This is the second year of the ‘Proms at … ’ series, which sees the normal Saturday matinees at Cadogan Hall replaced by events held in different spaces away from the Royal Albert Hall. Only one venue that was used last year, however, is included in this year’s line-up, and that is the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham. One can see why it was deemed worthy of a return visit, given that it succeeded in selling out two performances, and arguably provides the ultimate pioneering space in which to perform innovative music.
Last year the concrete surroundings of this former Sainsbury’s supermarket car park formed the backdrop to three works by Steve Reich. This year the Multi-Story Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Stark, played John Adams’ Harmonielehre (1985), and the atmosphere was quite different. Last year the music chosen, and the forces it required, provided the perfect match of sight and sound. The concert took place on the storey below the uppermost tier of the structure, and almost the entire orchestra could squeeze into a small rectangular area between four columns. This meant that, with row after row of seating fanning out in several directions, 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.
The Adams required larger forces so that the orchestra was spread to a greater extent across one end of the car park, thus requiring everyone to widen their field of vision. As a result, this made the event feel like a larger, and slightly more boisterous, affair, which was also in keeping with the nature of the music. In addition, presenter Tom Service, who did much to generate the celebratory atmosphere, conveyed the sense that there was always going to be an element of chaos in a performance like this and that this was to be positively embraced. For example, in this space, which presents views of Central London on one side and of warehouses and the railway tracks that drive the city on the other, there will always be the sound of trains rattling by. In the event, whenever one did it seemed to tie in seamlessly with the music (if only because we made the connection in our minds) as, for example, a dying sound from the orchestra was replaced by a surge of noise from the tracks.
There was nothing chaotic, however, about the playing, and the performance of Harmonielehre was particularly fine. Its three movements see Adams re-imagining ideas from, among others, Wagner and Mahler in his own style. If the piece might normally be seen as a meeting of Romanticism and Minimalism, in this performance where the space contributed so much visually, we might have added Brutalism as well. Adams has described how he was inspired by a dream of an oil tanker suddenly turning upright and taking off like a Saturn V rocket. This venue, with the low ceiling spreading across such a vast horizontal area, suggested we might be in this tanker, with the music making us take off and fly to anywhere we chose to go. The low ceiling also helped the sound reverberate around the space, which led to the most climactic and overwhelming of endings, while the level of precision displayed in the playing remained high throughout the piece.
The afternoon began with a performance of Granville Bantock’s arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Choral Prelude ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ (1731), in which the use of this version ensured the piece worked well in the setting by handing it a certain ripeness and robustness. The programme’s central piece was the first performance at the Proms of I am I say (2016), written by co-founder of the Multi-Story Orchestra, Kate Whitley. Set to two texts by Sabrina Mahfouz, and a third written by the choir that sang it, this very moving piece was a call to take better care of our world as it considered in turn the sea, earth and sky. Soloists Ruby Hughes and Michael Sumuel sang very well, but the star of the performance was the Multi-Story Youth Choir, comprising local children aged between 8 and 12, who learnt the entire piece in just two days. The spirit, as much as the technical prowess, that they displayed felt extremely uplifting and the audience clearly responded to their enthusiasm. In fact, the spectators appeared to comprise both regular Promenaders and people who do not normally go to the Albert Hall, suggesting that this was as important an event for the local community as for the BBC Proms. We would certainly support a third ‘Proms at … ’ concert here next year.
For details of all events at the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park click here.