In the Vanguard

Geoffrey John Davies is an Aussie arts maverick based in New York and the founder of The Violin Channel. Kevin Whitlock spoke to him about his innovative digital concert series, the Vanguard Concerts

Geoffrey John Davies is a man on a mission, and that mission is to create a sustainable ecosystem for young, upcoming classical musicians in a world devasted by a two-year pandemic. The CEO and founder (in 2009) of The Violin Channel (which we’ll return to later in the year) has, with help from the Alphadyne Foundation and veteran performing arts executive Charles Letourneau, created a digital concert series called the Vanguard Concerts.

Created in broadcast quality and superb sound with young, dynamic artists paid professional fees and overseen by Creative Director, David Katzive, the Vanguard series came about as a result of the Covid crisis: “Our series was created with the sole purpose of helping artists during this time of crisis,” says Davies. “Not only are we paying them real fees for their performances, but we are also creating the ultimate promotional materials and giving the artists the right to use them at no cost in perpetuity.”

The first series, launched last March consisted of 10 episodes (filmed in New York) which featured outstanding artists such as Joshua Bell, the Dover Quartet, Sophia Bacelar and Tessa Lark among others, was a roaring success, gaining huge viewing figures (four million-plus views) for classical music. Filming – again in NYC – of the second series of the Vanguard Concerts has now been completed and the first concerts should be available by the time you read this.
The artists appearing in this second series (made by the same team, with additional help from the Kauffmann Music Center in New York) were once again invited by Davies and include: violinists Augustin Hadelich, Francisco Fulana, Alexi Kenney, Eunice Kim, Matt Lipman and Stella Chen; JP Jofre (bandoneon); Pablo Sáinz-Villegas (guitar); pianist Andrew Armstrong, the Viano String Quartet and others.

 Aside from the technical excellence of the series, and the quality of the musicians and performances, there’s the thinking and mission behind Vanguard – and so Geoffrey and I hooked up for a two-and-a-half hour Transatlantic Zoom call to talk about the series – and more.

IAM: We all know the money you get from streaming and even physical sales is pretty lousy and does not make up for the income lost from not being able to play live regularly. I’ve watched the videos on the channel and I’m very impressed. It’s really well filmed, the sound quality is excellent. The way it’s presented also has an informality and accessibility about it – there’s none of that intimidation that many people feel – rightly or wrongly, and for myriad reasons – when they visit a classical venue.

GJD: Absolutely, I think that is a traditional notion of classical music and exactly what we’re trying to reverse and bring it into the 21st century. Make it accessible and not as intimidating. And what we tried to do with Vanguard was to make it as visually interesting as we can. You could take a date with you who knows nothing about classical music and they’d be engaged. Anyone at any level can learn from the experience, and even a non- musician can walk out going, “that was really cool”. We’re trying to make everything much more useful, much more accessible and take that snobbery out. So we want to make classical music as accessible – accessible as in on your phone or in your pocket, but also accessible, from a point of view of, being not snobby.

IAM: You talked about the visual interest, but it must be a real challenge, filming ensembles without getting in the musicians’ way. And I presume you need directors and filmmakers with very particular skills to be able to do that to create that visual interest, that almost sort of filmic quality; a static camera, just filming some players gets boring quickly.

GJD: We certainly didn’t want to do that! But we wanted this to be the best classical music concert that’s ever been recorded that it was at that highest quality, that that TV quality. So we did have a creative director, the brilliant David Katzive, on the project and seven cameras filming. Then we did a second playthrough of close-ups to get interesting stuff like the hand shots and the expressions on people’s faces as they pass the melody from each other. So, that’s how it was done – two shoots with seven cameras, with professional editing post-filming to give it that professional look. But it certainly isn’t like recording a CD, with notes or bars dropped in… we wanted to retain the spontaneity of the performance.

IAM: I suppose your creative directors and cameramen must be pretty familiar with the piece you’re filming, so that they know where a particular piece of drama is going to come or there’s a pause or where one player passes something on to another?

GJD: They are, they’re very experienced with recording concerts. David is just fantastic – with ideas, with people and with the technology. He did not have a background in music. He had a background in museum curation. But he also has a very good technical background. So we originally met with him about maybe creative directing some events. And then he started talking about all the techniques and were like, “I think this guy is perfect”. And we have a brilliant team of camera operators and technicians.

