Big City Concert-Going

“The only disappointment of the evening was that, on leaving the hall, the sounds of Elgar were immediately assailed by other events elsewhere in the building. The Southbank management should show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience”

This is a quote from a review in The Guardian of a performance of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall last weekend. It’s true that the foyer and “ballroom” area of the RFH were busy and noisy as we left the building after a deeply arresting two hours of very moving and profound music. Outside the venue, it was even noisier: this was a Saturday night in the Big Smoke after all. Pavement cafes spilled people, drinking, chatting, laughing; there were kids busking in the railway arches on the way to Waterloo station; and all around us were the sounds of a vibrant city enjoying itself. Yes, it did feel a little jarring to be plunged into a city having a night on the town after such an absorbing musical experience, but for me this is one of the great pleasures of concert-going in London – and it’s also a good reminder that London is an eclectic and culturally diverse city.

Back to the Royal Festival Hall for a moment and it’s important to consider what this building is actually for. True, it is largely associated with classical music, but that it only a part of what it does, and currently the Summertime festival is in full flow offering a range of activities from song and dance to workshops and talks. The foyer area and café are open all day for people to drop in, socialise or join in one of the many activities within the venue. There are spaces for meetings, lectures and exhibitions, a fine dining restaurant, a library and a gift shop. There’s a very pragmatic reason for this: the venue draws important revenue from food and beverage services and other add-ons (ticket sales alone cannot and do not cover the huge running costs of such a building).

To suggest that the RFH should “show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience” does several things, in my opinion. First, it reiterates the already very entrenched view that classical music is exclusive and special, the preserve of the few not the many, its gilded cage polished with regular doses of reverence. Why should the place in which this “special” music takes place be kept so sacred…..? Let’s not forget that people leaving church in the “olden days” would have been assailed by the noises and smells of life outside its hallowed walls – beggars, peddlers, whores and more.

Better if all concert halls/opera houses were built in parks, away from city throng. Wagner had the right idea

– MR via Facebook

Secondly, it ignores the fact that arts venues like the RFH, the Barbican et al have to function on several levels, offering a diverse range of concerts, events, lectures and other activities, and that they do not exist simply to serve classical music audiences. What we experienced on leaving the RFH after the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ was the reality of concert-going in an arts complex in a big city. If you want to savour the experience of the music a little longer, remain in your seat in the auditorium.

For me, the experience of live music – and if you read this blog regularly you will know that I absolutely love live music – is not just the music itself but the “complete experience”: traveling to the venue, meeting friends, having drinks and socialising beforehand, and, once inside the auditorium, the accompanying sounds of a living, breathing audience listening, engaging and responding to what they are hearing. Afterwards, the walk back to the station with friends, stepping out into that vast, noisy ecosystem of the living city, is also part of the live concert experience for me. Admittedly the late train home, replete with its swaying drunks, leering blokes, snogging couples and people eating smelly food can take the shine off the evening, but on balance the whole package is an experience which I cherish and enjoy. When I’ve heard something as profound as the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ or Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’, or indeed any other performance which has moved me, I carry the memory of the music away with me. Yes, the noise of the street can jar, but it can’t really touch the music which continues to resonate in the memory for a long time afterwards.


The Dream of Gerontius – review in The Guardian

One thought on “Big City Concert-Going”

  1. what a sensitive and thoughtful insight…much more so than the reviewer in question I daresay.

Comments are closed.