A concert in a carpark, orchestra and audience gathered on level 8 of a 1980s brutalist hulk of concrete in Peckham, south-west London. It all sounds rather J G Ballard-esque, and indeed the way in to the venue is a grubby, litter-strewn entrance beside the PeckhamPlex cinema. There’s a bouncer in attendance and some heavy-duty metal barriers such as one might see at a demo. At the box office, we’re given a not a ticket but a wrist band, as if we’re attending a secret rave. The BBC Proms logo reassures us that we’ve come to the right place. It’s a hot day so a visit to the chemical loos on the top floor of the carpark requires a deep breath and a strong stomach.
In fact the Bold Tendencies multi-storey carpark arts venue is far from J G Ballard’s dystopian visions of violent chaos in the teeming, thrusting city. If anything, it’s a modern-day utopia, this ugly building revived (but hardly refurbished) as a space for art, drama and music, food and drink, shared purpose, community and conviviality. Twenty years ago the notion of presenting classical music in such a venue would have been laughed out of town; today it’s proving a popular venue for concerts by the resident Multi-Story Orchestra, and this is the second year the Proms have ventured outside the plush crimson-and-gold splendour of the Royal Albert Hall to present concerts in Peckham.
The traditional rules of engagement of classical music are more relaxed in this unusual setting. Complaints about extraneous noise or inappropriate applause are rendered redundant, for the music is regularly suffused with the sounds of south London – rattling trains and honking traffic on Peckham Rye. The acoustic in this uncompromisingly stark urban venue is surprisingly good: the low ceilings amplify and funnel the sound, and the close proximity of orchestra to audience creates a compelling immediacy to the performance. The atmosphere in the audience is a lot more relaxed – there were children and babes in arms at the performance I attended, and you can take your drinks into the performance space (there’s a rather cool bar on the top floor where they will mix you a mean Negroni). But the audience’s commitment to the performance matched that of the musicians, proof that you can hold a concert anywhere provided musicians and music are of the highest standard. The venue may be unusual, but there’s nothing novel about the quality and conviction of Multi-Story Orchestra.
John Adams’ gigantic, absorbing Harmonielehre was the central work of the concert. A symphony in all but name inspired by Adams’ surreal dreams, this three-movement work takes its title from Schoenberg’s textbook on harmony, and in it Adams pays homage to the monumental works and rich romanticism of Mahler, Wagner, Sibelius and pre-atonal Schoenberg. Rejecting the more rigid minimalism of his compatriots Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Adams’ work fuses the familiar elements of minimalism – spooling motifs, complex rhythms, shifting time signatures – with the opulence of fin-de-siècle romanticism: thus the second movement, for example, does not directly quote from the Adagio of Mahler’s tenth symphony, but rather is a palimpsest, recalling with unfolding pain the earlier work, its rich textures and haunting melodies interwoven with Adam’s distinct use of sparkling percussion and trembling strings. From the booming, powerfully attention-grabbing repeated chords and propulsive energy of the first movement to the third movement, which unfolds like the sunrise opening prelude of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder before building in intensity to an astonishing, emphatic blaze of sound, this was a performance which enthralled, the sounds of the city absorbed into Multi-Story Orchestra’s full-bodied surround sound.
Kate Whitley’s I Am I Say was written in 2016 for local schoolchildren and was performed by the Multi-Story Youth Choir, a wonderful group of young voices whose clear diction presented the music’s forthright message of hope and anger. Organised in three parts, this bold, energetic and empowering work is a heartfelt plea to wake up and care for the world around us. Built on subtle repeated motifs, the music ebbed and swelled to fill the carpark concert space in a rousing and expressive finale.
A wake up call of a different kind opened the concert: Bach’s beautiful Chorale Prelude Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Awake!), orchestrated by Granville Bantock, its tender and meltingly familiar melody played with an enveloping warmth, infused with the unmistakable sounds of the big city.