One of the things I have most missed since leaving London has been the Spitalfields Winter Festival, with its unique blend of absolutely top-notch concerts, community events and a seasonal atmosphere that is full of warmth and good cheer, yet gives the briefest of nods towards Christmas itself. So this year I decided to combine a couple of social events with a whistle-stop visit to the festival, fitting four performances into a little over 24 hours.
The geographical focus of Spitalfields Music’s summer and winter festivals has been edging northwards over the past few years, with an increasing number of events taking place in and around St Leonard’s, Shoreditch rather than in the festival’s original venue, Christ Church, Spitalfields. The late Richard Hickox started putting on concerts in crumbling, freezing Christ Church as part of the campaign to save Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece from destruction, but now that it has been gloriously restored it is no longer such an appropriate venue for a festival that has accessibility in its DNA. The restoration of St Leonard’s – location for the TV series Rev – is still very much a work-in-progress, so it feels more like Christ Church used to; to quote the church’s website: ‘Shoreditch Church has always been committed to its community. (When the Spanish Armada was coming up the channel, the church was giving out bread and coal to poor people.) So when it was recently rebuilt, a large amount of money was spent on its community needs and no funds were left to buy paint. Hence it still looks a bit sad and tatty.’ However it has a wonderful acoustic and a long history that includes associations with some of the most famous actors of the Elizabethan era.
The area around St Leonard’s, where Hoxton and Hackney meet the City, juxtaposes the wealth of banks and stockbrokers, the cutting edge of the art and club music scenes and some of the most impoverished communities in London. The first Spitalfields Festival event I went to this year took place at Rivington Place, a modern, purpose-built gallery in a narrow street just across Shoreditch High Street from St Leonard’s. With a running time of around 40 minutes, Remember Me: A Desk Opera was performed eight times over two nights to no more than 20 people, who assembled in the venue’s foyer before being greeted by composer/writer/performer Claudia Molitor and invited to step in to a white box studio space. We stood to watch a short, impressionistic film before being escorted to three rows of seats arranged in front of the desk of the event’s title. This became a stage for the rest of her performance, which was more art installation than concert, involving gestures, assorted items being placed slowly and delicately in and around the desk, a variety of amplified sound effects and only the most fragmentary music. There are images on the Spitalfields Music blog here http://spitalfieldsmusic.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/a-small-piece-of-utopia/ if you want to have a look.
Distribution to the audience of tiny pieces of rose-perfumed Turkish Delight added taste and fragrance to the sensory experience and for me evoked a compelling image of the Presbyterian seated sharing of Communion. Described in the festival brochure as an immersive journey into an imaginary world, inspired by a desk that Molitor inherited from her grandmother, Remember Me drew on the stories of Dido, Eurydice and Cinderella, but the themes were never developed into an explicit narrative and the experience concluded as impressionistically as it had begun. One by one we received a whispered message from Molitor which was our cue to leave. Everyone had obeyed the request not to speak at all for the duration of the performance and it was difficult to speak afterwards; I’ve no idea what it all meant, but the atmosphere was enthralling.
Then it was down Bishopsgate at a brisk pace and across Spitalfields Market to Commercial Street and the next event – Toynbee: Fragments of Other Lives and Times – a ‘performance installation’ by Geraldine Pilgrim taking place around Toynbee Hall and Toynbee Studios, commissioned by ‘arts lab’ Artsadmin, which is based in Toynbee Studios, in partnership with Spitalfields Music and Toynbee Hall. This took the form of a guided walk through the two adjoining buildings, in even smaller groups of just ten people at a time, setting off 15 minutes apart from the box office a few doors further down Commercial Street.
Toynbee Hall describes itself today as a community organisation that pioneers ways of reducing poverty and discrimination in the east End of London, particularly in its own borough of Tower Hamlets. Resident and non-resident volunteers work with local people to identify and deliver the services they need to improve their lives and help them take action on community issues. The settlement was founded in 1884 by Samuel Barnett, a Church of England curate, and his wife Henrietta as a place where future leaders, many of them students at Oxford or Cambridge, could live and work as volunteers among some of London’s poorest communities. The Barnetts’ vision was that this would bringing their privileged volunteers face to face with poverty and give them the opportunity to develop practical solutions that they could take with them into national life. Many of the individuals who came to Toynbee Hall as young men and women – including Clement Attlee, William Beveridge and Pierre de Coubertin, pioneer of the modern Olympic movement – went on to bring about radical social change and maintain a lifelong connection with Toynbee Hall.The former Tory cabinet minister John Profumo came to Toynbee Hall as a volunteer in 1963 after the scandal surrounding his relationship with Christine Keeler, and continued to work tirelessly for the organisation until his death in 2006.
