The weekend before last, having finished my marking a little ahead of schedule, I had a remarkable evening at the Spitalfields Festival. This music festival is very much to my taste since the music is a mixture of the old (no later than 17th century, and often much older than that) and the new (lots of world premieres of commissioned works). But this particular event stands out in my mind.
The idea was that there would be five separate mini-concerts in five unusual locations in Spitalfields; the audience was divided into groups who walked between the venues. Three of the five venues were completely unknown to me, which I don’t feel bad about because two of them were unknown even to the owners of the properties for some time!
First we went to the hundred-year old Masonic temple in the Andaz Hotel (formerly the Great Eastern in Liverpool Street). The temple had been concealed behind a false wall and the windows bricked up, so the previous owners of the hotel didn’t know it was there. It was a remarkable structure lined with expensive marble, with gold zodiac signs on the ceiling, and impressive thrones. (It is now used for “fashion shows, product launches”, etc.) There we heard Rebecca Crawshaw playing Purcell and Handel on a baroque trumpet (music perfectly adapted to the room), and a new piece by Hollie Harding called “Triangles and circles”, inspired by the Masonic symbolism.
Next we went to Raven Row, a new non-profit contemporary art exhibition space, made from an eighteenth century silk-weaving plant with a modern addition. Daniel Czwartos played, on the saxophone, a movement from a keyboard sonata by Thomas Arne. Even if you haven’t heard of him, you have heard his compositions, which include “God save the King” and “Rule Britannia”; he was well-paid for these, which was necessary since his habit, collecting wives and mistresses, was rather expensive. After this there was a new piece for saxophone and electronics by Phil Dawson called “On Tenterhooks” (tenterhooks were equipment used in the weaving trade for stretching the fabric).
The next concert was intended to be in a Routemaster bus; indeed the new commission for solo flute was called “Flutemaster”. But the Routemaster had just been for its MOT; it had passed, but the mechanics had discovered that some work needed doing on it. So instead we went to an old weaver’s cottage, now a private residence, where the owner had allowed the Festival the use of his house, and welcomed us in. We squashed up and perched on the edge of armchairs while Rehana Browne played flute music by Telemann, Poulenc, Kart-Elert and the new piece by Paul Burke. The beautifully gentle piece by Poulenc was one of the highlights of the evening for me.
Next, another venue which had been unknown for a long time. Spitalfields Market has been the site of a lot of work; in place of scruffy market stalls with occasional interesting stuff for sale, we now have up-market eating places, mostly belonging to chains, and huge banks. While they were doing this work, they uncovered the charnel-house of the priory and hospital of St Mary Spital, where bones disturbed by digging had been stored in the fourteenth century. The place, in the basement and surrounded by glass, concrete, and fluorescent light, had lost much of its atmosphere; but, with candles on the walls, Manus Noble played a fantasia for lute by John Dowland on the guitar (another highlight), and a new piece, “Charnel house” by Laurie Bamon.
The final venue was in some ways the most extraordinary of all: Dennis Severs’ house. Dennis Severs had been an inveterate collector, and had done up the rooms of his house in the style of Old Master paintings, with period artefacts. The conceit was that you had stepped back in time, and walked into a room where the residents had just left, having been having a meal, or a debauch, or something else. You are not meant to treat it as a museum; the philosophy of the house is “You either see it or you don’t”; Dennis Severs called it “still-life drama”, and it is beautifully maintained. I resisted the temptation to eat a few grapes from the bunch on the table. In an upstairs room, Emily Smith played us some movements from a Bach suite on a solo cello, preceded (in this case) by a new work “Hymnus” by Robert Peate; the two blended perfectly. The house is open to the public occasionally and I strongly recommend it.