Posts Tagged ‘Music’

A short ramble round Leicester

March 30, 2017

Coming to a brief spell of teaching at De Montfort I thought it might be of use to the casual cultured  visitor to point out some of the less well-known elements of the town that are worthy of consideration.

I’ve largely eschewed chewing in Leicester (at least on a sit down and make yourself at home basis) and so there’s only one ‘restaurant’ review from my time there. This post will have a bit of food though, plus buildings, books, art, pubs and landscape since it’s those things that to my mind are the more obvious signs of an absence or presence of civilisation in a community.

Let’s start with …

Churches

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St Martin’s (Leicester Cathedral)

Leicester is blessed with good church, although the Cathedral doesn’t really make it into the top three. Sadly most good churches are closed to casual visits so I’ve only seen the best ones from the outside. The Cathedral (which is generally open) I didn’t go into because an officious verger told me curtly that at the time I turned up there was a service on and ‘there’s no visiting.’ She didn’t seem to want to venture what time the service would end so I thought, well I can manage without it given that there’s gurt-stonking church to be had elsewhere. Such as …

St Nicholas

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No, it wasn’t misty. I’d dropped my phone in beer thus turning the camera into an analogue of my own ale-soaken mind if I happened to get into the right company after a day’s teaching.

Through the mists emerges St Nicholas, a real piece of Midlands bricolage being bits of Anglo-Saxon built on through the mediaeval period and topped off with a twentieth century tower. All juxtaposed with fragments of Roman Leicester. And on the ‘wrong side’ of the ring road. If it was in London it would be a major landmark. Here it languishes feeling rather unloved. As does …

All Saints, Highcross Street

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Get road-side if you want to see the Norman zig-zaggy door.

Also hard on the ring road but not if you approach it from the John Lewis end as shown in this photograph. The tower has elements of Anglo-Saxon and the rest to my untrained eye is a bizarre conglomeration of mediaeval and Victorian. It is crazy in its haphazardness but this somehow just lends it charm. It also has good tombstones.

As does …

St Mary-de-Castro

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Part of the castle complex and thus difficult to get a 360 degree look from close up, Pevsner goes nuts about the interior. Alas it’s shut quite a lot, or at least on Tuesdays when I’m in town. Below the castle hill there is a lovely garden with such a beautifully textured assemblage of hedgery with all kinds of bird life teeming in it. Shame they had to stick a crappy Holiday Inn above it. This is a good place to eat a sandwich. I know, I’ve been there.

Books

Like all good second hand bookshops Maynard & Bradley has an idiosyncratic style of service (read that how you will). It also has green Penguins by the yard and a good section on local history, which is what I was there for. I’ve been twice and both times bought more than necessary. A good thing.

Art

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New Walk Museum. Entrance is currently from the rear.

The New Walk museum has a tidy and eclectic collection of stuffed creatures. Sadly, my own taste being for the bizarreries to be found collections of this nature …

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A tragic visage from Güzelyürt Municipal Museum

… but of more interest is its tidy and eclectic collection of art. One room (while they’re renovating) is a broad survey of about 500 years of Western European art with the emphasis on the solid Victorian Frithish stuff. But there are a few gems of which the best is a de la Tour of a choirboy. De la Tour was not prolific (around 40 canvases apparently) so it was a very pleasant surprise to find his Choirboy hidden away in a corner of the stage area of the main gallery. Even poorly exhibited one can see that his handling of light is extraordinary. And the choirboy don’t look like no choirboy if you know what I mean. V sinister. Also there’s a good Orpen of an Old Bag on a Couch. Look at the Sisley too in that room and a good, solid 19thC depiction of the Thames.

Pass by Hogarth secure in the knowledge that he did far better things and go to the other room which houses twentieth century British stuff. Apparently this is just a small sample of their collection which means that it’s ideal. About twenty pieces, all high class. Some by artists you’ll know (eg Stanley Spencer) but also others who you won’t like Robert Beven (sp?) and his View of St John’s Wood. The gallery is worth a lunchtime of anyone’s time.

They also have occasional concerts – I was absolutely GUTTED to have missed Mahan Esfahani doing Goldberg.

Pubs

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The Globe. Zach pulls a mean pint.

As I pointed out in my review the Parcel Yard is better than your average station pub, on the ale side at least. But superior options are to be found (‘Don’t go to the Spoons!’ wailed my students when I asked for a recommendation). The Globe has a good range of booze and what’s more has a DMU graduate called Zach on the pumps. He’s a nice feller and so is his boozer if you’re looking for a pubby pub. Also a good find was the Brewdog pub – good music, excellent chips and tasty beer. They also do carry outs for when you’re the only person leaving Leicester when Seville are in town and you need to drown your sorrows at missing the match while you’re on your way back to London.

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Brewdog: Knowledgable bar staff, cracking ale and good, quick food.

