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By Tom Service
A beautifully programmed classical music club night, featuring Gabriela Montero's peerless improvisation, was a revelation
Earlier this week I went to the last event of this season's Limelight, "classical music in a rock'n'roll setting" at the 100 Club on London's Oxford Street. I'm late to this particular party – Limelight's been going for the past two years or so. In the context of what has become a tired debate about classi-cool club nights – salvation of the art form or passing fad? – going along to Limelight was an illuminating experience. Because the truth is, Limelight, and nights such as NonClassical, are neither the single answer to classical music's future, nor a doomed experiment.
Down in the depths of the 100 Club, Limelight felt like a seasoned, professional operation, which has carved its own niche and rightful place in the classical music scene. The evening was hosted with easy confidence by founders Emily Freeman and Milly Olykan, the stage management was slick, and the vibe among the punters and the performers was relaxed and informal. It's not going to replace the Wigmore Hall or Kings Place as a concert venue – even if the atmosphere is more vibrant, and certainly more boozy, than either – but that's not the point: Limelight is an evening where (despite the bar, the dimmed lights and icons of rock and jazz history photos along the walls) it's the music that matters.
And on this evening, Limelight featured a world-class lineup. String players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, in London this week to play as part of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, gave us a set that cunningly fused John Adams, Arvo Pärt, and Astor Piazzolla with arrangements of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Framed by the opening and closing sections of Adams's masterpiece, Shaker Loops, the MCO players spun a web Step into Limelightof musical connections that seamlessly crossed the centuries and the continents, from Bach's canons to Piazzolla's Argentinian melancholy. The audience were mostly rapt, focused and quiet. For Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, only a conversation between a couple at the bar marred the quiet shimmer of the finale.
But the highlight for me was a set from Venezuelan pianist. She played a movement from a Ginastera piano sonata, then invited the audience to sing her themes to her, on which she could improvise. And then, with truly astonishing facility and virtuosity, she improvised a baroque quasi-fugue on Bizet's Toreador tune, a Chopin-esque fantasy on the Beatles' Yesterday, a Shostakovich-like toccata on Verdi's Aida (which twisted and turned into a South American romp), a rhapsody on Auld Lang Syne, and an impressionistic lullaby on the Venezuelan national anthem.
It's the closest I've come to experiencing what it might have been like to hear a 19th-century virtuoso in recital, when improvisation was as much part of classical playing as it is in jazz today. And there's no doubt that the venue and the setting enhanced what Montero was doing; I was part of a salon-size audience experiencing her brilliance close-up. Yes, the drinks and the atmosphere make it all good fun, but Limelight was a musical revelation.