Classical music: An audience in the hidden City

This year's London Festival concerts are being held in the Square Mile's guild halls. Nicole Veash goes on a tour of the venues while, below, Rob Cowan reveals the St Petersburg Chamber Choir's love of the liturgy
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LONDON ALWAYS surprises. Even those who have lived in the city for years confirm that its hidden nooks and crannies can never be underestimated.

The organisers of the annual London Festival know the real pulling power of the capital's secret delights. The Oscar-winning composer John Williams or even the renowned cellist Steven Isserlis might draw big crowds, but the real stars of this year's cultural bash are the venues.

In the heart of London's Square Mile, a handful of buildings stand testament to the country's once powerful trade guilds. Most of the City's Livery Companies are shut away from public gaze, only opening their doors to the odd corporate function or yearly freeman dinner; which is a great shame because their unique windows on the past deserve to be shared with a wider audience.

And this is the real reason why getting tickets for the London Festival is a good thing. The event co-ordinators have managed to arrange a series of concerts and readings in various city guilds.

Acting as mutual protection societies for members of their trade, the guilds were granted royal charters in the 14th century giving them the rights to buy the property which they maintain to this day.

Drapers' Hall, in the closed thoroughfare of Throgmorton Street, is one of the venues opening its doors to the public with, among other events, a concert by the composer/conductor Krzysztof Penderecki. Although the Drapers have resided on the site since 1543, the present building is 19th century in design.

The festival audience passes through a headily ornate set of bronze doors, above which is the guild's motif, a ram with golden fleece, and on to an oak-panelled corridor which flanks a mimic medieval courtyard.

The lavish marble and alabaster staircase at the end of the corridor, with its William Morris carpet, leads up to the evening's concert hall. Beadle John Freestone says anyone interested can have a good look round the hidden rooms, staff obligations allowing.

The Court Room, resplendent with Louis XV tapestries and 18th-century chandeliers, and the more intimate Warden's Room, will both be open for public perusal.

But it is in the gilt-leafed, mirror-windowed Livery Hall that the concert takes place. Two hundred people, snugly crammed into this atmospheric room, will be able to contemplate the Shakespearean ceiling murals and a litany of royal portraits.

Round the corner in Threadneedle Street, the Merchant Taylor's Hall is venue to a string concert by Isserlis and friends. Less overwhelmingly ornate than Draper's, the Taylor's guild has a starker, more monastic feel to it. The cloisters look out on to a white stone garden with a fountain, and a gilt-laced anteroom provides the audience with an intimate retreat from the main concert hall.

Although much of the building was bombed during the war, including the main Hall, the Great Kitchen has been in continuous use since 1425.

Apart from a yearly feast and sessions of court - the ruling council of the particular guild - most of the livery companies today have little to do with their traditional trade and are aligned mainly with financial institutions. But even with that in mind, a glimpse of another, altogether grander world is worth catching.

London Festival events take place in the Vintners, Stationers, Goldsmiths, Plaisterers, and Ironmongers halls along with the Egyptian Room at the Mansion House. The Festival starts on 23 June. For more information, call 0171-377 0540

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