Getting into Buckingham Palace might have been easier than getting through the well-guarded door of this former Smithfield slaughter-house now converted into a nightclub: Universal and Bang&Olufsen had temporarily taken it over for some gentle reciprocal promotion.
First up was the head of Universal to explain the strategy behind these ‘Yellow Lounge’ concerts: classical music presented in a club atmosphere to draw in a new audience. Then came the B&O boss. ‘This may sound counterintuitive,’ he said, ‘but we actually believe you should listen to music live.’ He did however happen to have in his bag some snazzy new headphones – ‘New Zealand leather, lambskin, memory foam’ – about to hit the shops. Two Universal artists were brought on to bless the proceedings: the Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, and the Montenegrin guitarist Milos.
After a seemingly interminable wait while everyone was beaten into submission with deafening background music – no seats, so a very long stand - the event proper began. Lisitsa was presented as a musical role-model who had made her name by ‘embracing the social media’, and whose new Rachmaninov Cd had ‘driven the critics into raptures’ (to be accurate, severely modified raptures in some quarters). As she’s also a comedienne with an agreeably chaotic line of patter, we got more of that than music: she photographed the audience, swapped tweets with them, and joked her way through Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations. When she played some Rachmaninov Preludes all the delicacy was obliterated by amplification, and she wound up with an account of Liszt’s twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody which made up for its crudeness with swash-buckling swagger.
If this was playing the fool rather than the piano, Milos’s performance was typically immaculate: he too has a neat line of night-club patter, but musically he never compromises, and the solo pieces he played were by turns gravely beautiful and thrilling. Finally he brought on his regular accompanists on bass and accordion, plus an unnamed string quartet from the Royal Academy, for a series of wonderfully lush Latin pieces followed by the ‘Libertango’. Then the lights went down, the musicians were left to scuttle off-stage, and the background music re-engulfed us like a malign tide.
The result? More fans for the stars, but beyond that who knows? A show of hands revealed that there were virtually no classical-music first-timers in this audience. If there had been, would they have become converts? I doubt it.