Friday, September 08, 2017

To the Conway Hall be true

As the capital's concert series gear up for the new season, here is a spotlight on an undersung yet extraordinarily valuable venue in central London. Still, you might not know about it unless you'd been lucky enough - as I was - to have been taken there every Sunday night right through your childhood and adolescence to hear and learn the chamber music repertoire.

My father was a regular at the Conway Hall's South Place Sunday Concerts and I went along from the age of about 8, mesmerised by hearing great live music at close quarters and contemplating the mysterious quote above the proscenium arch, 'To Thine Own Self Be True' (it's from Hamlet). A while ago the London Chamber Music Society moved its Sunday concerts to Kings Place and Conway Hall started its own. The first concert for 2017-18 is this Sunday, 10 September, 6.30pm: the Tippett Quartet and pianist Emma Abbate play a delectable programme of Haydn's String Quartet Op.103 and the piano quintets of Schumann and Dvorák.

I'm not sure I'd be here now without those Sunday concerts' influence. So I got together with the pianist Simon Callaghan, who's in charge of the programming, and asked him what it's like to run them.

The Badke Quartet rehearsing in the Conway Hall.
(I remember that lamp from when I was a kid...)

JD: Simon, how did you come to be running the concert series at the Conway Hall?

SC: In May 2008 I met Giles Enders who was then the manager of Conway Hall at an English music event at the Royal College of Music. We chatted and I became very interested in this historic place I had never heard about, and its potential as a first-rate concert venue! I visited the following week and the idea of me taking over as Director of Music was born. I won't lie and say it's been easy - it was a steep learning curve - but I've enjoyed every minute, especially the opportunity to hear wonderful chamber music every week and get to know lots of world-class musicians.

JD: Please give us a few vital statistics about the hall?

SC: The hall seats just over 400 people and is cherished for its wonderful acoustic, no doubt enhanced by the mainly wooden fittings throughout. Players of all instruments love experiencing the warm, intimate atmosphere and it is particularly suited to small chamber ensembles. The music can be enjoyed from any part of the hall but I particularly enjoy the centre of the balcony where the full 'bloom' of the sound can be absorbed!

The London Mozart Players and Howard Shelley. Photo: Tonmy Lam
JD: I’ve been going to the Conway Hall most of my life, as my father used to take me to the Sunday evening series. What does the place mean to you? What is it that inspires such loyalty in its audience?

SC: I think the 'down to earth' atmosphere coupled with the consistent high quality of the music making is what inspires such loyalty in our audience. Added to this is the variety of repertoire on offer, which draws a healthy number of new audience members each week. Since the first time I went there in 2008, I have grown ever fonder of the whole place and particularly the main hall, where every member of the audience can see the words 'To Thine Own Self Be True' above the stage throughout the performance, adding a contemplative element to the experience of the music.

JD: When you’re dealing with an audience who love their Beethoven quartets but might not be so open to unusual pieces, how do you handle the balance between pleasing them and attracting new people with other repertoire?

SC: This is a issue I'm not sure I will ever get to the bottom of! Our audience come from very varied backgrounds and while there is indeed a good number of people who come every week, our more adventurous programmes tend to attract lots of new people, which is great. I've also spoken to lots of our regulars recently who have developed quite an appetite for a greater variety of repertoire, so we are getting there. Contemporary music performance is something that traditionally was very common at Conway Hall, so I'm keen to do more of this, and perhaps even to commission some new works.

A Valentine's Day concert...
JD: What are the chief challenges you’re facing with this series at the moment? How would you like it to develop from here?

SC: The exciting developments and growth in our series in the last couple of years have left me greedy for more. My main challenge now is to make sure more and more people get to know about Conway Hall and especially the wonderful musical events that happen there. I speak to people almost every week who have recently discovered it and wish they had done so years ago.  It usually only takes one or two concerts for people to become hooked!

JD: Please can you point out a few highlights of the new season?

SC: It's very tricky to choose! Every concert has a real 'raison d'être'. We have our usual offering of string quartets and piano trios of course, but we're straying a little off the beaten track with a violin and guitar recital, and pre-concert performances featuring repertoire for harp and double bass, and even electric guitar. Balancing the programme we start and end the autumn series with two great piano quintets and two great clarinet quintets. There really is something for everyone.

JD: What would you say to encourage newcomers to attend a concert at the Conway Hall?

SC: I would pass on to them the comments that I've heard from many newcomers. They love the hall and its acoustic, of course, but what is special about Conway Hall is the atmosphere.  We are not stuffy, not overly formal, we just want to create the best ambience for everyone to enjoy the music and bring the audience and performers as close to each other as possible. Everyone in the audience has a chance to chat to everyone else if they so wish over a drink in the interval, and I know many long friendships that have been born through a mutual love of music and attending concerts at Conway Hall.