A Foggy Day (in London Town): Part I

Travel is an infinite source of memorable musical experiences, whether visiting legendary concert halls or discovering local treasures in intimate recitals.  Here is our first travel guide with tips for where to look for a great concert experience – our first stop is London.

You’ll know the song alluded to in the title of this blog, with its delicious lines;

I was a stranger in the city
Out of town were the people I knew
I had that feeling of self-pity
What to do? What to do? What to do?

queen's-hallBut what if the British Museum really had lost its charm? What if the thing to do was to enjoy a music concert in London?  If you were in Gershwin’s London you could visit imposing Queen’s Hall, slap bang in the West End of town – and do some shopping in Bond Street too – but the hall was destroyed in World War Two, and only a stone or two remains.

What does the modern, glistening metropolis offer now for the inquisitive concert goer?

Here are some – just some – of London’s concert hall attractions. They’re not ranked in order – ascending or descending – and No.1 doesn’t necessarily offer a more evocative or exciting evening than No.9.

London’s concert scene is as changeable as the River that bisects the city. On the South Bank of the river is the arts complex that bears that name, built for the 1951 Festival of Britain, where you’ll find;Royal-Festival-Hall

1. The Royal Festival Hall – whose chilly acoustic was somewhat modified a few years ago – as well as the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room. Neither of the last two is visually alluring nor do they boast outstanding sonics either. London has cringed for many years on this point and Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall have long since shown the capital the heel acoustically speaking. But both the Philharmonia and London Philharmonic are based at the South Bank and leading ensembles ranging from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to the London Sinfonietta via numerous elite visiting orchestras offer challenging programming. Numerous festivals take place; the year-long celebration of twentieth-century music ‘The Rest is Noise’ is on-going, for example.cadogan-hall

2. Challenging programming is not necessarily a feature of one of the most recent and startling additions to the London concert scene, the Cadogan Hall. This is the base for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a visiting card for a bewildering array of touring bands.  Expect an Old School overture, a Beethoven Piano Concerto and a Tchaikovsky Symphony. But also expect to be astonished by the building, which is very near Sloane Square. It’s a 900-seat former Christian Scientist church built in 1907 in Byzantine style. You can’t miss the tower.barbican-complex

3. The London Symphony and BBC Symphony Orchestras, meanwhile, are based at the Barbican Arts Centre in a fortress-like arts complex in the City of London with cinemas, a library, and art galleries, near to the Guildhall School of Music. The programmes are world-class, the acoustics again somewhat less so, but don’t overlook the nearby LSO St Luke’s – an eighteenth-century Grade 1 listed church in which there are often London Symphony rehearsals, free lunchtime concerts and excellent evening concerts.milton-court

4. Talking of Guildhall, the City’s very newest concert hall opened its doors in September 2013. Milton Court offers the Guildhall School a state-of-the-art 608-seat concert hall.royal-college-music

5. Which brings us on to the Royal College of Music: you don’t need to play the piano like Lang Lang to get through its portals (though it helps). Your visit may coincide with one of the many concerts, competitions, masterclasses, and rehearsals that take place in its halls. Keep an eye on the RCM’s website.

6. Chamber music is one of London’s strong points. The flagship hall is the Wigmore. But because of the relatively small capacity at just over 600 seats – though their sight lines were improved a number of years ago – some concerts tend to be sold out weeks ahead.wigmore-hall

7. Much less well-known is the long-running Conway Hall chamber concert series in Red Lion Square, Holborn. Sunday evening concerts are reasonably priced and well programmed, and the hall has a strong tradition of putting on excellent string quartets in particular.conway-hall

Next time, part two of the survey, Nos. 8 to 20 from Cathedrals to Roller Skating clubs via G. F. Handel.