Guest post by Hugh Mather, Chairman, the Friends of St Mary’s Perivale
St Mary’s Perivale is a tiny redundant medieval church in West London, only 7 miles away from Marble Arch. We are now a classical music centre with a national reputation and growing international outreach. The venue has a maximum capacity of only 70, but has state-of-the-art video broadcasting facilities, a good piano, perfect acoustics and a dedicated fibre-optic link to the internet. Our video facilities comprise 8 high-definition cameras and 6 high-quality microphones, and the technical quality of the broadcasts on YouTube and Vimeo is outstanding. Over the past four years we have taken a lead in livestreaming classical concerts, and pride ourselves of now being the foremost UK video broadcasting venue for instrumental and chamber music. During the pandemic, we initially broadcast daily recordings from our archive, and then over 150 ‘live’ concerts with no audience in the church. Since being allowed to admit an audience in September 2021, we have streamed another 150, making a total of over 300 broadcasts since June 2020 – more than any other venue. These activities have now been recognised by the award of the ‘Lockdown Star’ venue by the Critics’ Circle.
We are passionate about the future of livestream classical concerts, which came to prominence in the pandemic in June 2020, when they were the only means of providing performing opportunities and income for musicians. At the time they were presumed to be a temporary pandemic phenomenon, but they have now become established as an important new way of enjoying concerts. There is a huge swathe of the population who cannot travel to attend concerts, because they are variously elderly, disabled, have family commitments, live far away from a concert venue, cannot afford the cost of the ticket and travel, or cannot face an unpleasant journey, particularly in adverse weather. The convenience of being able to enjoy the concert in the comfort of one’s home, particularly via a smart TV, for little or no expense, is obviously attractive, particularly with the current pressures on living costs. While the livestream is not a complete substitute for the ‘real thing’, it is a different and valid option for many concertgoers. It is admittedly difficult to obtain emotional involvement in a concert when sitting alone at home, but this can be partially resolved by participating in ‘live-chats’, sharing opinions with other viewers, leading to the formation of on-line communities enjoying concerts together. The frisson of a ‘live’ event is important, providing an authentic ‘feel’ compared with watching old performances on YouTube.
We have now developed a ‘hybrid’ concert model, catering for two separate audiences simultaneously. We have a small cohort of 20 to 60 local music-lovers in the church, and perhaps ten times as many viewers watching the broadcast on YouTube or Vimeo, either concurrently (about 50) or in the following few days (about 250 to 500 viewers, and sometimes more). This arrangement works well for us, and we intend to continue it indefinitely. The audience in the church provides the ambience and applause, and their donations usually cover the musicians’ fees. The latter gain vital exposure from the viewing of their performances throughout the world – so far in over 50 countries. All concerts remain freely available to view for 3 weeks after a concert, and most are retained permanently. However, we receive disappointingly few donations from our virtual audience, with perhaps 2 to 5 using our PayPal Donate facility from several hundred viewers. This lack of financial support for broadcasts has been noted elsewhere, and is probably why so few other venues now livestream their concerts. Everyone has become accustomed to free entertainment on the internet. Nevertheless, we will continue to provide this important service to our musicians. We can afford to do so, because we are unpaid volunteers and have no salaries to cover, and we have no hire charges for the church, and are thus in a much better position to provide this facility than other organizations.
We specialize in solo piano recitals, making use of the large pool of exceptional pianists currently living around London, and these provide performing experience for about 65 carefully selected musicians per year. Most of the best young pianists in the UK play regularly at Perivale. We also have ‘blockbuster’ piano festivals, devoted in the past 13 months to all the Beethoven and Mozart piano sonatas, and most recently all the important Chopin piano works, and we have forthcoming talks by Julian Jacobson, Pascal Nemirovksi, John Humphreys and Peter Frankl, following on from lectures by Christopher Elton, Peter Donohoe, Leslie Howard, Vanessa Latarche, Murray McLachlan and Norma Fisher. Our performer database has details of over 150 pianists, and it is difficult to accommodate them all, but we try to be as fair as possible.
Our residual problem is that of publicity. The broadcasts only receive a fraction of the number of viewers watching some international piano competitions. It is difficult breaking into the dominance enjoyed by larger publicly funded organizations in Central London, but we will persevere and hope to attract more viewers to our high-quality concert schedule. Perhaps the award from the Critics’ Circle might increase our profile. We are dedicated to promoting the careers of the best young musicians. Do please help to spread the word.
A retired physician, Hugh Mather is a pianist and organist who organises c160 concerts per year at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Concerts are free to attend with all donations going to support the artists.