After being closed for nearly three years for refurbishment, the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s Southbank has re-opened – looking not so different to the way it did before, apart from re-upholstered seats and cleaner concrete, but it’s good to have the place back. And the Southbank has been celebrating its return with some unusual events.
The opening night itself was as much a statement as a concert in that it was given over to Chineke, the black, minority and ethnic orchestra that has attracted much attention as a project to address the absence of black faces on the concert circuit. It supplies a role model and draws the kind of racially diverse audience not often found at classical events. All of which is good and healthy and to be applauded.
My only reservation is that, as things stand, applause for Chineke can be uncritical: more a response to what it represents than to its music-making. I don’t want to be curmudgeonly about this, because the spirit, style and self-belief of Chineke is admirable, not to say infectious. And within its ranks it has fine players. But as an ensemble, they need time; and they don’t as yet merit the standing ovations they got at the QEH for a musically indifferent concert under a conductor (flown in from America) who ploughed his way through a Beethoven symphony, some Britten, and a new work by the composer Daniel Kidane.
I enjoyed the party atmosphere but not the art. And I fear I felt the same about “The Gender Agenda”, a combination of concert, theatre and game show that played at the QEH a few nights later. Devised by the composer Philip Venables, whose work is stridently polemical if sometimes brilliant, it involved the London Sinfonietta, a scary drag-queen “hostess”, and a worrying amount of audience participation (I was sitting near the stage) in a musicalised assault on the way society expects us to behave as female, male or questioning. It started out as raucous fun. Thereafter it went downhill fast. And while the music had exuberance and punch, there wasn’t enough of it to keep the evening afloat as it drowned in socio-political positioning.
Whatever position there was in Gerald Barry’s new organ concerto, which premiered the same week at the Festival Hall next door, I couldn’t say. But it seemed typical of Barry’s maverick, neurotic humour; and I assume there was meant to be some kind of joke in the wilful banality of writing that parodied bad hymns in small-town chapels as well as, maybe, Messiaen and Bruckner. Inscrutable is the only word. And the best efforts of the LPO with soloist Thomas Trotter didn’t make things any clearer.
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