DURING AN INTERVAL of a concert given in Thaxted’s parish church, someone sitting close to us asked whether we hade ever been to a performance in what she described as the ‘superb concert hall’ in nearby Saffron Walden. We had no idea that the small Essex town had a concert hall of note. Always keen to enjoy classical music and to have an excuse to visit Essex, we booked for a concert given on the 12th of August 2022 by both the Essex Youth Orchestra and the Essex Young People’s Orchestra.
The concert hall, which has seating for audiences of over 700 people, was opened in late 2013. It is attached to Saffron Walden county high school, and was financed by a private donation of at least £10 million. This is believed to be the largest private donation to have been made to a state school. The hall is used both for school purposes and for public performances. The venue attracts ‘big names’ in both the classical and non-classical music worlds. For example, the Autumn 2022 programme includes concerts by: the Hallé Orchestra, Isata Kanneh-Mason, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Lady Smith Black Mambazo, Courtney Pine, The Sixteen, the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, and so on. In addition to these better-known performers, there is a host of others.
The air-conditioned hall is beautiful. It is spacious, and fitted with adjustable acoustic panels and its walls are lined with birch wood. We heard a wide range of compositions beautifully performed by the two orchestras. The acoustics were fantastically good. The sound quality within the hall rivals that of the best concert halls in London. A small grumble is that the seating is not overly comfortable, but that did not detract from our enjoyment of the music performed by some of the best young musicians in Essex. Saffron Walden is not far from London, but it feels like it is much further away. If you do not mind night driving, it would be feasible to drive to and from Saffron Hall to enjoy an evening concert, but my suggestion is to spend a night somewhere near the hall and to enjoy Saffron Walden, its concert hall, and its rustic surroundings.
WHILE ELTON JOHN was performing in front of thousands in London’s Hyde Park in late June 2022, a small ensemble was performing works by the baroque composers Pergolesi and Purcell in the large medieval gothic church in Thaxted (Essex). The superbly performed concert in Thaxted starring the Armonico Consort ended well after 9 pm. This was not a problem for the many well-healed members of the audience in the church, who lived locally and were able to feed themselves in their own homes.
We could have eaten before the concert, which commenced at 7 pm, but were not hungry before that early hour. The pubs in Thaxted informed us that their kitchens stopped taking orders for food before 845 or 9 pm.
At a pub called the Star, someone hearing us asking about food after 9 pm, recommended we should head for Farouk’s. The bar attendant and several bystander’s agreed with our informant. The bar attendant kindly said that we could bring food from Farouk and she would save a table for us at which we could sit and eat after the concert.
Farouk is the owner of a caravan parked in a yard behind a petrol filling station in Thaxted. He and his colleagues, all from Turkey, prepare and sell Turkish food in the caravan. And, his eatery closes not at 845 or 9 pm, but at 11 pm.
After hearing superb renderings of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” and Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” (semi-staged), we headed for Farouk’s caravan and the Star pub.
While waiting for our food to be prepared at about 9.40 pm, Farouk explained he had come from Gaziantep. He said that in his part of Turkey, which is quite close to Cyprus, Turkish is spoken with an accent that is very similar to that spoken by Cypriot Turks. During the ten minutes it took to prepare our food, Farouk took many food orders over the phone, which goes to show that in Thaxted there is a healthy demand for food after 9 pm.
We enjoyed our food at the table reserved for us at the Star. This welcoming pub is popular with locals. I suspect that its lively clientele was a different segment of Thaxted’s population from that which attended the concert in the church.
THE ALBANIAN CONDUCTOR Olsi Qinami, who began studying music in Tirana (Albania), lives in London. He certainly knows how to get the best out of the orchestra he helped to found, the London City Philharmonic. On Saturday the 2nd of October 2021 he conducted the orchestra in a wonderful concert of music by three Russian composers, two of them from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. The musicians performed to a large and enthusiastic audience in the church of St James in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Many of those present were Albanian speakers and amongst them the Albanian ambassador, Qirjako Qirko.
The church, a fine example of Victorian gothic, was built to satisfy the spiritual requirements of the rapidly growing population of 19th century Paddington. Designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the building was completed in 1882 on the site of an earlier, smaller church that was built in the neo-classical style in about 1841. Apart from being a highly successful example of gothic revival, the church is notable for having been that in which the unjustly vilified writer Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. Despite being a large, spacious building, the church’s acoustics coped well with the orchestral music.
