Friday, 27 February 2009

The Week That Was

It’s been a funny old week. Last Saturday night I was at the North East Royal Television Society Awards do in Gateshead, with much angst about the future of regional production. Sunday culminated with a meal and a frankly-fantastic Hank Williams tribute band, the Lovesick Cowboys, at my local prize-winning vegetarian restaurant, The Waiting Room. Monday and Tuesday were pretty hard days getting ready and then presenting to my staff material proposals for the Arts Council’s restructure, which must save £6.5M by 2010. (I’m not going to go into all that here, that doesn’t feel right, visit the Arts Council website for a briefing, but obviously it’s been a backdrop to everything this week.) Wednesday I helped sort through applications to be on the Artists taking the Lead panel in the North East. Thursday afternoon I took part in a stimulating think-tank for the Creative Reading Charter (something Arts Council are doing with The Reading Agency and MLA). This was chaired by Sir Brian McMaster and was the first ever meeting in what will very soon be Newcastle’s amazing new City Library. Then I drove down to Middlesbrough for the opening of two fantastic shows at mima – ‘The End of the Line: attitudes in drawing’ and ‘Raising the Bar: Influential voices in metal’ (craft metal not Spinal Tap). Next I went over to The Georgian Theatre in Stockton to see my wife and daughter in the Diaspora Vocal Choir (a collection of immigrants to Stockton from all over the world under the direction of the marvellous Mike McGrother) as part of a celebration of a number of local community arts projects. (Then I went to play fiveaside but we’d be into the S of DCMS at that point so I’ll stop.)

And that’s just the things I can tell you about... (Well, I could tell you about management team meetings and how many emails I've read and sent, if you really want, but you know what I mean.)

The highlight of the week though, was Wednesday afternoon’s Samling Masterclass at the Sage Gateshead. Samling Foundation, run by the remarkable Karon Wright, provide training and development for emerging opera singers, called ‘Samling Scholars’. Six of them were in the middle of an intense week of masterclass work with a team led by Sir Thomas Allen, and submitted themselves to a public version – to a capacity audience in The Sage Gateshead’s Hall 2. At that point in the week, it was just what I needed. I’m far from an opera buff. But the fantastic music was moving and uplifting. What was even better was the way the masterclass format revealed the process of making really great art. A process rooted in dissatisfaction – never being satisfied with really good, but always looking for improvement. Seeing Sir Thomas Allen and colleagues lead the young singers through the piece and find deeper meaning and expression in text and melody and portrayal was brilliant, a vivid demonstration of artistic tradition and development. It also helped me understand the difference between good and excellence in opera singing, just a little, which was great. (Next someone can do likewise for free jazz perhaps?)

Clearly this was a powerful experience for the ‘scholars’. It’s intensive and expensive, and not a process supported by Arts Council funds at the moment, though we have supported some Samling projects previously, as well as rather reluctantly turning some down. (Karon takes the approach of inviting us whether we fund or not – in fact, I suspect she takes some kind of masochistic pleasure in ensuring I see how good their productions are without our support.) We can not support everything, nor should we, and there are other ways for young opera talent to develop we do support, but there's no denying the excellence of the art created. But I’m glad Samling continue to find support when and where needed.

So I was reminded, in a full and tricky week, about the nature of art, the power of art, and the challenge of art, all at once. (If this were a story I would of course have moved it from Wednesday to Friday afternoon for dramatic closure effect, but life is not art…)

The Week That Was, by the way, are a great band from Sunderland. Watch one of their videos here. It wasn't filmed in our office (that only makes sense if you watch it) though it does feature someone who used to work here. (Hi Laura.)

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