later – by which era he’d learn Russian and Historical past at Durham adopted by extra pertinent music research (‘concord, evaluation and helpful issues like that’) in St Petersburg – he was taking his Sinfonia on tour, to present what was virtually the Russian premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Pores and skin (‘Somebody acquired there simply earlier than us’). Two years after that, in 2019, he staged the undisputed Russian premiere of the identical composer’s Classes in Love and Violence. And together with his star visibly ascendent, he was beginning to get severe conducting engagements from mainstream orchestras when Covid struck – the diary emptied, and he discovered himself questioning what to do. However not for lengthy.
‘I’m not somebody who sits ready for issues to occur,’ he says with understatement. ‘Individuals in all places have been posting movies of themselves performing of their bedrooms, and that was OK for a time however not probably the most fascinating method to make music. I needed a mission that went additional.’ And the mission was ‘Eight Songs from Isolation’ – named with apparent reference to Maxwell Davies, and arguably no much less mad than his kingly songs in its ambition to acquire new works from main composers all over the world and allocate them to main performers for filming on iPhones.
He didn’t maintain again on large names, pairing the likes of Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly with Iestyn Davies, Sarah Connolly or Toby Spence. And in accordance together with his life philosophy that ‘In case you don’t ask, you don’t get’, he took the mission to Apple Music along side Marquee TV. Who stated sure.
‘In case you persuade different individuals you have got concepts they usually’re thrilling, it appears to work,’ says Zeffman. ‘And, after all, the circumstances helped. In regular instances, I’d by no means have gotten somebody like Adès on board: however the mission was fascinating, and as I’d raised the cash, I used to be capable of pay correct fee charges. Name me a wheeler-dealer when you like – and personally I don’t like as a result of it sounds shabby – however my father’s a lawyer; it’s in my genes. And I actually do imagine within the issues I attempt to get cash for.’
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As ‘Eight Songs’ hit the web, drawing worldwide hits, a follow-up took form in Zeffman’s thoughts involving an exquisitely filmed, Covid-conscious, audience-free live performance on the V&A through which he carried out violinist Viktoria Mullova. And the success of that one-off occasion in flip led to the ‘Music x Museums’ sequence. Which brings Zeffman’s profession updated.
By his personal admission, his diary proper now isn’t as full correctly – largely as a result of he had invested effort and time constructing connections in Russia that aren’t helpful as issues stand. However his work is choosing up in France. And right here in Britain he has one other mission pending: a Barbican live performance with the Metropolis of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in July to mark Delight week.
As ever, he has large names lined up: the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, bass-baritone Davóne Tines, pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy… performing music by Tchaikovsky, Poulenc and a brand new fee from a residing homosexual composer of distinction (there’s no scarcity).
Zeffman is himself homosexual, which explains his motivation; and he’s eager to emphasize that ‘though Yannick Nézet-Séguin did a Delight live performance in Philadelphia final 12 months, that is – as far as I can inform – the primary by a significant orchestra in Europe.’ However you would possibly simply ask why such a factor is required, when homosexual artists and composers aren’t precisely underrepresented or uncelebrated within the Western classical custom. Zeffman’s reply: that’s a purpose in itself.
‘Classical music owes lots to LGBT individuals, it’s value saying so, and Delight is the second for it. So why not? I can’t say I’ve ever skilled prejudice as a conductor: orchestras nowadays are typically much less macho than up to now, which is nice. However it’s not nice in all places. Just lately in Florida, the King’s Singers had a live performance cancelled as a result of the promoter realized that considered one of them was homosexual: and that’s America, house of liberal democracy. It’s not too nice in Russia nowadays both. So sure, there’s goal in a classical Delight live performance. And it’s additionally an opportunity to have interaction with individuals exterior the core viewers for classical music, who wouldn’t usually come to a Barbican orchestral occasion however would possibly in the event that they’re drawn by the LGBT connection.’
Any person who sadly gained’t be drawn is Elton John, who was approached however isn’t free. Clearly the ‘In case you don’t ask…’ rule isn’t fully foolproof. However with Zeffman, it comes shut.
On Friday 7 July 2023, Oliver Zeffman and the Metropolis of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra current the primary Classical Delight live performance given by a significant orchestra in Europe at London’s Barbican, that includes an LGTBQ+ group refrain and soloists Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Nicky Spence, Davóne Tines and Ella Taylor. Offered by the broadcaster and DJ Nick Grimshaw, the programme explores music by LGBTQ+ composers, from Tchaikovsky to Poulenc and Bernstein, Caroline Shaw and a brand new fee from Julian Anderson.
On 30 June 2023 Platoon releases an EP of Caroline Shaw’s ‘Is a Rose’. Oliver Zeffman leads the Philharmonia, and soloists Nicky Spence (tenor), Davoné Tines (bass-baritone) and Ella Taylor (soprano) by means of Shaw’s three-part tune cycle. Additionally included as a bonus observe is a brand new association of ‘Renaissance’, the theme to the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus.
Picture: Rebecca Reid