Buildings

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De Montfort itself has a fine collection. Though the place seems to be in a permanent state of construction there’s peace to be found down by the river. Just by the university is Newarke House Museum. The museum is a typical local museum that tells the history of the city succinctly and very well with good bits of oral history about the industries that made the city what it is. They also had a good exhibition on the First World War when I was there and it seems that they turn round exhibitions quite frequently, which encourages repeat visits.

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Unmissable if you go to Leicester is the Guildhall. It’s one of a smattering of picturesque half-timbered survivals but the real glory lies within.

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That is a proper fireplace. The room it’s in ain’t bad either with 17th Century wall paintings, injunctions to clean living (the hall acted as a seat of justice back in the day) and a couple of yeomanly portraits of local dignitaries from the past.

Food

But what if you’re hungry? You could do any one of a number of chain sandwich places but I prefer to find somewhere a bit more independent.

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Samosa central

For food on the hoof Currant Affairs does the best samosas I’ve ever had outside of a restaurant. It’s all vegan/veggie friendly and their boast that’s it’s freshly made in the day is not an idle one. You can taste the freshness.

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For coffee and a sit down you can’t beat St. Martin’s coffee bar. They have excellent coffee and if you’re hungry you can get hot food made to order. A favourite of mine was an Indonesian pork stir fry with bacony slabs of pork on tangy spicy noodles and plenty of vegetables. And good value too.

Leicester is a good place and I’m looking forward to going back for a bit of cricket/football/rugby soonest.

Review #88 Wigmore Hall, Marylebone

October 13, 2016

After popping in to the Caravaggio show at the National we were to have dinner before a concert at the Wigmore.* I hadn’t eaten in the Wigmore for a couple of years but had only good memories of it so we decided to make life easy for ourselves and do that.

The room, if you don’t know it, is low-ceilinged and in the basement, so it could be slightly gloomy in the wrong colour scheme. However, they make the best of it with white nappery all over the place, good lighting and charming sketches of past performers dotted around the walls. We arrived at six and there was a smattering of custom already (the usual Wigmorians) which got better over the course of the hour before the pre-gig rush on the bar.

A starter of guinea fowl terrine was a good warm up. They give you plenty of bread here so don’t worry too much about having to order extra sides or anything. A bottle of Picpoul was excellent and went down well with the main of smoked haddock with spuds ‘n’ spinach (not exactly how it was described on the menu). All of this not complicated but very well executed.

Did I want dessert? Well, not really but there was still half an hour to kick off so what else am I going to do? I took the sorbet and fruit while across the table there was a stab in the dark for a salted chocolate blondie. Nope, we didn’t know what it would be either. It turned out to be a slab of sponge pudding – not what the doctor ordered and I had to sacrifice my sorbet.

I couldn’t detect much chocolate in in the blondie  (though it definitely delivered on the salt) or mint in the crème fraiche it rode in with either. But I’m sure sweeter tooths than mine would have been far happier. There was a generous helping of sharp blackberries, that was more my style. Throughout this the service was first class and it was very genial to be guaranteed a table for the interval snifter.**

 

8/10

*Hmm, not exactly a Caravaggio show and to be fair to the folks at the NG they don’t oversell it as one. But still, there was an awful lot of Championship-level filler. Go for the Caravaggio from Dublin and the two de la Tours if you like but when you’ve got Abstract Expressionism one way and Picasso portraits the other I’d think very carefully before choosing this show if you’re only in London for a day trip.

**The concert itself was extraordinary. Eleanora Burrato accompanied by Nazzareno Carusi sang Italian arias in the first half, followed by Italian songs in the second. I’ve been to the opera a fair amount but to sit three rows from someone with such a beautiful voice was really quite emotionally overwhelming. And Curusi on the piano was no slouch either, as he showed with a fantastic recital of a piece from Liszt’s Années de Pelégrinage.

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #38 Pizza Express, Kings Road

April 20, 2016

Aagh, so I broke the rule. But when I went to PExpress in Russell Square I’d forgotten that I’d booked tickets to see a friend’s band (Evening Standards) at the Pheasantry. After all, one mustn’t let down a friend eh?

And the Pheasantry is a distinct enough venue to differentiate it from your average high street pizza venue. One time home to a ballet school run by Princess Serafina Astifieva (who trained both Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn there) it’s more renowned, among music buffs at least, as the place where Eric Clapton jumped out a back window to avoid being busted for drugs.

But that was in the 60s when Chelsea was still a locus for the counter-culture. Pockets of crazy old loons do still exist. I once shared an afternoon drink with a man in a back street pub who claimed to be a Marquis of somewhere whose dog’s name started Count Otto von Bismarck and finished several titles later. He was ejected from the premises after he poured a full bottle of whisky into an antique crystal decanter and got my fifteen year old son to ask the barman for glasses for drinking said whisky while I was in the loo.

But I digress.

