When I first heard a while ago that young musicians were putting on orchestral concerts in a disused car park in Peckham I filed it away in my mind under ‘crazy things students do’ such as when some of my long ago college friends performed a string quartet while squashed into a Mini. Ascending the stairs of the said multistorey carpark this week to hear a new work by Kate Whitley it was obvious that this was an expertly run venue with friendly, capable house management and even a lovely pre-and-post concert cocktail bar. Up high, just one level below the roof, the space also has beautiful views of the City on one side and the South London hills on the other. Cocooned between concrete layers, the sound image was excellent, thanks to careful balancing by conductor Christopher Stark.
The new work we heard, I Am I Say, is music of great nobility. The central feature is a mid-register vocal line, sung by an intensely focused chorus, below and above which rich harmonies are implied, and skillfully realised by a parallel score for large orchestra which never obscures any vocal detail, but constantly presents possible new directions in which the musical line can travel. After two choral ‘verses’ there’s an extended orchestral interlude, culminating in a grand, emphatic meeting of voices and instruments. The words (by Sabrina Mahfouz) and musical response are simultaneously bright and serious, with an ecologically driven theme about living well and rightly. Since hearing it I have recalled as much as I could of the music in my memory and longed to hear it again.
I should at this point mention that the majority of the chorus were aged 11 and below, primary schoolchildren from Peckham and East Dulwich; and that some of the confident orchestra were members of Southwark Youth Orchestra. But this was a major musical offering, rather than ‘outreach’ or ‘education project’ in a three-month Multi-Story programme which will also include Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. These concerts in SE15 stand out as genuine highlights of London's summer musical season.