The cultural crossroads of London

A one week's sampling turns up all kinds of international artists, new recital halls, and the unusual British flair for American musicals.
Crosscut archive image.

The Belcea Quartet

A one week's sampling turns up all kinds of international artists, new recital halls, and the unusual British flair for American musicals.

London — that is London, England — at 6,000 miles from the Pacific Northwest hardly counts as being within Seattle'ꀙs and Crosscut'ꀙs 'ꀜGreat Nearby.'ꀝ But an enlightened Crosscut management has encouraged me to write about the busy pre-Christmas week I have just spent there: one opera, two concerts, one musical, one ballet, and one museum visit.

London'ꀙs cultural life reflects the British economy — high levels of domestic consumption linked to a vast import/export enterprise that attracts a huge number of players and visitors from overseas and exports British actors, artists, and musicians across the world on a large scale. You hear a great variety of accents and languages in the theatre and concert hall lobbies; you see an almost equal variety of nationalities on the concert platforms and opera stages. Of the five big London orchestras two have Russian music directors (as do two of the big orchestras outside London), and the others have directors from Canada, Finland, and the Czech Republic. The Covent Garden Opera is very successfully led by the Italian/American Antonio Pappano. In the meantime British musicians, led by Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, build very successful careers abroad.

Similarly, the innumerable museums and galleries — many dating from the heyday of British imperialism when the currency was strong, acquisitions cheap and not too scrupulously regulated — are emporia of world art and artefacts equalled if anywhere only in Paris, New York, and Berlin. On this visit I went to see the newly re-created medieval gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a stunning display of treasures from Italy, France, Germany, and Britain conserved and presented to a very high standard. Seattle visitors wanting a reminder of home will notice the large Chihuly glass sculpture hanging in the museum's entry hall.

The only problem is choice. I had to pass up two concerts from the visiting Amsterdam Concertgebouw including a performance of Mahler'ꀙs second symphony described by one reliable critic as the best he ever heard; two concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra under their music director Valerie Gergiev; and a BBC Symphony concert with a fascinating program of Kurtag, Mozart, Kodaly, and Bartok, conducted by Robert Spano with pianist Jonathan Biss (neither of them strangers to Seattle audiences).

The two concerts I did get to were both of chamber music. One, given by the Kandinsky Trio, was at King'ꀙs Place, a newly opened venue in the Kings Cross area which is being upgraded and modernised partly because it accommodates the new and rather fine terminal for the high-speed London-Paris Eurostar (an impressive service, but as recent events have shown, far from weather-proof). King'ꀙs Place is one of three new London concert venues to have opened in recent years. Two are converted churches — St Luke'ꀙs in the business district, and Cadogan Hall in Chelsea which like Town Hall Seattle is a converted Christian Science church.

The King'ꀙs Place hall, which seats some 500 people, makes an excellent impression. Perched alongside a picturesque canal, it is elegant, light, and airy inside with resonant and clear acoustics. I missed the first half of the concert but arrived in time for a solidly enjoyable performance of Brahms'ꀙ first Piano Trio.

The new hall is obviously going to be an asset to London'ꀙs concert life, but Wigmore Hall remains London'ꀙs premiere venue for chamber music and song. I went there for a recital by the Belcea Quartet, a group that is based in London and led by a Romanian with an English second violinist, a Polish violist and a French cellist. Their recital at Meany Hall as part of the 2008 UW World Series was outstanding. On this occasion they surpassed even those high standards in a program of Haydn, Shostakovich, and Schubert. In the Schubert string quintet they were joined by Valentin Erben, the cellist of the Alban Berg quartet. They explored to remarkable if disquieting effect the extraordinarily complex and elusive emotional world that Schubert'ꀙs quintet inhabits.

Looking back over the musical experiences in both Seattle and London that I have most appreciated in 2009, I remember particularly the fine and courageous double bill of Schoenberg and Bartok that Seattle Opera put on early in the year, the Seattle Symphony'ꀙs Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony this fall, and an outstandingly convincing account of the completed performing edition of Mahler'ꀙs Tenth Symphony by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in London during the summer. These are amongst the musical events that I would most like to experience again. But above all I would place this performance of the Schubert quintet from the Belcea group whose playing reaches new heights every time I hear them.

At the Covent Garden opera I saw a good Rosenkavalier,, with Peter Rose as fine a Baron Ochs as he was in Seattle a couple of years ago. The other singers were impressive, too; and subtle comic acting in some of the smaller parts (the notary in Act 1 and the innkeeper in Act 3) gave particular pleasure. The production, originally by John Schlesinger, was elegant. It was however curiously cramped in the third act. I missed the touch of space and magic in the Seattle production when at the end the Marschallin'ꀙs coach is seen traversing the back of the set. Kirill Petrenko conducted with a great sense of flow and sensitivity of nuance.

Also at Covent Garden, which houses London's main ballet company as well as the opera, I saw an enjoyable Nutcracker, in an excellent production by Peter Wright with evocative designs by the late Julia Trevelyan Oman. Elizabeth Harrod and Ludovic Ondiviela danced the lead parts with enchanting grace, energy, and youthfulness.

To finish off my week with something different, I managed to get one of the hottest tickets in town — for Irving Berlin'ꀙs Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic, an experimental theatre near Waterloo just south of the Thames. The British take American musicals very seriously, perhaps hoping that some of the pizzazz will enliven our staid national temperament. This production is by Richard Jones, who directed the Covent Garden Opera'ꀙs last Ring Cycle but one; and some while back there was a brilliant production of Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre by its then-director Sir Richard Eyre. The plot of Annie dates somewhat, and all the stuff about shooting palls as the evening goes on, but the tunes are still as fresh and irresistible as ever. In a sharp, pacey, production like this, there really is no show business like it.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors