wed 16/10/2019

Milton Court Opening, GSMD | reviews, news & interviews

Milton Court Opening, GSMD

Milton Court Opening, GSMD

Large forces overwhelm a modest new hall, but Guildhall students and graduates dazzle

Night life in the Square Mile, at least from the perspective of my evening routes around the Barbican, is dominated by booze and sportiness. The way to last Thursday’s concert was blocked by a Bloomberg relay marathon, and cycling through the tunnel towards Milton Court yesterday evening, I encountered the bizarre spectacle of carnival-style trucks pedalled by a dozen drinkers apiece, sitting at a central "bar" and already well oiled. City money, though, still supports culture, and never more impressively than in underpinning Milton Court's new collection of performance and teaching spaces for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, to the tune of £75.5 million out of a total £89 million.

The City of London’s partnership with Heron International means that there’s a money-making, 36-storey residential tower attached. In David Walker Architects’ squeezed-in design, the complex's white concrete façade is rather dwarfed by "The Heron" with its tower of black glass. There should be plenty of natural light in the rather low-ceilinged foyers, but this is the City, and buildings hem Milton Court in on every side.

Last night’s main event was to inaugurate the 608-seater Concert Hall. Odd in these straitened times to think of it with Kings Place’s Hall One down the road, which opened only five years ago, though it's great to have both. Acousticians of choice Arup worked on the two halls, so it’s curious that the smaller venue in Kings Place (420 seats) sounds as well as feels more spacious (and its single-oak panelling is still more handsome than Milton Court's sapele timber). But then perhaps a full antiphonal brass ensemble, organ and percussion to start and a capacity late-romantic orchestra to conclude were not the best choices for the Milton Court centrepiece: it’s rather like getting the full London Sinfonietta to grace the Wigmore. The GSMD Orchestra will indeed be giving concerts here, but the majority of events will be for chamber forces or voice and piano, and those were what I look forward to testing more keenly.

Alison Balsom, Edward Gardner and Sally Matthews at the opening of Milton CourtNever mind: what we suffered, at least in row J of the stalls, in terms of auditory overload was more than compensated in the quality of the music-making. Not a musician on the stage over the age of 38 – conductor Edward Gardner, between ENO Fidelios – and, with his estimable exception, all students or graduates of the Guildhall. Julian Philips, GSMD Head of Composition, had written much more than a fanfare for the students. Come Forth to Play, its title neatly drawn from Milton’s lovable L’Allegro, kicked off as a Rheingoldish in-the-beginning building on overtones, which made it clear we weren’t to enjoy much air around the sound, and ended with a sunshine-holiday Carillon.

We had two of the brightest and most glamorous of ex-Guildhall stars, great singers both: trumpeter Alison Balsom, who may well become a Dame before ex Gardner gets his knighthood, and soprano Sally Matthews (both pictured above with Gardner by Mark Allan). It was clear that even her limpid tones would come over rather forcefully, and the slightly backward placement always takes some getting used to before you can be overwhelmed by the sheer musicianship; but overwhelmed I was by those grave chromatic descents in Mozart’s stunningly inventive concert aria “Bella mia fiamma…Resta, o cara”. Superb orchestral support, too, though even with a smallish ensemble the woodwind details weren’t clear in this acoustic.

Next page: Balsom plays Haydn, Gardner conducts Elgar - and over at the Wigmore later, Schwanewilms sings WagnerAlison Balsom rehearsing in Milton Court with Edward Gardner and the GSAMD Orchestra

Balsom (pictured above in rehearsal with Gardner by Clive Totman) caressed her singing phrases, just like the GSMD strings, right from the start in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, and if the perfect handling of a trill is the mark of a great artist – I reckon it is – then she’s up there with pianists Mitsuko Uchida, Imogen Cooper and Christian Ihle Hadland. The cadenza at last gave us the chance to measure the truthful tone-capturing of a single instrument in the hall, and the effect was one of pure brilliance. Elgar’s Cockaigne  threatened to bring the house crashing, but Gardner got round that by encouraging sheer suppleness of articulation from his rumbustious forces: the late romantic rubato and tenderness to the life. If the last performance of this work I heard – from the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican under the most inept conductor they’ve ever worked with  - had been the slowest and the worst, this was the best: no allowances needed for youth or inexperience.

That was by no means the end of the evening: there were speeches and then the chance to explore all of Milton Court’s venues – including the 223-seater Theatre and flexible, max 128-seater Studio Theatre as well as rehearsal and teaching rooms – with students in active residence.

Anne SchwanewilmsI’ll return to see them all, but I’d set myself a challenge after the concert: to pedal like fury to the Wigmore Hall where Anne Schwanewilms (pictured left) had stepped in for an indisposed Angelika Kirchschlager and – in addition to Debussy, Mahler and Strauss songs, most of which I’d fortunately heard her sing there before, since I had to miss them this time – was performing the Wesendonck Lieder, surely bicentenary year's most performed Wagner work, with the infinitely sensitive Charles Spencer.

I got there in time for that crowning glory, and its uniquely centred, hypnotically drawing-in interpretation made me glad I had. Schwanewilms adapts her exquisite colours to the texts, which is why only the fourth song brought forth the usual Wagnerian opulence – and how. Sorry I didn’t get the full Milton Court experience? How could I be, under the circumstances. This is London, and you have to grasp the nettle when and how you can.

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