Jeremy Dixon

My Kind of Town: London is shaped not just by its buildings, but also by the activities and performances it promotes

Over a period of five days earlier in the year I attended various performances in London that in retrospect set me thinking about the many ways in which we experience the city.

The sequence started with a visit to Wyndham’s Theatre to see ‘Charles III’. Arriving with no expectations, I was somewhat taken aback to find a play written in Shakespearean verse seriously examining the issue of Prince Charles’ accession. Set eight years hence, Elizabeth has died, Charles is aged 75, and a truly Shakespearean plot unfolds. Wyndham’s is a typical London surprise. Buried deep within the city block, the entrance is level with the top of the auditorium, which has a delicacy of detailing that fits well with drama within the proscenium.

The following night I went to a performance at Kings Place. It is always an interesting experience for a designer to see one’s own work in use. The concert, devoted to the music of Eric Satie and part of a series on minimalism, was by pianist Joanna McGregor. Involving dancers and music students, the programme was highly varied but most memorable for the particularly evocative Satie piece that provided the encore. Memorable too because the words ‘Je suis Charlie’ were projected on the giant screen above the piano. We had designed the hall lighting to give the illusion of infinite space behind the perimeter columns, so this powerful statement of the moment was surrounded by a glow of deep blue.

Why does a barrel vault over the auditorium and a hemisphere behind the performer work here, when every acoustician says such arrangements are to be avoided at all cost?”

The next night found me at the Wigmore Hall to hear Andras Schiff play Schubert’s late sonatas on a fortepiano, built at the time the pieces were composed. The sound of this instrument is small and extremely beautiful, and with the drama of the works shifted down in scale, all sorts of new musical combinations become apparent. Clad in delicate shades of rosewood and with legs like miniature classical columns, the fortepiano is an intriguing contrast to the overwhelming blackness of the concert grand. Interviewed afterwards, Schiff said that whenever he felt his piano-playing needed re-invigorating, he went back to the fortepiano for inspiration, contrasting its variety of tone with the evenness of a Steinway. In terms of setting, the famous acoustic of the Wigmore Hall remains a mystery. Why does a barrel vault over the auditorium and a hemisphere behind the performer work here, when every acoustician says such arrangements are to be avoided at all cost?

The fourth evening was at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see the Jacobean satire ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’. This tiny re-creation of a seventeenth-century playhouse is robustly structured in wood and an interesting contrast to the controlled, architectural manner of Hall One at Kings Place. As the audience entered, the cast members were lighting the lowered candelabras that were then raised to illuminate the whole space. Dedicated stage lighting was a later innovation, and apparently intervals were first introduced to allow for the replacement of candles. 

A city is a social phenomenon, supported by architecture and design, but fundamentally important for the way it shapes public activities”

The following evening was a landmark performance at the Barbican of Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ by tenor Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès on piano. Bostridge has recently written a book about the song cycle, and the performance was a climax to this endeavour, while Adès’ marvellous piano playing had within it the guiding spirit of this major contemporary composer. The hall, also timber-lined but, unlike the directional format of Kings Place, is wide and open, which can pose quite a challenge to a solo voice. Bostridge coped magnificently, however, adopting an edgy, angst-ridden tone that perfectly matched the mood of the tragic winter journey.

Last but not least was a second concert by Schiff at the Wigmore Hall, this time late Beethoven – Opus III, the Diabelli Variations and late Bagatelles. I had wondered how these pieces would work on the diminished range of the fortepiano, but they were even more interesting than the Schubert; the percussive aspects of the works gained a new clarity at one end of the range, while at the smaller scale Schiff managed to produce sounds of such exquisite beauty and quietness that we all sat with bated breath.

A city is a social phenomenon, supported by architecture and design, but fundamentally important for the way it shapes public activities, performances, that represent the highest level of human creativity. I caught myself saying how lucky I was to be in a city like London at this time, experiencing aspects of the city that were of unrepeatable quality and would remain permanently in the memory.

2017-05-18T13:50:13+01:00