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Space made to inspire

The London Symphony Orchestra's national education service has an atmospheric new home in a former church. Nigel Williamson listensin on rehearsals for the opening concert at St Luke's

Music education

LSO St Luke's

UBS and London Symphony Orchestra Music Education Centre, 161 Old Street, London EC1V

In the dramatic setting of a converted church on the fringe of the City of London, a group of pupils drawn from schools in inner London boroughs is rehearsing a new work by leading contemporary composer James MacMillan, accompanied by members of the London Symphony Orchestra and coached by the LSO's animateur, Richard McNicol.

The rehearsal is going ahead at St Luke's, the new home of the LSO's pioneering music education and community programme, LSO Discovery. As one of the singers runs through a vocal line, McNicol explains that he wants them to add their own instrumental ornamentation.

"Did you hear the Arabic influence in that?" he asks. "I talked to the composer about this and he said he was specifically looking for a Middle Eastern ornamentation." The specially commissioned work, A Deep But Dazzling Darkness, is based on the Old Testament story of Job. "But you'll find a version of almost the same story in the Koran, and the work tries to reflect Jewish and Islamic traditions," he says. Then he plays them a piece of traditional Yemeni vocal music and they discuss the similarities between the two pieces. To McNicol's obvious delight, a teenage Muslim girl from Elizabeth Garret Anderson school in the London borough of Islington offers an unexpected bonus: a translation of the Arabic lyrics.

Several hundred miles away in a more modest hall in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire, pupils from St Mary's primary and Auchenbach primary join members of the East Renfrewshire Schools Symphony Orchestra in an identical exercise. They don't have the advantage of McNicol's personal coaching or the chance to sit next to professional players from the LSO. But on March 27, when A Deep But Dazzling Darkness receives its world premiere at St Luke's, Scottish and London pupils will unite in a unique live performance via the miracle of video-conferencing. "We're incredibly honoured to have been asked," says Jillian Carrick, quality development officer for creativity and the arts at East Renfrewshire council. "We've had the technology for some time but we've never used video-conferencing for music or on a project as ambitious as this before. We've been learning the work with LSO's interactive CD-Rom. We hope it's the start of a relationship in which we can tap into the resources at St Luke's without having to take pupils down to London."

In saying this , she has neatly encapsulated the progressive thinking behind LSO Discovery, the London-based educational arm of the orchestra whose concert-hall home is the Barbican. LSO Discovery has been carrying out sterling educational and community work for 13 years, but the opening of the St Luke's centre offers an exciting new range of possibilities.

"It's our crowning glory," says LSO Discovery director Karen Irwin. "It enables us to fulfil the vision the LSO has long had of taking music to everyone, of every age and from every walk of life. And via modern technology, we can take it across Britain and all over the world."

The St Luke's centre, 10 minutes from the Barbican, is certainly a spectacular addition to our cultural life. Built by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James between 1727 and 1733, and once one of the City of London's finest churches, with a much admired obelisk spire, it tended to the local community's spiritual needs for more than 200 years before it was declared unsafe in 1959 and the roof was removed.

Hawksmoor's spire remained as an impressive local landmark. But, left open to the elements for 40 years, the church's interior rotted away. Rank weeds grew where the pews had been and what was once the nave became a rubbish tip. Three years ago an pound;18 million redevelopment began to turn the shell into Britain's first orchestral music education centre. Many of the building's original features remain, including the brickwork and window alcoves. The church clock has been renovated and the flaming golden dragon restored to its rightful place at the top of the spire. A new wooden roof has been added, supported by girders of brushed steel to create a perfect and sympathetic marriage of ancient and modern. The Jerwood Hall, which occupies the main body of the building, has flexible staging to accommodate a full symphony orchestra, chamber group or solo recital and seating for up to 250 at ground level and a further 88 seats in an upper gallery. The lower level in what was once the crypt houses a Gamelan room, workshop and rehearsal space, a music library, the Discovery technology room and a cafe.

"The whole building should be about discovery," says Irwin. "It gives us a base from which we can fully integrate the work of the orchestra with our education programme and the local community. But as well as serving local schools, we wanted to create something that can use technology to become a resource across the UK. We have access to fantastic content here, with orchestral rehearsals every week and masterclasses."

Although the building has been in use for rehearsals since early February, the grand opening is scheduled for March 24. The opening week will include schools performances, open rehearsals, family workshops, a "meet the orchestra" open evening and free lunchtime concerts, as well as the world premiere of A Deep But Dazzling Darkness before an invited audience on March 27.

Further information from LSO Discovery on 020 7588 1116. The opening week's free highlights (full programme from include pupils from Hackney performing a new work by Glyn Evans with a professional brass quintet (March 28, tickets: 020 7588 1116); the new St Luke's Community Choir with an LSO string quintet and young people from the EC1 Music Project (March 29, tickets: 020 7281 9455) and the Gamelan Lila Cita group (March 30, tickets: 020 7638 8891 or about St Luke's resources for schools in Teacher magazine on March 28

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