By Inge Kjemtrup | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine
London, May 1945. Though pianist Myra Hess kept up morale with her concerts at the National Gallery, London and its musical scene suffered severely in World War II. Some 30,000 Londoners were killed by German bombs, and many buildings were reduced to rubble. The much-loved Queen’s Hall, a focal point of the city’s concert life, was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941. Could London, and its musical life, be renewed?
The answer was an unequivocal yes. London proved to be resilient. Rebuilding, and reimagining, began. In 1951, the Festival of Britain celebrated a renewed post-war Britain, and included the creation of the Royal Festival Hall, a new concert venue for London.
London, January 2022. Two years of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic have brought this normally bustling city of nine million to a halt. Though not as instantly destructive as the wartime bombings, the pandemic has taken a lasting toll, not only in terms of individual lives lost but also in a greatly diminished cultural life. Concert halls, schools, theaters—anywhere large groups gather—have sharply curtailed their activities or closed their doors altogether.
But once again, London is proving resilient. Masks, social distancing, and ventilation have become the norm at live performances. Concerts are available online. Dining and performances have moved outdoors. In 2022, London is down but not out, and history suggests it will rise again.
Though still recovering from the pandemic, this resilient city has much to offer.
As a London resident since 1998, I have seen the city go through many changes, from the exuberant “Cool Britannia” era of the millennium through to the triumphs of the 2012 London Olympics to today’s more somber mood. My experiences as a musician, concertgoer, and journalist have deepened my love for this complicated city.
Walk in London and you walk through music history. Over the centuries London welcomed composers including Purcell, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten, and performers like Paganini, Menuhin, and du Pré. They lived here and worked here. Look around and you’ll spot the occasional blue plaque on a building or statue on a street that commemorates the presence of a musical titan.
Despite all these distinguished figures, London has a dearth of music museums. One notable exception is the Handel & Hendrix Museum, set in an 18th-century building on Brook Street in Mayfair. George Frideric Handel lived here for 36 years; 200 years later, Jimi Hendrix, the legendary guitarist, rented a flat at the top of the building next door. The museum ingeniously pays tribute to both artists and is well worth the visit (it re-opens in 2023).
A walk from Mayfair up through New Bond Street will take you past the site of Aeolian Hall, where Pablo Casals performed. As you make your way to Wigmore Hall, the crown jewel of London’s chamber-music venues, you’ll cross Oxford Street, once one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. Thanks to the pandemic and a shift to online shopping, Oxford Street has many vacant stores, including famed department stores Debenhams and House of Fraser. Efforts are underway to revitalize this street and repurpose its vast area.
Wigmore Hall is as beautiful and acoustically perfect as ever and still presents the highest quality recital and chamber-music performances. Wigmore—“Wiggy” as it is affectionally known—has reopened carefully. Its livestreaming program has expanded too, making concerts available to audiences worldwide.
Besides “Wiggy” and other venues such as Kings Place, London has two large-scale arts centers. The Southbank Centre has three main halls, including the 1951 Royal Festival Hall. In East London is the Barbican Centre, with its massive Barbican Hall. Over the years, I’ve gone to many concerts at Barbican and Southbank, also taking advantage of the eateries and the space where one can just hang out.
The London Symphony Orchestra is resident at the Barbican, while the London Philharmonic Orchestra is resident at Southbank. They are two of the five major symphonic orchestras based in London, which is also the home of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Chineke! Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and many others. I greatly admire London professional musicians, many of them freelancers, who have endured two years with little work. Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, has added to their woes, making it less easy to tour and concertize on the Continent. Some musicians, understandably, have gone into other lines of work.
I have often been struck by the strong ties between the professional and non-professional musicians in London. Soloists like cellist Steven Isserlis and violinist Nicola Benedetti perform with amateur orchestras, where a conductor of the caliber of Simon Rattle or Martyn Brabbins might well be at the podium.
It’s thrilling as an amateur to play alongside such wonderful performers, but what do they get out of it? Stephen Lustig is a music publisher who has played violin and viola in many non-professional orchestras. Once, in a pub after a long rehearsal with the Haydn Chamber Orchestra, Stephen asked conductor Mark Elder why he conducted non-professional groups. Elder told him, “You start out from a lower place, but the journey over four rehearsals is incredible and they listen to everything you say.”
There are a bewildering number of non-professional orchestras in London and the UK (see amateurorchestras.org.uk for a useful listing). Where to start if you’re new to town? Clare Bentall, a lecturer in education, is a violinist with the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra (CCO). She says, “I would be after a varied repertoire, rehearsals that are in an easy-to-get-to location, and a welcoming orchestra. I have all that with CCO. People care about how good it is and we have conductors who are interested in developing the orchestra.”
Lustig advises newbies if they’re interested in a particular orchestra to attend a concert, which will offer the chance to “assess for yourself if you’ll fit in.”
A thriving scene for string players naturally requires a number of luthiers and dealers, and London has a broad range, including stalwarts like J & A Beare, J.P. Guivier, Stringers, Bishop Instruments & Bows, and Florian Leonhard. Tarisio and Ingles & Hayday are two of several auction houses.
One leading indicator of how London will come back from the pandemic is the BBC Proms, the eight-week long summer festival featuring a concert every night at the Royal Albert Hall. If the Proms, which was cancelled in 2020 but returned 2021, can soldier on, then there’s hope.
Cautious hope is a good way to characterize the mood in London. As Bentall says of her orchestra’s return: “Now we are back playing, we have to take precautions. But audiences are really pleased we are back.”
It may take a while, but London’s musical scene will revive, thanks to the resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness of the performers, supporters, and audiences that have kept the show on the road for so long.
London Restaurants and Pubs
Ditch those stereotypes of bad British cuisine. In the last ten to 15 years, the restaurant scene has transformed, with innovative chefs taking food in delicious directions. The industry has suffered because of the pandemic, and many restaurants have not reopened. The eateries I mention here are still open as I write this, but I advise confirming before you go.
The River Café was founded in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. Its emphasis on fresh, clean cooking inspired a food revolution. Equally influential is Yotam Ottolenghi, whose complicated recipes are a challenge to home cooks. His restaurants show his creativity in action.
Taste of India
The cooking of the Indian subcontinent is a fixture of UK cuisine. Chicken tikka masala has been described as Britain’s national dish. Brick Lane in East London has a range of Indian restaurants. For a high-end, contemporary take, try Trishna Restaurant in Marylebone.
Meet Me at the Pub
Pubs are central to London life and there are many to choose from. If you’re in East London, try The Grapes Pub. On a warm day you can sit outside and contemplate the Thames, much as Charles Dickens once did. While you’re in area, check out Wilton’s Music Hall, a Victorian music hall that’s now a magical setting for theatre and concerts, and has its own spot for a drink, the Mahogany bar.
Room with a View
Going to the top of the multi-storied Shard, one of London’s tallest buildings, will give you a view and will set you back some £25. My strategy is to go a few floors down and enjoy a fancy cocktail at Gong (level 52) or a meal at the Ting Shangri-La (level 35) instead.