IAM: One of the things that interests me is that you pay the proper rate to the musicians who are performing. So, how do you make any money doing projects like this?

GJD: The project was funded by a donor and the funding was offered as part of a mission to provide work for artists during Covid, young talents and those who’d had work cancelled because of the pandemic. We were given a special grant so we could initiate this project to create work and also create some hope in the industry. Because of the way we are funded, being supported by between charities really is very much artist-driven and mission-driven; the mission is to support artists in need and promote new young talent. It’s a very different prospect from The Violin Channel, which is a commercial venture – it probably would be impossible to make something like Vanguard commercially viable. So I feel very fortunate that we do not have to worry about the return on investment on this series.

IAM: One of the things that strikes me as particularly tragic about the pandemic is that so many young musicians were just getting going, and then they were forced to stop – all those careers strangled at birth…

GJD: I know, I saw that with so many people. We worked with Stella Chen. In the second season, she had just won the Queen Elizabeth Competition, which is probably the premier competition in the field. Timmy Choi got silver in the same competition and he’s also in our second season, and they’ve just got signed for management. Our musicians have got a lot of exposure from Vanguard, and hopefully their careers can get going again. I think everybody we worked with on both seasons was very, very grateful. And we paid them all, and they’ve got exposure at a crucial time in their careers. I wanted them to show off exactly who they are, so we encouraged them to choose pieces that enabled them to express themselves.

IAM: What have your learned from the first series of Vanguard? What are you doing that’s different for the new series?

GJD: With the first season we really focused on streaming on Facebook. We have a very different strategy for the for the second series to really maximise it: it’ll be streamed on YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, Instagram, and the website. Plus, we’re building new features into the site that will help and we’re looking at targeting. So, we have a way to put concerts on Instagram! Wow! We’re also thinking about stories. If you’ve had a look at the lineup with the second series, every single episode has a story to tell, often stories that people haven’t heard, or thought about, before – and we think that will make them compelling. There’s always a hook – in a way we’re starting our own PR agency for the artists; and again, because of the very granular targeting that technology now allows us to do, we can send the right stories to the right people and have more of an impact. We’re confident the second season can do even better than the first, there are more stories we can tell that add to the experience of the music.

IAM: In a way, you’re kind of looking, I suppose, almost to be like a disrupter and changing the whole way that the industry works…

GJD: That’s right Kevin – that’s what I really believe. I started the Violin Channel 13 years ago and it was a bratty disruptive child, and so is Vanguard! Vanguard is, I believe, something truly different. We’re not just a streaming service. We’re also PR agency, a store and a marketplace; we were combining everything and building on building on top of each other and things like that. And because we’re funder-and-mission driven, we can create create work for artists. Further down the track, we have other plans down to create sustainable incomes for artists. We’re looking at helping musicians create livestreams that they can put behind their own personal paywall. And then also, we’re really looking at the whole NFT [non-fungible token] phenomenon that’s taken over the pop industry and the visual art world world: can this help classical musicians? How can we be more effective, what else can we do to help musicians create a sustainable ecosystem for themselves?
Our ultimate goal is to is to be able to get this onto, say, TV and to really reach a large audience, outside of the usual classical music audience. Make classical music accessible and outside of the bubble.

IAM: How have the establishment, and the big record companies, reacted to what you’re doing?

GJD: We’ve had to get permission for certain artists, because they are contracted to a label. But it is in their interest for their artists to thrive. Especially if they’ve got a CD coming out!
The community – the people who love this music – have been very supportive, although I’m sure some in the industry might be a bit freaked out by what we’re doing because nothing like this has been done before. We say to the artists, we want to make this as interesting as possible, you know that you know, the pieces that you play, that get the best audience reaction. And we wanted to champion special gems or pieces, stuff that’s not played often, things I’ve never heard of before. We want to bring new repertoire in, and also having more time to be able to do commissions. So the first Vanguard series was pulled together in a couple of weeks, there was no time for commissions. We’d hoped to do some commissioning for Series Two but in the future I hope we will.

IAM: I think you’re doing an important job in making classical music more accessible, but do you ever worry about dumbing down?

