Helen Wallace © Nick White
Helen Wallace
© Nick White

The second lockdown has been a cruel disappointment to many in the performing arts, but none more so than Helen Wallace, Artistic Director of Kings Place, who has been straining every muscle to keep bringing live music to real, in-the-flesh audiences. “We have been operating as a Covid-safe venue since 18th September – we were even doing micro free concerts with a skeleton staff in August. We’ve done 100 events since reopening. Everyone has behaved impeccably, staff, audience and artists: everyone wore masks, everyone sat exactly where they were supposed to, everyone had followed a one-way system. We had got that system running like clockwork with no bad experiences, or any connection to an outbreak. So it’s really demoralising for us to have to close, and for our artists and musicians who had also been making it work, who had been sharing the risk and doing their damnedest. The Brodsky Quartet played the Große Füge three times in one afternoon, just to reach the normal number of people.”

Famously, classical music works on long lead times, with programmes planned months or years in advance. That all changed this year, with Covid-induced constraints requiring programme directors to display the flexibility of a circus contortionist. With the announcement on Saturday 31st October that music venues would be closing to audiences just six days later, Wallace eked out the most that she could from the few precious days remaining. Two concerts planned for Friday 6th November were brought forward: the Brodsky Quartet’s Beethoven to the Tuesday and the London Sinfonietta (“a quite complex piece by Matthew Herbert with electronics and live musicians”) to the Wednesday. “What was interesting is that it’s the quickest we’ve ever changed schedule, and the audience came with it – they didn’t bat an eyelid.”

A mitigating factor about this second lockdown is that Kings Place are allowed to use the building as a place of work, so they can host rehearsals and filming. “I feel cheered by the fact that our spaces can be used for really creative reasons by lots of musicians. It was such a waste in the first lockdown when the building was completely mothballed.”

Brodsky Quartet © Rosie Chapman
Brodsky Quartet
© Rosie Chapman

Kings Place’s can-do attitude to ensuring that the show goes on was rewarded by a substantial grant from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund (CRF), which has been a life saver. So even if live audiences continue to be barred or reduced, concerts will be streamed over the KPlayer platform. Video isn’t new to Kings Place – the cameras were in place long before Covid struck – but concerts were filmed only rarely: “we’ve had some amazing concerts that were never filmed, because of the expense. The cameras tended to be used for conferencing.” Their cameras are HD, and Wallace is applying for funding to upgrade them to 4k and get more staff training. “What’s become clear is that people are now expecting far higher quality in broadcast concerts. People watched the Berlin Philharmonic site when they made it free at the beginning of lockdown: that’s now the gold standard we all have to aspire to.”

Unlike most venues, Kings Place plans its seasons in calendar years. As always, 2021 will embrace a heady mix of genres: folk, jazz, music in indigenous styles from all over the world, comedy and politics in addition to a widely varied classical programme. With such an enormous field to choose from, I ask how Wallace goes about building a season?

“Our spaces determine many of the choices, because things have to work with their stage sizes and the size of audiences. Folk shows like Martin Simpson or Kathryn Tickell work really well in Hall One because it can feel intimate but it’s not too small: there’s a high ceiling, there’s a wide gallery, the right acoustic. And the size of their following is right for the hall. That’s also the case for our chamber music and the live comedy podcasting: it’s the right number of people in the room to create the right energy, but intimacy. So rather than just looking for which artists I like, it’s more about what’s really going to sing in there.”

Cassie Kinoshi © Kings Place
Cassie Kinoshi
© Kings Place

Wallace believes strongly in Kings Place’s long-running artistic partnerships. Within the classical ambit, that means the Aurora Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, the OAE, the Brodsky Quartet and The Sixteen, all of whom will be featuring strongly next year. Each year, planning is driven by an overarching theme for “what is this year about”. 2019 was Venus Unwrapped, about women creatives, 2020 has been Nature Unwrapped (“nature came back to bite us”, Wallace observes ruefully). 2021 will be London Unwrapped, using the whole diversity of available talent to tell the story of the capital, weaving the different genres together. For London, the musical story is that all the really significant players and game-changers were immigrants, from immigrant communities or visitors, from Handel to Mendelssohn to Hendrix to Freddie Mercury.

The present plan is for London Unwrapped to start with a big recital of arias by Handel's London altos sung by Iestyn Davies. Whatever happens to individual event plans, Wallace says, we can be sure that Davies and saxophonist and composer Cassie Kenoshi (both artists in residence) will be involved. Another example of London-related music will be Phantasm’s concert of music from the London courts of the late 17th Century. 

Peter Millican, Kings Place’s founder, always hoped that the plethora of different genres would encourage audiences to broaden their tastes and try different things. It’s been a point of frustration over recent years that this hasn’t happened enough: “there were these passionate tribes that identified solely with folk or identified their whole personality with classical and didn't cross over at all.” In recent years, though, Kings Place have been doing cross-arts programming and identifying a body of people who will embrace multiple genres: “Formats like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Bach, the Universe and Everything have opened this up: if you’re interested in a science lecture, you’ll come to that and hear the Bach cantata, but then there’s another group of people who are coming to hear the cantata, and the fact that there’s a very famous scientist talking about an interesting subject is a bonus.”

Elena Urioste and Tom Poster © Monika S Jakubwoska
Elena Urioste and Tom Poster
© Monika S Jakubwoska

Of all the various effects of the pandemic, what Wallace has found particularly tough is the effect on her staff. She had the painful experience of making ten redundancies – almost half the team. And her working life has changed beyond recognition: in normal times, much of the day would consist of face to face discussions. Now that she is working from home, she misses the hall horribly, “that lovely moment when you take an artist into the hall, and they feel the acoustic, they clap their hands, they want to get on that stage and start creating something. Towards the end of the day, I’d slip into the hall with somebody doing a soundcheck or just rehearsing and have that wonderful connection with the music and the purpose of this job.” On the other hand, there have been useful lessons for a post-pandemic future: keeping concerts short has turned out to be extremely popular, with audiences enjoying the ability to focus on a single substantial work.

With a CRF grant that runs out in March and a business model that relies on income from corporate events, a sector that Covid-19 has hammered even harder than the performing arts, Kings Place faces an uncertain future. But Wallace is confident that audiences will return: “all our experience of the last few months has been that there really is a huge thirst for coming to live music”. And whatever next year brings, you can be confident that Wallace and her team will find a response. “This summer, we were putting on culture clinics in our spaces, but just up to six people, before we were allowed more people in the room. We had Ewan McLennan in one room doing folk guitar, Tom Poster and Elena Urioste in Hall One, playing classical, Elliot Galvin in Hall Two playing jazz improvisation at the piano, a poet upstairs on the canalside: these things were going on all day, every session was 15 minutes. We had a constant trail of people going into these places and having incredibly intense experiences with the musicians. It was an encapsulation of everything I want Kings Place to be.”


This interview was sponsored by Kings Place