Showing posts with label Oxford Philharmonic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Oxford Philharmonic. Show all posts

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Fit for purpose

What is fit for purpose in the UK at the moment? Not a lot, but I've found one thing that is. It's a national treasure of a concert hall - in an Essex village state school.

Saffron Hall
Photo: Graham Turner
I'm talking about Saffron Hall, of course, named after its location, not the donor who put up the money to build it - that person, with rare grace, preferred to stay anonymous. And if you go through Saffron Walden, you wouldn't expect to find this venue there. An almost too-adorable antique town in not-too-flat-yet East Anglian countryside, beyond the great house of Audley End, it's a setting in which you'd be less surprised to find a haunted hotel (at the Cross-Keys Inn the ghost of a Civil War soldier is said to walk the corridors, while Cromwell's mistress supposedly lurks in a bedroom) than a shiny four-year-old concert venue haunted by the likes of Maxim Vengerov and Mats Lidström. The good news is that the two notions aren't incompatible.

The hall, in case you haven't seen it yet, seats around 800 and has a wide, shiny, wooden interior with a narrow balcony section that runs all the way round the sides and behind the stage. The acoustic ('tunable') is warm and blooming, ample and resonant. The audience seems still to be in a honeymoon with it - a community blessed with a big asset and the chance to hear Vengerov and friends play right on their doorstep - and it was great to see lots of children in the ranks. The school setting helps. I learned during the course of the evening that the place used not even to offer Music A Level (a tragically increasing situation nowadays), but that music for its pupils and beyond is now thriving thanks to the exemplar of the hall and the world-class events it hosts.

This should be a model for anyone to follow if and when they want to build a new hall: for goodness' sake, embed it in its community. Put it where children will feed it with their energy and enthusiasm and be fed its art in turn. Put it where its audience will be happy, where they will be there to support it, prioritise it and take pride in it. This is high art for everyone and that's exactly what we need, right here and right now. For too long we've fetishised concert halls as a tool of regeneration - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and if it does it takes decades - or decided they must multitask as conference venues. It's the kiss of death. You end up with soulless creations in places nobody really wants to go. Try multitasking them within community schools instead. You might be surprised.

Maximum violinist: Maxim Vengerov
And we got a wonderful surprise last night. Maxim Vengerov and friends from the Soloists of the Oxford Philharmonic joined forces for a delicious programme of varied chamber line-ups. First, Brahms violin and piano music with Marios Papadopoulos - more often found on the orchestra's podium - becoming an empathetic duo partner to Vengerov in the D minor Sonata, following an up-tempo, soaring account of the 'FAE' Scherzo. In these days of exaggeration and over-interpretation, Vengerov is a breath of fresh air: he eschews such intrusive trends. He plays that violin with a perfect tone that one can drink up like honeyed mead. He polishes it to the nth degree and displays it without a hint of fuss. He makes all of this look phenomenally easy and natural, which heaven knows it's not.

The second part was a rarely-heard two-movement String Sextet by Borodin and then the Mendelssohn Octet, and here we had a chance to hear some of the Oxford Philharmonic's lead string players. My, oh, my, look who's here: only a line-up to match any top-notch international chamber ensemble and probably beat them on their own turf. Violinists Natalia Lomeiko, Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and Yury Zhislin. Violists Garfield Jackson and Jonathan Barritt. Cellists Mats Lidström and Peter Adams. They're all among the best on the scene, whether established soloists or long-standing members of great string quartets, and with Vengerov as first violin they produced an Octet to remember, almost symphonic in scale (it's amazing how much noise can come out of just eight instruments) and wonderfully conversational. We don't need reminding that it's a masterpiece, but it's a perennial joy to be reunited with Mendelssohn's extraordinary fount of high energy, bowling along as if he simply can't get the ideas down on paper fast enough, so richly do they flow. This was a Maserati of a Mendelssohn rather than a wispy, elfin job, and I had the impression the performers were enjoying every note as much as we were.

I'm quite embarrassed to admit I had no idea any of them were with the Oxford Phil, although in some cases I've known and followed their careers for decades. Perhaps the problem with the word 'Oxford' is that you are conditioned to hearing it alongside another word: 'University'. This is, emphatically, not necessary.

You can hear the same concert tonight at Cheltenham Town Hall if you are lucky enough to be in the area.

Fit for purpose: music, musicians, hall and everything about them. Not fit for purpose: the UK's infrastructure.

I was offered a ticket and a lift to/from Saffron Walden by a friend in the music business who lives near me and has a car. We set off from Hammersmith at 3.30pm. An hour and a quarter later we'd reached...Kilburn. Because if you're sitting in Wood Lane you can't get across the A40 because the traffic blocks the junction and you're basically stuffed. Somehow we found the A1M via somewhere near my old school up in Stanmore, and then there was a smash, with ambulances rushing up the hard shoulder, so we sat there for a while too, and eventually we turned off, pootled across some golden cornfields and adorable countryside near Cambridge, along twisty little lanes, past calendar-worthy old houses, and arrived for supper at the 15th-century Cross-Keys Inn (no ghosts on display) a cool almost-three-hours after setting out. Made the concert in the nick of time.

The thing about going anywhere in the UK to review a concert is that you have to go, and in my unfortunate experience neither roads nor trains can be relied upon to get you anywhere at the time you need to be there. This has always been bad, but it's getting worse and heaven alone knows how things are going to function after the B word happens, in a country seemingly hell-bent on national suicide.

When the revolution comes, and it may, I'll head for Essex and hide under the piano in Saffron Hall. Because this place gives me hope in what remains of our humanity.