‘Get in’ to RVW at Fairfield Halls

A new departure, and a pleasingly local one:  a sort of ‘insight’ evening held by the London Mozart Players to get the prospective audience for their 7 November concert (and any other interested individuals) ‘under the skin’ of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No 5. Led by their charismatic conductor for the concert, Hilary Davan Wetton, and marketed under a slightly clunky series banner of ‘GET IN to classical music’, it consisted of just over half an hour of being taken through the parts of the symphony, with orchestral examples, and then a full performance.

It was a really nicely-judged introduction. Enthusiasm and musical scholarship combined to provide an accessible but not at all ‘dumbed-down’ introduction to this really quite complex work. Wetton’s style might not be to everyone’s taste, but the liberal sprinkling of benign Oxbridge professor-style humour accompanies a genuine passion for the work and for communicating what makes it so beguilingly enigmatic. I was particularly pleased that there was no shying away from the need to listen, and that there were rewards to be had in doing the work that honour. By and large, some very notable exceptions notwithstanding, the audience did.

The performance itself was interesting on a number of levels. Most importantly, it was my first proper encounter with RVW’s 5th: we’ve had it ‘wafting’ around the house in the past, but I can’t say I’ve ‘listened’. The beginning of the third movement, when a rhythmic emphasis gives way to some glorious sonorities and a beautifully played cor anglais solo, was really moving. Elsewhere, the more emphatic passages developing out of an almost conversational string sound-world: some very exciting transitions. If I had one minor carp, I think the much-observed rhythmic emphasis of the musical language would have benefited from a crisper articulation, particularly by the strings and perhaps in Wetton’s conducting style, but the symphony certainly had its impact. Other performances may well have more weight, with a larger number of players, although it is my understanding that this symphony is originally scored for a light orchestral sound. Anyway, the audience were warmly appreciative, and I can heartily say that the introductory talk and examples were a very helpful ‘way in’.

It was also my first ‘classical’ encounter with the concert hall at Fairfield Halls. Previously, I’ve only made it to Thelma by Surrey Opera in the Ashcroft Theatre and – dare I admit it, but I was there to support a friend? – a ‘Popchoir’ concert in the main hall. I found it to be a very immediate and warm acoustic, instantly seeming more satisfying than the Festival Hall or the Barbican. I will make more of an effort to go back (though all of the LMP’s concerts are on Thursdays, not an ideal day for us unfortunately). The stage is horribly cluttered and needs stripping of its various curtains and lighting rigs, unless they are absolutely necessary, in order to reduce the visual distractions. The seats squeak, just one sign that some investment is needed, and it certainly all looks a bit tired. Though I can’t resist throwing in my rather inflexible views on this one point: tired it may be, but that is absolutely no justification for Croydon Council’s disgraceful decision to sell part of the Riesco Collection in order to raise the money. Fairfield Halls needs to wash its face on the basis of proper capital investment and an expected return on that investment. A higher quality overall programme, comprising more of exactly this sort of evening, would be helpful in this regard. It is outrageous to prop the place up by asset-stripping the cultural life of Croydon in a ‘well, you can’t have it all’ kind of attitude. Rant over.

Well, sort of. The audience were, as I said at the outset, generally attentive to the music making on display. There were not many there, perhaps around 70-80, but this wasn’t the actual concert itself, just a taster evening, so I can’t see that that is too bad. Wetton began by inviting those at the back to move forward, irritatingly bringing two rather offensive and disrespectful individuals into the row behind. I am all for opening up classical concerts but – and I’m not at all sorry if this sounds elitist – if you can’t sit still and pay attention, then you are not welcome. People go on about ‘concert etiquette’, but this is a distraction: I don’t really care if you clap between the movements if you are so moved; I don’t really care what you wear. However, it is simple courtesy that dictates that you shut the f*ck up, sit still, don’t rattle your ice cubes in your empty cup, don’t check your emails, and don’t (as in this evening’s quite astonishing case) answer your phone whilst the conductor is giving the talk and beginning a musical excerpt. I wish classical concert and opera ‘educational’ outreach would be less fearless in making these demands for basic courtesy quite clear. As Wetton clearly said about the Vaughan Williams Fifth, it needs listening to: even if you’re not listening, it is not elitist to expect you to spare a simple thought for those around you who might be.

Jeez. Second rant over. Am invoking calming thoughts with recollection of the opening of that third movement: it was a gorgeous sound.

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