Saturday, June 09, 2007

Festivities at the Royal Festival Hall

If you need something to do this weekend and you live in London, head for the South Bank’s newly reopened Royal Festival Hall, which is hosting three days of concerts and events in every style of music you can imagine. Saying that there’s something for everyone is underselling it. After all, where else can you move from a silent disco to a gamelanathon (all will become clear below) in 30 seconds?

After its £110m refit – everything from auditorium acoustics to terrace tiles has been changed – the RFH has laid itself open, filling every floor with sound and spectacle. The two don’t have to go together, however, as shown by Friday night’s silent disco, which is where revellers don headphones and dance to tunes only they can hear. It is surreal to see hundreds of people dancing on the terrace outside the RFH without music, as though possessed, but it seemed perfectly normal when I was engrossed in my headphones. It is happening again on Saturday night.

The gamelanathon was similarly wonderful and weird. A gamelan is a traditional Indonesian ensemble of xylophones, glockenspiels, drums and gongs, and it’s rare enough to find one in England, so to bring 26 together at once (hence ‘gamelanathon’) is some feat. The result is musical and mystical, and can be heard all weekend.

Across the rest of the weekend are events covering every genre of music you can imagine. Billy Bragg, the angrier, less melodic British Bob Dylan, is performing just behind the RFH in the South Bank Centre Square on Saturday night, while cult indie trio Saint Etienne are compèring two days of their choice of tunes on Level 6.

If choirs are your thing, then practically every choir in London is there at some point, from the BBC Symphony Chorus and the African Gospel Choir to the six choirs ferried along the Thames on a barge before being set down in front of the RFH to perform. This was a highlight of Friday night and is sure to crown Saturday too.

Classical guitarist Xuefei Yang, human beatboxer Shlomo, Million Dead frontman Frank Turner, a Bollywood brass band, a surfeit of clarinettists, Tudor ensemble The Sixteen, Paco Pena the flamenco genius: there is such a variety of performances (and dozens beyond these) that at least one thing must activate your sense of rhythm. If not, I’d check for a pulse.

If the RFH can live up to this overture, embracing not just the big international classical stars but home-grown musicians from every genre, it will become the beating heart of Britain’s music scene. Welcome back, Royal Festival Hall!

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