9 May 2024

Bridging the gap

By Lark Music

The concept of Noisenights is a vision for the future of classical music, with crowdfunded gigs taking world-leading musicians to iconic independent venues, bridging the gap between frequent classical music concert-goers and those who have never experienced a classical concert.

Here, star classical guitarist Alexandra Whittingham tells Lark Music why she likes nothing more than putting on her Converse trainers to embrace the informal, relaxed music nights.

I’ve always been reluctant to purely conform to the norms of classical music traditions and I’ve always questioned why we have to wear all black – or why we have to look miserable on stage!

So, I just loved it when I could wear my Converse trainers on stage for my Noisenights gig at the Band on the Wall in Manchester. It’s somewhere I had been many times, but playing there was really cool and this relaxed style was something that I’d wanted to do for so long but didn’t know how.

It was probably the most enjoyable gig I’d ever done as the atmosphere was so different and refreshing. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing in beautiful concert halls but it’s a very different feeling on stage when the audience is standing nearby. It’s such an alternative way of approaching music and even when you finish a piece or when you say something, the audience is never afraid to say something back to you. I’ve had actual conversations with people in the audience who’re both followers or who perhaps are unfamiliar with my music.

It’s a nice balance of people and the conversations always flow in a respectful way. With any concert you get occasional people talking while you’re playing, but in a venue where people are standing and drinking their drinking their gin and tonics or a beer it’s actually amazing that they give that much attention to what’s happening on stage because you can hear a pin drop a lot of the time.

These concerts are such a good place to go if maybe you’ve put off going to a classical music gig or if you feel like you don’t know enough to go to a classical music concert. I’ve heard people say that and it saddens me because I think there’s no prerequisite to attend a concert.

But I think with Through the Noise events, if you’ve never really experienced a classical concert before, it’s the perfect kind of mix of being super relaxed, getting it, and being able to enjoy the music that you probably haven’t seen live. While for people who frequently attend classical music concerts, it’s a bit of a refresher and it bridges the gap.

Noisenights have moved on since those early gigs. My first was in a quirky wine bar under a railway arch, called Signature Brew in Haggerston, East London. It was quite noisy, very rough and ready, and I actually wore jeans and heels. The backstage room was shared with the rest of the staff who just threw their belongings everywhere! It was freezing, too. Now, a year on, organisers Jack Bazelgete and Jack Crozier have got very good at prioritising musicians’ comfort. They’ve told me they usually look at backstage rooms first and think ‘okay, is it warm?’ before deciding on a venue!

They’ve come a long way, with more than 100 Noisenights. And recently, I performed a solo set during a Europe tour. I don’t think I’ve ever done concerts where ‘the promoters’ are like great friends and I’ve never had somebody who I’m working for who cares that much about how comfortable you are or whether you need anything.

They’re so much fun to travel with and you can tell their enthusiasm comes from such a genuine place and they’re really passionate about it; it always feels like a team effort, creating a nice vibe.

Jack and Jack are good at letting you know what they think works and what might not. I can also choose the programme’s music – which is kind of terrifying and enjoyable at the same time – and something you wouldn’t be able to do at more formal venues or festivals.

My set for the European tour included music from composers such as Francisco Tarrega, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Roland Dyens. We started off in Paris which gave me the opportunity to perform an Edith Piaf arrangement. I did that once before but I mispronounced the name of the song. I was playing ‘Hymne a L’amour’ but actually pronounced it in a way that meant ‘Hymn of death’! This time I practiced my introduction, rather than assuming that the audience knew it anyway!

I also played in the New Morning – a music nightclub that first opened in April 1981 with a concert featuring Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Since then, it’s become a fixture on the jazz scene hosting Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Pat Metheny, Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval, Dexter Gordon, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Clarke, Essi Moh and Didier Lockwood, so it’s a really exciting venue.

I then performed in Brussels in a stripped-back art gallery, Mercerie, which is a temporary art space for free spirits and artists. The building was derelict for half a century (it was a haberdashery and hosiery factory partly constructed by founder of the Art Nouveau movement, Victor Horta) but has now been brought back to life.

In Amsterdam, Cinetol was a non-profit gig venue with a coffee bar, kitchen, and studios for artists. It has a DIY mentality that offers a new and underground programme and really fits the Through the Noise ethos. It’s in a community centre that was derelict for some time, and next to a former art house cinema.

The last night was in Rotterdam, at New Grounds concert venue that’s renowned for its programme of international artists from highlife legends to afrobeat, and from Brazilian samba to Balkan beats.

About Alexandra Whittingham

Recognised by The Guardian as ‘a young 21st century virtuoso’, Alexandra’s creative spirit is reshaping classical music and defying conventions. At the age of 16 she began filming her performances of popular guitar repertoire as a personal project, creating a large community of fans worldwide, with more than 50 million views.

Having just signed exclusively to Decca Classics, recording continues to play an important part in Alexandra’s career. Her debut album ‘My European Journey’ was released in 2021 and sees Alexandra’s passion for romantic guitar music combine with a love of discovering lesser-known composers. The recording led to her being chosen as one of Classic FM’s Rising Star artists in 2022.

Alexandra has enjoyed recent performances at the Cayman Islands Arts Festival, South by Southwest Festival in Texas, and the Rome Guitar Expo. Aside from the European tour
she completed in April, she also performed across Ireland with trumpeter Matilda Lloyd. Alexandra will embark on a 40-date North American tour in early 2025.

Closer to home Alexandra has performed at London’s Milton Court Concert Hall, The Jazz Café in Camden, the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Sage Gateshead, and Wells Cathedral, Somerset. She has also appeared as a concerto soloist with both UK and European orchestras.

The presence of music education in schools is something that Alexandra has been passionate about since having the opportunity for her first formal guitar lesson at the age of eight. As well as giving masterclasses at music colleges around Europe, she also enjoys holding regular workshops and presentations in schools, with the aim of involving more young people from diverse backgrounds in classical music.

Alexandra began her studies age 11 at Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music, where she now teaches alongside her former professor. She went on to gain a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and graduated with both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. During her time at the Academy she was awarded the Timothy Gilson Guitar Prize, a Diploma of the Royal Academy of Music, and the Regency Award for distinguished studentship.

Alexandra is delighted to be an Augustine Strings artist. She plays guitars made by Philip Woodfield and Christopher Dean.

What are Noisenights?

Noisenights are crowdfunded gigs organised by Through the Noise, taking world-leading musicians to iconic independent venues. Visit throughthenoise.co.uk.