It started with the first easing of Covid restrictions in the summer of 2020. While major concert halls remained closed, a small venue in Clerkenwell called Fidelio Café began hosting socially distanced performances from the likes of cellist Steven Isserlis, violinist Alina Ibragimova and other stars of the classical music world, each with a live audience, albeit tiny. The concerts sold out and soon other small venues were offering culture-hungry audiences the chance to hear musicians who, under normal circumstances, would have performed in Britain’s most prestigious concert halls.
Now, with these halls reopening, one would have expected a return to pre-Covid normality: established classical musicians in established venues, with smaller spaces populated mostly by experimental artists and young musicians, as they did before the pandemic made. That didn’t quite happen. Among those performing at the Fidelio Café next month is pianist Angela Hewitt. Classical Vauxhall, a recent concert series held at St Mark’s Church in Lambeth, featured artists such as soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn.
Meanwhile, the London club scene offers something similarly ambitious. Noisenights, featuring cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and saxophonist Jess Gillam, is as high quality as anything normally found at Wigmore Hall. But this series of crowdfunded chamber concerts, which returns in its latest installment this week, takes place in settings including a converted train station, a former sorting office and a repurposed parking garage (Well Seasoned is a venue created from a seven-story car dealership Park in Peckham, South London).
“The costs go down when you go outside of the traditional circle of venues,” says Jack Bazalgette, co-founder of Through the Noise, which runs Noisenights. “That’s because the money that these venues can make from the bar is huge. As long as you fill the place with players, they’re happy.” He continues. “Plus, Since our concerts are very short, we can play two sets a night. . . Our concerts are commercially viable.”
By catering to our newly awakened desire for convenience and community, Bazalgette believes it serves another purpose: “The people who come to Noisenights are much more diverse and reflect more about where the concerts are happening than those who do to the big ones come concert halls, which helps address some of the issues of accessibility and diversity that [our industry] worries endlessly.”
He believes a shift towards experimental venues will help address what he sees as a problem: the intellectually demanding – some would even call pretentious – side of concert-going. “I think too much emphasis has been placed on whether one person’s Chopin interpretations are a little different from another,” he says. “And most of the public is not going to be too picky about things like that. what matters [the ability to project] a picture. Almost all of our ticket sales are based on the 10 seconds of a video an artist uploads to Instagram. It’s about taking a look and almost treating yourself like a singer-songwriter starting a career.”
Does this approach encourage superficiality? Not necessarily, judging from the experience of violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who performs regularly in both well-known and less traditional venues. “When I played at Fidelio Café, I found that the audience was really, really listening,” she says. She believes that taking music to unusual places can lead to greater insight. Case in point: her performance with the Honeymead Ensemble – before the pandemic – to a theater set at the Tricycle Theater (now Kiln) in Kilburn, north west London.
“The set was a nuclear bunker with a reactor in the background,” she says. “We played Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 and a chamber version by Strauss Metamorphoses, etude for 23 solo strings. It’s a depressing program, but you wouldn’t normally think of nuclear devastation. Heard against the backdrop of the reactor, however, it encouraged listeners to make a connection to total destruction.”
However, for all the potential of small venues, she admits that little beats the thrill of performing in a large concert hall in front of an attentive audience with perfect lighting, acoustics and production. Likewise, classical musicians can feel like an afterthought when relocated to a location that isn’t specifically built for their artistic needs. As Fiachra Garvey, Artistic Director of Classical Vauxhall puts it: “If you’re not careful, there’s a risk the music will lag behind the venue itself.”
So it’s fortunate that Classical Vauxhall, Through the Noise and Fidelio Café can afford to prioritize their artists, all of which receive fees on par with larger, more established venues. Through the Noise covers its costs through bar tabs and a crowdfunding model that only allows each concert to happen once its goal has been achieved. The classic Vauxhall is largely funded by the area’s Business Improvement District, while tickets to the Fidelio Café, which also includes a three-course meal, range from £50 to £125.
Will small venues be able to sustain their popularity beyond the immediate aftermath of Covid? Soprano and composer Héloïse Werner, one of the cast members of the Noisenights series, believes the musicians’ global tours will not return before Covid. “Why wouldn’t you do more around you and make the most of what’s around you?” she says. “That means you can stay home with your family and people you know can actually come and see you.”
Bazalgette hopes that eventual venues, large and small alike, will be viewed as integral parts of the classical music scene. “People have been asking us, ‘Why are you tearing up traditional classical music and doing it differently? do you hate it?’ I think there’s room for people to be listening to music in a fancy parking lot one day and walking somewhere in a suit the next day. We’re not trying to lead any kind of rebellion.”
Concerts in March and beyond: throughthenoise.co.uk; fidelio.cafe; beinvauxhall.com