The concert opened with a spirited rendering of the “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin. This piece holds a special place in my heart, as I will now explain. In the late 1950s, my parents bought or were gifted an LP entitled “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Know Anything About Classical Music”, which I played often in my childhood. Its cover has a sketch of four people in the living room of a very modern looking house, even by today’s standards. A lady, looking pleased with herself or the music or both, stands next to a gramophone player clutching a record cover (sleeve). Behind her, three people are seated in armchairs: one looks puzzled; another looks a bit bored; and the third has fallen asleep with a drinking glass resting on his armrest. One of the tracks on this LP was the “Polovtsian Dances”.
Borodin’s piece was followed by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture”, with which I am less familiar than the “Polovtsian Dances”. Although this brief piece was nicely performed, it is unlikely to enter my list of favourite works by this composer in the near future.
After the interval, we were treated to an exciting and brilliantly performed rendering of the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Olsi Qinami and the orchestra handled the constant alternation of the composer’s triumphant sounding sections of the symphony with its comparatively peaceful, lyrical sections with exquisite mastery.
Shostakovitch completed his 5th Symphony in 1937, soon after having been heavily criticised by Stalin for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, first performed in 1934. Had the Fifth Symphony not been so well received and liked by Stalin, the composer’s future might have become exceedingly grim. As Olsi Qinami pointed out in a brief speech before conducting the symphony, the piece, which was praised by the authorities, contains subtle musical messages expressing the composer’s criticism of the ruling regime. Whether or not one was able to detect these messages did not matter because the performance we heard was exciting, uplifting, and invigorating. In the last minutes of the symphony, I noticed one of the violinists breaking into a wonderful smile, no doubt because she and the rest of the orchestra had so successfully mastered this complex and difficult piece of music.
An odd thought occurred to me whilst listening to the Shostakovich piece. It was composed in 1937, when life for ordinary people in the USSR cannot have been at all easy. Although the situation here in the UK in 2021 is hardly comparable to that distant time in Russia, we are also going through times far more difficult than anyone has experienced since WW2, what with the covid 19 pandemic, Brexit-related problems, and shortages in shops and filling stations. It must have been a source of great solace for Soviet citizens to escape from their daily problems, if only for a few hours, by joining an audience at a concert of fine classical music. Well, that is how Olsi’s joyous concert felt for me as soon as he lifted his baton, and the orchestra began to play.
I BELIEVE THAT SOUND travels well over water. I do not know if that is scientifically proven, but I like to think that it is the case.
Yesterday, we visited Kenwood in north London. The neo-classical mansion, remodelled by Robert Adam (1728-1792) and completed in about 1780, contains a superb collection of fine art (the Iveagh Bequest), mostly paintings. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, Kenwood House was closed, but its extensive grounds were open. Although the official car park was fully occupied, there was no sense of crowding in the grounds.
A wide terrace at the rear of the mansion overlooks a sweeping panorama including a lake at the bottom of the grassy slope that falls away from the terrace. From this vantage point, the viewer can see what looks like a fine bridge with balustrades and three arches at the eastern end of the body of water. However, what meets the eye is not a bridge, but a sham, a trompe-l’oeil, made in wood to produce a picturesque view. It was designed by Robert Adam and constructed in about 1767 and fully restored in the late 20th century.
The bridge has survived the progression of time, but another structure that was a notable feature on the side of the lake furthest from the House has not. This was an edifice shaped like the quarter of a sphere. Within this shelter, a whole symphony orchestra could be comfortably seated with their instruments. On summer evenings, orchestras used to play music that travelled across the lake to huge audieces seated on the grassy slope leading down to the water.
I used to attend these concerts occasionally during my younger days. They were, as I can recall, often on Saturday evenings. Two kinds of tickets were available. The costlier ones allowed a person to sit on one of the deckchairs arranged in rows on the part of the slope closest to the lake. The cheaper ones permitted holders to sit on the grass above the rows of deckchairs. Many people, who sat on the grass, brought rugs and picnics, which they enjoyed whilst listening to the music. I have never liked sitting on the floor and always preferred to experience the concert in a comfortable deckchair.
It was delightful sitting outside hearing well-performed music whilst the sun set slowly, and the twilight enveloped us all. The acoustics were good, but the first halves of many concerts were subject to the frequent the competition from noisy aeroplanes passing overhead. Usually, by the second half of the performance, there were few interruptions by ‘planes.
When we returned to Kenwood yesterday, the orchestra ‘dome’ was not visible. Where it had been has been replaced by bushes and trees. There is not a trace of it left. It looks as if it had never existed and I worried that maybe my memory had played a trick on me. We stopped a couple of elderly women and asked them about the concerts. They remembered them well and told us that they had been stopped a few years ago because, incredibly, local residents had complained about being disturbed by the noise (and increased traffic) during the few events that occurred each summer.
