‘What we’re doing is different – though you need to come to find out how'

Cecil Sharp House comes under the spotlight for an innovative series of concerts, writes Michael White

Friday, 4th March — By Michael White

Christopher Glynn & Rachel Podger, London July 2021

Christopher Glynn and Rachel Podger

NO one could say Covid has been anything but catastrophic for musicians: short- and long-term consequences are still being reckoned, and they’re grim.

But that said, some good has come out of it. Performers have been forced to rethink ways of working that they took for granted, with an avalanche of new ideas emerging about concert presentation and relation­ships with audiences. And one interesting result hits Camden Town next week when a new, edgily self-questioning concert series by the name of Spotlight comes to Cecil Sharp House.

It’s the invention of Anthony Friend, an entrepreneurial clarinettist who, like so many others in the business, found himself in mid-pandemic with no bookings, no income, and no immediate prospect of things getting better. Being entre­pren­eurial, he resolved to do something about it.

And as the only options at the time were open-air, he organised what was effectively a series of pop-up concerts at the band­stand in Battersea Park – to which music-starved audiences swarmed from all over London once word got out.

It happened fast: “I had to raise £17,000 in under a month to make it happen,” he recalls, “as well as book the artists. But there was plenty of goodwill going around in 2020, and performers only too keen to play at short notice. So it worked – although there was a steep learning curb involved about the hazards of open-air concerts in Britain.”

Absorbing that lesson, he then moved indoors with a run of concerts at St John’s Waterloo, a church that often takes in musical events but isn’t an inspiring space.

It’s box-like and austere, without much atmosphere, and the necessity of spreading out the audience as Covid rules dictated made it still more unattractive. But Friend’s solution was to plunge the building into darkness leaving nothing more than spotlights focused on the artists – hence the name Spotlight Chamber Concerts.

He got major international stars like Steven Isserlis and Angela Hewitt to commit. And though some had to cancel – for the same Covid-related reasons that many things were getting cancelled – it generated a buzz of excitement that classical concerts don’t always manage.

Anthony Friend. Photo William Marsey

The audience was young, enthusiastic, unconventional but loyal. So a second series followed, again experimenting with lighting and atmosphere.

And now, for a third series, the whole thing is moving to Camden – not least because the church in Waterloo is being renovated.

“Cecil Sharp House is a different sort of space, and we’ll use it accord­ingly,” says Friend, “with an approach that reflects the folk music that more usually plays in that building.”

None of the concerts will last more than an hour. And they’ll include the celebrated Orchestra of the Age of Enlighten­ment playing one of its so-called Nightshift gigs that present baroque standards – Bach, Handel, Purcell – in a relaxed if not downright rowdy way, complete with audience interaction and a fair amount of alcohol.

Everything starts on March 8 when the spotlight falls on Leia Zhu, the extraordinary violin prodigy who made her debut last year, aged just 14, as a soloist with Simon Rattle and the LSO when they gave their massive, annual Trafalgar Square concert.

As Friend says: “I’m not necessarily interested in child prodigies, but Leia is something else: astonishingly mature, not merely someone who can play a lot of notes. That she’s artist-in-residence with the London Mozart Players this season is a vote of confidence that says it all. And I think she’ll be fabulous.”

More events follow on March 10 (the Solem Quartet playing with Friend himself in his clarinettist persona); March 15 (Rachel Podger, arguably the world’s leading period-performance violinist, with Christopher Glynn, fortepiano); March 22 (the OAE Nightshift); and they finish on March 24 with the young French superstar cellist Bruno Philippe playing Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites – works of arresting intimacy that he’ll issue later this year on CD, for the Harmonia Mundi label.

It’s a strong line-up. And to have it on the doorstep in Camden Town is an opportunity worth seizing – because it may only happen once.

“What the future holds for these Spotlight concerts is anybody’s guess,” says Friend. “At the moment, the goodwill and flexibility of the pandemic still survives, but it may fizzle out. The more traditional concert promoters may sharpen their elbows and make it harder for an enterprise like mine to book big-name artists. Who knows?

“But I think there’s room in London for concerts like this that are trying to do things differently and offering audiences a kind of experience they wouldn’t get elsewhere. And what we’re doing is different – though you need to come to find out how.”

For details visit www.spotlightchamberconcerts.com

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