Discovery channel | 10 years of LSO St Luke’s

- 26 February 2013

It is ten years since the London Symphony Orchestra renovated a city church to use for rehearsals, recordings and a bit of education work. But the educational side has become increasingly important and feeds into all the orchestra’s work. Toby Deller looks at a decade of LSO St Luke’s

Fit for purpose: the interior of LSO St Luke’s, as refurbished by Levitt Bernstein architects.
Photo: Matthew Weinreb

Whitecross Street is a busy market street during the day, with an array of appealing food stalls and outlets for office workers and residents to queue at during lunch. But it’s also something of a cultural ley line. At one end is the Barbican. At the other: LSO St Luke’s, the restored, converted Hawksmoor church on the northern fringes of the City of London that is home to the orchestra’s community and outreach arm, LSO Discovery.

It is a place that those involved in running it have taken to referring to as ‘a laboratory and a hub’. And in its way it is helping the LSO redefine what an orchestra, as a performing organisation, can be.

‘The original business plan I think stated that the LSO would rehearse in there, do some recordings and a bit of education work,’ says the centre’s director, Karen Cardy. ‘They couldn’t possibly have anticipated the balance of work that we have now. We have two thirds artistic and education to one third commercial (which underpins all the Discovery activity and artistic work that we do). And it’s really every day ‒ there are some days when there are three different sessions. During the festival, we’ve got 19 events in 12 days. The team there are really expert at putting on events, and it’s a very flexible building ‒ you can move the seating back and forward ‒ and we’ll be using it to its maximum in the festival.’

Festival? This year marks ten years since LSO St Luke’s opened. To celebrate the occasion is this snapshot, running from 21 March to 1 April, of the activity that takes place there: a wide variety of performances, education sessions and showcase events. Remarkably, what most of us would probably think of as the LSO ‒ the orchestra ‒ barely features. Individual LSO musicians and small groups will appear from time to time, but for the most part the participants are guest artists (Aurora Orchestra, the Vienna Piano Trio, Wihan Quartet, the Nash Ensemble, oud player Dhafer Youssef) and representatives of various LSO Discovery schemes and community groups.

‘I love the word “laboratory”,’ confesses Eleanor Gussman, LSO Discovery’s head boffin. She describes her department as ‘all about exploring. It’s always been like that from 22 years ago when we set up the programme. One programme we started there 18 months ago, Soundhub, is an evolution of our work with composers and is now directly responding to the needs of the composers and their desires. There’s a real sense that we’ve created a laboratory at St Luke’s where the building provides this kind of inspirational space for people to try things out, to explore in a safe environment where they are surrounded by LSO musicians who just pop in and they can just treat them as colleagues and to bounce ideas around.’

Creative laboratory: Jason Yarde and Colin Matthews during a Panufnik workshop.
Photo: Kevin Leighton

‘It’s had a massive impact on the LSO,’ adds Cardy. ‘It’s made a difference to the quality of some of our artistic relationships, like with John Adams, or with Lang Lang coming in and doing a whole week of education as well as performances with the LSO. It means that we can get to know them a bit better now, and they show more different sides of their musical personality. So when Lang Lang came we did Chinese music as well as what he would normally do, and a performance with 100 pianos. We recorded it, we filmed it all, we streamed it and did all sorts of things with new technology. He saw that and took it away and has applied that in various other places that he’s been to because he can see the value of it.’

LSO managing director Kathryn McDowell agrees. ‘The way the music industry has worked in the last few decades, artists have been increasingly spending time on aeroplanes and jetting from one place to another. I don’t think that’s really the best way to make good work. I remember a conversation I had some years ago with one international soloist who said: “I’d love to be able to stay here for a few weeks and do a whole range of things.” Well now they can. They can work with students from next door at the Guildhall, they can do masterclasses, they can coach and develop ensembles. Having LSO St Luke’s as a base for that has really transformed those relationships. It was Nikolaj Znaider who said that, and he’s now one of those people who does come.’

But St Luke’s is not only connected to the Barbican. The LSO teams using it see it as a point of contact with the people living and working in the area too. It helps that, although seriously derelict for a long time, the building was already a feature in the landscape, as McDowell says: ‘A lot of local people really love LSO St Luke’s and part of their family is there, people will come in and say: my parents were married here or I was baptised here. People were sad to see it fall into disrepair and were glad to see it turned into something, a resource for the community.’

It’s not just a resource for audiences, though. The festival is a chance to reunite the participants of LSO On Track, the orchestra of young east Londoners who performed at the Olympics opening ceremony. Then there’s the Not(e) Perfect Orchestra, comprising adult amateurs alongside members of the LSO. ‘We do so much work with young musicians,’ says Gussman, ‘that we’re now feeling that this is the time to really engage with their parents, their friends and families. This is the opportunity to turn the spotlight back on the parents and people who’ve known about Discovery but haven’t had the opportunity to come and have a go.’

Indeed, one of the first initiatives at St Luke’s was to set up a community choir. It has grown from its initial ten unauditioned singers and is another of the local groups featuring in the festival. ‘Straight away, once we started the community choir there were granddads and grandchildren coming together,’ says Gussman. ‘The lady who is now our receptionist came with one of her children and all her friends.’

‘She still does,’ interjects McDowell. ‘And now she’s got a job with us!’

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