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. Continue reading
Renegade New Classical
Nik Colk Void, Daniel Brandt
s t a r g a z e
Spitalfields Music Festival 2017
St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch
6 December 2017
Once upon a time, pop music was divided into just two genres – Beatles or Rolling Stones, with a possible sub-set of John or Paul. Things are more complicated nowadays. Every single piece within the broad contemporary music scene has its own distinctive moniker. For this concert, we were told that we would see “the realms of classical collide with minimal techno, experimental and electronic music. Electronic it certainly was, as the rustle of the players sorting their music out was picked up by their microphones, followed by an enormous amplified explosion from the banks of speakers. I was relieved there wasn’t any lightning forecast. Continue reading
Spitalfields Music: Solomon’s Knot
Bach B minor Mass
Shoreditch Town Hall. 11 December 2016
The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival concluded in spectacular style with the welcome return of Solomon’s Knot, a group that had impressed previous Spitalfields audiences – and have also impressed me in the past with their innovative approach to music performance. Their full title is the Solomon’s Knot Baroque Collective, a name that sums up their approach. Founded in 2008, they perform with small forces, singing from memory, with no conductor and with a relaxed stage presence, helped by an informal dress code. For this Bach B minor Mass, they transfixed the audience with an extraordinarily powerful performance.
They used Joshua Rifkin’s edition of the piece, and his proposal that the work was intended to be sung as an ensemble piece for eight one to a part solo singers. The need for two extra singers for the concluding section led to Solomon’s Know using the 10 singers throughout to reinforce the choruses. The 20-strong orchestra, led by violinist James Toll, completed the well-balanced line-up of musicians. The fact that the singers do not use scores directly involves the audience in the music, as the singers eyes scan the audience and as they visibly respond to the music they are singing. Continue reading
Siglo de Oro
Patrick Allies conductor, Sam Corkin saxophones
St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. 10 December 2016
Music by Judith Weir, Will Todd, Pierre Certon, Matthew Kaner, Sam Rathbone, Antoine Mornable,
Bonnie Miksch, Francis Pott, Hieronymus Praetorius, Richard Allain, Gareth Wilson, Stuart Turnbull, Josquin des Prez, Ralph Allwood, Owain Park.
Spitalfields Music has long had a reputation for encouraging new groups and performers. One such was the a-cappella vocal group Siglo de Oro, whose professional debut was in the 2014 Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, although they had been singing together since their London student days. They are one of a number of such groups that get a quick invitation back, on this occasion with a well-constructed Advent programme that included an impressive number of new commissions.
A long-held tradition in the Catholic church has been to include in services in the Advent week before Christmas a set of special Magnificat antiphons, each beginning with the letter ‘O’, giving them the name of the ‘O Antiphons’ or the ‘Great Os’. The best known example stemming from this practice is the Advent hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel, which is a paraphrase of the last of these antiphons. Each of the O antiphons reinforce the Biblical prophecies of his birth. Siglo de Oro commissioned eight composers to write contemporary versions of these antiphons, which they presented alongside settings from Renaissance composers. Each of the new commissions includes a saxophone. Continue reading
The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, Jon Nicholls
The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London. 8 December 2016
Music by Jon Nicholls, Tobias Hume, William Lawes, William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons.
For many years now, Spitalfields Music has been spreading its wings way beyond its original home in Spitalfields, both for its major programme of community work and for venues for its musical and other performances. It is now a major arts and community organisation covering the whole of the East End of London. Among the venues for this year’s winter festival (which included a hidden Masonic Temple) was The Octagon, built in 1887 as part of the grand premises of the People’s Palace, described in The Times on its opening as a “happy experiment in practical Socialism”. It is now the home of Queen Mary University of London. The architect, ER Robson (best known for his influential school designs), used the British Museum Reading Room for inspiration in designing the octagonal library.
More ‘happy experiments’ were in evidence in the programme ‘Sound House’ given by The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments (SSAI). It was based on the 17th century scientific writings and acoustic experiments of Francis Bacon, as described in his posthumously published Sylva Sylcarum and New Atlantis. In the latter vision of a new society, Bacon promoted the idea of Sound Houses where his acoustic experiments could be continued and better appreciated by the populace. Bacon’s musical ideas might seem commonplace today, not least through the medium of electronics and manipulated sound, and his experimental approach to sound is a key feature of many musicians today.
Spitalfields Music: Shakespeare in Love
The English Concert, Harry Bicket, Mary Bevan, Tim Mead
Shorditch Church, 7 December 2016
The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival is one of the highlights of the London musical calendar, sensibly positioned in early December just before the Christmas musical silliness takes hold. Founded in 1976, initially to raise interest and money for the restoration of the fabulous Nicholas Hawksmoor Christ Church Spitalfields, Spitalfields Music has grown to became a major arts and community organisation working throughout the year in the East End of London. It’s 40th year included 15 new commissions, programming more than 65 performances across East London, enabling some 5000 local people to take part in free musical activities, and working with communities ranging from 1500 local school children to care home residents. The week-long festival ranged from contemporary jazz, a Bollywood show with ‘a tuba the size of Belgium’, a show for toddlers, musical dinners in a hidden Masonic Temple together with the usual array of top-notch classical music events, with the usual focus on early and contemporary music.
I missed the first few days (including Gothic Voices in the Tower of London, The Sixteen, Melvyn Tan, and a dance and music theatre show. So for me, the festival started with The English Concert’s tribute to the music inspired by Shakespeare in his own anniversary year. A cleverly designed programme focused on Purcell’s Fairy Queen and Handel’s Guilio Cesare in the two halves, and featured soprano Mary Bevan and Countertenor Tim Mead, two of the finest singers around. Continue reading