Well, the basement of this PE (I’ve never dined here above ground) is on the cramped side – naturally so since they want to sell as many tickets as possible. We arrived early and got a table right by the stage. Not especially hungry we opted to share a starter of calamari, a side salad and a Hawaiian pizza (which PE have been pushing as a major new thing). Also, booze of the white wine variety.

Calamari was good, piping hot and with a tangy garlicky dip. Salad, well it’s salad so not difficult to get wrong but like all chains of this nature it seemed awfully wince to pay four plus quid for a bunch of leaves and a vinaigrette. And then the main event – pizza. Given that their latest publicity puts the pineapple front and centre there wasn’t enough of it in evidence for my liking. As for the chilli it didn’t make it to the plate at all. Which is a shame.

Any disappointment at the pizza was soon forgotten though as Evening Standards went through a charming repertoire of American songs of the twentieth century. The service was very good with staff very unobtrusively taking orders as the show began and delivering bills rapidly once it was over.

To have talented friends is a blessing.

Eats 6/10

Jazz 9/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

La Philharmonie and a Musical Museum for London

December 18, 2015

There was exciting news for London music lovers this week as the City of London announced plans to create a new concert venue on the present site of the Museum of London. This follows the appointment of Sir Simon Rattle (surely to be a Lord sometime soon) as leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2017. Rumours previously had been that the government might seek to host the new development in the Olympic Park as part of a new major cultural hub. However, it seems that City intends to replace the grubby-sounding Barbican Hall with a world class venue.

I can’t help thinking that backers of the Olympic Park move must have looked over the Channel at La Philharmonie and had second thoughts. While the acoustic of the Parisian venue has been acclaimed the years it took to get built, its various problems – spiralling cost (finally coming in at €386 million) and the continuing conflict between its architect and client (Jean Nouvel and various branches of the French state) – paint a very sorry tale.

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La Philharmonie

On a visit to Paris this weekend too I had mixed feelings about the site. The Philharmonie forms part of a musical complex (La Cité de la Musique) which combines the functions of a variety of concert venues, conservatoire and museum. It was the museum that I was there for. I haven’t yet been able to get a ticket to a concert, both times I’ve tried the venue has been sold out. This is an encouraging thing given that the Philharmonie is in La Villette on the outskirts of central Paris, in a traditionally working class area and home to many first and second generation immigrants.*

This shouldn’t discourage visitors to Paris from visiting (although it was practically empty the day we visited, which is a shame). The Musée de la Musique is a thing of wonder. Over the course of 1,000 objects and 5 floors it tells the story of Western music from the 17th Century to the present day, as well as giving an overview of the multitudinous diversity of music around the globe today. Being in Paris for just a day I only had time to explore the first three floors, which tell the story of Western classical music from the Baroque to Romanticism. What did I like?

Well, I’m now a big fan of the serpent.

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The Musée de la Musique, snake-infested.

I’d heard of the serpent but had no clue what it was or what it did. I’d assumed that it was something that died out in mediaeval times, but no! They were blowing serpents till the nineteenth century in some regiments of the French army. Now I want a serpent.

As a trumpet fan (and sporadic learner) the many exotic lumps of brass had a particular appeal. Some kind of Darwinian process is in evidence with offshoots and variants finding themselves ill-adapted to survival falling out of use to become mere echoes of what might have been in the relentless march of technical innovation.

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A whole lotta horn.

And after these tasty treats there were other delectable morsels like Chopin’s Erard piano, Stradavari by the number and a whole bunch of Lisztian memorabilia. One of my favourite details of the museum was the way in which they clumped together a group of instruments in a case to show you the orchestration of individual significant pieces in musical history, such as a Rameau opera or a Beethoven symphony. These would then play for you through earphones as you stood in front of them giving, if not a concert experience, at least an intimate glimpse into past performance practice.

So yes, I was enthused. But what has this got to do with London?

The building of a new concert hall in London is surely the opportunity to do something similar. London has excellent bijou music museums and I urge people to visit them.** As I wrote in a previous post the Royal Academy’s collection is worth an hour of any music fan’s afternoon. But London lacks a museum that tells the tradition of music-making in London, if not the whole of the United Kingdom. While our pop music is rightly celebrated (even if museums about it don’t seem to be able to take off) the classical tradition seems to be something for specialists and doesn’t have a place in the centre of our cultural landscape. London’s music scene is outstanding (as I’ve remarked previously) and the establishment of a museum at the heart of a new concert venue in the City of London would be an outstanding contribution to cultural life in the city as a whole. We should celebrate London’s past and continuing role as a vast entrepot, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its classical music scene.

 

*A bit like my home in Haringey. I urge people to go to Paris for a day, for the weekend, for however long you can. The city was distressingly un-busy. I want Paris to be full of good people, just as I wish good people to come to London.

** I wrote about one in a previous post (The Royal Academy of Music Museum) but there is also Handel House and the Foundling Museum (with its collection of Handel memorablia) that I know of off the top of my head but I’m sure that each of the major music schools has its own.

