Shaken and Stirred. The Moscow Philharmonic.

Once the dust had been resettled in my mind after the Moscow Philharmonic – under the vigorous leadership of Yuri Simonov – had left the building, I was left with various images in my head. Given that they were performing Pictures at an Exhibition that’s a good thing I guess. Why James Bond sprang to mind I do not know but perhaps it was something to do with our usual diet of classical martinis being served differently. Also 007 and Russian villains seem to go together like olives and vodka. And is Maestro Simonov a twinkly eyed villain sent to affront more conservative taste buds?

The concert has produced quite a lot of back-chat from various quarters. I gain a lot from listening to feedback and taking a temperature check on the mood of audience reactions and the overall feeling on this night was one of unrestrained joy. Standing ovations, three encores, and a spontaneous breaking of the No Applause Rule (see earlier post, Concert Manners) after the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The relaxed atmosphere continued into the second half when Nikita Boriso-Glebksy came and sat on the Grand Circle stairs (no seats left!) to see the Mussorgsky, and to the delight of many signed some programmes. And The Gates of Kiev was the first time I have been physically pinned to my seat as the Orchestra ignored 10 on the dial and reach the proverbial 11 on the amplifier.

But there were some dissenting views, largely surrounding Maestro Simonov. His flamboymant showmanship at the rostrum was not everyone’s cup of earl grey. And neither was the sound – too harsh for some, too, well, Russian.

Which was why I booked them! An online review through MusicWeb articulates it perfectly:

whereas not all the reviewers agreed. 4 stars from The Scotsman but with some thinly veiled rancour. It is a funny thing when a concert generates rapture among the audience and not among critics. It happened in spectacular fashion when Gustavo Dudamel came here in the festival a few years ago conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. The audience loved it. Our staff loved it. There was such a buzz around the place. Critics, however, panned it and I don’t think I saw more than 1 star given in a review.

Anyway, that’s enough from me. I was in the ‘loved it’ camp. There is more great Russian music on the way next year with the St Petersburg Philharmonic, conducted by the wonderful Yuri Termakanov, on 29th March. We are doing a bit of a bonfire special… get £10 off the top two ticket prices but remember, remember and buy BEFORE 5th of November.

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Service Matters

During this year’s Edinburgh International Festival we received the lovely news that the Usher Hall had achieved a 5 Star Visitor Destination Award from Visit Scotland for our service. It was assessed by ‘secret shoppers’ and we scored 89% putting us in the ‘exceptional’ category.

Obviously this is great news and we are all delighted. It is a testament to the dedication and enthusiasm of everyone that makes the building work well – cleaners, administrators, marketeers, programmers, technicians, architects, suppliers, box office and ushers.  A small but noisy party was held after the Festival to celebrate and I was touched when the wife of one our longest serving members of the team made us a huge cake with starry sparklers on it.

Thank you Mrs Scott!

We have been working very hard to improve this area of our business, a process that started back in 2007. When the Hall closed for refurbishment we had a golden opportunity to look at our business, unpack it and put it back together again. We felt that the huge investment in the new look Hall deserved a level of customer service to match.

We also felt that the typical arts business model of putting on concerts and selling tickets hadn’t changed that much since the Hall opened in 1914, even though the ways of doing so has. A spark went off when I read a paper by John Knell, entitled “Whose Art Is It Anyway”, addressing the need for increased ‘personalisation’ in the arts. It contained lots of inspiring thoughts and examples of improving the way arts organisations should make themselves more focussed around the customer.

One thing it didn’t address in much detail was getting the basics of great service right. It is such a fundamental aspect to what we do. We have audiences spending small fortunes on tickets, hopefully to be inspired by great artists, and surely that deserves an experience in, out and around the venue that blends in with the experience of the live performance. As you can tell ‘experience’ is a word we use frequently because that’s what our ‘industry’ offers and we should never underestimate it. The good thing about improving service is it is not an expensive thing to so and much of it is based on common sense and values such as courtesy and helpfulness. I like to think of it as expansive and it can totally re-energise your business.

