Hidden Gems

I’ve found a truly charming and very unusual venue for my Christmas concert – and it’s only 10 minutes from where I live.

The Langdon Down Centre, formerly called Normansfield, is a Grade II* listed building, and is tucked away between Teddington and Kingston. It is the former home and medical centre of Dr John Langdon Down, the Victorian physician who first identified Down’s Syndrome. Attached to the modestly-proportioned house is a hidden gem: a purpose-built private entertainment theatre, complete with minstrels’ gallery, vaulted ceiling, pre-Raphaelite panels and painted scenery which is an exact facsimile of the original. The theatre was used by Dr Langdon Down and his family for entertainments, as well as providing a space for his patients to enjoy. Indeed, Dr Langdon Down was an early advocate of drama therapy. Today, the theatre is used for various events and as a location for film companies looking for something a little different. Earlier in the year, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang used the theatre for a video promotion. The hall is equipped with a medium-sized Yamaha grand piano and a good acoustic. http://www.langdondowncentre.org.uk/

There are many hidden gems in and around London which serve as music venues. Last summer, I discovered Sutton House, a fine Elizabethan building in Hackney, managed by the National Trust. It boasts a charming, intimate and friendly recital space, and in the interval you can enjoy drinks and strawberries and cream in the pretty courtyard. I was impressed not just by the space but by the audience when I visited last summer: a very different crowd from the Wigmore, and one sensed a great deal of support and enthusiasm from the audience throughout the performance.

Across the river, at Walton, is Riverhouse Barn, a converted 18th century barn, which retains many of its original features. It hosts music events, as well as exhibitions and other arts and drama activities for children and adults.

The Red Hedgehog in Highgate looked so unprepossessing the first time I visited it in winter 2006 that I walked straight past it: from the outside, it looked like a kebab shop! (It has since undergone considerable restoration.) Once inside, it is a little like visiting Schubert’s salon (it is in fact named after the coffee house in Vienna which Schumann, Mendelssohn and especially Brahms and friends liked to visit). It offers a variety of music, poetry and drama events throughout the year and has been host to some eminent performers, including pianist Peter Donohoe and actor Simon Callow.

The great thing about attending a musical event in places such as these is that one can get up close and personal with the performers in a way that is impossible in a bigger venue. Watching the Fitzwilliam Quartet playing Haydn, Shostakovich and Mozart last summer was fascinating: how the players interact with each other, and the soloist (my piano teacher), see the sweat on their brows which are furrowed with concentration, and all the other gestures, big and small, which go into producing music. It reminds us that so much of the music that was written before circa 1850 was meant to be enjoyed in this way: it was salon music, to be played for friends and amongst friends.

  • The Langdon Down Centre will be open on 18th and 19th September as part of the London Open House scheme. For further information go to http://www.londonopenhouse.org/
  • The new recital season at the Red Hedgehog opens on 7th October with what promises to be a fine concert celebrating the bicentenaries of two great composers for the piano, Chopin and Schumann. The Red Hedgehog is conveniently located close to Highgate tube station.
  • Sutton House in Hackney is the regular home of Sutton House Music Society, whose concert programme for the 2010/11 opens next month, and concludes, in June next year, with a performance by my teacher, Penelope Roskell, which includes Schumann’s ‘Papillons’ and the Sonata in G minor.

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