The audience in this majestic eighteenth-century space - with its twenty-first century acoustic - is not the usual one for classical music.
Tourists, students, office-workers on a lunch break, a group of teenagers with special needs, and a row of mothers (plus one father) with their infant offspring; all have come to hear Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ in the context of one of the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Discovery Fridays’; seats are free and unreserved.
On walk four young Guildhall students led by the composer Rachel Leach, winner of a Royal Philharmonic Society award for co-creating a community opera in Cornwall, whose job today is as animateur for this unlikely gathering. ‘Before they play, I’m going to try to get inside Messiaen’s head,’ she informs us in a slightly manic version of Victoria Wood in self-deprecatory mode. So we hear about his four obsessions - with a new scale, with religion, with a synaesthetic approach to colour, and with birdsong - at which the baby dandled by its father launches into such a strident birdsong of its own that Leach (backed by other members of the audience) asks for it to be removed. ‘I feel terrible doing that,’ she confides, ‘I’ll probably lose my job for it.’
But much thought and preparation has gone into this short event, and every minute counts: babies must be seen and not heard. The work is well chosen: written for Messiaen’s fellow-inmates in a POW camp in Poland, and performed by them on beaten-up old instruments, it got, he said later, more rapt attention from its audience than anything he’d presented before or since. And as played by violinist Nigulia Mirzayeva, cellist Ella Rundle, clarinettist Emil Heathcote, and pianist Janneke Brits, it gets a deservedly rapt reception here. Leach’s commentaries - accessible without talking-down - interweave seamlessly with the music; it’s refreshing to hear her mock the proto-techno clunkiness of the ondes martenot, while the ‘any questions’ session elicits nice comments from the players.
The next Discovery Friday - on June 11 - will feature the LSO brass, but meanwhile the ramifying Discovery team will celebrate its first twenty years with concerts by massed choirs, a trumpet masterclass, a community gamelan, and with its own ‘memory blog’.