By Inge Kjemtrup
Vienna may be the finest city for walking in the steps of great composers, and Berlin may boast an exciting new-music scene and a legendary orchestra, but for sheer musical variety and richness, London is hard to beat. I’ve lived in London for over 20 years, and I continue to be enthralled by the city’s passion for music.
“Within a radius of a mile you have some of the finest orchestras, chamber music, opera, art, ballet, and theater in the world,” says Bradley Smith, a young London-based opera singer. “The problem is that there are so many concerts happening all at once, it’s difficult to decide what to go and see!”
I must apologize from the outset for my London-centrism to anyone reading this who lives elsewhere in the UK. Non-London reader, you are absolutely right that there is a lot going on outside of the attention-grabbing capital. I also won’t dispute your claim that the finest orchestral-size concert halls are found in Manchester,
Birmingham, and Sage Gateshead.
Yet I have to agree with Helen Wallace, program director for Kings Place Music Foundation, when she says, “Everyone says London doesn’t have a great hall, and that’s true, but what it does have is a plethora of small halls.” Small halls, churches, and offbeat, uncategorizable places, too. I’ve attended concerts in 18th-century Georgian drawing rooms, drafty East End warehouses, church crypts, and the vast railway vaults under Waterloo Station (see sidebar, “Off the Beaten Track”).
“You can be walking around the center of London and you’ll stumble upon an organ recital or a piano trio in a church. There’s such a lot going on,” says professional violinist Thomas Gould, a born-and-bred Londoner.
And surprisingly, for an otherwise expensive city, concert tickets are reasonable. Whether you have £5 or £500, you can find an affordable concert any day of the week, even at such venerated places as the Royal Opera House or the Wigmore Hall.
With its exquisite acoustic and discerning audiences, the 117-year-old Wigmore Hall is the jewel in the crown of London’s chamber-music scene, drawing the world’s greatest performers to its stage. In January and February, you could have heard violinists Leila Josefowicz, Alina Ibragimova, and Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, and the Endellion and Julliard string quartets, among others. Should you decide to go, two bits of advice. First, “Wiggy” audiences are quiet and attentive—coughing or cellphone use may get you ejected or, at the very least, earn you a raised eyebrow. Know also that Wigmore audiences don’t automatically leap to their feet at the end of the performance. In fact, they don’t stand up for most performances, only those that are, well, truly outstanding.
Another small-venue gem is Kings Place, the ten-year-old arts center near the King’s Cross Station. It favors the kind of genre mash-ups that seem to proliferate in London: classical, early music, spoken word, and world are all in the mix. “It’s such a diverse audience in this city, and that makes it particularly vibrant,” says Wallace, who has the joy of programming here.
In addition to the LSO, London has a deep bench when it comes to big orchestras: the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
But innovation is also the rule and not the exception at the two major large-scale art centers: the Southbank Centre and the Barbican Hall. The Southbank Centre has at its heart the Royal Festival Hall, created for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Centre has a perfect site overlooking the Thames, not far from Parliament. The Barbican Hall, in the East End, is home to the London Symphony Orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle, its newly appointed conductor, is leading the charge for an acoustically superior hall for the orchestra.
In addition to the LSO, London has a deep bench when it comes to big orchestras: the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. These groups keep a lot of musicians employed, but because most are freelance-based, contract positions are rare. Portfolio careers, like Gould’s, are the norm. “I’ve always done a bit of everything there is to do,” says Gould, who is a soloist, session player, jazz violinist, and the leader [concertmaster] of the Britten Sinfonia, too.
London musicians have a reputation of bounding around town from one gig to the next: “a session, then a musical, then a quartet rehearsal, then dashing off to play in orchestra,” says Gould. “You need to be a particular kind of person who relishes that kind of life.” It’s competitive, but, says Gould, “If you’re good and committed, it is possible to find space in such a dense fabric of musical events.”
It also helps to be an excellent sight-reader. “British musicians are fast, and have to be fast because of the shortage of money. I don’t know if we’ve evolved into sight-reading machines because of the conditions or the conditions evolved around that,” Gould says.
