‘Perfect’ concerts arise when everything comes together. This means that not only are the music and performances of the highest standard, but that the time and place are exactly right as well. The final component of place was especially important in this innovative and exciting Prom, which was the first ever to be held in a car park!
It was the final concert in this year’s ‘Proms at … ’ series, which has seen the normal Saturday matinees at Cadogan Hall replaced by events held in different venues, including the Old Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Southwark and the Roundhouse in Camden. In each instance, there has been a clear attempt to match the music to the architecture of the venue, and this particular Prom featured compositions by Steve Reich in the concrete surroundings of the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham. It proved a perfect match of sight and sound, and for more reasons than one might imagine.
Ascending a brightly painted pink stairwell at the side of the Peckham Plex Cinema did little to prepare anyone for the sheer size of the plateau that was to unfold as they emerged outside at the top. This was the uppermost tier of the structure, but the concert itself took place on the storey below. We may think of multi-storey car parks as spacious areas but they also have extremely low roofs. The Multi-Story Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Stark, was thus squeezed tightly into a small rectangular area between four columns, with the ceiling just overhead. From here row after row of seating fanned out in several directions, so that hundreds of eyes spread over a large horizontal area were all directed towards this tiny ‘box’ of light that in turn radiated its magic to all those who were within earshot.
Even the car park itself seemed to reveal two very different sides to London, as one side presented views of the centre with its majestic skyscrapers, and the other displayed warehouses and the railway tracks that drive the city. We were warned in advance that we would hear the sound of trains rattling past during the concert, and so it was to be, even though the concert did not include Reich’s seminal Different Trains!
The hour-long programme also presented a paradox because, on the one hand, the three works performed all seemed to propose arrival (a theme prevalent in all of them) as a medium for progressive change, suggesting the universality of the music’s messages. On the other, as the programme note suggested, we might just as easily have been hearing ‘the optimism of the post-Vietnam, Jimmy Carter era, spilling over a little beyond’, with all of the pieces having been composed between 1978 and 1982.
Each of the three works saw the orchestra increase in size so that the first was a solo item (or octet depending on your point of view!), while the third involved over two dozen performers. Vermont Counterpoint (1982) features a solo flautist who plays live to a series of pre-recorded lines, with the latter building up in turn until there are eight lines in total. Soloist Hannah Grayson was superb, swapping between three different instruments – flute, piccolo and alto flute – as the piece progressed. Although the first recorded line just preceded her initial solo entry, there was a sense in which she set each line in motion with her playing, and then left it to take on a life of its own as she moved on to initiate the next.
This was followed by a piece actually entitled Eight Lines (1979), which is scored for two pianos, flutes, clarinets and a double string quartet. It consists of five movements, although there are no gaps between them, ensuring that the work can be understood and enjoyed as a continuous whole. It was presented extremely well as the pianos played constantly, with the other instruments at different times working either with or ‘against’ their sound, and the cellos delivering their sustained notes in the second and fourth movements. It was, however, in the performance of Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), which employs twenty-six performers including two female vocalists, that everything felt at full throttle. In this perfectly pitched performance the audience clearly felt the hypnotic power of the piece, even as it became relatively easy to appreciate its ‘paradoxes of speed’, as rapid quaver motions in some sections of the orchestra ‘encouraged’ slower harmonic progressions in others.
For details of all events at the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park click here.