The Long View | Is naturalism the gem we can salvage from 2020’s slim pickings?

Andrew Mellor
Wednesday, August 25, 2021

If we must return to business-as-usual, we can at least retain and develop the refreshing naturalism we flirted with in 2020

'The naturalism has an uplifting effect': Voces8 and the Academy of Ancient Music
'The naturalism has an uplifting effect': Voces8 and the Academy of Ancient Music

Here we go again, not actually knowing if we are going (or coming) – unsure whether we can travel here or there, plan a concert or even attend one. A month ago I was temporarily detained as an ‘illegal worker’ in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, having spent so long getting my Covid-19 ducks in a row before travelling to Britain for a holiday (for real) that I’d temporarily forgotten about that other gift that keeps on giving: Brexit.

Trust me, you don’t want to know the details of this particular procedural dumpster fire but after Amsterdam’s Danish embassy had explained the curiosities of that country’s settled-status application procedure to their Dutch colleagues over a wall-mounted phone, I was on my way – unlike all my parcel post from the UK, which is now held in a customs warehouse until I cough up more than £20 per item to have it released. If reviewing CDs wasn’t going to make me rich before, it certainly isn’t now.

But back to Covid-19. The disheartening truth is that I’ve been writing about the pandemic in this column for well over a year now. ‘The road will be a long one, but keep expectations low,’ I warned in June 2020 after live performances with audiences had resumed here in Copenhagen; ‘there will be plenty of stutters and stumbles before the joy of the real thing returns – in all its wondrous normality.’ I wasn’t thinking we’d still be waiting for full houses and huddled orchestras more than a year later.

At least I got the ‘normality’ bit right. Many of this column’s 2020 inches were given over to considering what lessons we might learn post-pandemic – in particular, lessons about versatility, reactivity and relevance in planning and programming. Scanning the forthcoming seasons of UK and US symphony orchestras for a listings job recently, it was depressing to note just how many of them have gone straight back to business-as-usual – or a slightly more boring version of it. Some opera companies have simply moved the productions they had planned for Spring 2020 to Spring 2022, as if the global context is still exactly the same.

Plenty of orchestras, meanwhile, seem to be reaching for the security of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in their coming seasons with the odd bit of tokenistic diversity programming sticking out like a sore thumb along the way. The sheer number of US orchestras who are suddenly taking up Florence Price’s Symphony No 3 suggests the drive to greater diversity has found a one-stop, tick-box solution in a single work. That’s progress, folks! 

" The sheer number of US orchestras who are suddenly taking up Florence Price’s Symphony No 3 suggests the drive to greater diversity has found a one-stop, tick-box solution in a single work "

So it seems increasingly clear that we’ll be going back to something resembling the old ways, for better or worse. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe the little things – the Florence Price symphonies, the slightly broader and more colourful range of soloists – will be enough to edge our great performing tradition forwards by degrees. Unless the very people we’re trying to include smell a rat.

It’s funny, but amid all our desperate clamours for the ‘real thing’ throughout 2020, there are some elements of that year’s digital experience that we could do well to preserve.

Only some, mind. The majority of digital classical music offerings I’ve watched on screen this last 18 months have been borderline pathetic – filmed concerts that deny the concert isn’t actually a concert, despite the empty seats. Most resemble videoed recording sessions for which every one of the musicians involved inexplicably got up that morning, perused their wardrobe, and decided to wear black. Most of this ‘content’ refuses to learn even the smallest of lessons from our colleagues in the commercial music industry, who invented the music video because they knew filmed concerts were nowhere near as engaging as the real thing.

The exceptions – there have been some wonderful examples from the Californian orchestras – have proved that there is another way. But there’s a third way too, which not only suits the sweatpants aesthetic and introspective intimacy of 2020 but also suggests, to me, a form of presentation in which the music we love might be accepted on its own terms – not those which have been clamped to it courtesy of various dubious traditions.

" It’s funny, but amid all our desperate clamours for the ‘real thing’ throughout 2020, there are some elements of that year’s digital experience that we could do well to preserve "

I saw it presented best in this video from Voces8 and the Academy of Ancient Music – which is, literally, a filming of a recording session in which the musicians got up that morning and decided to wear what they might wear on any other day (yes, I have subsequently noticed that the instrumental players didn’t get the memo). The naturalism has an uplifting effect: the combination of atmospheric and considered filming with expressive bodily expression, the takeaway coffee cups of everyday life – and the poised, blended and heartfelt rendition of music by Bach that radiates far beyond time, place, technology and even performance practice.

Naturalism only works when it’s carried as lightly and as naturally as this. The date on YouTube says April 2020 but the session may well have been taped before we all knew what Covid-19 was. What I take from it, is that musicians are human beings who see performance as the strongest, most natural act of communication and friendship there is. That’s a way to render old music as embracing and transformative as possible, even while we work harder at fixing the other stuff.