This was my first ever look inside St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, but as it’s a regular venue for the BBC Singers, I wasn’t at all surprised to find the acoustic is perfect for choral singing, and that it has an ornately decorated interior dating from the early Oxford Movement (consecrated 1843). It would be pointless for me to say how much I enjoyed a concert for which I chose all the music; but nevertheless even I was taken aback by the confidence of the BBC Singers’ performance,under David Hill, of powerful works by Robin Holloway, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Edward Rushton. I was happy that the Singers also found time to include a work from current RAM student Kemal Yusuf.
It was the audience for this BBC Invitation Concert that really interested me. The protocol for these events is unusual in concert life. You apply online for free tickets which are issued with the warning that they do not in fact guarantee admission since more tickets are issued than the venue can seat, because of possible non-attendance by ticket holders; so you have to arrive early and queue. Audience numbers were not on my mind when I devised a challenging programme of contemporary Psalm settings, so it surprised me during the rehearsal week to receive a steady trickle of enquiries from friends who’d been unable to get one of the non-guaranteed seats. And when I left the church after the dress rehearsal, I was taken aback to find a couple of people already forming an orderly queue, seated on camp stools; when I returned half an hour before the concert, the very spacious church interior was packed. And a very attentive audience they were too – it did not seem that this intelligent-looking body of people had nowhere otherwise to go that evening, or were simply keeping warm indoors (another thing not guaranteed in an old Anglican church.)
The regular possibility of free music from London’s excellent colleges, churches and cathedrals constitutes a musical scene all of its own. By contrast, standard prices at the major venues often come as a shock, as if visiting a different country with an expensive currency. Enthused to hear a new work by Edward Rushton to be played by the LSO at the Barbican in June, I purchased a pair of seats which has set me back just under eighty pounds; and I haven’t even started on the path of opera prices, down which this conversation inevitably leads. In London it can seem that professional music at the highest level moves on a continuous cycle (or should that be treadmill? escalator?) which doesn’t relate to the concert-going habits even of many classical music devotees let alone to anyone else’s.