Her antique opera glasses in one hand, her discounted ticket in the other, arts correspondent BELLA BARTOCK returned to the Fairfield Halls last night, where she had the pick of where to sit
How exciting, I thought, to be returning to Fairfield Halls for a classical concert after a hiatus of seven years due to closure for refurbishment and then covid. Especially with Croydon being this year’s London Borough of Culture!
The orchestra performing was the Swedish Philharmonia under acclaimed conductor Jaime Martín. As my A-level music teacher, Viv Aldi, used to say, a top-notch orchestra in full flow is a marvel to savour. Listening to recordings just isn’t the same and can’t provide the uplifting experience that only live classical music can provide.
Mind you, I was a tad apprehensive about what to expect. I had no doubt the music would hit the right note, but would the Fairfield experience itself be flat?
When I bought my ticket a few days ago – £31.60 for an excellent seat in the centre of the stalls close to the stage and all with a complimentary glass of wine – the vast majority of the 1,600 seats in the Concert Hall were unsold.
I was reminded of Ken Towl’s visit 12 months ago, when the Halls were first emerging from their covid “hibernation”. His visit ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, with many facilities coming up as short as a semiquaver.
Would the box office and bars be open? Would the lifts and loos be working? And who would I be sitting next to?
To overcome my trepidation, I invited my my old college friend Claudia de Boozy to join me in this leap into the unknown.
Disappointingly, and for the first time ever, Claudia turned down my invitation. “I’ve got to watch the pennies,” she told me, “because my Council Tax bill has gone up by 15per cent in the middle of a cost of living crisis.” She’s not wrong.
Quite what impact removing another £14million from Croydon households’ disposable income – thanks to Mayor Jason Perry’s inflation-busting Council Tax hike – will have on the borough’s leisure and hospitality sector is as yet untested. But it can’t be good.
It certainly doesn’t seem to be something that Mayor Perry and Croydon’s Conservatives have given any thought to.
Based on the size of the audience for Monday evening’s performance, I fear Claudia may not be the only one with financial worries who is cutting back on “discretionary spending”.
Despite a highly reputable orchestra playing a rich and varied selection of pieces at a venue acclaimed by music critic Richard Morrison as “having the best orchestral concert hall acoustic in Greater London”, the hall couldn’t have been more than one-third full, at best. At a (very) rough average, that’s about £30,000-worth of tickets unsold.
But at least the Fairfield Halls experience seems to have improved considerably over the last year, although in common with many who have visited in recent times, I wouldn’t claim for a moment to know where the £67million of tax-payers’ money was spent on the refurbishment.
I arrived shortly after 7pm, and the box office was open. Mind you, I didn’t see the young man behind the desk sell any tickets. Security staff were welcoming and efficient and there was no queue to get in. But then we were hardly likely to get knocked over in the rush, were we?
The main bar in the foyer was open but not particularly busy. On the Mezzanine level, those of us who had booked the special offer which included a free glass of wine were collecting our drinks ahead of the start of the performance. I took mine in a plastic glass and took it into the auditorium.
One thing that did irritate me is that the venue is now cashless. While Claudia always uses her triple platinum credit card for every purchase to get some cashback with her wine merchant, I prefer to use notes and coins for small payments. That said, the £6 I paid for a second modestly-sized glass of wine during the interval might not be considered “small”.
The lifts were in working order and the toilets were open and clean, much to my relief. The venue was neat and tidy throughout. However, it seems to me that there is still scope to improve the signage, particularly for those with disabilities.
The performance itself was a pleasure and was genuinely appreciated by those who had come along – some of whom were standing to applaud at the end.
First up was A Merry Overture: Opus 14 by the Swedish composer Anders Bo Linde. Until this point, my knowledge of Swedish music was limited to Abba, but I found this short six minute piece to be uplifting and a perfect start to the performance.
This was followed by Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – the only violin concerto Tchaikovsky composed. It has a reputation for being a dauntingly challenging piece to play, although you would never have known this as virtuoso Nemanja Radulović made it look so effortless.
After the interval, we were treated to Sibelius’s majestic Symphony No2. Sibelius described this symphony as a “confession of the soul”, and it was definitely performed in a way that felt like being in heaven rather than the other place (Croydon Town Hall).
Amazingly, I didn’t see any Croydon councillors in the small audience. There was no sign of civic mayor Alisa Flemming or her deputy Sue Bennett – either of whom might usually have gone along to a performance of this significance. They wouldn’t have even had to pay for a ticket.
Mayor Jason Perry was nowhere to be seen. Not even in one of the sparsely populated boxes so he could have avoided sitting with the residents he is supposed to serve and dodge awkward questions.
Nor were there any Labour councillors in the audience. Initially, I put this down to the Croydon Labour group losing its devoted culture vultures such Robert Canning, Oliver Lewis and Andrew Pelling at last May’s local elections. The current crop prefer to be watching football, down the pub or playing with their cats, rather than listening to classical music.
However former Waddon councillor Canning, who was at the performance and bumped into me at the bar during the interval, told me their absence was probably due to them meeting to prepare for Wednesday evening’s meeting of full council.
Canning also admitted where he would prefer to spend a Monday evening – and it wasn’t at a Labour Group meeting.
Whether the Conservative group of councillors had a similar excuse is not known as I didn’t see any former Tory councillors at the event to ask. It could be that they are all too ashamed to show their faces in public after voting for their Mayor’s 15per cent hike in Council Tax – or perhaps some are busy trying to secure parliamentary seats rather than seats at Fairfield Halls.
I did meet Paul Harper – the lucky winner of Inside Croydon’s competition for two free tickets to this concert. Paul told me how much he was enjoying the performance and, as an astronomer, knew the answer to the competition question which country Jean Sibelius was born in – Finland – because Sibelius also composed the theme music to Patrick Moore’s astronomy show The Sky at Night.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Fairfield Halls and a splendid evening of classical music. It’s just a shame more people weren’t in the audience to enjoy the experience with me.
Several more classical concerts are scheduled this year. These include the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra on May 25 and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine on October 18 as well as performances by Croydon’s own London Mozart Players.
Full details and booking is available at: https://www.fairfield.co.uk/classical-corner
Read more: Fairfield Halls struggling to sell tickets for Culture opener
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Have they replaced the seats?
I seem to recall they were omitted from the refurbishment. The were very uncomfortable before.
This might help, Diana:
Thoroughly enjoyed the Swedish Symphonia performance with solo violinist Nemanja exceptional only to exit to the front car park and find a PCN stuck to the windscreen in spite of correctly displaying a Blue Badge. On checking the cars in the ‘disabled’ spaces at least three had NO BB but no ticket! This should surely be monitored by FH staff.Until Croydon Council cease to treat the motorist as a cash-cow we are unlikely to return to the Fairfield Halls.
Disgusted of Coulsdon.
Bella Bartok. Vivaldi and Claude Debussy, yes…. Very good
I used to like the Fairfield halls but honestly I doubt I will ever visit it again. There are some things you put up with like the old seating and the poor parking facility etc. as mostly as you felt it was yours and your home town and you had a sense of belonging.
The manner in which the development has been done leaves a distinct bad taste now. The regime that is currently in place has shown very little humanity and care to the people of Croydon and also leaves a bad taste and smell.
There is no sense that the New Fairfield Halls is for the Borough and no sense of belonging. It is also really not that accessible or comfortable for disabled people.
I doubt that will change in the years I have left so prefer to reduce reminders of squandered taxpyers money and increase very happy memories of the old Fairfield Halls instead – especially the comedy of Eddie Izzard and Lily Savage in the 90s – so funny that pair.