Bow Roundabout – local history and news

posted 29 Oct 2017

East End Classical Music Revival Arises in Bow

Jay Parte – piano.  St Mary & Holy Trinity Church, Bow, London E3      28 October 2017

Chopin – Fantasie impromptu, Op. 66
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K 511
Liebermann – Nocturne No. 4 Op.38
Bartók – Romanian Folk Dances, Sz 56
Bach – Prelude and Fugue in G# minor, WTK Bk II
Scarlatti – Sonata in B minor, K 27
Chopin – Scherzo No. 3
Chopin – Etude Op. 10, No. 3
Chopin – Etude Op. 10, No. 12
Barber – Excursion Op.20, No. 1

AT 3.30 IN THE afternoon on Saturday 28th October 2017 there was a classical music concert, a piano recital, at Bow Church. I saw the flyer announcing this concert, pinned to the noticeboard outside the church, behind the back of red-handed Gladstone stood on his pedestal above the disused public lavatories, and I saw it with as much amazement as George Bernard Shaw received the request of his editor in February 1889 to review a concert in Bow. “Snatching the tickets from the editor’s desk, I hastily ran home to get my revolver as a precaution during my hazardous voyage to the East End. Then I dashed away to Broad-street, and asked the booking-clerk whether he knew of a place called Bow.  He was evidently a man of extraordinary nerve, for he handed me a ticket without any sign of surprise, as if a voyage to Bow were the most commonplace event possible.” [1] A piano recital, or indeed any classical music concert, remains a rare and exotic thing in Bow today.

But in fact, classical music concerts in Bow were a regular event in the late 19th century, and Shaw himself wrote special praise for the concerts in the Bow and Bromley Institute, which had a large concert hall above the original Bow Station, a very grand building that was situated where Enterprise Car Rentals now ply their trade, opposite the Bow Church DLR station, which was opened in July 1870. “Here, every Saturday evening during the winter months, organ recitals are given, at which the most accomplished English and foreign performers appear, the charges for admission being sixpence and threepence.  A means is hereby provided for enabling the humblest classes to become acquainted with at least one variety of the best music, performed in the best manner, at a nominal cost; and it is cheering to know that the movement has been attended by unqualified success. Although the hall will accommodate 1200 persons, the number of those who desire admission is generally in excess of these figures. Further, the programs are neither exclusively nor mainly composed of overtures and operatic selections; on the contrary, the works of Bach and Mendelssohn are largely drawn upon. … The work here, it should be noted, is carried out on strictly businesslike principles, without any pretence at philanthropy or any intrusion of the goody-goody element.  Herein, we believe, lies the secret of its success.”[2]

800px-Bow_and_Bromley_Institute_c_1907

It’s hard to establish how long-lived that success was, but by 1930 the hall had become the Embassy Billiard Hall, and after the War it became the Bow Palais dance hall, later the Emerald Ballroom, until it was destroyed by fire in the late 1950s.[3] Long before then classical music performance in Bow would appear to have declined so swiftly as to have become unrecorded in the 20th century.  So it was with a mixture of amazement and delight that I saw the flyer announcing that a young pianist doing a Masters Degree at Trinity College in Greenwich should have brought his skills to Bow for the benefit of us, that exotic race that Shaw referred to as “Bowegians”.  No sixpence nor even threepence was demanded of us, the concert was free, and although I cannot report that over 1200 people streamed down the Bow Road to attend it, it was nevertheless performed to an attentive and appreciative audience of about 40 souls and dog tagged “Frazer”.

I confess that upon entry to the church, having declined the offer of a glass of wine, in order to keep my wits about me so as to give the intrepid performer full benefit of such meagre musical discernment as I have at my disposal, I was a little unnerved by the sight of the instrument upon which the music was to be executed.  This was no Fazioli grand, still less the Bow and Bromley Institute organ, but a rather diminutive dusty, chipped, upright piano of Finnish manufacture, a Fazer, an instrument that presumably serves mainly to support those who would sing hymns on a Sunday.  The reader will understand that, given the lack of a fee, the modesty of the instrument, and that, after all, this was Bow, E3, my expectations of the musical quality of this event were not high.

Jay Parte, the pianist who had travelled from India to further his career in the UK, and had now even crossed the Thames from Greenwich to give Bow the benefit of his musical skills, strode to the piano, sat at it, and without further ado launched into Chopin Fantasie Impromptu, op.66. Within seconds my anxieties were lifted and my spirits floated aloft towards the rafters of the old church roof, for not merely did Parte reveal himself to be a sensitive pianist, but he managed to make this limited old Joanna sound almost worthy of the music he played upon it. Okay, the bass didn’t resonate and the middle sounded muddy, but the pianist found a way of making magic with it. Indeed, the Mozart Rondo in A minor, K 511, suddenly seemed perfectly adapted for this instrument, all of a piece with the tasteful restraint of Parte’s interpretation. It’s so difficult to do, play Mozart without romanticising it whilst yet enabling the full expressive potential of the music to speak, but Parte accomplished this very nicely indeed.

The performances were all informed by a welcome measure of interpretative clarity, the structure of the music never lost to the rigorous demands of virtuosity.  The hypnotic repeated figures of Liebermann’s Nocturne No. 4 kept their insistent steady rhythm as the accented shrill melody in the treble echoed round the church.  Bartók Romanian Folk Dances, Sz 56 might have benefited from a slightly more vulgar interpretation, something a little more incisive and heavy on the folk dance rhythms, but they were attractively done.

After the interval Parte played Bach Prelude and Fugue in G# minor from Das wohltemperierte Klavier, Bk 2.  The Prelude is fiendishly difficult and Parte, on this occasion, hadn’t quite got it to sound effortless, but the Fugue was very fine indeed, flowing beautifully and leading on to a beautifully fashioned performance of Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor, K27.  Then he bravely stormed into Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3.  It was well done, energetic and expressive, but it was here that I began to find the limitations of the instrument at their most inhibiting – the dramatic contrasts in dynamic and colour hard if not impossible to coax from the little Fazer. But the popular and touching Etude Op.10 No.3 worked beautifully on this small scale and seemed to be well suited to the acoustic and atmosphere of the little church.  The stormy closing work was Etude Op.10, No. 12, the Revolutionary Study, which Parte dispatched with appropriate verve and élan.

Applause was enthusiastic, for which we were rewarded with a jazzy little encore by Samuel Barber.

George Bernard Shaw reported that at the Bow and Bromley Institute concerts, “the printed programs contain brief and pithy descriptions of the various pieces, enabling audiences to follow the music with some intelligent interest.”  Parte similarly assisted the audience with brief introductions to the works he played, in the course of which he revealed himself as an effective and modest musical commentator – considerate of his audience to the extent of delivering warnings, “..it becomes a nightmare” when describing the Liebermann’s Nocturne, and “This will be very loud!” before embarking on Chopin’s Revolutionary Study.

Much gratitude is in order to the performer and organisers of this splendid concert which an optimist might hope marks the growth of a revitalised tradition of classical music in Bow.

(Postcard of Bow & Bromley Institute, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19401008)
(Photo of Jay Parte in Bow Church by author)

[1] Ed. Dan H Laurence Shaw’s Music, vol. 1 1876-1890 “Music at Bow”, p.556
[2] Ibid. “Music for the People”, p. 196
[3] Nick Catford – http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/b/bow/index.shtml