Who could resist the Southbank and the Royal Festival Hall? The river, the ambience, somewhere conducive to sit and think, watching the sky change from up on Level 5… This place is so familiar to me, it feels like home. You can be so comfortable and inspired just in the foyers of the Royal Festival Hall that you almost forget there’s a concert hall suspended inside there. Then, if you are there for a concert, the moment of entry into the Hall is always so exciting – the space, the boxes, the size of the stage, the organ…
So this night I was here for an organ recital with a difference – Bedroom Community, an Icelandic record label, presenting music centred around the organ. For a change (because eventually I’d like to feel as if I’ve inhabited the RFH from every possible angle) I’d booked a seat in a box – those amazing ‘ashtrays’ that look like they can be pulled in and out, almost like organ stops. What a great surprise – I had the box to myself! Like having my own cabin on a sleeper train or liner – or a capsule hotel (I want to stay the night here!). There’s a gorgeous acoustic curtain on your left as you pass along the little corridor, go up a few steps to get into the box and then… you can just stretch out! As ever, you notice how well everything is designed and made at the RFH – 1951 but its quality is totally timeless.
Anyway to the concert! Although billed primarily as an organ recital, it turned out to be much more than that – a survey of the incredible new music coming out of Iceland’s ‘Bedroom Community’ record label. We started with singer-songwriter/guitarist Puzzle Muteson (no organ, ha ha!) who set the scene with four beautiful, sparse ballads – we could tell straightaway that this was going to be an evening of intense performances and focused listening. Next an evocative piece for double-bass (Borgar Magnason) and electronics (Valgeir Sigurosson) alongside a short film of the murmuration of migrating starlings – stunning. An eclectic group of pieces followed (including a set by Nico Muhly and a Bryce Dessner commission), featuring James McVinnie (organ), Nadia Sirota (viola) and Chris Thompson (marimba) in various solos and combinations – all fascinating, all dazzlingly played. The first half ended with Philip Glass’s ‘Mad Rush’ (the one from Koyaanisqatsi) – it’s surprisingly dreamy heard live with a kind of wistfulness between the bursts of frenetic energy. The organ is brilliant at layering patterns and literally holding down pedals so it seems a natural companion for minimalistic music. My impression of the organ by the end of this first half is that it’s like some vast engine (especially the way it’s lit tonight, kind of combat colours of rusted copper and steel blue); but at the same time that it’s truly an acoustic instrument – you can hear it breathe. And also it’s a friendly collaborator – with modern electronics and amplification, there’s no reason why it can’t be matched with any solo or group of instruments. (Though James McVinnie did mention the issue of access – how to get to rehearse with a pipe organ? Tales of secret into-the-night sessions at Westminster Abbey…)
The second half moved through more luminous soundworlds of space and time – introducing viola da gamba into the mix (Liam Byrne staggeringly virtuosic alongside live electronics – a breathtaking moment of timing at the end of this piece); a re-imagining of the music of Italian Renaissance composer Gesualdo; and the astonishing journey of the Bach ‘Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor’. (As McVinnie said, “it’s not really an organ recital if there isn’t any Bach in it”.) There was the overwhelming impression that there’s been sonic richness and variety in every age; that human invention and musical expression are beyond time. At the same time, this night’s music very much gave me the feeling that we are here and now; standing at this viewpoint in the twenty-first century, why shouldn’t we relish the opportunities we have of straddling time and expanding our horizons? (Viola da gamba and electronics!)
The finale came in the form of a set of pieces by Bedroom Community’s founder Valgeir Sigurosson, adding extraordinary male vocalist Jodie Landau to the ensemble to bring the evening to a powerful, elemental conclusion. These are artists at the top of their game, blossoming in the joy of collaboration and the freedom of having set ‘labels’ aside.
After the last notes had faded, I waited in my ‘cabin’ a little longer, enjoying the moment. Finally exiting in the singing lift, a fellow audience-member said to me: “Were you in that concert just now? I don’t know what just happened in there!?” Always a good sign, to leave the audience amazed and almost speechless! What we’d witnessed was simply an array of fabulous musicians, gathered around an organ, celebrating their shared love of music in all its forms.