Barry Ife on keeping music (a)live

05 June 2020

Marin Alsop and Nicola Benedetti hold hands, about to bow, after a performance

Our Chairman Professor Sir Barry Ife CBE ponders the future of live arts at Saffron Hall and beyond.

I hope that many of you have been following this month’s Radio 3 lunchtime concerts live from behind the locked doors of the Wigmore Hall. Trudi and I have really entered into the spirit of this return to near normality. Every day we've cleared the decks, settled ourselves into the stereo sofa in front of our highest-fi (a recent upgrade from my state of the art kit from the early 70s) and listened in HD streamed at 320kbps. The playing and singing has been outstanding and the acoustic image has been near perfect, just like being in the hall itself, only with more leg room.

But it’s not the real thing. 1.5 million people listened to Stephen Hough’s stunning performance of the Bach/Busoni chaconne and Schumann’s Op 17 Fantasie on Monday. That is orders of magnitude greater than the capacity of the Wigmore, or any other hall for that matter. 8 million people watched the National Theatre’s stream of One Man, Two Guvnors during the first week of lockdown, again, many, many times more than would or could ever have seen the show in the theatre. All of which is wonderful, greatly to be celebrated and grappled with hoops of steel when normality, new or old, eventually returns.

Many listeners, however, do not an audience make. The performers themselves have commented on the oddness of knowing that they're playing to a large virtual audience whom they can’t see. A live concert is a complex network of communication involving all the senses. The players need to see us and we need to see them, and see each other. A concert is a communal, even congregational, experience to which everyone contributes. And a concert is not just an event but, for most people, an occasion. However many concerts we attend, we all remember a special moment when great music has marked a turning point in our lives and furthered our understanding.

All of which makes Saffron Hall no ordinary concert hall. Deeply embedded in the community - even after only six seasons - and strongly supported by a wonderful group of members and regular concert-goers, Saffron Hall has already made its mark, not just for the quality of the performances but for the range of opportunities it brings to young people in the area. Being part of SWCHS is one of the secrets of our success. The Hall itself is large enough to take the largest symphony orchestras, small enough to feel intimate however many players we have on stage, and just about the right size to be sustainable - under normal conditions.

But things aren't normal, just yet. As I write we're waiting to hear from the government about when we may be able to re-open and under what conditions. Angela and her team have been thinking hard about how some live music might be possible before too long, given the exceptional flexibility that the hall offers. We would like to be one of the first halls to invite our audience and our performers back in - under the safest possible conditions, of course.

Saffron Hall has a very special relationship with its community. At the heart of the school and engaged with primary schools, local amateur groups and vulnerable people within the locality, it's connected to almost everyone. I'm certain that this kind of model is the future of the arts in this country and it's needed now more than ever.

So until we meet again, I very much hope that you will all join me in supporting Saffron Hall in whatever ways you can. If you aren't (yet) a member, please consider joining. If you are a member, please consider upgrading. And if you are already a Foundation Member please consider joining me and other members of the Board in sponsoring a concert when we are operational again. Please help us to keep music (a)live at Saffron Hall.