The lakeside concerts were held every year between 1951 and 2006, the year the English Heritage was forced to put an end to what had been a lovely annual event and an important money-spinner for them. I remember those concerts with fondness and hope that the wealthy inhabitants who live around the area, quite distant from the lake, will one day relent to allow music lovers to enjoy fine music wafting across the water. Well, as often is the case, money has more clout than culture.
I have attended concerts at BBC recording studios. Before the performance begins, the audience, members of the public, are asked to be very still and silent, so as not to spoil the recording or live broadcast. The audience is politely requested to be so silent that one feels that even the sound of breathing might disturb the event.
With the exception of one western classical music concert in Bombay, audience disturbance is well tolerated at concerts I have attended in India. Pepole arrive and leave the auditorium whenever they feel like. They chat and take photos and often mover from one part of the auditorium to another.
Once, I attended a musical performance that was being relayed ‘live’ on All India Radio. Unlike the BBC recordings and live broadcasts, the audience was far from placid. Throughout the event, there were disturbances as described above, but no one seemed in the slightest disconcerted .
But, all is no longer well with British audiences. Recently, I have been to a few classical music performances in London, at which there has been applause at inappropriate places in the music. An example of this is clapping at the end of a movement of a symphony, rather than at its ending. Maybe, orchestras are getting used to this, but I find it a bit disconcerting.
The Victorian gothic St Stephens Church in Gloucester Road has great acoustics for orchestral music. On the evening of the 15th of June 2019, we attended a wonderful concert of “Symphonic Dances” performed by the London City Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been to several other concerts where this ensemble has played. This time the orchestra had been enlarged so considerably that it only just fitted into the space available for them at the east end of the church. This magnificent collection of first-class musicians was masterfully and sensitively conducted by the Albanian conductor Olsi Qinami, who studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.
The ambitious programme consisted of three symphonic dance pieces, all composed in the USA. Variations on a Shaker Theme by Aaron Copeland (1900-90), son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, got the concert off to a tuneful start. This was followed by a memorably good rendering of the vibrant Symphonic Dances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), son of Ukranian Jewish parents. This exciting piece contains familiar tunes from Bernstein’s musical drama West Side Story. After an interval, there was a piece, Symphonic Dances, composed late in the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who emigrated to the USA from Russia in 1918.
The three pieces were all by composers, whose families had ‘roots’ in the former Russian Empire, but each of them was completely different. All three were highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami seemed to be able to get the best out of the orchestra seemingly effortlessly. He stood on his podium calmly without any dramatic gestures and achieved wonders with his large well-disciplined orchestra, which according to the programme notes contains players from all over the world including two with Albanian names (Pranvera Govori, violinist, and Idlir Shytu, cellist).
In summary, I am truly pleased that I did not miss this concert. It was pure joy throughout. Although Olsi’s previous concerts have all been outstanding, “Symphonic Dances” was his best so far. I look forward to the next, which will be in St Stephens Church on Saturday, 5th of October 2019.
On the evening of the 20th of October 2018, I attended a superb orchestral concert called “Ephemeral Dreamscapes” at St Stephen’s Church at Gloucester Road (London SW7 4RL). The Albanian born conductor Olsi Qinami conducted the London City Philhamonic orchestra. They played four pieces. Three of them are well-known: Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bare Mountain”, Wagner’s “Prelude & Liebestod”, and Ravel’s “La Valse”. Although everything was beautifully played, the performance of the Ravel, a very difficult piece, was outstanding.
The fourth piece on the programme has rarely been performed live, as its score, written in the 1950s by Albanian composer Çesk Zadeja (1927-97), was only recently (2012) found in a Russian archive. Zadeja, who was from Shkodra, died in Rome. It was discovered by the composer’s son, who had been searching for it for many years. Described as ‘The Father of Albanian Music’, Zadeja studied in Moscow. The work performed at the concert was a stirring orchestral suite compiled from music that Zadeja composed for the soundtrack of the film “The Great Warrior Skanderbeg”. This film, an Albanian/Soviet co-production, was released in 1953. Some of the other music in the film’s soundtrack was composed by the Russian Georgy Sviridov (1915-98). Olsi Qinami’s performance of the music by Zadeja was the British concert premiere of the work. The almost full house gave it rapturous applause.
In summary, the concert was highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami’s conducting gets the best out of his excellent players in whatever they are playing. I get the impression, having attended several of his concerts, that his orchestral players regard him with great affection. Watch out for his next concert at St Stephens, which is to be on the 9th February 2019.