In Peckham with the Multi-Story Orchestra

By · Photography Ambra Vernuccio · Date 09/08/2016

On a sunny if slightly windy evening this July, a group of young instrumentalists came together in southeast London for a performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The concert took place in an unexpected setting: a disused multi-story car park. Since 2011, the Multi-Story Orchestra have been faithful to their name, taking up residence at a garage in Peckham, originally constructed for a supermarket which was never built.

Ticket holders were told that the concert started at 7 p.m. But rather than starting with the symphony proper, members of the orchestra divided into smaller groups positioned at different points on the roof of the car park, which the audience could drift around between. Each group had the task of unpacking a tiny bit of Beethoven’s score—showing, for example, how the different wind instruments imitate bird songs—and also gave audience members the chance to have a go at conducting. The enthusiasm of these young musicians made this interactive introduction to the music fun and light-hearted—a far cry from the dry or condescending tones that many written program notes can suffer from.

At 8 p.m. the audience descended one level to take their seats for the full performance of Beethoven’s Sixth. During the performance the audience was allowed to buy drinks, wander around freely and clap between movements. The completely non-soundproof venue meant that the passing trains and the wind whipping round the car park could all be heard.

Though Christopher Stark, the orchestra’s conductor, could hardly have planned it, the sound of the wind actually made a rather fitting backdrop to Beethoven’s depiction of the natural world, nicely anticipating the fourth movement’s thunderstorm. Seated in a horseshoe around the orchestra—creating what Stark called a “human cocoon”—we were close enough to enjoy being enveloped by its sound. “The audience are so close to the orchestra, so the boundaries become blurred between audience and the performers,” Stark later told me, describing why this unusual setting was able to create such a distinctive atmosphere.

Performing classical music in unconventional settings is nothing new, however. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment regularly perform in pubs and gig venues as part of their “Night Shift” series, and the record label Nonclassical has been putting on classical music club nights for over 10 years. Yet for the composer Kate Whitely, who founded the Multi-Story Orchestra alongside Stark, it is primarily the venue that makes them different. Pubs and clubs are already familiar performance spaces, but “a car park is not really associated with art.” This detachment from conventional concert venues also ties in with the original goal behind founding the orchestra: to “declutter” classical music. “We all feel that people are very rarely put off by classical music itself, and that they can be put off by how it is sometimes presented,” Stark said. “Putting an orchestra in a space completely unassociated with classical music was our way of decluttering.”

Conductor Christopher Stark.
Conductor Christopher Stark.

Stark and Whitely’s aims are certainly noble ones. But I am not convinced that their choice of venue is as free from associations as they may hope. Their disused car park in Peckham is not as raw as it initially sounds, for it is actually home to the art commissioning organization Bold Tendencies and Frank’s Café: a regular stomping ground for London’s hipsters and a disconcerting symbol of the area’s gentrification. The clientele here is young but also mostly white, something that made me feel uncomfortable given that Peckham is one of the most ethnically diverse and deprived areas of London. Their customers must come from elsewhere, suggesting they are made to feel more welcome than the less-well-off locals.

A workshop led by the Multi-Story Orchestra in July 2016.
A workshop led by the Multi-Story Orchestra in July 2016.

The attendance at the Multi-Story Orchestra’s concerts is sadly not too dissimilar. Although the average age may be a little older, at the three concerts I attended the audience were predominantly white. A couple I sat next to at one concert told me they had traveled from Islington (an area often considered one of London’s most middle-class). Stark and Whitely have been making efforts to address this issue, through their work with the local community. Prior to each of the orchestra’s summer seasons, they tour and perform in neighborhood schools, and for the first concert of the season, they invite students to perform alongside them, with music written by Whitely in collaboration with the poet Sabrina Mahfouz. Whitely said that these performances “drew a much more diverse audience, made up of local parents, carers and siblings, than our other concerts. We’re really keen, as Multi-Story develops, to build the whole summer program around our school and community work, so that we can begin to blur the lines further between the community and more traditional concerts.”

Brahms, Symphony No. 1; Multi-Story Orchestra, Christopher Stark (Conductor)

Although the Multi-Story Orchestra still has some way to go if Whitely’s aim “to make Multi-Story as inclusive as possible” is to be achieved, they are nevertheless receiving their greatest recognition so far: a spot at this years’ BBC Proms. The 2016 season has brought in a new “Proms at…” series, which takes the festival to venues around London outside its home venues of the Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall. The Multi-Story Orchestra’s concert at Bold Tendencies on September 3 was a part of this series, alongside concerts at Shakespeare’s Globe in Southwark, the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich and the Roundhouse in Camden. “It’s given us a level of visibility we could have only dreamed about when we started in 2011,” Stark said.

The Multi-Story Orchestra’s involvement with the Proms will certainly attract more people to their performances: being part of the festival will generate greater interest in their work and the concert will be broadcast on the BBC’s Radio Three, making it available to anyone to listen to. The orchestra’s reach is certainly spreading, but mostly only to Proms audiences, who are already classical music fans. Instead of widening their reach outwards, the Multi-Story Orchestra still need to attract the audience on their doorstep. It’s no easy task and it’s an issue that all classical music organizations struggle with. If they succeed, perhaps they will have found that magic ingredient which truly makes classical music accessible to everyone. ¶