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!).