Another London classical music venue

September 27, 2015

In my list of free London classical music venues I failed to include the Regent Hall. Mostly because I’ve never been there before. I was aware of the fact that they put on free concerts every Friday lunchtime not a stone’s throw from the ‘shopper’s paradise’ of Oxford Circus. What luck that the rain drove me inside on the off chance of finding something good. I hit gold.

The venue is owned by the Salvation Army, indeed it bills itself as the only church on Oxford Street, and I was happy to give a donation. Although I’m no Christian evangelist I do wholeheartedly support their charitable work. I’ve guided a lot on the history of the Salvation Army, especially in the East End where two statues of General Booth on the Mile End Road are excellent visual cues for introducing the history of the East End in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of the concert crowd looked like habitués of the Army’s excellent on-site café, and I can thoroughly recommend another café of theirs in the City of London next to the Millennium Bridge which offers the best value lunch in the Square Mile.

For a concert though the venue itself is decidedly odd. I assume it’s designed as a space of worship (as a lot of these lunchtime venues are); this is not necessarily in itself a drawback. However, more specifically it seems designed as a space for preaching, and this is. The piano (in this case`) was on a fairly raised platform from the punters which doesn’t really aid in the creation of the kind of intimate atmosphere that lends itself to chamber music. This also means that in order to go off and on again for encores/bows the performer must descend and ascend a fair number of stairs, which is all a bit of a faff.*

With the piano way up there and all kinds of bits and bobs to baffle the music the acoustic isn’t that great either but on this occasion the pianist, Simone Alessandro Tavoni, was outstanding enough to cut through all of the drawbacks and make you forget where you were and what you were looking at. Introduced as a very good-looking player (as if that matters?) he warmed up with a bit of Schumann and Liszt. But what I was waiting for was Prokoviev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 83.

I can’t remember who performed this piece the first time I heard it but he was Russian and it was on the South Bank. I think it was Igor Levitt (no relation) and I was utterly transfixed by it. I remember the pianist being an absolute wringing mess at the end, through both musical intensity and sheer physical effort. Tavoni, while not being in quite that class, nevertheless delivered a driving, intense reading and quite rightly didn’t follow it with an encore.**

When I first heard the piece I became slightly obsessed with its history and background. I learnt how it was written by Prokofiev at a time of extreme crisis in the Soviet Union in 1943 in response to the threat of Nazi Germany from without and the menace of Stalinist repression within. This story then led me to discover more of Sviatoslav Richter (of whom I’d previously known nothing) and his extraordinary life as an artist in the twentieth century.***

So from one evening at a concert a whole new world and aspect of history was opened up to me. It was thrilling! And Tavoni brought that whole feeling back again. I hope (and believe) he will go on to bigger and better stages. He’s playing at the Royal College with fellow students in an early evening concert. I hope to find the time to get down to South Ken myself and discover more new music.

* I’m not really a fan of the encore at any time but more especially in the evening. I would like to think that I’m the kind of music lover who is so carried away by the genius of a performer that I could sit there all night listening to them. Unfortunately the rather more prosaic realities of train timetables and bladder limits are more often on my mind as the applause begins at the ‘end’ of a gig. In fact I like it when performers just do the shit they came to do and then get off. The best of performances leave you emotionally drained at the end of the programme and not really in the mood for a Bach/Chopin/Schubert/Debussy lollipop and more in the mood for a consolatory/celebratory whiskey.

And a horsepiss.

** A visceral evocation of the life and death struggle between Communism and Fascism amid the terror of the Stalinist police state isn’t something that lends itself to a digestif of a twinkly Chopin Mazurka or some such other miniature afterthought.

*** He premiered the Sonata in 1943 and you can hear him play it here. Works every time. The first time I heard the Prok PS7 I liked to chat to other people interested in music on a forum on Facebook and I wrote a post slightly gushing thing about the concert, asking other people where they’d first heard it. A troll came back with the withering, ‘Oh that old warhorse.’ There is a difference between sounding clever and being intelligent. The former looks within, the latter engages with the world.

On small museums

June 28, 2015

This post picks up on something I wrote previously about the Royal Academy of Music and comes in a week when I went back to RAM for an extraordinary celebration of the work of Erik Satie. It was an impromptu visit; an expected evening with friends having fallen through I was at a loose end between finishing in the library and going to work in the evening. Impromptu often turns into serendipitous though doesn’t it?

Erik Satie. Dude.

Erik Satie. Dude.

Satie is someone whose work most people will be familiar with if only for its overuse by ‘thoughtful’ documentaries. The Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes can become hideously groan-inducing when used to accompany fuzzy slo-mo footage of falling autumn leaves.

Of course Louis Malle was the man who saw the steel below the melancholy of the pieces in using them for the sound track to Le Feu Follet, and I think if you’ve seen the film it’s hard to hear them again without recalling the quiet despair of Maurice Ronet. By contrast it’s enough for one to reach Alain Leroy-like for the service revolver when one hears yet one more hackneyed documentary reaching into the Satie back catalogue for pathos.