Geraldine Pilgrim’s installation took the form of a series of vignettes reflecting this and many other aspects of the history of the settlement itself and the adjoining studios, housed in a 1930s extension to the original (though bomb-damaged and rebuilt) Arts and Crafts main building. Outside in the split-level courtyard garden a collection of Salvation Army instruments and a recording of hymn tunes played by a similar brass ensemble set the scene. We were taken first to a small archive room where photos and memorabilia were displayed, including some of the very small quantity of letters and account books that survived the WW2 destruction. Then we passed down a narrow corridor past brown-overalled staff loading packages into a service lift, through a large, elegant drawing room where a pianist in a silvery-white gown played Chopin… the panelled lecture hall where a group of bankers appeared to be having a marketing meeting… and so on up stairs and down, along passageways, up and down stairs, inside and out through one tableau vivant after another. Characters in the impressionistic drama flitted ahead of us down staircases or were glimpsed through half-open doors. A case was in progress in the courtroom – petty theft, perhaps? We eavesdropped on a rehearsal in one auditorium, then found ourselves processing along the back of the stage in another during a performance of ‘Three Little Maids from School’. One minute we seemed to be in a life-drawing class, another in a corner of an old-fashioned hospital ward. Several string players, a flautist and a cabaret singer serenaded us in the narrow passageways of the studio building.
One room represented the destruction of the WW2 air raids – we picked our way through smashed crockery, overturned furniture and plaster dust and were led into a tiny room about the size of an air raid shelter, floored with bright green artificial glass and with a pattern of tiny stars on the ceiling. The door closed and we were left in total darkness for a couple of minutes before another door opened and we emerged into the brilliant whiteness of a modern dance studio where an energetic fitness session was in progress. Round a corner, and instead of young people in vests, track pants and sweat bands we encountered an elderly couple in Edwardian or 1920s ballroom attire waltzing contently around another studio space.
Other characters flitted in and out of our vision, entering or emerging from lifts, preceding us up or down stairs, vanishing round corners: a bride and groom; a courier; 60s office girls in natty little suits. There were hints at the many-layered culture of the area: references to the match girls’ strike at the Bryant & May factory, to the rag trade and to the bagel bakeries and Indian restaurants of nearby Brick Lane.
Eventually we found ourselves in a cafe-bar and gradually realised this was the end of our tour. But the performance wasn’t quite over yet; a courier arrived and each of us was summoned to receive ‘A delivery for…’ This turned out to be a brown envelope containing a luggage label and a tiny double-sided map, with Charles Booth’s 1898-99 ‘poverty’ map showing the demographic of the area on one side and a modern A-Z on the reverse. Then we were free to order drinks, relax and digest the experience before heading out into the chilly night.
An extra frisson was added by the fact that my group included Vicky Pryce, former wife of politician Chris Huhne and recently released from prison following her involvement in his attempt to avoid conviction for speeding by claiming she’d been driving his car when an offence took place. She was with friends and we all obeyed the instruction not to speak during the walk so the fact that a character from a contemporary political scandal, albeit one on a rather smaller scale than the Profumo-Keeler affair, was among us went completely unacknowledged. And I was able to add my own point of historical reference as Toynbee Hall was where several years ago I chaired a pre-concert talk with the artistic team that produced Spitalfields Festival’s community opera On Spital Fields, including composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton, my first experience of such a role.
Groups of participants in the various dramas were also sitting around in the bar, some possibly still in role, others definitely off duty and waiting for their next performance. From snippets of their conversations it was evident that choreographing and timing all the scenes had been quite challenging but the effect was wonderful – atmospheric and evocative and provoking all sorts of responses.
Next morning London was bathed in sunshine filtered through an unusually low-lying, gauzy fog, producing some extraordinary effects that enhanced my walk from Liverpool Street Station through Spitalfields and Shoreditch to Rich Mix, the community arts centre where the next event took place. Dropping in on the way to Christ Church, to check on the progress of its organ restoration, I was welcomed on the doorstep by the Rector and encouraged to join the church primary school’s Christmas Carol Service.
