Royal Festival Hall in London reopens with BLM-inspired season

First post-lockdown season will feature new commission inspired by BLM protest in London

Orchestras are to return to one of Britain’s most distinctive concert halls after a six-month absence with a season heavily influenced by this year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Classical music has long been criticised for being overwhelmingly white, but the Southbank Centre said its first post-lockdown season in the Royal Festival Hall would feature works by 16 composers of colour.

It will include a new commission from the British composer James B Wilson, inspired by an event that took place on the centre’s doorstep – Patrick Hutchinson coming to the aid of a white counter-protester at a BLM protest.

Musicians will be returning for the three-month series of concerts at the centre, but audiences will not. Instead the events will be streamed online and 10 of the concerts will be broadcast on Radio 3.

Gillian Moore, director of music at the Southbank Centre, said the return of orchestras was thrilling. “My heart is singing,” she said. “It has been like an ache, the idea that the wonderful Royal Festival Hall, in particular, is not resounding to the sound of music.”

The season had to respond to contemporary events, she said. “We are not emerging into a world where it is business as usual. I think we’ve all been changed.”

Moore said the centre had always been alert to the accusation that classical music exists in “a kind of abstract bubble. That it doesn’t bother its pretty head with matters which are urgent to people’s lives. We embrace that idea at our peril.”

The season will include work by Adolphus Hailstork, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Courtney Bryan, Dai Fujikura, Errollyn Wallen, Fela Sowande, George Lewis, Hannah Kendall, Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, Jimmy López, Joel Thompson, Joseph Boulogne, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Tania León.

There will also be lots of Beethoven. Moore said: “It is his 250th anniversary year and he’s had a rather curtailed party. He can really speak to these times because of his utter humanity … he is universal.”

The work by Wilson, a collaboration with the poet Yomi Sode, will respond to the image that went viral of Hutchinson carrying a counter-protester. It was an event that took place at the artists’ entrance to the Royal Festival Hall. Wilson said: “It was an absolutely incredible image. It was a kind of watershed moment in what we’ve been seeing in the last few months.”

The new work interrogates the image and the issues further, said Wilson, “perhaps in a way which hasn’t yet been done in the media”. It will be performed by Chineke! Orchestra.

The new season is titled Inside Out and also includes comedy and literature. In that latter category there will be events featuring Angela Davis, Alicia Garza, Dawn French, John Cleese, Claudia Rankine, Arundhati Roy and Kae Tempest.

Another classical music highlight will be the postponed last ever recital at a major UK venue for the violinist Tasmin Little. Moore said: “She has decided she is going to do other things and not have the touring life. It is a historic moment.”

Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra which has called the Southbank Centre home since the 1950s, welcomed the return a concert hall. He said: While the foyers might lie quiet with the distant sound of our audiences, nothing will be able to suppress the energy and excitement of the LPO as we return to the Royal Festival Hall stage.”

• Inside Out runs from 16 September to 30 December at the Southbank Centre, London.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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