Review: a cocktail of Baltic and French

East and west London offer up some unusual venues for musical performance

A tale not quite of two cities, classical music in London has always been a rather lopsided affair. For a long while only the Barbican offered a lonely outpost beyond the historical strongholds of south and west, but with the opening of the King’s Place concert hall in Kings Cross and the growing cultural strength and diversity of East London, the map is slowly beginning to shift.

With a new season starting at the Petersham Playhouse, surely west London’s most beautiful boutique arts venue, and the return of the Spitalfields Music Festival to Shoreditch, this month has seen east and west London facing off in a serious battle for cultural supremacy

The annual Spitalfields Music Festival offers more than enough reason to venture beyond the Southbank, its churches, converted warehouses and municipal buildings reflecting the breadth of the programming. While experimental projects like Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison’s semi-improvised folk-opera Bow Down find a suitably edgy home in The Village Underground, more traditional programmes are housed in one of the area’s lovely galleried churches.

An evening of Baltic choral music from the Choir of Royal Holloway and the Britten Sinfonia threatened to strip the peeling paint from the walls of Shoreditch Church, so raw was its emotional delivery. Oxbridge chapel choirs have long had it all their own way, but under the direction of Rupert Gough, Royal Holloway have become a serious rival. Their chief strength is their musicality, balancing the dense, cluster-harmonies of this repertoire with the clarity that is essential if this deceptively simple music is to flower.

This precision, and the choir’s bass-anchored blend, were showcased beautifully in their opener – Vytautas Miskinis’s Time is Endless. There is a monumental, timeless quality to the music of this region, which while appealing but can lose its impact after too much exposure. Here we were saved from monotony by the syncopated rhythmic dissent of Rihards Dubra’s Oculus non vidit, and the fretful chromaticism of Arturs Maskats’s Lacrimosa.

A UK premiere – Tonu Korvits’s Kreek’s Notebook – offered the choir the chance to shape a larger-scale work, demanding the dynamic range and contrast that had been missing earlier. Folk-inspired, the work’s unmistakably Slavic melodies translate the region’s oppressive history into musical redemption, and made full use of Royal Holloway’s excellent lower voices – both mezzos and basses bringing depth to the palette. That the choir enjoys this repertoire is clear; that they understand its fragile directness is even more so.

From Baltic music in east London to French music in the west. Founded just last year, the Petersham Playhouse in Richmond has its home in the intimate grandeur of Petersham House’s ballroom. Growing swiftly, the Playhouse currently offers a quirky programme of both theatre and music, commissioning new works (such as opera Dr Quimpugh's Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions, stouring to Edinburgh this summer) and co-producing with venues that have included the Old Vic Tunnels.

To enter the playhouse you must first walk through a fantasy of a garden, flaming torches guiding the way. Every leafy nook is equipped with a bench, and every bench with a view. Making the most of this unique setting, Petersham Playhouse shows invite audiences into another world, working with their environment to create immersive, unapologetically lovely performances.

Devised and performed by pianist Martin Jacoby, Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water is just such a show. Part lecture and part concert, it offers a gently informative stroll through the lives and music of two of the greats of 20th century music. Personable and relaxed, Jacoby makes an excellent tour guide, sharing his own personal journeys with this music as well as its official histories. On our chronological trip we take in the stylistic movements of Modernism as well as the personal developments of the composers, with performances both of classic favourites and more obscure repertoire.

While Claire de Lune exposed Jacoby’s tendency to overstatement, distorting Debussy’s delicate melody with undue emphasis, the pianist soon relaxed his grip. A rendition of Ravel’s playful Jeau d’eau was all metallic sheen, brilliant in colour and appropriately throwaway in its wit, while the inscrutable melancholy of the composer’s Oiseaux tristes introduced softer shades and some nicely-balanced doubt to proceedings.

Discussing rivalries, ambitions, and working practices (Debussy’s easy facility contrasting with Ravel, ever the grafter) we made our way to a finale in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. A challenge for even the most experienced concert pianists, it was a bold finish from the young Jacoby, who pulled off its three distinct moods with assurance, his passion for the music showing particularly in the Gothic chills of Le gibet.

We may not be in Proms season yet, but with such contrasting classical performances on offer, London audiences have no excuse not to escape the Olympic-crush of the centre this summer and explore their options, both to west and east. Patrician charm or indie musical chic – it’s your choice. 

Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water, with Petersham Playhouse/Choir of Royal Holloway & Britten Sinfonia, ran at Shoreditch Church until 23rd June.

Debussy & Ravel: Earth and Water. Image: Petersham Playhouse
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Forbidden forests: how Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows saved the trees

How Bloomsbury used the Harry Potter series to make publishing eco-friendly.

“Of all the trees we could have hit, we had to hit one that hits back,” says Harry of the Whomping Willow, which successfully whomps both him and Ron when they arrive at Hogwarts by car. The incident is representative of a natural world that often appears remarkably robust in JK Rowling's original series. There is little sign of wizards being plagued by air pollution or acid rain. And while Dementors may lurk in the shadows, climate change does not.

Yet just as Rowling's wands pay tribute to the trees they're hewn from – with their hawthorn, holly and hornbeam woods as key to their construction as their pheonix feather or unicorn hair cores – so too would her books.

By the time The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, all its UK texts, jackets and cases were printed on forest-friendly paper. The move by Rowling and Bloomsbury “sent a clear signal to the rest of the world”, says Greenpeace’s Jamie Woolley, and was “the catalyst” for other publishers to follow suit.

The Potter transformation was inspired by a Greenpeace campaign. In the same year that the fifth Harry Potter went to press, their “Paper Trail” report revealed that the UK book publishing industry was unwittingly sourcing paper from vulnerable ancient forests in Finland and Canada.

Change spiralled from there. In 2005, Bloomsbury printed the UK’s hardback version of The Half Blood Prince on 30% Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. By 2007, the US publisher Scholastic had pledged that the first 12 million copies of The Deathly Hallows would all be printed on paper that was at least partly recycled or sustainable.

Thanks to this shift, UK books labeled with the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) logo are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. Over half of all British adults now recognize the mark, numerous UK publishers have upped their proportion of paper taken from FSC certified sources, and Penguin and Harper Collins have both pledged to reach 100 percent FSC sourced paper in the next three years.

But the challenge is also far from over. According to the FSC, many European and US publishers outsource their manufacturing to China, where imported timber from Indonesia is accompanied by one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

In the UK, just 13 percent of land is covered by trees and a recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee criticised forest regulation as “not fit for purpose”.

So what can readers do to help? The FSC recommends looking out for its logo on any book you buy. And if that's not enough to satisfy, the Harry Potter Alliance has created a guide to fighting climate change for fans. 

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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