Four years down the line and we have reached a much better place than where we were in 2007. It is an ongoing process and, of course, maintaining 5 star service is a different challenge to aiming for it, so there is lots to do. I do think that we have realised that while we can’t control how an artist performs, we can control how we perform to make your night out that much better. It is a very human and tactile approach (with over 140 standards to maintain!) and I hope that we continue to improve. It is a two-way street, so your feedback is always welcome and hopefully, after a day of work and stress ,you can leave your troubles behind for a couple of hours and have a great time in our beautiful venue.

A few of the team...

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Qing Cheng – Behind the scenes photos

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  Tomorrow sees the first performance of Qing Cheng – Green Mountain. Here are some behind the scenes shots of the set up and rehearsal. It will be a spectacular and epic production, brilliant for a family festival outing. If … Continue reading

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The Rebirth of the Bolshoi

On Saturday 21st May we welcome the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra featuring Principals from the Bolshoi Opera. Not only do we have one of the world’s most illustrious orchestras but we have an orchestra that is now looking forward to returning to its proper home – the Bolshoi Theatre – after a £400 million refurbishment. When the building burnt down (for the second time) it was renovated and reopened in 1856 but after that no major repairs were carried out until the current work began in 2005. I do feel a sense of affinity for those charged with renovating grand and eloquent buildings, much like ourselves, and it has a history well worth exploring. Have a look at the Bolshoi’s Website page about the renovation, it’s fascinating. I maintained an interest in the development while our refurbishment was going on and it helped to put our challenges into perspective.  Here is a picture of the internal works:

Picture showing internal renovations in the Bolshoi Theatre, courtesy of The Guardian

Russian composers have written some of the most powerful and beautiful classical music. Music that has an intense sense of place, one that reflects its turbulent history, not afraid to address the big themes that emerge from such times – love, death, violence, pride, fear, suspicion – and how humans live in those circumstances. The great composers stand shoulder to shoulder with the great writers that represent a Golden Age of Russian culture – Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy – often providing a well of inspiration.

We maintain a Russian theme over the next season, welcoming the Moscow Philharmonic (October 2011) and St Petersburg Philharmonic (March 2012) featuring the work of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

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Concert Manners

For me, this remains one of the most difficult things about Classical Music – the unwritten rules of how to behave at a concert. I remember reading a comment by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (my most favourite of writers) in Living To Tell The Tale that while he loves the music, he finds the experience of sitting in a concert hall a socially uncomfortable experience. What a shame! Surely there’s nothing to match the visceral experience of being in direct contact with the musicians the waves of sound, but I can empathise with the people who find themselves with feelings of repressed emotion.

I grew up, career-wide, with jazz musicians where people clapped and hollered at any opportunity.  But with people quite polarised about behavioural standards there’s not going to be a right answer to suit everyone. I found this story by Tom Service in The Guardian, How To Ruin A Classical Music Concert, very illuminating (for the incident itself) and entertaining (for the 100 plus comments – well worth a read!).

I’m sure I once saw that Carnegie Hall had published a short ‘behavioural’ guide for audiences but it’s no longer on the website. I found this from Naxos though – How To Enjoy A Live Concert. And just to show that there is another take on things, the wonderful music critic Alex Ross (also writing in The Guardian) gives a historical and wider perspective on matters in Time to show our appreciation for classical music.

Coming to hear live music is a physical and participative act and by necessity involves mixing with your fellow man/woman. I guess you have to expect a degree of varying behaviour (although talking and eating crisps through the music is absolutely out of bounds). Personally I’d like to go with the music and agree with the Emanuel Ax comment  “I think that if there were no ‘rules’ about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always.”

I’ve written more than I intended, it’s an interesting topic, but I realise I’m late for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Over and out!

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