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Back to the drawing room

Will "club-style" classical-music nights really win over new audiences?

<strong>This Isn't For Yo

The last time I went on a night out in York Way, the industrial thoroughfare near King's Cross, it was to a grime and bassline rave called Chock-a-Block. We arrived at about midnight, danced until our legs ached, and left at 5am, tired but happy.

Tonight, the experience on offer is rather different. Just down the road, new concert venue King's Place has given a monthly residency to an event called "This Isn't For You". Curated by Matt Fretton, TIFY is an informal classical club night, which won critical plaudits when it started in Shoreditch in 2006 (well, with some critics: "It really wasn't for me," decided a more mature Gramophone reviewer at the time). It is implicitly aimed at the under-30s, who apparently need some innovation to awaken their dormant interest in classical music.

Many have taken on this challenge, from the English National Opera, which commissioned the much-maligned Gadaffi opera scored by Asian Dub Foundation, to the BBC transforming the drum and bass DJ Goldie into a conductor with its recent reality TV series Maestro. So will this attempt work? With my own experience of classical music limited to a performance of Shostakovich's 5th at the Barbican and Yo-Yo Ma cameos on the West Wing, I am TIFY's perfect target.

Inside King's Place's hall two, efforts have been made to distinguish the event from a traditional chamber music concert. Giant multi-coloured throw cushions are scattered across the floor, with a few token chairs around the perimeter. There are no more than 50 in the audience, and hardly anyone is actually under 30; there is an elderly gentleman who looks every bit like my old history don. The set-up looks radical, but the atmosphere is stiff - no-one so much as coughs without looking guilty, let alone gets up to move around.

The hour-long programme for this evening is based on "breath as a subliminal theme". It features three players (on flute, harp, and viola) and a tenor. The small room creates an intimacy and egalitarianism that are the night's real strengths. The ornate patterns on the harp's base are clearly visible, as is the spit-spray emanating from an enthusiastic flautist and the viola player's dancing goatee.

After some awkward shuffling and a slightly rasping delivery of Toru Takemitsu's Toward The Sea, an unnerving piece composed for Greenpeace's Save the Whale campaign, the atmosphere begins to relax a little with an elegant delivery of the lovelorn first movement of Debussy's "Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp". Suzanne Willison-Kawalec's harp is the perfect accompaniment to the talented young tenor Adrian Ward's three Benjamin Britten songs, the highlight of which is the affecting song of a jilted lover, "O Waly Waly".

The "breath" theme allows performers to explore a variety of styles and forms, most stimulatingly in the case of Mauricio Kagel's 1969-70 piece Atem. Performed from an intriguing-looking graphic score (something like a film storyboard), flautist Daniel Parkin pulled off an unconventional composition. Accompanied by what could be mistaken for the BBC sound-effects library on "shuffle" in the background (the sound of footsteps, a saw, etc), Parkin used three different flutes, a scarf, a duvet and a range of groaning noises to tell Kagel's silent narrative of a retired musician tending to his beloved flute.

After several minutes of brittle, playing, some increasingly fraught groaning noises and a few giggles from the audience, Parkin makes a noise like a dying bumblebee and ends up flat on his back, flute still held to lips.

I came away surprised and impressed by an adventurous programme and theme, but something didn't quite sit right. In fact, it was me: I wasn't quite sitting right. Giant throw cushions are neither as informal nor as comfortable as they might sound, as every slight movement creates a disruptive swishing noise.

In the end, I would rather keep clubs as they are, and hear classical concerts in traditional venues, seated in traditional chairs. But then I would say that: young people are quite conservative really, aren't they?

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Herbie Hancock
15 November, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1
The genius jazz pianist returns.

Portico Quartet
19 November, Purcell Room, South Bank, London SE1
Mercury Prize nominees play Glass-inspired improvisations.

Rokia Traoré
19 November, Jazz Café, London N1
The Malian singer and guitarist moves into new rhythmic territory.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania