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  • Ariane Todes

Getting my fix at half past six


The London Symphony Orchestra’s early evening concert format is a welcome development in the city’s entertainment landscape, for music lovers and novices alike

Tonight I experienced my first Half Six Fix with London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican – only a year after it was introduced as part of Simon Rattle’s new directorship as a way to encourage new audiences. Half Six Fix does what it says on the bottle – starts at 6.30pm and lasts an hour, in this case perfectly balancing Stravinsky’s Le chant du rossignol and Debussy’s La mer.

As part of the experience conductor François-Xavier Roth informed and charmed from the podium, offering interesting context to both works, singing Charles Trenet’s version of La mer and telling Satie’s joke about the piece, whose first movement paints dawn to midday – ‘there’s a good tune at around 11 o’clock’. His comic timing proved as good as his musical one as he asked us, ‘You weeel corrrect my Eeenglish, no?’

Another innovation in these concerts is offering the audience Encue, an app that allows you to read the programme notes in real time on your telephone, using the Barbican’s wifi. I was slightly dreading this, being a phone-phobe when it comes to concerts. My discomfort increased when I got to my seat and noticed the elderly gentleman sitting next to me looking angrily at my phone, just as I would have done had I been sitting next to myself. As it was, the white text against a black background was discreet and I managed to shield my phone from him with my ticket.

The programme notes proved useful in the Stravinsky, as they described the plot about the nightingale and the emperor. In the Debussy they felt a little redundant, essentially relating the music – as Elvis Costello once put it, ‘like dancing about architecture’. I imagine this would be the case even to a novice. In fact, I didn’t see many people using Encue, just as I didn’t see many people with drinks, which are allowed in the hall, but maybe old habits die hard for regular listeners, and I was in the nice stall seats with a press ticket.

Two large screens on either side of the stage showed close-ups on orchestral soloists, which provided valuable detail, although the default screen was a swirly LSO pattern when it would have been nice to see Roth from the front sometimes. The players were in black and white rather than DJs, which didn't affect me either way. But then, as a boffin I realise I’m not the target audience for these concerts, and whatever takes the edge of the strangeness of the experience for people who aren’t is a good thing.

The timeframe of one hour in the early evening is an excellent development – for post-work music lovers and wary newbies alike, as is the possibility of Wildcard tickets for £10. Having artists such as Roth (and Simon Rattle and Gianandrea Noseda) communicating so well with the audience is a major boon. I’ve long argued that artists are the best people to advocate for classical music – much better than journalists and academics.

I’m not sure I’d use Encue again myself, but it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it might. And as the merry crowd dispersed and I made my way home through the dusky Barbican complex at 7.40 I heard a bird singing away amid the concrete. Was it a nightingale?

The next Half Six Fix is on Tuesday, 13 November.

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