A former car park in Peckham is the venue for a recital with energising, moving results. Steven Johnson was there.
We may be some way off returning to any sort of normality in terms of ‘live’ concerts, with online streams still pretty much the only way to currently experience performances, but one exception is the limited series of events that has just started at Bold Tendencies in south London.
As a venue it’s very different to the places we’d normally hear classical music, in that it’s located across the 7th to 10th floors of a former multistorey carpark in Peckham. The venue isn’t exactly new however, having held performances of classical music, opera and dance since 2007, with the top floor also doubling up as an art exhibition space with panoramic views of the London skyline. Given its spacious, partially outdoor nature it’s one of the few venues in London currently able to safely stage live performances. Last night, seating was arranged in a socially distanced fashion around the two pianos, hygiene measures were in place and one-way systems operated in terms of audience movements.
The first of two performances tonight saw pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy play Visions De L’Amen by Olivier Messiaen. Written in 1943, it was the first piece he composed after his release from a prisoner of war camp. It may not be as well-known as some of his other pieces but projects a similar overall identity and set of influences – Messiaen explained in his author’s note how certain aspects of religion were the primary inspiration but it’s also possible to see other long term influences such as birdsong and synaesthesia. At times it also feels like a precursor to his longer, more popular piano suite Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant-Jésus.
“As a venue it’s very different to the places we’d normally hear classical music…”
There was a sense of excitement as Kolesnikov and Tsoy walked through the carpark and took their places behind the pianos. Each piano part performs defined functions – one offering structure, rhythm, rigidity (tonight played by Kolesnikov) and the other providing melodic detailing and overarching ornamentation (tonight played by Tsoy). Yet, as the piece progresses the roles seem to converge and ultimately intertwine. Kolesnikov’s playing dominates the early movements as solemn, pronounced clusters chords make an immediate impact. There’s a heightened sense of drama to the playing of both performers as they launch themselves into the piece, bringing a real physicality to the doom-laded moments as they attack the keys. At other times, they treat the instruments with a light-fingered tenderness.
Once it’s accepted we’re not exactly attending a recital at the Wigmore Hall, the surrounding noises that float in from outside bring an urban quality to the performance. The sound of passing trains, traffic moving through rainfall, bird calls (Messiaen would no doubt approve) and even a helicopter at one point helps form the impression that somehow music is on equal footing with these utilitarian considerations, integrated into the sonic fabric of society. For a moment live music and culture in general are reasserted as equally important cogs in the functioning machinery of a city.
It might be overly dramatic to draw parallels between Visions De L’Amen being the first piece that Messiaen wrote after his experiences during the Second World War and this being one of the first live performances with an audience to take place after lockdown, but it undoubtedly brings joy to those both playing and listening. The subsequent standing ovation was much deserved and as we filtered out of the venue, up ramps and down stairs, we felt energised and moved once again by the communal experience of live music.
Further details of live performances taking place at Bold Tendencies can be found here.