Wednesday, 16 October 2013

BBC Singers debut Milton Court

Milton Court is open for business, and it’s a beauty. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, presumably with the help of some wealthy friends, has set up London’s newest concert venue, and given the paucity of adequate performance spaces in the capital, that has to be big news. The hall is situated on the first floor of a new tower block adjacent to the Barbican, and where its neighbour is the epitome of dour brutalism, everything here is corporate elegance; lots of concrete and glass, but all in pastel shades. The hall itself is a shoebox, mostly lined with wood panelling, but with some bare concrete surfaces too. The obvious comparison is with Kings Place, with which it shares many features. This hall is bigger though, wider overall and with a significantly larger stage. Also, it’s not quite as shoeboxy, and has a pronounced bulge in the middle, tapering slightly front and back. The hall has been open for a few weeks now, and various ensembles have been putting the space through its paces. Yesterday it was the turn of the BBC Singers to make their debut, with a season opener of Copland, Whitacre and Reich.
So how does the hall sound? I took a straw poll after the performance: a performer told me it was too dry, while a sound engineer told me it was too resonant, predicable responses both. The sound is certainly immediate in here, and the performers are given a real sense of presence. The incessant projection of detail could well get taxing on the ear in more angular music, although that was never a danger with the rounded tones of the BBC Singers. Despite its relatively large size, the acoustic has clearly been designed with chamber music in mind. At lower dynamics there is a real sense of intimacy, and there’s never any danger of missing salient details. But that precision is accompanied by an attractive warmth. Sound-wise, that’s the big difference between Milton Court and Kings Place, the latter has a drier and less elaborate profile; the sound here may not be as true, but it has more character.
When the music gets loud, though, a problem emerges. The detail disappears and the higher frequencies start to predominate, making for shrill sounding tuttis. That’s not necessarily a problem for chamber music, but a choir like this, who can really project, need to take care.  The concert began with Copland’s In the Beginning, and the louder sections of this pushed the space to its limits. The Copland was followed by some Whitacre, up to his usual tricks, which all sounded fine here, and really capitalised on the distinctive warmth of the space. After the interval, the Singers were joined by Endymion (significantly expanded to include Ensemble Bash) for a performance of Steve Reich’s seminal The Desert Music in the composer’s arrangement for chamber forces. As well as orchestral instruments, the piece also calls for electronic keyboards and amplification of the voices, making it a very different proposition for such a resonant space. Some baffles have been installed around the upper gallery to dull the sound, and they work well. They’re not very elegant though, resembling giant grey rollerblinds. Kings Place certainly maintains its lead in this respect, with elegant automatic curtains across its huge blind arcades. Considering the difficulties Reich poses the players and singers, the performance was a good one. The strings sometimes struggled though, and it was just as well that the percussion parts were played by specialists in this repertoire: the marimbas alone held the music together.
Milton Court is clearly going to be a real asset to London’s musical life, but it’s not the panacea many of us had hoped for. However many players will fit on the stage, the acoustic dictates that this will remain a chamber venue. That’s not what London needs; we’ve already got the Wigmore and Kings Place, and good as the sound is here, it is trumped by both of those. Symphony orchestras remain saddled with the opaque sound of the Festival Hall and dull sound of the Barbican (and don’t get me started on the Proms). On the other hand, Milton Court has a distinctive aural identity, more immediate than the Wigmore but rounder than Kings Place. The BBC Singers, and everybody else who performs here, will need some time to work out exactly how best to exploit this. I can imagine piano recitals sounding great, and the space is likely prove to be an excellent recording venue for small ensembles. But record labels, string quartets, broadcasters and everybody else are just going have to take their place in the queue. After all, this is the Guildhall’s venue, and term has just started, so chances are they’re going to want it back.

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