'Relaxed' classical music concerts for all ages in south London
The programme for this City of London Sinfonia (CLS) Comfortable Classical concert included pieces by some of the great classical masters, Bach and Grieg, and yet the atmosphere in the Canada Water theatre was like that of a baby and toddler play group combined with a seniors’ coffee morning at a local community centre. Rather than wait backstage pre-performance, musicians warmly greeted their audience of young and old - which included people with autism, dementia and sensory impairments - to dispel the fuss and formality of the concert hall.
For many in the audience it was their first time at a classical concert. So a violinist approached one fourteen-month-old baby and mother to offer a few bars of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ as a gentle introduction to her instrument. Several toddlers sat on cushions, scattered round the fringes of the performance area, and began to draw using paper and crayons provided. Alexandra Wood, first violin and leader of CLS, set a playful tone in her introduction: “We want you to listen to the music in whichever way makes you feel most comfortable. Even if it’s as you dance!”
Many toddlers were quick to take up the invitation and got up to sway and walk about. The musicians were not put off by this, they endorse such freedom. Second violin Jane Carwardine explains, “It’s unusual really, to listen to music and not want to join in and move about.” While the musicians were casually dressed there was nothing casual about their fine playing. They shared anecdotes and a little bit of history about each piece before they played it, so that the concert felt like a conversation. A short piece Bird of Paradise, by eccentric American composer Moondog, was performed with musicians dotted throughout the auditorium; its bird-trill phrases layered over-baby burbling and the occasional toddler squeal of surprise and delight.
In these Relaxed performances, people can come and go as they please, sit on the floor or a seat, engage in colouring in activities with their children and grandchildren, or knit as they listen to a 50-minute programme of contemporary and traditional classical pieces.
These Comfortable Classical concerts might have too many distractions for music traditionalists, but if you accept the premise of the format is to bring audiences together in the sharing of beautiful music, they can be experienced, on their own terms, as cultural events for families of several generations to enjoy. Fiona Lambert, CLS’s Director of Participation, says the inspiration for the series came from their Relaxed performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2018: “We noted at those concerts that older people in our audiences would begin to interact with the very young, and that cross-generational communication is very much part of our ethos.”
A Comfortable Classical concert will present classical music in a family and age-friendly environment, and put a smile on your face for the rest of day.