But that’s beside the point, the evening on Friday was a joyful one. A wide variety of Satie’s short pieces, accompanied by his very funny, crystalline aperçus delivered by a talented bunch of performers.* The treat of the evening was a showing of Entr’acte, René Clair’s surrealist silent film, accompanied by Satie’s music on piano and percussion.

On the Set of Entr'acte

On the Set of Entr’acte

I’d seen the film twice previously (and you can see it here on youtube) – once at the Man Ray/Picabia show at Tate Modern and another time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with full orchestra under Charles Hazelwood. The Tate was in a small, dark room with tinny music (as I remember) … it being in the show because Picabia also collaborated on the film (there’s a very funny scene of him and Satie jumping up and down in slow motion).

The Hazelwood was okay as I remember but didn’t have as profound an effect as Friday. A big show at the QEH lacked the intimacy of being right next to the musicians and squeezed into a small auditorium at the RAM. Two pianists sharing one piano with two percussionists performing the score was perfect at capturing the home-made essence of the film, which is a ramshackle series of sketches using primitive special effects that have the paradoxical effect of giving a feeling of modernity.

And the good humour of it! Satie and Picabia bouncing around in middle age and having a whale of a time in a way that really radiated from the screen. Looking at the crowd it reminded me of the scene in Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants where the camera watches the joyfaced schoolboys watching Charlie Chaplin and it made me think that in these days of monster festivals (yes, it’s Glastonbury weekend) isn’t it a pleasure to be able to sit somewhere quiet and companionable for an hour that you didn’t even know you were going to have.

Such surprises can come through music but also in museums. I decided this year to privilege visiting those museums that I’ve never got round to visiting. So much as I love the big beasts it’s the Year of the Small Museum for me. Of which the RAM has an excellent example.** One of the regrets of the Satie evening was that I hadn’t slunk out of the library earlier in order to go to a concert of baroque and classical keyboard music held in the Keyboard room of the Museum.

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

On my first visit to the museum this was the absolute highlight. But imagine seeing and listening to these machines in action! A selection of instruments that tell the tale of the development of the instrument, and more pertinently to my own work the centrality of London in that development. John Broadwood is probably the most famous of the London piano makers but they have a map there which shows how there were piano workshops all over Soho, Fitzrovia and beyond in the nineteenth century, competing and innovating in a thriving market.

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And it made me wonder if there were a possibility that in this back to the analogue age there might ever be the chance to revive a piano workshop on Great Pulteney Street. Where craftsmen produce bespoke machines to rival the big beasts of Steinway and Yamaha in the same way that small bicycle manufacturers are now finding a niche in their market.

It’s a dream. I want a hipster joanna.

* The individuals are named below …

Cast list

Cast list

** And it’s free

On Lunchtime Music in London

May 13, 2015

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

This was a picture that I culled from the Financial Times a while ago that was partly responsible for my taking up the trumpet late in life (sorry Denize, I know it’s loud). Rushing, if you’re not familiar with his work, was in his pomp in the 50s when he recorded a version of his biggest hit – Mr. 5 by 5 (so called because he was said to be 5′ tall and 5′ wide) – with Lyttleton’s band.

It inspired a feeling in nostalgia, not because I remember the 1950s, I’m not quite that old, but because I was introduced to jazz by listening to Lyttleton’s Best of Jazz on Radio 2 when I was at sixth form. While other people switched on to John Peel (and I would turn to him after Lyttleton’s hour was up) I would get a selection of the best of jazz and feel my whole musical world expand. He was a ‘curator’ before there were ‘curators’.*

So, at the end of my PhD, aside from trying to find an academic job and writing up articles/books, I needed a project. The manager’s vacancy at Perfidious Albion had been filled (it’s currently open again if anyone wants to apply). Music was on my mind. I’d seen Rusbridger’s exercise in egoma … errr, interesting project of learning the piano heavily publicised by the middle class media and the thought of trying out an instrument seemed a good one. But not the piano, I like it too much to spoil it. My son was/is learning trombone and I had the sound of brass in my head. And I wanted something portable and with an adaptable sound. This picture struck my eyes and a plan to play the trumpet was born.

I am fortunate enough to live close to a top class young trumpeter (‘James The Trumpet’** to distinguish him from my son) who was a student at the Guildhall when I first started but is now doing a Masters at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone. I’ve been an avid concertgoer for a long time but it wasn’t till I met James that I thought to go to the RAM for a bit of lunchtime music (I haven’t managed to see him there yet, to my shame) and its different atmosphere to my usual haunts (the Wigmore and St. James’s Piccadilly) put me in mind to do a little round up of what’s on offer in the West End at lunchtime for a time-rich, cash-poor music fan.*** Because each (and I’m using SJP as an exemplar of the free music on offer in lots of churches in London at lunchtimes – another favourite is St Bride’s, Fleet Street) has a very distinct profile both of performers and market.

