Designed to inspire

28th March 2003 at 00:00
A converted church is the latest resource in the London Symphony Orchestra's outreach programme. Nigel Williamson reports

This is a special day because it's the first time we've had children here," says Karen Irwin, director of the London Symphony Orchestra's pioneering music education and community programme, LSO Discovery.

"The whole building should be about discovery. It gives us a base from which we can now fully integrate the work of the orchestra with our education programme and the community."

We are sitting in the basement of St Luke's, near the Barbican, once one of the City of London's finest churches. Built by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James between 1727 and 1733, the church was declared unsafe in 1959 and in what today seems like a criminal act of architectural vandalism, the roof was removed. Hawksmoor's elegant, obelisk spire remained a landmark.

Left open to the elements, the church's interior rotted and weeds and rubbish filled what was once its elegant nave. Three years ago its transformation into the country's first orchestral music education centre began. An pound;18 million conversion later and it's about to open for business.

The opening night on March 27 culminated with the premi re of A Deep But Dazzling Darkness by Scottish composer James MacMillan, performed by the LSO chamber orchestra and school children.

LSO St Luke's is a dramatic new addition to London's musical spaces. Many of the building's original features, including the brick work, colonnades and window alcoves have been preserved. The clock has been renovated and the flaming golden dragon restored to its rightful place at the top of the spire. But the dramatic new roof is of wood and is held up by steel girders in a sympathetic marriage of ancient and modern.

The Jerwood Hall, which now occupies the main body of the building, has flexible staging to accommodate a symphony orchestra, chamber group or solo recital as required and seating for 250 at ground level and a further 88 in an upper gallery. The lower level houses a gamelan room, workshop and rehearsal space, an orchestral music library, the Discovery technology room and a cafe.

Upstairs, Richard McNicol, music educationalist with the LSO, is coaching about 35 pupils from Camden School for Girls and the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, Islington. A vocalist sings part of MacMillan's work, which is based on the biblical story of Job, for illustrative purposes and the pupils use a CD-Rom to explore different aspects of it. Each line of the composition, instrumental and vocal, has been separated so pupils can build up their own version, mixing samples and reconstructing the music to their own specification. This can also be done back in the classroom.

The CD-Rom, which will be available to schools, also has a history of St Luke's, with a visual presentation of its derelection and rebuilding.

John Catlow, music teacher at Camden School for Girls, says: "The great thing about this programme is that it's totally inclusive. It's not just suitable for work with talented children. It encourages them to tap into their own ideas and creativity."

His colleague Catherine deSybel agrees. "And it's multicultural. People expect an LSO education programme to be totally western in outlook. But it's very broad. It's not just about a composer in an ivory tower with his manuscript paper."

And it's not just local schools which are benefiting from St Luke's. At the premi re of A Deep But Dazzling Darkness, pupils from three schools in East Renfrewshire, Scotland, performed with the LSO, using the latest techniques in video-conferencing.

Karen Irwin says: "As well as serving local schools in Hackney, Camden and Islington we wanted to create something that can be a resource across the country. We've got access to fantastic content here with orchestral rehearsals every week, master classes and recitals and via modern technology we can make it available to everyone."

The next project is an in-service on Stravinsky's The Firebird, which has been filmed and is being made into an interactive CD-Rom. Tied to key stage 2, it will again encourage pupils to create their own music, effectively sampling elements of Stravinsky's music, just as DJs and producers do.

Other initiatives include resident and travelling gamelan facilities, teacher training and support, a Sound Explorers project for five and six-year-olds and a Music Makers module that can be adapted to primary, secondary and special needs schools.

The LSO Discovery programme is now in its 13th year. But, says Karen Irwin, the cramped facilities of the Barbican, the orchestra's concert-hall home, were far from ideal for an education programme. "The opening of St Luke's is our crowning glory," she says. "It enables us to fulfil the vision of the LSO taking music to everyone, of every age and from every walk of life and via multimedia and broadband technology, across Britain and all over the world."

The opening week of LSO St Luke's has included open rehearsals, performances, workshops and public events culminating in last night's premi re of A Deep But Dazzling Darkness before an invited audience.

Information on LSO Discovery Tel: 020 7588 1116Technology enquires to Helen Smith

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