Sight-reading standards among British amateurs are also high, as I swiftly learned when I started playing here. But it’s been worth raising my sight-reading game, because the reach and the ambition of amateur orchestras—and there are many, as a glance at the Music Making website will confirm—is astounding. I have played in orchestras conducted by the likes of Colin Matthews and Martyn Brabbins, and played challenging repertory, such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 and Janacek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen. I have also found a wide circle of chamber-music players. As one of those, violinist and violist Stephen Lustig, comments, “You only need one or two contacts, and your world opens up. Amateur players are by their nature very hospitable.”
While London has a wealth of live music, it’s lacking in memorials to musicians. One notable exception is the Handel & Hendrix Museum on Brook Street in Mayfair. Handel lived in the building for 36 years, and 200 years later, guitarist Jimi Hendrix moved into the top floor. Strange housemates, to be sure, but the museum celebrates both of their lives and offers concerts as well.
London is a city that rewards walking (see sidebar, “Sightseeing”). Musically inclined visitors should keep an eye out for the round blue historical markers commemorating the one-time presence of a great composer or performer. It’s also worth making the short stroll from Wigmore Hall to BBC Broadcasting House, home of the world-famous national broadcaster, and then onward to the British Library, which has an impressive collection of scores, including Handel’s “Messiah” and Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations for Orchestra.
Should you be in the market for an instrument, London has many dealers and makers (visit StringsMagazine.com for a walking tour I did a few years back of the violin shops just in my own neighborhood). The British Violin Making Association website (bvma.org.uk) can help you find contemporary makers.
There’s much to enjoy in London, but there’s a lot of anxiety here as well, thanks to Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union. As I write this, in January 2019, the details of Brexit, although scheduled to happen in late March, had not yet been agreed by the politicians. Even those who voted in favor of leaving the EU in the June 2016 referendum could not have imagined that the process would be so painful and extended.
Brexit is already having an impact on the nation’s classical-music ecosystem. Performers who hold only a British passport report fewer bookings on the Continent, while London arts organizations are finding European sources of funding are drying up. European citizens who live here are uncertain of their status, while those might want to study or work here are unsure of the welcome they’ll receive.
Here’s hoping that London’s music continues to thrive, even after this break-up. I had to chuckle when Gould told me about a concert he’s playing with the UK-based Aurora Orchestra, in Brussels on March 29, the official Brexit day. The program ends with Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony.
In the 20 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve watched the growing European influence on the capital, not least on vastly improved food and drink. Like true Continentals, Londoners now spend more time eating outside at sidewalk tables. But you don’t want to leave London without visiting a pub, where you’ll take turns buying a round of drinks. Mine’s a gin and tonic. Cheers!
London is made for Instagram, and you’re going to want a selfie or two with all those landmarks to prove you were here. You can hit a lot of famous locations in one walk. Start at Embankment Station, and cross the Thames on the pedestrianized Hungerford Bridge. You can see Parliament and Big Ben, the London Eye (a giant Ferris wheel), the Shard, and the Southbank Centre. Stop in at the Southbank Center to see what’s going on, and then continue along the Thames to see Borough Market, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. And keep your eye peeled for a red phone booth as well!
Off the Beaten Track
With concerts seemingly everywhere in London, there is no single place to find all of them, but here are some that are worth exploring. Check out the lunchtime concerts at Regent Hall, near Oxford Circus, and St. Olave, a church with excellent acoustics located near the Tower of London. Many of the conservatories in London have concert series, including Trinity Laban, with concerts at the ornate 18th-century Old Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich. On the more funky end of things is the debut series at the Shoreditch Treehouse and the cutting-edge scene at Café Oto.
Organized by the national broadcaster, the BBC Proms go from mid-July to early September, with one major concert a night at Royal Albert Hall, along with many other concerts and events as well. The BBC orchestras are the backbone of the Proms, alongside top-flight soloists, and in the final weeks of the Proms, orchestras from around the world show up. If you don’t mind standing, join the throng who “promenade” (stand) for the equivalent of $10. The prommers are knowledgeable and have a repertoire of collective jokes, including shouting “heave-ho” when a grand piano is shifted onstage.
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.