London life: a few reflections

Martin CullingfordFri 21st May 2010

Artists crossing genres, venues – and rivers

The last couple of weeks have seen me attend – and most importantly enjoy – four events which, while unrelated, when taken together cast a gentle light on the London music scene's rich capacity for variety and evolution.

The first was English National Opera's An Elegy For Young Lovers, in Fiona Shaw's gripping staging of the Henze opera at the Young Vic. Its ability to convey the multifaceted emotions possessed by its characters was wonderfully embodied by the imaginative use of an ice clock: cold, decaying, it dripped through two acts before being smashed in anger – which also gave rise to a fine moment of comedy mere moments later. It was well sung throughout – not least Steven Page as the egotistical poet Mittenhofer – though it's the location I wish to comment on here. This is the third season of ENO at the Young Vic, the flexible, intimate space allowing this most exploratory of opera companies to approach chamber works in a way the cavernous grandeur of the Coliseum simply can't allow. And while I do not know whether the audience was a particularly different one from St Martin's Lane, there's every possibility that some Young Vic regulars might have viewed the production as part of the theatre's general season and encountered ENO for the first time. It works both ways of course - while ENO's front of house area is a refreshingly unstuffy place, it also does no harm for Coliseum regulars to be debating opera south of the river for once, over the lively buzz in the Young Vic's bar.

Next came Resonances, a project conceived by Natalie Clein in which the cellist and colleagues explore the historical and aesthetic nature of historic houses, including London's Wallace Collection. Audio and visual effects created in response to the building (included recorded voice and sound art from Jeanette Winterson and Simon Fisher Turner, among others) were followed by an informal, but more traditional, recital – though even here there was a piece by Fyfe Dangerfield of indie-band the Guillemots. I'll write more about the event in the next issue of the magazine, but for now I'll just offer Clein and Co credit for seeking to play with both our perceptions of a historic house, and the boundaries of a recital.  

This past weekend was the UK premiere of Michel Van der Aa's Afterlife at the Barbican. As I wrote in a recent interview with Van der Aa, he is a composer who sees the use of film as an integral part of the compositional process, as opposed to a directorial afterthought. The premise of Afterlife – it is set in a sort of way-station between earth and heaven, where people have to choose their single most meaningful and precious memory with which to live for eternity – was movingly conveyed by both the music and the tenderly-caught documentary-style interviews. It worked as a cumulative whole, and was convincing vindication of Van der Aa's belief in the rejection of the normal boundaries of artistic disciplines.

Then, on Sunday evening, a concert at Kings Place. On the face of it a very traditional event – a string quartet, the Badke Quartet, performing Mendelssohn and Haydn together with a new commission. So what was new or different here? Well, apart from the obvious – the premiere of the new quartet, an engaging and enjoyable work from composer James Francis Brown, with episodes of energetic vigour and moments of humour – the venue itself is, of course, under two-years old. Still perhaps making its full mark in the consciousness of the London concert-goer, Kings Place's acoustics seem first rate for music of this scale, and the view from the restaurant across the canal – to the painted narrow boats and converted warehouses – is an example of London's post-industrial gentrification at its most charming.

A disparate thread of concert-going recollections perhaps, but one that demonstrates as well as anything that London's musical life buzzes with a variety and vibrancy beneath and around the high-profile orchestral headliners.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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