At 7pm queues are already snaking through the graffiti-covered arches of Waterloo tunnels. These are people waiting at the doors of the latest Yellow Lounge club night. Once inside, they are free to explore the space in semi-darkness: a boating tank (a sort of imitation of the River Styx) offers punters punts, a maze of Norway Spruce leads to a bar and relaxation area, and throughout there is the noise of chinking bottles and a low throb of ambient sound.
Along with Nonclassical, Limelight at The 100 Club and the efforts of a number of prominent orchestras, Yellow Lounge has promoted the concept of “classical clubbing” on the London music scene. The best of these events throw into question the very definition of classical music, by means of performances that are refreshing, alternative and underground – often literally.
Yet, despite its appearance, Yellow Lounge can hardly claim to be a fringe event. It is a project organised by Decca/ Universal Music, and its headline artists are generally well established and already signed to the label, so the focus is on more mainstream crossover. Since its London debut in July 2011, the club night has featured some of the classical superstars of today, including the likes of Eric Whitacre, Danielle de Niese and Milos Karadaglic.
Come 8pm and the close harmony ensemble Over the Bridge takes to the stage for a selection of Christmas carols, a warm-up act before harpist Catrin Finch and Sinfonia Cymru’s performance of John Rutter’s Suite Lyrique. The work features on Finch’s latest album but its six sweetly sentimental movements, each a celebration of the harp’s range of delicacy and refinement, sound incongruous in the grimy surroundings.
Next up comes a selection of solo works enhanced with electronic effects; the prelude to Bach’s third partita for solo violin (adapted here for the harp) is a piece with great potential (as shown by Vanessa Mae, who has produced a slick dance version) but the DJ struggles to keep up with Finch’s fast finger work. Violinist Nicola Benedetti is also frank in featuring from her latest recording; she begins her set with a moving rendition of “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt followed by Ravel’s rich and complex Tzigane. Again, these works are slightly let down by the context, and the tone of the evening is further complicated by John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List.
Finch and Benedetti are affable and easy-going, and unruffled by the distant rumble of overhead trains, but the evening has a variety show feel. If these tunnels were discovered to have exquisite acoustics, ideally suited to luscious, early 20th-century works, their performances would make more sense, but the instruments are miked-up and the music wrestles with the background hubbub. A venue such as this one calls for modern and contemporary works with grit and focus that are designed to be heavily amplified.
Yellow Lounge certainly succeeds in creating a fug of youthful enthusiasm, enhanced by chatter and a lively bar: Sourz shots, six for £10! And if these evenings introduce listeners to new music, then who’s complaining? Over time, though, one can hope for a more streamlined programme and an acceptance that nightclub settings – much like concert halls – are not suited to all genres of classical music.