St Mary’s Perivale in the pandemic
A brief resume of the past eventful 12 months by Hugh Mather
Our next concert, on 16 March 2021 (click here), will be our 100th LIVE pandemic concert – probably more than any other UK venue. Huge credit to our technical team, led by Simon Shute (right) and George Auckland (left), who have made it all possible. Here is the story of the past extraordinary 12 months.
The Covid pandemic has adversely affected every arts organization in the UK. However, at Ealing’s St Mary’s Perivale we have survived by transforming ourselves into a broadcasting centre, using our excellent video facilities and thus have been able to continue supporting musicians and providing solace and entertainment for our many supporters, living both locally in Ealing and around the world. We have now broadcast 100 LIVE concerts and an additional 53 concert recordings in the 12 months of the lockdown. This probably exceeds any other classical music venue in the UK, and we seem to be a unique facility supporting classical music in these strange times. We have paid over £27,000 to musicians in the past year.
St Mary’s Perivale is a tiny, Grade 1-listed medieval church, only 6 miles from Marble Arch, which is redundant and now functions solely as a classical music centre. Our lockdown success has been entirely dependent on the remarkable video system installed in the church over a period of several years by Simon Shute, aided by George Auckland. Both were friends living in Ealing who had retired from distinguished careers at the BBC. Initially recordings were made to provide musicians with a memento of their performances, in standard definition video. High-definition cameras were installed in 2016, and we now have seven such cameras, and since 2018 we have live streamed all concerts on YouTube, from our digital broadcasting facility situated in the 15th century tower. This was regarded as an adjunct to the main focus of the concert, which was the experience of the audience gathered in the church, until the pandemic in March 2020.
During the first total lockdown in April and May 2020, we streamed 53 recordings from our library of about 400 previous concerts since 2016, on successive afternoons (an archive is available here). Few other organizations were streaming concerts at that time, and we found ourselves in competition with the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Met for our virtual audience. We paid a total of £6500 to musicians whose concerts were broadcast and asked the viewers to donate towards the cost of paying the musicians.
Following the partial relaxation of restrictions in June 2020, we restarted LIVE concerts in an empty church, with strict adherence to Covid protocols. Since then we have held 100 LIVE concerts in an empty church without an audience, as also detailed in the lockdown archive. These have included 42 solo piano recitals, 17 violin and piano duos, 8 piano trios, 7 cello and piano duos, 4 jazz piano concerts, 3 string quartets, 3 piano quartets, 3 wind concerts and 2 song recitals. Our musical highlight was the Beethoven Piano Sonata Festival in October, when 32 pianists played all the sonatas over a weekend – one of the few major festivals celebrating the composer’s 250th anniversary. We have also held lecture recitals by Norma Fisher, Leslie Howard, Mark Viner and Murray McLachlan.
Over 130 musicians have performed at St Mary’s Perivale in the lockdown since June 2020, and they have been paid over £20,000. Each of the concerts has been viewed either on YouTube or Vimeo by an average of 500 viewers, with a peak of over 3000 viewers for the Beethoven Festival, and viewers from over 50 countries. The total views in the past year on YouTube is over 96,000, with many additional views on Vimeo. All concerts have been freely available, with no ‘paywall’, and we have been entirely dependent on donations from viewers, with no external sponsorship or public funding. These have been remarkably generous and have kept up with our payments to musicians. Our supporters realise that we are a team of unpaid volunteers, so all funds go directly to the musicians or to maintain our historic building rather than providing administrative support or paying salaries.
So our video and streaming facilities, which were developed as an interesting adjunct to our concerts, have unexpectedly proved to be a lifeline for our organization over the past few months, and we have been able to support musicians with performing opportunities and financial help. Instead of physical audiences of around 30-60 local people from Ealing, our concerts have been viewed by thousands of people around the world, and our tiny suburban venue has assumed an important role in providing concert opportunities for many musicians, and cultural entertainment and solace for the viewers.
We are possibly the only organization undertaking such a busy classical music programme in the lockdown, and have achieved this without any public funding, being run entirely by volunteers. The only other centre with so many regular livestreamed classical concerts is the Wigmore Hall, but they have received a grant of £1 million from the Culture Recovery Fund, and they concentrate more on both vocal and baroque concerts, which we purposely avoid. Their concerts are streamed at 7.30pm or 1pm whereas ours are at 4pm, so there is no direct clash or competition.
As for the future, we hope to resume concerts with a physical audience in the church later in the year. However, our small venue makes it difficult to comply fully with Covid regulations on a socially distanced audience, so it may be several more months before this happens. Meanwhile, we hope that viewers will continue to enjoy our ‘virtual’ concerts, as a substitute, and that we can continue to provide performing opportunities and financial support for our musicians in these difficult times. We are inundated with requests for concert opportunities and are booked up until the end of the year. Highlights include a Chopin Festival on July 4th and a repeat Beethoven Sonata Festival in October, with 32 pianists playing all the sonatas. Huge thanks are due to our technical team, which comprises Simon Shute, George Auckland and Andrew Whadcoat, and to other key members of our organization, notably Roger Nellist and also Andrew Goodhart, Richard Norris, Gill Rowley, Rob Jenkins and Truus Bos. Finally, thanks to all our on-line supporters who have made this possible, and of course to our huge pool of superb musicians.