The day the Proms swapped the Royal Albert Hall for a Peckham car park

The Multi-Story Orchestra performed three pieces by American modernist Steve Reich - with added percussion from passing trains and planes

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On Saturday afternoon, the Multi-Story Orchestra turned the ninth floor of a municipal car park in Peckham into cloud nine.

Bold Tendencies is the name of the arts organisation behind the concert, and that could also describe the motivation for bringing the BBC Proms to such an incongruous location. Until now, Peckham’s multi-storey car park was best known for the rooftop bar Franks Cafe, which draws drinkers from across London thanks to its spectacular views.

The aptly named Multi-Story Orchestra has been performing here since 2011 as part of Bold Tendencies’ summer programme, often selling out and attracting a more diverse crowd than you’d usually find at a classical concert. All credit to new Proms Director David Pickard for including them in this year’s “Proms at…”  series, which has also seen Proms at a chapel in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich and the Roundhouse, a former train shed in Camden.

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Hannah Grayson with the Multi-Story Orchestra 

The first piece, Vermont Counterpoint, was originally commissioned for a solo flute and tape, but my fear that the sound would be lost among the concrete pillars was laid to rest with the first few bars. The bright, overlapping notes of ten pre-recorded tracks merged with Hannah Grayson’s faultless and confident performance to bring to mind springtime in a city park, birds calling and fluttering between buildings and trees. The unusual concert hall added moments of tension; as Hannah deftly switched between piccolo, flute and alto flute, a fellow musician had to reach across with her bow to stop the sheet music from fluttering away with the gusts of wind that swept through the space.

The second piece, Eight Lines, was the debut for the Multi-Story Orchestra and conductor Christopher Stark. Written for two string quartets, two pianos and woodwind instruments, it made me think of a journey through a familiar city to a special event. Joyful melodies repeated and evolved in a progression of shifting patterns. The long squeal of a passing train was in harmony with the cello and violin. And as the instruments drew to a halt, the barely-audible rumble of a plane overhead sustained the piece for a few moments more.

The climax came with Music for a Large Ensemble, which added percussion, four trumpets and two female voices to the stage and allowed the orchestra to really show off its virtuosity. Maybe it was the urban setting, but it reminded me of walking through a bustling market and the changes of rhythm and harmony – of how you can find unexpected voices even in busy crowds. The sustained notes of the trumpets could have been the joyful beeping of drivers passing a wedding party, whilst the dancing percussion was almost hypnotic. The audience was unanimous in their appreciation.

Peckham has welcomed Bold Tendencies and the Multi-Story Orchestra, and it was uplifting and moving to see the Proms embrace these young musicians and their unlovely concert hall. As I stepped out onto Peckham’s hectic high street Rye Lane afterwards, the sights, sounds and smells were all a little more vibrant and beautiful than before.

Listen to the Peckham Prom


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