Review of Frances Wilson & Friends, South London Concert Series at Brunswick House, 22nd January 2015
by Lucy Butler Gillick
The last time I visited LASSCO Brunswick House, my husband and I were looking at furniture for our house in Clapham. Back then it was the place to go for interesting bits and pieces at prices that wouldn’t break the bank. It still is. But in those days the area was very far from a prime location. In the 10 or more years since, I have occasionally looked across from a car or bus as I pass through Vauxhall Cross and noticed the isolated Georgian house, standing in defiantly Dickensian splendour, on an island surrounded by sleek riverside architecture and brutally thundering roads.
Without the encouragement of my dear friend Fran [Frances] Wilson – the energetic co-founder and Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series – I would probably never have bothered to park the car or get off the bus or tube to explore any further. But her invitation to come along to an evening of intimate piano music was far too appealing to refuse. And the venue is practically on my doorstep…
Now, apart from the occasional school event, endured for the sake of my children, or dinner at Fran’s where the piano would inevitably form part of the programme (and a welcome one at that), I have never really experienced such a concert. So it was as a complete outsider to this exclusive piano playing world that I arrived last Thursday evening and finally re-entered the pillared portals of LASSCO Brunswick House. To be frank, I was slightly fearful that my bottom would end the evening sore from a long and laborious sit, after having my eardrums assailed by music that could potentially mean nothing to me at all.
But what an appealing setting and pleasurable event it turned out to be. Downstairs is a cosy bar and lively restaurant, lit and furnished with scene-setting antiques that are – so far as I could tell from the tags – all for sale. For your starter you could order Mussels, Kale & Parsnip plus a Venetian chandelier; with perhaps Roast Lamb Leg and a sideboard to follow. Not bad going for the time-poor, multi-tasking city worker, en route home.
But it was upstairs that the salon vibe really took hold. The private concert room, the opulent Saloon with its belle epoque Bechstein grand piano, heavily swagged stained glass windows, old-fashioned school room-style chairs set in neat rows, lamps, lanterns, chandeliers and ephemera, was a genuinely atmospheric space. The very height of old-world decorous gentility, slap bang in the middle of one of London’s busiest junctions (better known for its gay clubs and pubs). Who’d have thought? It even smelt old-fashioned – a sort of pleasantly musty, sandalwood tang.
Once the concert kicked off, after a short introduction from Fran – dressed to the nines in a floor-length slinky red and mauve gown – the evening progressed apace. The concert included the ‘world premiere’ of a new piece by composer and guitarist Matthew Sear, as well as preludes, fugues, sonatas and impromptus from the likes of Debussy, Shostakovich, Menotti, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, Schubert and Satie – all favourite pieces of the artists performing that night. There was even a piece by the incongruously named Bryan Kelly (who sounds more like an Irish builder than an Australian composer to me), and a somewhat ‘difficult’ discordant work by Olivier Messiaen – apparently taken from ‘one of the greatest works for piano of the 20th century’ (the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus) expertly played by Fran, who I think fancied challenging her audience into hearing something unusual at the end of the night.
The South London Concert series typically combines performances by talented amateur musicians with a special “guest spot” featuring professional and semi-professional players. On the evening I attended we enjoyed performances by José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán, Petra Chong, Lorraine Womack-Banning, Rob Foster and of course our genial hostess Frances Wilson herself. They all looked and sounded amazing to my untutored ears and I would heartily recommend the South London Concert Series to anyone who fancies a very reasonably-priced introduction to the world of glorious piano music in an intimate setting, followed by an opportunity to meet and talk to musicians who are as passionate about their piano music as you probably are about your food, wine and chandeliers. What’s not to love about such civilisation? The only jarring note was re-entering the real world and wintry fug of Vauxhall Cross when it was finally time to head home…
Lucy Butler Gillick is ex-chief sub editor of The Sunday Telegraph Magazine and Harpers & Queen. She has written for many magazines and supplements over the years, on a variety of topics, but mostly on issues related to parenting. She now works in education.
The South London Concert Series returns to LASSCO Brunswick House on 21st May for a concert by Australian counter-tenor Glenn Kesby. Full details here