Spitalfields Music Festival 2017
Huguenot houses in Spitalfields
9 December 2017
The 2018 incarnation of the Spitalfields Winter Festival concluded with Schumann Street, an ambitious weekend ‘installation’ based in eight of the historic former Huguenot houses in the streets next to the traditional home of the festival, Christ Church, Spitalfields, Hawksmoor’s architectural masterpiece. The festival was founded (by Richard Hickox) in 1977 specifically to help to save Christ Church from demolition. For many years, concertgoers stepped over the rough brick floors to hear a glittering array of top-flight early music performers and established contemporary composers, one example of the latter being the 1991 performance of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil. A timeline of the Spitalfields Festival and its associated activities, most notably in community and education projects, can be seen here. Since then, Christ Church has completed a major restoration but, unfortunately, no longer hosts the festival that was instrumental, in so many ways, in its continuing existence and restoration.
For the Schumann Street installation, which had four runs over the weekend, each of eight Huguenot houses accommodated two performances, all sixteen based on Schumann’s 1840 Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love). Although usually performed with a male voice and piano, it was dedicated to a soprano. For this event, the 16 performers (individuals or groups) were given free rein to interpret the verses in their own way and style. The audience met in the crypt of Christ Church, where we were divided into eight groups and were eventually, after quite a delay, led to one of the houses. From then on, we were all left to our own devices, with a map to show where the houses were, but no indication of who would be performing where or when, or any idea of the length of the 16 performances.
Each of the performers repeated their interpretation as varying sized groups worked their way around the houses, the do-it-yourself nature of the event resulting in serious overcrowding in some venues, but on a couple of occasions, left me listening alone in a room. It was planned to last for about 75 minutes but, rather predictably, ran well over time. Perhaps I was lucky, but I only missed hearing one of the performers (downstairs in house number 7), who seems to have decided to work to rule and finished at the original end time, even though people were waiting to hear him sing. It is to the credit of the other performers that they realised that people risked missing out of the promised events, and continued well over their allotted time.
The range of interpretations was extraordinary, ranging from relatively straight piano/singer combination; via a pair of German hip-hoppers (Apollo 47) going mad in white (and presumably institutional) jumpsuits in a room they had plastered with paper, as their hearts “shattered from savage pain’s pressure” to the words of “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen”; to an evocative Bangladeshi interpretation from Shapla Salique (pictured) playing an Asian harmonium in her interpretation of the opening song, “Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai!”, upstairs at house number 7.
Downstairs in the kitchen of the same house was one of the most effective musical/theatrical interpretations, with Katherine Manley (pictured) sitting at the kitchen table covered in written texts, channelling Clare Schumann writing to Robert to the words of “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh'”. James McVinnie improvised a sensuous accompaniment on a digital organ keyboard.
In another kitchen, Mara Carlyle sang “Die alten bösen Lieder” while doing the washing up while, at house number 4, Josephine Stephenson (one of the featured composers of the festival) mournfully plunged her soul into the chalice of the lily (“Ich will meine Seele tauchen”) to the accompanied of snatches of recorded piano which she switched on and off from a cassette recorder of some vintage – a powerful image. Upstairs in house 6, singer Héloïse Werner (pictured) and harpist Anne Denholm (both of The Hermes experiment, who had featured in earlier events) gave a (probably) largely improvised and emotionally wrought theatrical performance, the glitter of the adjoining Christmas tree somehow seeming an apt background to the turmoil of Werner’s powerful interpretation.
House 8 had a soulful female singer accompanying herself on guitar upstairs, while in the ground floor room was what seemed to be a couple of drunks who had wandered in from the street for a weird display of guttural noises, wails, screeches, whistles and other oddities to the accompaniment of random piano playing. It was apparently a serious performance of a style that had hitherto passed me by.
And so ended a very different Spitalfields Winter Festival than any I had previously experienced, over many years. With no traditionally ‘straight’ early music concerts of the sort that have been the musical foundation of the festival for the past 40 years (the closest was one late-night Bach concert, but played on piano), and with contemporay music from composers very early in their careers rather than the distinguished living composers previously featured, the festival runs a real risk of alienating its traditional audience (who, apart from anything else, having provided considerable funding for the festival and its other activities), but failing to bring in a new audience who already have many musical outlets for their listening and composing opportunities in London’s burgening new music world.