Kings Place Opening Festival, Kings Place, London
Varjak Paw, Linbury Studio, London
They've got a shiny new platform at King's Cross, but the controller missed some points
Sunday 05 October 2008
Does London really need two new venues for chamber music? A glamorous curve of glass in the wind-whipped wasteland north of King's Cross, Peter Millican's languidly beautiful, privately financed, multi-purpose Kings Place seems as improbable in these make-do-and-mend times as Butler's Wharf did in the early 1990s. Though the pimps and prostitutes have moved on, York Way has yet to attract the cafés and shops of the South Bank. And should the regeneration of the surrounding area stall, few will relish the lonely 150 metres from London's unloveliest station to a spot better known for kerb-crawling than culture.
Phenomenon or folly, Hall One of Kings Place looks fabulous in gleaming blond wood and Gustavian blue. The veneer on its walls and 420 seats came from one tree, known to those who grew up in its shade as the Contessa – which is a little like being told that the bacon in your sandwich was once called Doris. Cocooned from the noise of traffic and trains, though not the hammers of the builders upstairs, the acoustic is brilliant, immediate, sometimes cruel in its clarity. Faults and foibles are magnified, small details of interpretive genius spotlit. Sadly, these last were passing few in the first day of the opening festival, which showed that no matter how ground-breaking the concept, an experienced artistic directors are worth their weight in 500-year-old oak.
Hiccups are inevitable in any new venue, but several of Wednesday's blips could have been foreseen. In the atrium, the sly subdivisions and cross rhythms of the 100 metronomes of Ligeti's Poème Symphonique were lost amid the high heels and greetings. Stephen Stirling's performance of Martin Butler's elegy for solo horn, Hunding, interrupted the Ligeti and was interrupted in turn by announcements that the first concert was about to begin. This too was interrupted, by hammering that provided counterpoint to Melinda Maxwell's premiere of Simon Holt's interrogative toccata for solo oboe, Disparate.
A poised account of Jo Kondo's Birthday Hocket was followed by Castiglione's splenetic Intonazione and Bartok's jazz-influenced Contrasts, sensationally played by the Endymion's clarinettist, Mark Van Der Wiel. York Bowen's Piano Trio in E minor was an unexpected Straussian treat, but this bran tub of famous modernists and obscure Romantics was not an obvious way to attract an audience. That the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and London Sinfonietta were only involved later in the week was a tactical error, and the Duke Quartet's performance of Steve Reich's Different Trains in Hall Two was appalling.
The friends in Iain Burnside and Friends' three recitals were, with the exception of Roderick Williams, just starting out. Though Fleur Wyn, Ben Johnson and Gary Griffiths' performance of Schubert's Wandrers Nachtlied II was touching, I longed to hear voices equal to Burnside's playing. This came much later, in Sophie Bevan's exquisite account of Haydn's "Wie wallet mein Herze von zärtlichen Trieben" (from the marionette opera Die Feuersbrunst), in the second of the Classical Opera Company's four concerts. As the season develops, it will be interesting to see how Millican's policy of artist-curated programmes pans out. The acoustic is exciting, the building bold, the bacon sandwiches excellent. But without strong programming, Kings Place will be very vulnerable.
Back at the subsidy-cushioned Linbury Studio, a very young audience wriggled and giggled through the last matinee of John Fulljames's lively Opera Group production of Varjak Paw. Adapted by Kit Hesketh-Harvey from S F Said's stories, Julian Philips's opera is a jewelbox of musical quotes, with a cheeky patchwork of Rhinemaiden melismas woven into the Scratch Sisters' doo-wop trios, some sparkling coloratura for Sally Bones (Alinka Kozári), and delicious writing for woodwind. Surtitles would have helped.
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