GJD: Tt’s our job to present the music in such a way to make it relevant and, push the right buttons, but not dumbed down. Never, you know, not poxy in any way – we have great musicians playing wonderful music presented in the highest the highest quality. You remember that famous film the BBC made about Jacqueline du Pre back in the ‘60s? It showed her incredible virtuosity and the joy she had in playing music. It reached huge audience and advanced her career, and was made for a general audience but in no way was it dumb. That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to do. As I said before, we are fortunate in that we are not driven by the need to make money, so we are art and artist-driven. We involve the musicians in everything, from the choice of music they play, how it’s played, we even involve them in the editing process. So every single one of them is very proud of the end result. And they’re just stoked that this is on YouTube, where they can potentially reach millions of people. This is them at their best, it’s like they have the most fantastic calling card or CV to advance their careers.

I remember at the start of this process we had a big meeting with our 16 stakeholders, and we’re saying: “How do we reinvent the system? The classical music system no longer exists? It’s been broken by Covid? Well, let’s just build things up from the ground up!” Then we thrashed things out: ‘how to how do we get there? How do we do this rebuilding?’ And after a couple of hours, we came up with the idea for the Vanguard Concerts.

IAM: I understand you believe the classical music world could learn a lot from theatre?

GJD: Absolutely. We’d just finished shooting the second season. And me, my partner, David Katzive and his wife went to see Michael Feinstein in New York. It was just brilliant. I just want every single classical musician to go to a cabaret show like that. He talks to the audience, engages the audience, he draws them in. And he just embodies every song that he sings, he tells the story about it, and I mean, absolutely embodies the character that he is. It’s not the same person just playing the same the same way. That’s why I want a third crack at Vanguard to really make it like something like that. I don’t think anyone could not enjoy that. I think everybody leaving that Michael Feinstein show was walking on air, just buzzing about how entertaining it was. And you could take a date hates musical theatre or knows nothing about musical theatre or it’s not their thing, and they’d enjoy a show like that. That’s where my vision for Vanguard is, to be is to be entertaining without being cheesy. I wouldn’t say anything Michael Feinstein did was remotely cheesy. There’s nothing wrong with being engaging or accessible, you don’t have to do cheesy classical versions of pop songs. You can be a great, and serious, crossover artist and have a fun side. Look at Jacqueline du Pre.

I also want to take some musicians to see a really good drag show performance because those artists, in a bar full of drunks, know how to connect with an audience. I just think they could learn so much from just thinking outside of the traditional box, outside of what they’ve been taught at music school.

It’s interesting as well, because the whole Vanguard thing of preserving these performances teaches them a lot too; you always learn from watching yourself back, particularly when a period of time has passed.

IAM: One final question – do you think the Vanguard series would, or could, have happened without Covid?

GJD: That’s a good question. I mean, it’s obvious that Covid has been a disaster for everyone, all over the world. It has ruined lives and careers. I had it myself last year and it’s not pleasant. But the pandemic has forced us into new ways of thinking, of doing things we might not have done otherwise. Maybe Vanguard might have happened without Covid, maybe not. But it’s certainly happened more quickly than it might have done. It has forced us to use technology in new ways, and to do new things. Vanguard is an example of that. I’m very proud of what we’ve done, of the team, of our musicians, and of our concerts. It’s been a really exciting journey, and there is much more to come, I think. We’re on a roll, we’re unstoppable now.

Geoffrey John Davies: A Biography

Davies is an Australian-born and New York-based entrepreneur who founded The Violin Channel in 2009 — which has since grown to become one of the most influential classical music media providers in the world.

He grew up in Brisbane, Australia, attending pre-college studies at the Queensland Conservatorium Music School and graduating from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music and the Queensland University of Technology with a dual Bachelor’s degree in both Music Performance and Business Communication. He worked in advertising and marketing roles within the financial services industry in both Australia and the UK before founding The Violin Channel – which currently attracts more than two million viewers worldwide each month – in 2009. Geoffrey moved to New York City in July 2011; he is married to prominent New York architectural painter and designer, Richard Jordan, in 2020. They live in the West Village with their dog, Elgar.

“There’s a part of me that will probably always consider myself a musician – albeit one who hasn’t practiced in 10,000 days. These days, I like to think I have far better ears than hands,” he recently told the Classical Post magazine.

Geoffrey John Davies was recently named by Musical America magazine as “One of the 30 Most Influential Arts Professionals In The World.”