But my main concern is to publicise the fact that these things happen at all. When I go to these venues, from the library or from home, I invariably have to walk along at least one portion of three of the busiest shopping streets in the country – Marylebone High Street, Piccadilly and Oxford Street. One of the attractions of going to a lunchtime concert is that you step from the noisy sea of humanity that is the West End into places of absolute calm and thoughtfulness. And I don’t intend to give the impression that going to a lunchtime recital is a relaxing experience in some shallow cheesy listening classics way.

Far from it.

These concerts are for thinking; for engaging with the relationship between performer, sound and architecture. And above all, if it’s going well, a concert gives a satisfying rush of emotion, of diverse emotions over the course of an hour long performance. In many cases it’s for donations only, or for the Wigmore (where the performers they have on Mondays are extraordinarily good) for 13 quid.

What troubles me though is that even for an established venue like the Wigmore it isn’t difficult to get tickets. The church and college performances are sometimes moderately, sometimes sparsely, attended. There are thousands upon thousands of people shopping, scoffing sandwiches, boozing, idling within minutes of the doors of these venues who would surely enjoy a more cerebral, or more visceral lunch.

I think one of the off-putting things is that if you haven’t been you don’t know what to expect. There’s very little commentary on what happens in these places on the internet, except among those already in the know, and hard as the publicity departments of the Wigmore and the Colleges work it’s obviously very hard for them to compete with the tidal wave of garbage on Twitter.

And I remember that when I worked in the City (nearly twenty years ago) I used to walk past a sign for concerts quite frequently (usually at St. Mary-at-Hill, sometimes at the Pepys church) without being tempted in because somehow I thought (as a Sarfend/pit village raised geezer) that they weren’t for me. Which is the kind of blinkered nonsense it took me a long time to get over.

So in a spirit of encouraging fellow chip on the shoulder sufferers, and I hope with not too much disrespect to the institutions themselves, I offer this brief guide to two venues I’ve been to a lot and one venue that was new to me with my thoughts on who goes there, what’s on offer and how to get the best out of the experience.

1. The Wigmore Hall

The Mighty Wigmore

The Mighty Wigmore

The Wigmore Hall is the daddy of all chamber music venues in London. It has a fascinating history, which I won’t go into here because that’s not what this post is for (but do look it up). Just walking through the door you can feel a sense of history. This oozes out of the grand architecture and is backed up by portraits of the multitudes of performers who have played there over more than a century of music-making.

The crowd is similarly historic and one could be forgiven that some of them were there for the opening night way back before World War 1 (the war was significant for the Wigmore, it had previously been known as the Bechstein). These venerable patrons mix with obvious high-brows and a range of eccentrics who put the regular Joes and Josephines (among whom I count myself, I’m often among the youngest there) in quite a small minority.

So architecture and punters can combine to make up a pretty intimidating atmosphere for the lunchtime neophyte.

Fear not, this is one of the most knowledgable music crowds you’ll ever be among and if you dare to break the ice with someone at the (excellent) bar before or after you’ll generally be very welcome. The Wigmore costs (13 pounds on Monday) and I’m aware this can be a barrier to entry for some but it’s cheaper for students and you get an excellent small programme included. The bonus of the Wigmore series is that since it’s featured on R3’s lunchtime slot you can listen live and then listen again at home via their website or on Sunday when it’s usually repeated.

My own ideal routine goes an hour in the library, sweets (overpriced but cough candy is a bit of a madeleine for me so worth it) from Mrs Kibble’s in St Christopher Place, a cheeky little pre-action Viognier in the bar with the crossword (the staggering distance pubs are not good) and then get there just in time to an end seat if possible. The regulars do not like being made to stand up once they’re sitting and the seats are quite tight.

The repertoire is generally solidly Baroque/Classical/Romantic big beasts, with the odd bit of twentieth century/contemporary thrown in from time to time, meaning that if anything too atonal isn’t your bag there shouldn’t be too much to frighten you here. The performers are uniformly outstanding (and I mean world class), whether established artists or members of the BBC’s New Generations programme and the Hall’s acoustic is reputed to be one of the best in Europe. The first time I went there I thought there was something wrong because I could hear the music too clearly. My brain had to adjust to the crystalline sound in order to make it appear normal to me. That’s a feeling that still returns if I haven’t been there for a while and have been going to mudpits (see StJP below).

So what I’m saying is one shouldn’t count oneself a Londoner without at least one visit to this, the best music venue in London bar none.

2. St. James’s Piccadilly

St. James's Piccadilly

St. James’s Piccadilly

St JP is worth a visit even if not for the music and I think the first time I heard some music there was because I happened to be visiting to do some research for a walk when a concert was about to start. The building is by Wren, with much restoration following bomb damage in World War II, and being at the heart of St James’s has oodles of connections with the rich and famous through history.

