Last night I attended a brilliant performance of Shostakovich’s cello concerto played on the upper floors of the main car-park in Peckham town centre, South London. Matthew Barley was the soloist, and the conductor Christopher Stark drew passionate and committed playing from his young professional players.
Putting on classical music in unconventional venues is not a new idea. My first experience of this was 15 years ago, when Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company started staging major operas in disused factories, redundant aircraft hangers and the like. It was a revelation, not least because the audience became participants in the drama, moving around the set, and adopting semi-theatricalised roles at different points. I still vividly recall the revelatory impact of these productions.
Since then, taking classical music to buildings not customarily used for this purpose, has become commonplace, and – in the eyes of some – almost a cliché.
As in any other area of artistic endeavour, non-traditional venue work can be good, mediocre or bad. There is still much to discover about how “going outside the concert hall” can encourage or facilitate new and productive forms of audience engagement. The work only becomes clichéd when it unthinkingly repeats a formula without care and attention to the artistic and contextual opportunities that a specific combination of work, artist, place, and audience afford.
On those grounds, the Multi-Story project, conceived and directed by Composer Kate Whitley and conductor Christopher Stark, must be recognised as a very significant contribution to this field.
Before identifying the really innovative elements which justify this judgment, I’ll just mention some features which, while important elements in the overall experience, are more standard in this emerging field.
There is a set of choices that concert promoters can make which are more likely to attract a predominantly young audience. I would estimate that the average age of last night’s 1000-strong sell-out audience was no more than 30. As someone over 60, I was in a tiny minority.
Peckham is fast becoming a trendy mecca for the social and professional life of the culture-rich but money-poor under-30s, with some of the edgy vibrancy that characterized Shoreditch and Hackney before gentrification took hold. A whole range of cultural and artistic enterprises are springing up in the disused factories and warehouses, not least the now iconic Bussey Building which faces the Peckham Car Park across the railway lines. These rails carry the newly-enhanced circular Overground Line which allows experience-seekers from all around London’s inner suburbs to disgorge from its sleek air-conditioned carriages in their thousands into Rye Lane. Multi-story is less than a 5 minute walk from Peckham Rye Station – a very important consideration for the traveler to this hitherto “out of the way” and “exotic” (even threatening) location.
Almost every warehouse and alley nearby now seems to have a pop up (often outdoor) bar, packed to the gills with a young white middle-class constituency for whom alcohol seems to be the stimulus to and accompaniment for the kind of animated but relaxed conversation that has long characterized gatherings of young adults in the bars and cafes of Paris, Berlin, and Milan – and very far from the more aggressive and carnal encounters that alcohol tends to be associated with in town centres around the UK. [An analysis of how this influx is affecting or impacting on the predominantly black indigenous population of the area, while important, is beyond my scope. These locals were not in evidence at the concert!].
In other words, Multi-Story is tapping into exactly the same young educated and eclectic demographic that already flocks to such offerings as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s (OAE) “Night Shift”.
And Multi-Story replicates some of the tried and tested features of the OAE experience. People are free to wander in and out of the space, check their mobiles, talk quietly to their neighbours, buy alcohol (from bars that stay open doing business throughout the performance). There are no reserved seats, and people sit or stand where they choose. So far, so standard.
What Multi-Story brings, which is new (at least to me), is an educational element that is fun, interactive, and very appropriately enhancing to the performance itself.
For around 40 minutes before the main performance began, groups of the players spread themselves over 5 or 6 different locations, and each offered a mini-tutorial on some element of the music, its performance, and its social and historical background. Each tutorial lasted about 5 minutes, and was repeated at regular intervals, so you could pick up four or five of them in the time available.
Each tutorial was a semi-scripted opportunity for audience engagement, entirely choreographed and delivered by the players themselves, each of whom stepped forward and engagingly spoke, played, invited questions, and – in one case – invited audience members to come forward and conduct them for a minute or so.
In this way there was no “invited expert” pontificating on the music, but a narrative which was woven out of the perceptions and enthusiasms of all of the 70 or so young performers. By the end of the tutorial period, I felt I knew, and had connected to, more than half of the orchestra as individuals, and had learned quite a lot I didn’t know about the music, about Shostakovich, and about the Stalinist context in Soviet Russia in which he had to work.
I took the opportunity to speak to one of the groups of performers, inbetween two repeats of their “show”. I learned that all the performers were either conservatoire students, or recent graduates from them. They told me that they had been given a broad area around which to devise their tutorial, but had then been given an hour during rehearsals to go away together and work out the precise script, and who would do what.
This worked brilliantly well, so that by the time we all assembled in one part of the venue for the actual performance, we all had key themes and moments buzzing round our heads, and so the sense was of meeting fully a person to whom we had already been briefly introduced.
It would be really great to be able to find out a bit more about the experience of this young audience, and how, and to what extent, their engagement with the players last night might have helped create lasting and committed enthusiasm for classical music in all its various presentations both live and recorded. How many of last night’s audience will be hunting out performances of this piece on Spotify or Youtube? How many will hunt out other performances by Matthew Barley, or by these players? What would make them more likely to do this? These and other related questions are the ones that the classical music profession needs urgent answers to. Building committed younger audiences for classical music is the only way to ensure its future survival. And for that we need a deeper and fuller understanding of what motivates these young adults, and what works to secure their lasting commitment (both in time and money) to the art form.
That’s one of the reasons why I am delighted that the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (where I work) has invested in a long-term programme of experimentation and investigation on the very issue of “Understanding Audiences”, in collaboration with a number of forward thinking artistic and academic partners. Visiting Peckham last night has reminded me again of why this work matters!