Live Review: Yellow Lounge w/ Miloš Karadaglić & Danielle de Niese

Yellow Lounge certainly made its presence felt as it landed in London this week. The first outing over here of Berlin’s veteran classical club-night boasted performances by Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglić and Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese, along with the DJ sets of untreated, mainstream classical recordings which are the event’s biggest and most provocative innovation. Here are some of my observations from the night:::

It was absolutely packed…

The turn-out was immense and the queues lengthy for what was actually a fairly small venue – under the arches at Bermondsey St, London Bridge – especially since the live music itself was confined to one room. The result was a launch event that really did feel like an event. It was immediately felt that what might have seemed to some like an experimental venture could guarantee itself a very large following (not that the whole classical ‘slumming-it’ thing is a particularly original concept any more). People do want to see classical music performed in a new context. However, a slightly closer scrutiny of the crowd themselves may call into question the extent to which this was really a ‘new’ audience.

It was hardly a ‘new’ audience…

It was clear that this event came under the radar of a lot of big industry people, and there was also a strong presence of musicians, although I think that a curiosity from performers as to the success of such ventures is definitely to be encouraged. The average age, although still young for a classical event, wasn’t that young, and there was a seated contingent making use of the cushions in the centre of the room, old enough for nobody to begrudge their decision to sit. It was a very different crowd from Nonclassical, that’s for sure, but it was also a very different event. The sheer popularity of it might seem to automatically validate it, but it is questionable whether a venue packed out with classical fans and insiders indicates the same levels of ‘success’ as a venue packed out with total newcomers. I will come back to this in a bit.

The venue was cool…

The lighting and staging were arranged effectively, and the videos were a great addition to the atmosphere. In fact, there could have been a much greater emphasis on the videos; another much larger screen would have been welcome, one which would be visible not only from the bar queue but from the centre of the crowd as well.

The DJing however raised quite a few issues. I assume that the format, playing what seemed like quite a random selection of tonal classical music (by no means all upbeat or loud, by no means all ‘popular classics’, possibly all recorded by Deutsche Grammophon), was copied from the previous Yellow Lounge incarnations in Europe. However, with such a packed room, it was very hard to hear much of it, and I was amazed when, over the hum of a crowd busily networking and opinionating, the DJ would choose to play some slow little recorder sonata or something similar. I think the levels could have been turned right up, but at the same time, I think a more considered choice of repertoire (or set-list), favouring the loud and the energised, would have made a lot more sense. In this kind of situation, played with the understanding that people will talk over the top, the music should either demand attention, or it should accept a role as pure ambience, and I think the sets on Wednesday night took neither path.

Nevertheless, the idea of having unaltered classical music played over a club soundsystem didn’t feel as unusual as I thought it might, and I think as a concept the crowd quickly got used to it. It remains an intriguing idea and I think, given the right circumstances, it could work very well.

The guitar set didn’t quite work…

The first performer of the night, Miloš Karadaglić, was – I felt – quite a conservative choice for the new venue, since the set-up wasn’t too far removed from a solo folk gig anyway. In the end, I thought the crowd was too large for an intimate solo guitar set – not exactly the organisers’ fault – and I felt the same frustration that I might have felt if I’d been as uncomfortably compacted at a Mark Kozelek show. The set was shock-free, again too conservative I think, and Karadaglić’s major-label good looks made his engagement seem as calculated as possible to effect a smooth entry point for those unfamiliar with classical performance – understandable, but unnecessary, and maybe even also unimaginative. He did play superbly though…

Danielle de Niese was THE SHIT…

As undecided as I might seem up to this point about Yellow Lounge, there was one element that – for me – made this event unforgettable, and filled me with excited ideas about possible new directions for this kind of venture. This one element is named Danielle de Niese, the second performer of the evening, and the focus of one of the most uniquely effective classical sets I’ve seen in a while. De Niese’s onstage attitude throughout was clearly learned from the stage manner of jazz or soul divas, inhabiting and embodying a collection of ‘standards’ while maintaining a clear performing persona. She maintained an attractive rapport with a silent but characterful backing band, and clearly loved the intimacy with the audience that the venue afforded her. Her casual dancing along to the ritornello of the opening Handel aria was, at first, kind of shocking, but as the performance progressed, the attitude that she struck in relation to the music, and her onstage manner, was totally naturalised. So much was borrowed from pop performance attitudes that I thought it a minor miracle that she managed to pull off operatic arias, which would normally require a total dramatic commitment to a very specific theatrical context. However, she treated numbers like ‘Ombra mai fu’ in the same way as a singer-songwriter might treat a song that they’ve written about past heartache – embodying the emotions, whilst remaining in a strong, comfortable performing persona.