Its position on Piccadilly means that the crowd it gets is a mixed bunch. A lot of the un-idle retired (as always at these things), with a smattering of youngsters (especially if the performer is a music student), some local office workers and a dollop of more or less confused tourists, depending on whether they knew in advance of their visit to the church that there was a concert on. This means that for the newcomer, by contrast to the Wigmore, you will not be alone in being new.

Of course another upside at St. James’s, if you’re not sure you’re up for the lunchtime music scene, is that the concerts are free (although if you’ve enjoyed the gig you’d be an ingrate beast not to make a donation on the way out) and performers are not concerned if you leave in between pieces (although NOT in between movements) as there will be some in the crowd who don’t have the full hour off for lunch and necessarily have to leave.

Those on a budget can get cheap eats before/after out the back of the church where there’s a street food stall, with park benches in the Square for scoffing space. And naturally there’s plenty of sandwich bars and restos in St. James’s and environs. Booze hounds might want to check out the Red Lion for its Victorian interior though the crowd in there can be a bit brayingly hedgey.

The repertoire at StJP is similar to the Wigmore – mostly killer no filler. Occasionally there’ll be a new piece (sometimes with the composer in attendance) as this venue is one where students often come to get some concert practice and they’re more adventurous. So probably a bit more variety than at the Wigmore. But be warned – there are three potential downsides. The acoustic is not the best and it pays to sit near the front. If you want to do this you’ll need to get there early as the front rows often fill up quite quickly. There is also a lot of construction in St. James’s. Those builders don’t stop for anyone, not even Schubert.

Also, if you’re there for the duration try and judge that the person in your row is there for the music and not liable to get up halfway through/start scrunching their sweet packet/be jabbing their phone. The pews are uncompromisingly pew-ish too, be prepared for a bit of fidgeting to get a comfortable lie.

Thirdly, standards can vary too! The students are generally excellent (to this untrained ear) but there have been occasions when I’ve been in attendance at performances that were excruciatingly bad. I mean not just bad but downright offensively amateurish car crashes of recital.

You might think, ‘I’m up for a bit of car crash classical.’ You are wrong.

After 2 minutes of somebody murdering a masterpiece I promise you that you’ll be holding your head in your hands and silently praying for it to stop. I once had the misfortune of listening to someone in StJP hesitatingly, stutteringly, ham-fistedly not picking their way through Beethoven’s PS 32. This work was described by Robert Taub as “a work of unmatched drama and transcendence … the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish.”

I was left only with the anguish.

After the pianist had finally stopped I turned to the feller next to me.  ‘Was that as bad as I thought it was?’ I whispered. ‘No’, he replied, ‘It was worse.’

It haunts me to this day.

But it isn’t always like that! Mostly it’s good times in St James’s, well worth the trip if you’re in town and want to rest your feet.

3. Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

The RAM, as mentioned above, was new to me and it was thanks to James the Trumpet that I took a look in there last week for a concert of a Notturno by Haydn and Mozart’s Gran Partita in the Duke’s Hall (I think there’s another hall for chamber works). The Duke’s Hall is smack on the Marylebone Road but you wouldn’t notice once you’re inside the building. All is peace. Well, bustly peace. There are students everywhere and this gives a buzzy atmosphere and makes for a younger crowd than at the other venues. As the concert I attended it was half old buggers like me and half students.

Again, this concert was free and unlike StJP there’s no expectation of a donation – the point of the exercise is for the students to gain concert experience so you can enjoy it for nowt guilt-free. If you’re skint you can lunch in the canteen downstairs. If you’re well-heeled Marylebone High Street is across the road. The hall is purpose built so the sound is great and there’s all sorts of portraits of musicians around the walls to keep your eyes occupied, as well of course as the museum next door (which I may talk about another time).

The performance I saw was introduced and conducted by Trevor Pinnock (though he denied that he needed to conduct these pieces) and was phenomenally good. I knew neither piece and to come to something fresh, performed by outstanding young musicians with a top-rank musician in charge was a privilege. Though if you only have an hour for lunch they weren’t concerned about that, I think the performance lasted about 70 minutes – though again there was no tutting at people ducking in or out between pieces.

As it was my first go I haven’t got a handle on their repertoire yet but I’m assuming that of these three venues it will be the widest as the students learn the full range of serious music – classical, contemporary and jazz. Thursday they’re doing Shostakovich (I’m only just getting into him) Trios and since I’m working in the evening that day it might be the perfect break between library and job.

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this page then I know you’re either a lunchtime concert-goer already or you’re thinking about giving it a go.

Do so. Do something different that might improve your state of mind for the cost of an hour of your time.

* Except of course he wouldn’t have been daft enough to use that term outside of describing someone who worked in a gallery.

** If you want his details for tuition you can contact me here. He is a gent.

*** It also has a stonking museum that I’ll blog about anon.

On Pop Music

April 15, 2015

http://www.secret-7.com at Somerset House

This last week or so has been an unusually poppy week (being more a classical hound by nature (of which more anon … that’s for another post)) but I wasn’t thinking to write about it until I stumbled across the Secret 7″ exhibition space at Somerset House.

