Spitalfields Festival, London: “Ringside Symphony”

‘Is the pool open tonight as normal?’ It’s not a question you expect to hear on entering a concert venue, but York Hall in Bethnal Green, east London is no ordinary space. Known as the ‘home of British boxing,’ the barrel-ceilinged hall is nowadays part of a bigger leisure complex. The pool was indeed open as usual, as the background whiff of chlorine suggested.

The winter edition of Spitalfields Festival takes place in early December in the East End of London, a fascinating part of town where historic buildings sit cheek by jowl with public housing estates and fashionable bars with fried chicken takeaways. In recent years, the festival has combined traditional performances in churches with events in local spaces that are not generally used as music venues. For last year’s Schumann Street project, they presented intimate performances of Schumann and contemporary songs in different genres in grand old East End houses, both putting chamber music back in its domestic context and allowing nosey Londoners the chance to visit buildings which are normally private spaces. But even by the Spitalfields Festival’s standards, the 6 December concert venue was more adventurous than most. Have you ever been to a symphony orchestra and turntable performance in a boxing hall?

Conductor André de Ridder, in his second year as curator of the multi-genre festival, directed the students of the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra and soloists Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), Kit Downes (Hammond organ) and the festival’s featured composer, Shiva Feshareki on turntables.

Kit Downes and Shiva Feshareki at Spitalfields Festival's Ringside Symphony

Kit Downes and Shiva Feshareki at Spitalfields Festival’s Ringside Symphony

Feshareki has had several high profile commissions in 2018, including the BBC Proms and London Jazz Festival. Contemporary festivals are always eager to reach out to potential audiences beyond die-hard classical music enthusiasts, and as a turntablist as well as an experimental composer, Feshareki has a unique selling point that clearly appeals to festival organisers. For her, the turntable is a medium that facilitates genre-crossing, putting material into new contexts and dialoguing with the past. Typically, she works with live samples of other instrumentalists, or she makes recordings of rehearsals and then remixes them as part of a live public performance in dialogue with instrumentalists.

As an experimental artist, she finds that every new project requires a new methodology and process, while feeling part of a lineage of pioneering women in experimental music–most notably Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. Feshareki’s July 2018 late-night Proms performance was a realisation of Daphne Oram’s Still Point (1949), an extraordinary electroacoustic work which was rejected by the BBC but revived by Feshareki, fellow composer James Bulley, and the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Feshareki’s GABA-analogue (2017) for turntables, Hammond organ, and ‘octophonic’ orchestras was given its second performance in York Hall. Four orchestra groups, each including a grand piano, were positioned at the corners of the ground floor, with four smaller brass and percussion groups on the balcony and de Ridder on a platform in the centre. The audience were seated in front of or alongside the groups and were encouraged to move around–though in typical British style, it seemed nobody wanted to be the first to get up.

Shiva Feshareki at Spitalfields Festival's Ringside Symphony

Shiva Feshareki at Spitalfields Festival’s Ringside Symphony

Deep bass sounds were tossed around the groups and were omnipresent in the 45-minute piece: shrill higher pitches and funky drumkit interjections added to the soundscape without disrupting the regular pulse. The two soloists wandered on casually after about 20 minutes, and immediately the performance caught fire. From being spatially interesting and musically highly legible, the amplified, in-your-face, improvised organ (Downes) and turntables created a much more intense atmosphere. Finally, the audience started moving around the space–and the conductor wandered off during the solo section too.

For the final third, Feshareki directed de Ridder to return to his podium, and the orchestral material was energised and disrupted by the soloists. The overwhelming sound was cut back towards the end, finishing with the amplified whirr of the vintage Hammond organ speaker.  Trinity Laban students gave a committed performance, with the brass and contrabassoons especially incisive. But the stars were Downes and especially Feshareki, whose work fully justified its scale and was a perfect fit for the venue.

A work like this is bound to overpower anything else in the programme, but after a long scene-shifting interval, the orchestra reconvened in conventional semi-circular shape for Anna Meredith’s trombone concerto Barchan and Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. Meredith, in her late thirties, is another high profile young composer who is comfortable traversing genres. Also featured in the 2018 Proms, with a large-scale commission on the theme of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, previous works include Handsfree for body percussion, premiered by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

Andre de Ridder at Spitalfields Festival's Ringside Symphony

André de Ridder at Spitalfields Festival’s Ringside Symphony

Meredith’s Barchan completely avoids the combative soloist-versus-ensemble dynamic: this was no boxing contest, more a wallow in a jacuzzi. Soloist Jörgen van Rijen initially faced the orchestra and joined them in a warm bath of brass-dominated pulsating sound. He turned around for a more obviously soloistic passage, but sooner than expected, a chugging string motif faded out and van Rijen wandered towards the double doors at the side of the venue, ending the piece offstage in the bar area. I hope someone bought him a drink. Stravinsky’s Firebird suite was an odd fit in the programme, though the brass must have thought the whole programme was an early Christmas present. But de Ridder teased detailed and delicate work from the strings, and the performance was remixed by Feshareki in a local church venue later that night.

Overall, the night belonged to Feshareki, whose sculptural approach to sound and tailoring of the work to the venue made this festival evening a real event. And let’s give a shout out to Trinity Laban Conservatoire, who are committed this season to gender-balanced concert programmes. Their initiative, coupled with BBC Radio 3’s notably increased promotion of women composers and Kings Place’s ‘Venus Unwrapped’ gender-balanced season, shows that where there’s a will to make a difference, real change can happen quickly.