Ken Walton: Hitting the wrong note

Concerts featuring Denis Kozhukhin (pictured) and Nicolas Hodges were cancelled. Picture: Contributed
Concerts featuring Denis Kozhukhin (pictured) and Nicolas Hodges were cancelled. Picture: Contributed
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AS FESTIVALS GO, The Piano had all the makings of a sell-out success. So how did it go so badly wrong?

Back in August I reported on a brilliant initiative by Glasgow Life, the city council vehicle charged with devising and promoting Glasgow’s UNESCO City of Music programme.

It was an open day at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (GRCH) during the Commonwealth Games, with concerts involving all three national orchestras, Nicola Benedetti and all manner of chamber music in every performable space in the building. The place was buzzing; it was a triumph of coordinated planning and collaboration. There was a sense that Glasgow’s musical life was singing from the same hymn sheet. Glasgow Life artistic director Svend Brown could be forgiven that day for sporting a grin like a Cheshire cat.

Last week, the opposite happened. Glasgow Life put on a week-long programme of events under the banner The Piano, omitted to take into account what else was going on, and consequently drowned in a sea of cancellations and last-minute changes. The biggest irony? Everything Glasgow Life was competing against was happening within its own administrative walls.

Firstly, there was direct conflict. Last Saturday night, when Nicolas Hodges was due to perform Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke in the Strathclyde Suite at the GRCH. Shouting distance away in the main hall, at the same time, Nicola Benedetti was appearing as soloist with the RSNO.

I’m sorry, but unless you’ve been holed up in a monastery for the past ten years, you simply don’t offer a Stockhausen alternative to Benedetti in the same venue. You may as well put camel liver on the same school dinner menu as burgers and pizza. But then to cancel the Stockhausen with a published explanation “that unfortunately this concert has had to be cancelled due to circumstances outwith our control”? I asked Brown what the real reason was. He admitted it was “due to low sales”.

The same stock apology was posted for the last-minute cancellation of international star Denis Kozhukhin (and his planned morning masterclass for Royal Concervatoire students), this time at the City Halls and conflicting again with the RSNO at GRCH.

Those who’d signed up for the Kozhukhin concert were to be offered a full refund plus a free ticket to Elisabeth Leonskaja’s recital the following day. Was Kozhukhin pulled for the same reason as Hodges? “There was more to it than that,” says Brown, “but yes, there were low sales.” Leonskaja’s recital went ahead – she was in Scotland to play that week with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra anyway – with an audience of 300 in the 1000-seater City Halls.

Then there was Friday 14th’s fiasco. I arrived at the GRCH at 7:30pm for the Gould Piano Trio’s 8pm kick-off in the Strathclyde Suite, only to be informed – by the regular street panhandler outside the hall – that the concert had been moved to the City Halls Recital Room.

This was confirmed by a GRCH steward, who informed me and several other misguided punters that a car would transport us to the City Halls. Then we were told it was making no more runs, so we’d have to make our own way to the new venue, where, incidentally, another direct conflict was in progress: Leonskaja’s marathon sell-out SCO season concert featuring both Brahms’ piano concertos. Unsurprisingly, a mere 30-plus attended the relocated Gould Trio, some of whom had been notified directly about the change.

The concert itself was excellent – or at least the first half was: an electrifying performance of James MacMillan’s hi-octane Piano Trio No 2, billed as the Scottish Premiere. Funny that. I recognised it as a work I heard at the East Neuk Festival in July. Last I heard, Fife was still in Scotland, and Svend Brown is still the founding director and planner of that self-same festival. As for the second half, and scunnered by the lame excuse that the move had resulted from a conference at the GRCH that “we hadn’t been aware of and had overrun” (this from the organisation that has an office in the GRCH), I forsook Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and took myself into the main hall to hear Leonskaja play her magisterial Brahms’ Second Concerto with the SCO.

Whichever way you look at it, The Piano was a disaster brought about by bad planning. Sure, a capacity crowd made it to Alfred Brendel’s Strathclyde Suite lecture (though a faulty sound system left many unable to hear him), and last Saturday’s late-night jazz, with young Scots jazz pianist Euan Stevenson, seemed to hit the right note in drawing a niche crowd.

But did Glasgow Life ever consider all that was happening in the city that week, not least with the orchestras, every one of which had a guaranteed sell-out on their hands: Thursday’s Donald Runnicles 60th birthday programme (Beethoven 9) with the BBC SSO and Edinburgh Festival Chorus; Friday’s SCO Brahms double bill; and Saturday’s RSNO/Benedetti concert?

Did Brown ever consult the orchestra bosses, whose programmes would have been known, even in draft, well in advance? Knowledge of these three orchestral concerts alone – never mind the Hebrides Ensemble’s Dead Elvis concert at the City Halls on 10 November – should have set off alarm bells for anyone potentially targeting the same audience.

“There are clash meetings involving the orchestras, but not me,” Brown admits. “That is something I’m now trying to fix. We’ve programmed these piano events for three years now. We’re looking hard at what went wrong this year. Financially, this left us a couple of thousand [pounds] under target.”

We want to see as much quality classical music as we can, and Glasgow has the infrastructure to deal with it and generally does it well. But when avoidable mistakes like this are made, aren’t we in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg? It can’t happen again.