I was distressed to read this article by Richard Morrison in The Times yesterday about the possibility that St John’s Smith Square (SJSS), a beautiful baroque Grade 1 listed church in the heart of Westminster, may close permanently within 18 months due to financial difficulties.

For a long time the poor relation, despite its best efforts, to the cultural edifice of the Southbank Centre just across the river, SJSS has in recent years put itself on the map as a go-to musical destination, thanks in no small part to the imaginative, open-minded and innovative efforts of its Director, Richard Heason. In post since 2012, Heason has transformed SJSS from a “hall for hire” into a distinctive, forward-thinking vibrant cultural hub in the heart of London with new commissions, specially curated festivals and events, concerts featuring the venue’s fine organ, and a programme which supports young artists early in their careers. And while the Queen Elizabeth Hall was undergoing major refurbishment, SJSS hosted the International Piano Series and International Chamber Music Series, bringing it further endorsement of its status amongst London’s classical music venues

Back in the 1980s, when my father worked for a leading international insurance company, I attended concerts at SJSS which were sponsored by his company. I remember being struck by the beauty of the venue and its fine acoustic. In recent years I have rediscovered SJSS, not least because of its ease of access from Vauxhall station (a mere 10-minute walk across the bridge and along Millbank). It is my favourite concert venue along with Wigmore Hall and I have enjoyed some very fine concerts there – piano recitals by Paul Badora-Skoda, Steven Osborne, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, to name but a few, choral concerts by Polyphony, chamber music (most recently I Musicanti’s stimulating residency), Rolf Hind’s eclectic Occupy the Pianos Festival of contemporary music (returning 20th April), and Stephen Montague’s 75th birthday concerts (March 2018). I’ve heard premieres and new commissions, I’ve heard friends perform there, and I have made new friends there (a chance encounter in the café ahead of a performance of Messiaen last year).  I have even had the privilege of performing at SJSS myself, playing the hall’s beautiful Steinway as part of its Music Marathon events, which bring amateur and professional musicians together to celebrate shared music making.
For purely selfish reasons, I would be very sad to see this fine venue close for good. It would also be a loss for London’s cultural/musical heritage. It is a wonderful place, with a vibrant, varied programme of music. If you have not already done so, I urge you to discover it and support it. It is easy to find, being located within walking distance of Vauxhall, Pimlico, Victoria and Westminster stations. There is a pleasant café in the crypt and the venue is staffed by friendly, helpful people. Richard Heason can often be seen at concerts and is very amenable and approachable.
To survive, SJSS needs “a minimum of £200,000 a year for at least ten years” (Martin Smith, Chairman of the Board of Trustees). It receives no regular public subsidy, unlike its neighbour across the river, nor money from the Heritage Lottery Fund or Westminster City Council.
To quote that well-known advertising jingle, “every little helps” – so buy a ticket or three, or become a Friend, and go and experience the magic of music at SJSS (and the lemon drizzle cake is pretty good too, enjoyed with an inexpensive glass of rosé!).

‘Tis the season for “top 10” and “best of” the year lists (indeed, such is the popularity of these lists that it would appear that every music critic at The Guardian has issued their own Top 10 Concert/Operas of 2015).

Once again, I have enjoyed a busy year of concerts, reviewing 21 concerts in London for Bachtrack.com, plus various concerts at St John’s Smith Square, the 1901 Arts Club, St Mary’s Perivale and my local music society in Teddington.

“Hits” of 2015 include all five Prokofiev Piano Concertos in a single concert at the Proms, a musical marathon for the orchestra (LSO) and audience alike, with particularly fine performances by Daniil Trifonov and Arcadi Volodos. Other stand out Proms were Sibelius first and second symphonies, Thierry Escaich playing the Albert Hall organ, and Bernard Haitink conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Mozart’s Piano Concert K488, with Maria Joao Pires as soloist (an exquisitely measured and elegant performance), and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C Major Symphony, D944. My enjoyment of many of the Proms I attended this year was undoubtedly enhanced by my concert companions.

At the Wigmore, Garrick Ohlsson’s Skryabin Focus residency proved enlightening and insightful, with Ohlsson revealing himself as a sensitive and colouful interpreter of this curious, sensuous and often totally over the top music. This was definitely an opportunity to surrender oneself to the composer’s unique soundworld in the hands of a most capable and modest pianist.

Another revealing concert was given by Antonii Baryshevskyi, winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. He presented an engaging programme which made interesting links between Scarlatti and Ligeti, together with music by Chopin, Messiaen and Schumann which revealed Baryshevskyi to be a pianist at home with a wide variety of repertoire and styles.

Maria Joao Pires gave a delightfully intimate and atmospheric joint concert with one of her protegés, Pavel Kolesnikov, in music by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann (both solo works and music for piano 4 hands).

One of the most eagerly anticipated concerts of 2015 – and not necessarily for all the right reasons – was Ivo Pogorelich’s “this is not a comeback” concert at the Festival Hall in February. It was a curious curate’s egg of an evening, with some very uneven, eccentric and clumsy playing combined with a blistering and masterful rendition of the Brahms Paganini Variations. The critics were universally damning, yet I felt rather sad that Pogorelich had been submitted to such vitriol. Whatever one may think about the quality of his playing, together with some very strange interaction with the page turner, it was undoubtedly an “interesting” concert, and somewhat refreshing to hear such personal piano playing as opposed to the “louder faster” school of pianism one encounters rather too often these days…..

Talking of which, against my better judgement I decided to hear Lang Lang at the Royal Albert Hall, and for me the first time I’d heard the Chinese poster boy pianist since 2002. There were flashes of insight and sensitivity, particularly in the slow movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, but the Chopin Scherzi were a vehicle for his trademark flashy, overblown virtuosity, the subtlety of Chopin’s writing lost in a whirlwind of noise and velocity. ‘The Seasons’ by Tchaikovsky was simply the wrong repertoire for the size of venue, but here there were also moments of beauty and hints of a more mature approach.

Which leads me to my “miss” of 2015, the much-lauded young Polish Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki who played much by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Chopin’s Opus 25 Etudes at the Wigmore Hall in October. I had read much about Lisiecki, very fulsome and often gushing praise and I was curious to hear him live. Sadly, most of his concert was a display of youthful arrogance and immaturity which manifested itself in some very ugly and unsubtle playing. Jan is only 20 and he has plenty of time to develop as an artist – and I sincerely hope he does.

In addition, I’ve also enjoyed fine performances this year by Jeremy Denk, Murray Perahia, Stephen Hough (including the premiere of his new Piano Sonata), Marc-André Hamelin, Yevgeny Sudbin, François-Frédéric Guy, Peter Donohoe, Steven Osborne and Warren Mailley-Smith. 2016 seems set to begin on a high with concerts at the Wigmore by Pavel Kolesnikov, Steven Osborne, Piotr Anderszewski, Denis Kozukhin, and the continuation of Warren Mailley-Smith’s survey of Chopin’s complete piano music at St John’s Smith Square, a lovely venue for piano music. Further ahead in 2016, I am very much looking forward to Andras Schiff’s ‘Last Sonatas’ programmes at the Wigmore, exploring the final three sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and Daniil Trifonov in June. There is much to enjoy in 2016 and I think my concert diary is likely to be as busy as it has been this year.

Link to all my Bachtrack reviews and articles

Wigmore Hall

International Piano Series

St John’s Smith Square