Sunday, 21 April 2013

Another Thursday, another lunchtime recital

18th April: Zoe Lethbridge - flute and Julian Collings - organ, perform a programme of original works for flute and organ including works by Frank Ferko and JS Bach.

Looking at the options as one o'clock approaches, there's a choice between a single concerto by Brahms at Munster Square, or a selection of pieces for organ and flute at St Pancras Parish Church. The organ is obviously a more enticing prospect. St Pancras recitals start when the church clock strikes a quarter past one, so there's time to get there without bunking off work early, and collect the handout with a couple of minutes to spare. It's up there, the white-haired gent on duty tells everyone as they come in, pointing at an apparently empty corner of the balcony. You'll have to twist round in your seat to see.

That makes for a very odd concert and might explain why people are walking out as well as in. Usually the place is reasonably full, not full as in every seat taken, but maybe fifty people or so. Today the number stabilises at just nineteen people, including me and the man in charge, scattered around the place. Some of them actually are twisted round to see something, but mainly they are just sitting and listening. That's one approach to music: sit well back, maybe close your eyes, and absorb the music. The architecture of the church is interesting, so at least there is something to look at. What I like though, is to watch the performers and get a visual sense that the music doesn't just exist in a vacuum: to actually see the concentration and skill that go into making it happen. The way things are set up this time, that experience is tantalisingly close but never quite realised.

Up in the gallery, where the public isn't allowed to sit, is the organ and the keyboard console, which is a big wooden box set away from the organ pipes, with the organist completely hidden behind it. Our flute player is almost visible, a willowy figure with crazy long hair, but she's hiding behind the music stand and most of the time all you can see is knees and the end of the flute. After a while I get up and walk along the side aisle to see if there is a better viewpoint. There isn't. Once the organ gets going, though, the music makes up for all that.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Lunchtime recital at St Mary Magdalene Munster Square

Thursday 11 April: an unexpected treat today at the lunchtime recital series at Munster Square, often just a piano recital. Arriving late and unwrapping my sandwich outside to avoid annoying people with paper rustling noises, some rather amazing singing is audible as I push through the inner vestibule door. The door snaps shut behind me, fortunately with a muffled swish rather than a bang. When the song ends it's permissible to walk around the back and find a seat on the far side of the nave, trying not to make the chair creak too much. The front row is empty as usual: I choose an end seat two rows back.The singer is soprano Charlotte Richardson. She cuts a striking figure, standing in the curve of the grand piano with the stained glass and religious iconography as a backdrop, with her big hair and widow's peak, filling the huge empty space with pure clear notes, punctuated with the hisses and glottal stops of sung German, unexpectedly rolling the Rs. She's singing nineteenth century pieces by Liszt and Schumann, and rather later pieces by Richard Strauss, sixteen songs in all, all of them presumably unfamiliar to anyone except a true aficionado of the genre.

For me, it's a touch of the unexpected magic that sometimes happens when you go to a recital knowing nothing about the performers or the music, and find yourself not wanting the moment to end. The songs have lurid titles: "I cannot grasp or believe it", "He, the noblest of all", "Now you have caused me pain for the first time". She explains the story of some of the them: Strauss's 'Die Nacht', she tells us, is about a woman and "her fears that the creeping shadows of the night, that steal away all colour and life from her room, will also steal away her lover..." Romantic histrionics, then, best appreciated in a language you don't understand. My sandwich remains half-wrapped, uneaten until it's time to go outside into the rain.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Sherlock Holmes's new case

Click to see larger image on Flickr

Wednesday morning in North Gower Street: some unusually large white vans, unmarked, are parked on both sides, and the road is partly closed. Curious passers-by linger for a moment but there's nothing to see. By lunchtime though, there is quite a buzz of excitement, although there's still nothing much happening. The vans evidently belong to a film crew and some equipment is getting set up. There's a boom but no camera so I don't really look any closer. Part of the pavement is marked with bollards and a sign warns, if you enter this zone you implicitly agree to be an unpaid extra, although that's not quite how it's worded.

Word of the filming must have spread because there is a small crowd strung out on the east side of the street, waiting to see what will happen. The pub around the corner provides a clue with the chalked message "tweeds and deerstalkers welcome". Something to do with the Tweed Run, the vintage cycling event? No, I realise - of course it's the return of the TV series that was filmed here last year and the year before. But it's lunchtime and what I actually want is a sandwich, as fast as possible, to take to one of those tedious lunchtime meetings. It's a bit past one so I'm late already, but the Piccolo Sandwich Bar and Cafe down the side street is quieter than usual, and my sandwich is ready fast enough. A generator truck sits outside the cafe, some kind of offload vehicle with huge wheels, completely unnecessary in this setting but rather impressive. There's still no sign of a camera let alone anyone famous so I head off to my meeting, where we will learn how to use the new user-friendly image database.

North Gower Street is home to Speedy's, better known as the cafe next door to Sherlock Holmes's flat in the BBC television series. Baker Street itself is far too grand and touristy to be used as the location and the shabby Georgian terraces of this out-of-the-way street, just around the corner from Euston station, serve the purpose much better. It's also a lot easier to close off to traffic without seriously affecting a whole area of central London. Speedy's is good for bacon sandwiches but otherwise a bit of a dump, one of those cafes that remain in a 1950s timewarp and might do better to clear the place out and start afresh.

There was a bigger crowd after work, and I expect they did get to see some scenes from the forthcoming series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. Personally I hate waiting for anything - buses, people arriving at Heathrow, waiting for toast to turn brown, you name it - so I didn't stick around to find out.