Apologies for this long blog, but it seems appropriate to mark a significant milestone by giving a brief resume of the past 16 years at Perivale. It is important to emphasize at the outset that this has been a joint effort by a large and dedicated team of volunteers.
St Mary’s Perivale is a small Grade-I listed building dating back to the 12th century, and it functioned as an active church until being declared redundant in 1972. In 1976 our charity, the Friends of St Mary’s Perivale, was founded by Alan Gillett and friends, and a 99-year lease was granted by the Church Commissioners in 1979. Thereafter, a varied programme of concerts, exhibitions, plays and social events was held. I first became involved when I gave a piano recital in June 1986, and thereafter gave occasional concerts at the church, as well as running weekly lunchtime concerts at Ealing Hospital, where I was a Consultant Physician. By 2003, audience numbers at Perivale had dwindled alarmingly, and I was asked to help. I initiated the purchase of a new Yahama grand piano, and commenced organizing concerts there in September 2004, taking over as Chairman of the Friends in 2005, and retiring from my medical post in 2006.
The first concert of the new era was on September 11 2004. Since then, we have held almost 1000 concerts, detailed on http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-archive-001.shtml . For the first 10 years we held about 40-50 per year, on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. The former were double-concerts, with two contrasting halves to provide more performing opportunities for musicians, and the latter became well-known for the tea and home-made cakes, provided by Caroline Waldes, Rena Stewart, Hilary Swift, and Felicity Light. By September 2016 the total of concerts had reached 500. That year, at the suggestion of Roger Nellist, we introduced weekly piano recitals on Tuesday afternoons, whereupon the annual number of concerts rose to over 100, and thus we are about to reach concert number 1000 on Tuesday November 24, when I will step out of my musical retirement to give a celebratory recital. The list of musicians is here http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/musicians-001.shtml, and includes about 380 pianists and 160 violinists, as well as 40 piano trios and 80 other ensembles. Average attendances in the church before the pandemic were around 50 for many years, so our 1000 concerts represent about 50,000 separate concert attendances. We have always paid our musicians, and we developed our system of free admission and a retiring collection, which with Gift Aid has served us very well. We pride ourselves on never receiving any sponsorship or public funding. None of our team have been paid a salary, and we do not pay rent, so our rather unorthodox financial model has stood us in good stead for over 15 years.
Our financial success has enabled us to continually improve the church as an ideal venue for small-scale concerts, building on its innate beauty, superb acoustics and excellent piano. The most crucial improvement was the re-laying of the chancel floor at a single level in 2010, enabling the piano to be moved forward to the front of the chancel. Previously, there was a step in the chancel, leaving the piano permanently marooned at the back, away from the audience. Our architect in 2010, John Hummerston, deserves huge credit for pushing this vital project to conclusion. Other improvements over the years included an improved heating system and electricity supply, cleaning of the wall monuments, regular re-decoration of the church, new carpet and chairs and much else. The churchyard was an unkempt wilderness in 2005 with many vandalized memorials but since then about 40 monuments have been re-erected and it is now a scene of tranquil beauty, thanks to our gardening team, led initially by Camilla Newbegin and now by David Brown.
The other crucial advance has been the gradual installation, over many years, of high quality audio and video recording and, more recently, live-streaming facilities. The combination of ‘high-tech’ facilities within a building dating back to the 12th century might seem rather anachronistic, but has proved to be very fortuitous over the past few months. In 2006, we introduced a sound-recording system, with high-quality microphones installed by Richard Partridge. Subsequently, Simon Shute became closely involved at the church, and he has, almost single-handedly, transformed our ancient venue into a high-quality broadcasting centre. The first camera was installed in 2007, and the second and third appeared in 2010 and 2011. These produced standard definition recordings on DVDs which were sent to the musicians. From 2009 onwards we started to upload some of the best performances to our YouTube channel for public viewing, organized by George Auckland, who had previously built our website. In 2016 we upgraded all our cameras to High Definition, and we now have 7 such cameras arranged around the church. Since then, high quality digital video recordings have been made of all concerts, and stored in our on-line cloud-based archive. In December 2018 we undertook the first concert live-stream, of a piano recital by Asagi Nakata which was viewed by her parents in Tokyo. Subsequently we have live-streamed most concerts, although until the pandemic this was regarded as an interesting adjunct to the main focus of the concert, namely the live experience of the audience in the church. None of this remarkable progress would have been possible without our superb technical team, led by Simon Shute, and including George Auckland, Andrew Whadcoat and Patrick Magill, Truus Bos and Rob Jenkins. Some had retired from distinguished careers at the BBC, and our organization has profited hugely from their combined technical prowess, always given free of charge.
Thus we have been able to continue our activities throughout the pandemic. During the first lockdown, we broadcast 53 edited recordings of previous concerts (not included in the 1000 total) in April and May. We restarted live concerts, broadcast with no audience present, in June and have subsequently held 39, including a Beethoven Piano Sonata Festival in October, with 32 pianists. In normal times, the concerts would have attracted an audience of around 50-70 local people drawn from a small area around Ealing, but the festival was watched on-line by about 3000 people, and the average number of views of our concert broadcasts is now around 400, and we have supporters in at least 50 countries. Generous donations from viewers have enabled us to pay all our musicians, and we have received countless warm messages from around the world. We haven’t introduced a small socially-distanced audience because it would be practically difficult in such a small venue, and we think that the wearing of masks would negate any enjoyment of a concert. This lack of a physical audience has enabled us to continue, even in the second lockdown. It may be several months, or even years, before we can return to normal, and pack the church with 70 local people in close proximity. In the meanwhile we have become, in effect, a broadcasting studio ! This is less than ideal, and we long for the opportunity to welcome our local supporters back into our beloved building, but at least we are providing performing opportunities and financial support for musicians, and cultural entertainment and solace for our many supporters, and have kept our building alive.
So we continue past the 1000 concert mark at St Mary’s Perivale. On a personal level, this is in addition to a further 656 concerts which I organized at St Barnabas Church Ealing between 2007 and 2020, and about 800 organized at Ealing Hospital prior to 2006. When the Perivale concert series started in 2004, I was aged 59, and am now 75. Perhaps we will reach 1500 Perivale concerts by my 80th birthday. As stated at the beginning of this blog, it has been a joint effort by a large team of volunteers, including all those mentioned above, particularly Roger Nellist, Simon Shute and George Auckland, and also Richard Norris, Andrew Goodhart, Stanley Klar, Sherry White, Eileen Eden, Judith Price, Gill Rowley, David Brown, John Newbegin, Michael Lewis and others – and most of all, my wife, Felicity Light. Our ultimate purpose, laid down in the Trust Deed, is to preserve this wonderful building for future generations to enjoy, and our concerts, whether for an audience in the church or at home throughout the world, are simply a means towards that end. Long may St Mary’s Perivale continue to flourish.