Heath Quartet seem so much part of the Coffee Concerts family already. So entirely apposite it was to find there at the table selling their two new CDs was cellist Chris Murray’s mother. They’ve never had CDs to sell here before. Their recently award-winning live Wigmore Hall double CD of all Michael Tippet’s Quartets came out in March, and their imminent Tchaikovsky Quartets disc was on offer a week before its actual release.
Where has this atmosphere of an audience being a family come from? From having their concerts mostly in the round. It bonds an audience around the performer and with each other, in a way and an extent that does not happen in conventionally theatre-seated concerts. There is greater connection with the performer. All the audience sit much closer. We humans connect with other audience members because we can see their faces we see while listening and then applauding. We can’t with the backs of heads sitting in front of us.
There is empathy and a greater sense of sharing. Our faces reveal most of what we seek to know about each other during the experience. Yes, in concert intervals we interact to varying extent, but there are diverse conflicting preoccupations leading people’s attention away from each other.
The core Brighton Coffee Concert crowd, since the format began at Hove’s Old Market, don’t like being sat in rows all facing the same direction. And that core is growing. Six years ago, when the Coffee Concerts moved into The Dome, the audience sat all around Heath Quartet and everyone fitted onto the large but secluded Dome stage.
These concerts then moved inside The Corn Exchange – which is now fully closed for reshaping into a more integral and versatile performance space. But there are now too many Coffee Concert fans to fit onto the stage, so this time all, around 250, had to sit in the stalls of an unsecluded and cavernous theatre. And the lighting crew, unused to the proceedings, were caught out a couple of times.
Even from as near as the third row I felt I was in an experience much more of watching, in a degree of enforced detachment, a spectacle of four instrumentalists in a row playing together towards the audience. In the round, the quartet face each other in a square with the audience all around behind, absorbed and intrigued by having a different view of each player, and sometimes of their sheet music. For the audience it’s like having four different seats for the price of one.
In November, the series moves temporarily to Sussex University’s Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts at Falmer. Students are already on board. A number were at their second Coffee Concert of the autumn and taking advantage of the free-ticket Cavatina Scheme for the 8-25s. And already mixing with audience and becoming acquainted with members of the Strings Attached supporters of the Coffee Concerts.
Heath brought this time a programme that scarcely relaxed until late into the 10th movement of the morning’s 12. They chose some especially concentrated Haydn. The final Quartet of Tippett strives intensively, in the last decade of the 20th Century, to recreate in the composer’s own language the rarefied world of late Beethoven. And the Dvorak Quartet offloads ideas presented in perhaps unexpected complexity upon his longed-for return to Bohemia from The New World.
Dvorak’s third movement, slow, dark, managed nevertheless to reach for sunnier light that brought what most listeners had been naturally awaiting. The welcome scherzo and finale that rounded it all off were entertaining and launched the audience into the rest of the day.
But whatever Heath Quartet play the coffee concerters will relish. This happened to be a less characteristic and familiar combination of music. Tippett, though, is now their specialism. Proudly, and with British bon voyage, they next take him now on tour to America. The coffee concerters went away suspecting they had been in the presence of the new Tippett Quartet authorities.