De Niese’s performance demonstrated the particular potential of the operatic diva, as a strong and charismatic personality, in inhabiting the performance habitat of the intimate jazz singer or female singer-songwriter. It’s quite a different domain from the one inhabited by most ‘crossover’ artists, with whom most classical fans might warily associate such a concept. As a set-up for a performer like de Niese, I think it is pretty perfect – far more effective, at any rate, than any larger or more formal context. A revelation, actually, but one which doesn’t really have much to do with DJing or VJing or grungy venues (although the moment at which the noise of the train rumbled through Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’ was just too perfect). Which leads me to the first of my two main contentions with the night…

‘Clubbing’ needn’t come into it…

I’m not sure how far Yellow Lounge should be pursuing this whole ‘club-night’ thing. I mean, they don’t use the word specifically on their publicity, as far as I can see, but there is this distinct impression that ‘clubbing’ is the closest touchstone for them (clearly suggested in the Evening Standard article which advertised the event a few weeks ago). I think, in this case, thinking of the event in these terms can be confusing. It happens in a club, and it is a regular ‘night’, but the focus is concentrated on the live music. The best comparison would be to an independent pop gig in a small venue. The music being played by the DJs wasn’t received as a dance set, or even really as an ambient set in a chillout lounge, but more as music to cover up the gaps between the various acts. This is commonplace in pop gigs, and it is also normal that the music played be in the same genre as the music performed, but in these circumstances, such ‘DJ sets’ aren’t accorded much of a key status at all.

The crowd’s attitude, enclosing the stage, awaiting each subsequent set, was equally in tune with the pop gig set-up, much more than the ‘clubnight’ set-up. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all – I think this is the very much the right set of conventions which these events should be borrowing from. The music that they chose hardly suited a club-night anyway. It’s ok for the performance circumstances to fit the music – after all, no-one would expect folk music to be blasted out at a club-night – and I think promoters like Yellow Lounge should feel more at home with the pop gig feel, without the need to put this club label/brand on it.

However, saying that, even the pop gig feel wasn’t totally suited to the specific acts on display. It might be down to the unexpectedly large turn-out, but I feel like the event called for larger, louder, weightier forces. As I said, Karadaglić was quite ‘folk’ and de Niese quite ‘jazz/soul’ in her stage manner – there was no ‘rock band’ ensemble in the way that some Nonclassical acts come across. The event wasn’t quite trendy enough to warrant its surroundings, and on the back of de Niese’s fantastic performance, I’d suggest that some sexy little jazz club (with tables and chairs) might work a bit better. (It does become tiring standing up in a confined space without a good beat coming from the speakers to keep your feet tapping.) I should be clear that I’m not saying classical music won’t ever work in a real club setting, but I feel that Yellow Lounge’s artists (and audience) weren’t perhaps ideally suited to it. And that leads me to my second contention…

The glaring lack of contemporary music…

Predictably enough, I did really feel the lack of any contemporary (or vaguely recent) music. De Niese did a great job of turning Handel arias and Monteverdi songs into pop numbers, and they were largely good choices with their big bold tunes, but I really felt the need for the kind of grit that some contemporary fare would have provided. It was a wholly retro affair really, even employing baroque instruments, and I’m sure even the least knowledgeable of the audience could tell that it was exclusively old music that was being performed. This fact really added to the slightly over-produced, unadventurous, ‘mainstream’ feeling of the evening.

I personally think such events should feel the responsibility of performing new works, and that there’s a hypocrisy in reinventing performance contexts (‘kicking and screaming’, as the website says) without in anyway trying to bring the repertoire up to date (just one might have sufficed). This was one of the reasons, I think, why there wasn’t actually much ‘kicking and screaming’ involved. A good proportion of the audience seemed to recognise the names of the arias as they were announced and preempt them with small cheers. For those older people, or insiders, who were present, I didn’t think there was much resistance at all to what the organisers might have considered ‘controversial’ new concepts. And this is important, because if they want to attract a new audience to this music, they have to in some way lose some of the old audience whose expectations and sense of entitlement risk potentially blocking newcomers from feeling able to access the music. There needs to be adventurousness in the music that is played, not just how and where it is played.

It is clear that Yellow Lounge, big-budgeted and powerfully-branded as it is, will never be the most left-field of these events. Its logo suggests a Ministry of Sound-style super-club, it has already attracted hyper-charismatic international stars, and some aspect of its publicity apparently managed to interest a fair number of over-60s and music professionals. This is no bad thing; it is good that some variety is cultivated across what should be a broad movement, and it is not only the young folk who need a new classical culture. However, I think Yellow Lounge risks failing in some of its worthy pursuits by not saving a place for contemporary music, and hence relinquishing a whole sense of newness which is so important in getting people interested, and in moving past the inertia which has given a small, insider audience a sense of private ownership over the entire art-form.

Visit the Yellow Lounge website –HERE–, with info coming soon about the next event…

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1 Response to Live Review: Yellow Lounge w/ Miloš Karadaglić & Danielle de Niese

  1. Pingback: New venues, new conventions |

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