Following a grand refurbishment, London’s Southbank Centre reopened the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room. Thanks to some clever engineering to allow more natural light into the foyer, and some sound-absorbent timber linings, the 1000-capacity space will now be used as a venue in its own right.
In the auditoria the concrete has been spruced-up and the wood panelling polished (remember that much of the venue’s life, pre-refurb, was lived in a less enlightened time before the smoking ban was implemented). Re-upholstered aluminium seats have been re-installed, and the scent of freshly treated hide still lingers in the air.
But for all this talk of polished surfaces, when I walked into the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday evening there was no such glimmer – the stage had been transformed into something more akin to a cavern with the help of thick black curtains, a wash of dark blue light, and a shroud of artificial smoke hanging in the air.
The soloists of the London Contemporary Orchestra sidled onto the stage with little ceremony before launching into the unrelenting opening section of Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (a Yiddish word meaning ‘homeward’). The amplified instruments came across with power and a remarkable depth, and, bar a few clunky transitions, the piece progressed with mechanical precision. The work is a series of circulations, and the phrases, fragmented between the voices, only make a comprehensible shape with immaculate timing and a collective kinetic energy. Thankfully the quartet had both in abundance, meanwhile a brief contribution from a smoke alarm only added to the counterpoint.
Mica Levi’s You belong to me for string quartet followed, a piece constantly playing with contrasting dynamics and timbres. Known also for her film soundtracks (Under the Skin and Jackie), Levi’s piece demanded incredible bow control from the players, with cellist Oliver Coates in particular providing sun beam constancy as the violins and viola flickered about.
To close the first half Bryce Dessner took to the stage with his electric guitar. It’s amazing what simple lighting can do to heighten a performance: with Dessner bathed in blue and white clarity, it felt almost like we were looking at a close-up of his deft fingerwork as he took on Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Playing against a tape of twelve pre-recorded guitar parts, the unassuming Dessner added the thirteenth live in a mesmeric performance. Again the breadth and depth of the hall’s acoustic was evident, as well as an added warmth thanks to a new timber lining.
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The focal point of the evening was Different Trains, another work for live musicians and tape by Steve Reich, which explores the composer’s Jewish heritage. Premiered almost exactly 30 years ago to the day at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (there are many similar happy continuities in this re-opening festival), it takes snippets of speech—including memories of Holocaust survivors—and samples of train sounds to dictate melody and rhythm.
Alongside the music was a film by Bill Morrison, specially created for a celebratory performance of Different Trains at Metal Liverpool in 2016 to mark Reich’s 80th year. Largely consisting of archival footage of trains from the 1940s, its middle passage, which surveys the gaunt faces of concentration camp inmates, was almost unbearable to watch. But married to the music, it was impossible not to be entirely fixated.
It was an incredibly absorbing and moving performance, the synthesis of music, sound, and image holding the 916-strong audience in hypnotic concentration for the full 27 minutes. My one criticism is that there was little audible distinction between the pre-recorded tape and what the string quartet was performing live. It also didn’t help that the players were split either side of the enormous raised screen, making them seem somewhat peripheral.
But as the lights came up following the third movement, ‘After the War’, there was a palpable sense of hope and salvation; of a new start.
The press release I was handed before the performance talked of a ‘new era … with an even greater focus on presenting the best live music, bold programming, new artists, new commissions and artist residencies.’ The programme is just that – bold: giving Chineke! (Britain’s first BME orchestra) the opening night was a marker of things to come, and was very well received by consumer and critic alike (with the exception of the Times’ Richard Morrison with his downer of a review). And there’s plenty more unflinching stuff on the horizon: Ligeti in Wonderland, Hot Brown Honey, Isabelle Huppert reads Sade…
After looking a little drab and worn out over the last few years, it really feels like the Southbank Centre has got its mojo back. Praise must go to Elaine Beddell (CEO), Jude Kelly (outgoing Artistic Director) and the programming team (especially Gillian Moore) for such a well-delivered rebirth.