By chance it was the first day of its opening to the public (yep, most of my most hipsterish moves are usually by accident rather than by design and I was wandering around Aldwych in a post-pub (The Lyceum on the Strand, recommended if you’re skint in the West End, you can get a booth and you don’t mind Sam Smith ales) funk trying to kill time before going to a mate’s party. The party is relevant.). So yes, a little caffeine freshener at Fernandez & Wells in the courtyard of Somerset ‘Arse (stumpy, it has to be a stumpy) and then a wander to see what they had on for free, my visits to the Courtauld being less frequent now that I’m no longer a UoL student and have to stump up cash like a regular Joe.

And there, at the river end of the building, I found a crowd of hipsters admiring rack upon rack of hand-made single covers. The record cover as a fetish object with people having selfies, taking portraits, coveting and discussing them. Secret 7″ ask celebs, artists, designers and other random groovy f*ckers to decorate the sleeves then display them anonymously. The public are then invited to pay half a ton for a unique, potentially very valuable, item on the day of the end of the exhibition. The  proceeds of this and other charitable acts (a roll-a-penny chute that tishes a cymbal,  limited editions of the records by named designers) goes to Nordoff Robbins, a charity that uses music as part of its therapy for people with problems of a variety too numerous to go into here.

A view of the bridge from Secret 7"

A view of the bridge from Secret 7″

All very worthy but why bring it up here? ‘What is point?’ as the feller on Down the Line would ask. The aforementioned friend just gave a paper at a conference about the nostalgia for Britpop (he’ll be giving another on this phenomenon at the seminar series I co-convene at the end of June). I also saw Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young the previous weekend. And the night before I went to the exhibition (and my friend’s party) I’d been to see Courtney Barnett at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.

So this is my theme. Nostalgia in pop music. In Baumbach’s film the young hipster is a man obsessed with the eighties, or the bits of it that he likes (the Miners’ Strike, Kajagoogoo, Ipswich Town’s decline from a footballing powerhouse to a provincial bit-player and Thundercats don’t get a mention), who has a pristine record collection (i.e vinyl, see above) alongside his domestic chicken pod. In short, he’s a major irritant for using nostalgia as a generator of supposed originality.

Which I guess was one of the points that Baumbach was trying to make. That we seem to be living in a desperately unoriginal and conservative culture, in spite of the constant hum of creativity being the supposed fuel of post-industrialised Western economies. And that this conservatism appears to be affecting the very people who shouldn’t be giving a shit about what their parent’s generation did, i.e. people like me (sorry Mum, I know the 70s had good bits but I never chose to be born in them).

And I began to see this everywhere. At Secret 7″ – which is a fantastic cause, don’t get me wrong, and has some wonderful things for sale that would grace any hipster’s wall. But what music do they have on the singles? The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, Peter Gabriel, Underworld, oh and The Maccabees and St Vincent for the ‘kids’. You can almost sense the ad agency carefully weighing the revenue/gender/ethnicity issues in a finely calibrated balance. But not age because age always wins out in the world of pop music nowadays. The labels have to exploit those old acts. Dinosaurs are big in music.

And Courtney Barnett? She’s a great performer, I love her lyrics, I wish her well. But her sound? It’s a bit underwhelming; it reminds you of other things. And when I go to a thing I might want to be reminded of other things but not other things that are better than what I’m at. And the last few gigs I’ve been to (The Orwells (who at least had the relative novelty of being absolutely badly behaved, quite rare in modern pop), Darlia, Barnett) have not been original enough for me to have thought that I wouldn’t have been better off going to a pub and watching a local band do something that I could get a decent pint at and chat to them afterwards (if I wanted to, unlikely given that I’m not especially sociable).

Which is part of the point that Dion was making in his paper. Recycling is happening (of course it’s always been there in pop music, brazenly) and it’s more commercialised than ever before. Blur release an album on the twentieth anniversary of Britpop to rave reviews and wall to wall coverage. Somehow Liam Gallagher is popular enough with the (dwindling) purchasers of the NME to merit being on its cover on a seeming four week cycle. And young acts want to tell you they love Bowie/Gabriel/Suede instead of wanting to spit on their corpses and kill their wizened fans. London, that once spiky culture, has turned into Paris, the most faux-radical city in the world.

No wonder when anyone under 40 can hardly afford to live in the place and it costs excruciating amounts of money to get around. The ‘creatives’ can’t afford to connect with the places where the money is. Unless they connect with the conservative culture that money tends to like.

So, in anticipation of a further post about London’s thriving classical music scene I’ll finish by saying that I think that the most radical things are now being done in those areas that I would have thought the most conservative when I was a youngster – jazz and classical. If I want to hear something I haven’t heard before I’m more likely to get it at Café Oto or the Guildhall than in Camden or Brixton.


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