The old concert venue of St George’s Bristol looks different. It ’s our first visit since the £6.5million extension opened last autumn and though many complementary things have been said about this ambitious build, its bar and (the food in) the new cafe, it’s still a surprise to see the vast amount of space here, especially when compared with all we’ve ever known of the place. It’s as though this tucked away, oddly little talked-about venue off Bristol’s bustling Park Street (it always feels like your own beautiful secret) has borrowed meterage from somewhere else. It’s almost hard to believe that the space was there all along, albeit hidden.
But tonight, the new pavilion is not the only thing that gives you the sensation that you are, if not elsewhere, then experiencing something out of the ordinary. We walk through the main hall of the auditorium to a different layout: chairs are placed around the edges of the room, there are sofas and, more intriguingly, people have brought their own blankets, seats and pillows and are camped out comfortably on the clean wooden floor. We find our way upstairs (me with a pint of Bristol Beer Factory ale and my 12 year old companion with a soft drink) and I’m a little disappointed that our seats are in the BB aisle of the side gallery, where the view of the stage is restricted. But this is Classical Mixtape Live 1 and didn’t I say that we haven’t come to any standard evening? Because, though there are two main performing areas in the hall down below, we are also aware of an ensemble gathered at our shoulder – these are the wonderful Exultate Singers, who begin the concert with John Taverner’s ‘Hymn to the Mother Child’, joined by the rest of their group somewhere downstairs. Voices fill the entire hall, wherever you are seated.
The theme of Classical Mixtape is that no piece lasts longer than 6 or 7 minutes (some feel a lot shorter) and the menu is wide-ranging, from Bach to Chopin to Eric Whitacre, Saint-Saëns to Rachmaninoff to Avro Pärt. The music moves about, literally: Violinist Daniel Pioro is one minute beside Adam Heron on the piano on stage, the next wandering around the gallery still playing his instrument. Likewise, Saxophonist Amy Dickson. Cellist Laura van der Heijden understandably isn’t mobile and takes her place at the mid-back of the hall, opposite the David Ogden-directed Singers (when they are indeed there and not popping up somewhere else unexpected). Each of the two halves of uninterrupted, continuous music lasts around 40 minutes and the fast-changing pace means there is no boredom or restlessness emanating from the children dotted around the audience or, for that matter, from any of us not-so-used-to-long-pieces-and-likely-to-get-fidgety-or-nod-off. There is no fear of that – some of the numbers are mellow and balance well with those that are more lively. Some pieces we know, some we think we recognise and others not so much – the addition of the traditional ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ is a great touch (a little more of that ear-pleasing spanner in the works please).
St George’s Classical Programmer, Meurig Bowen’s hope is that the experimentation of Mixtape will open up classical music to a new audience though I’m not sure this is for everyone – for afficionados it might be like listening to a ‘Hooked on Classics’ album after a lifetime of afternoons with Radio 3, which, in fact, would be very unfair as all the music here is top-notch and beautifully performed in an acoustically superior concert hall. If you’re not experienced in listening to longer pieces but would like a sometimes chilled, sometimes invigorating musical night out, then this is for you. In the end it didn’t matter about which view we had due to the fluidity of the performers and, of course, this is all about the quality of the music anyway. However, I must admit to being slightly envious of those below who looked as though they were sunbathing in full and sunny splendour on this cold, snowy West of England day. Next time, I’m taking my own bed to roll out to Classical Mixtape Live 2.
Classical Mixtape Live 2 Summer Gala plays at St George’s, Bristol on 28th June 2019