After many years of attending concerts and talks in Christ Church, first in its dilapidated state before the church restoration and then in its current gold-and-white glory, it was wonderful to see it being used for its original purpose. But here too the layers of memory, community and identity were surreally blurred, not only by the fact that the children taking part in the service were around 98% Asian, with just a handful of African or West Indian and three or four white faces among them but by the fact that the service was being led by an assistant curate with a strong Northern Irish accent who preached the sort of evangelical children’s sermon that was a regular feature of my childhood in such a very different place.
On to Rich Mix, and ‘Musical Rumpus: Mudlark Dances’, an example of Spitalfields Music’s work with the very youngest members of its local community. This was presented by musicians from the Genesis Sixteen singers’ training programme and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s OAE Experience, for 0-2-year-olds. The children arrived in their buggies with their parents and carers in a large, darkened studio where a gentle drama was already beginning in a spotlit stage area surrounded by benches.
As the audience gathered round and settled, the central character – the mudlark, sung by tenor Tom Kelly – was moving quietly around the space, interacting with the babies, blowing and catching bubbles, responding to their gestures of delight and showing them some of the small percussion instruments and a few items of kitchen ware that were strewn around. Crouching in an old oil drum was soprano Molly Alexander, who played a magpie and a robin. Violinist Anna Curzon, cellist Sam Glazer and theorbo player Toby Carr made up the ‘Bullrush Orchestra’, providing a soundtrack to the action with the help of a few percussion instruments. A story gradually unfolded involving the mudlark and the magpie searching for treasures along the banks of the Thames, but what made it different from most toddler music sessions was that the ‘score’ was entirely constructed from the music of Monteverdi. This worked brilliantly, taking us aurally into another world. The performance was also notable for the skill of the young singers in coping with the unpredictable interventions of the more inquisitive toddlers and also with the fearful reactions of one or two who were less comfortable with being sung to or invited to touch a waving coloured scarf or shake a set of bells. There were about 50 children and babies in the audience and the performance lasted around 50 minutes, yet because the event was so well set up and delivered, the atmosphere was extraordinarily peaceful. As with the previous day’s performances, I felt that I had been drawn into a magical experience.
Finally, that evening, a very different audience assembled in St Leonard’s Church for the first concert in the Hilliard Ensemble’s year-long farewell tour marking their 40th anniversary and the end of their distinguished career as one of the world’s leading vocal consorts; they plan to retire after their final concert on 20 December this year. I’ll try to do a separate blog about the Hilliards at a later date, as this one is already quite long enough; suffice to say for now that you can read my article about them in the January/February issue of Choir & Organ magazine ( http://www.rhinegold.co.uk/magazines/choir_and_organ/default.asp ). For the Spitalfields Winter Festival concert, the current line-up of David James, Steven Harrold, Rogers Covey-Crump and Gordon Jones was joined by former members Paul Elliott, John Nixon, John Potter and Errol Girdlestone. Only Paul Hillard was missing, due to his prior commitment to the high-profile relaunch and rebranding in Dublin of Chamber Choir Ireland, which he directs.
The first half of the Hilliards’ programme began with the early 13th-century composer Perotin’s Viderunt omnes, a real calling card for the ensemble, and was built around the great plainsong ‘O Antiphons’ for Advent, interspersed with sections of Victoria’s Magnificat secundi toni. The second half featured music by British composers, from the anonymous 15th-century ‘Lullay lullow’ and ‘There is no rose’ through Byrd and Sheppard to Britten’s Canticle IV ‘Journey of the Magi’, with Errol Girdlestone playing the piano, and a substantial new work by Roger Marsh, ‘Poor Yorick’, a setting of a text from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy which is dedicated to ‘The Hilliard Ensemble and Friends’ and brought all the singers together to reflect ‘on the vanity of the world and the swift passing of time’.
Thanks to my friends at Spitalfields Music for the ringside seat that enabled me to have a privileged view of this memorable performance, and for their usual warm hospitality. Very much appreciated. They are already gearing up for the summer festival which takes place in June; check out their plans here: http://www.spitalfieldsmusic.org.uk/