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Struggling with the elitist nature of the concert hall, Matthew Whiteside decided it was time to bring contemporary classical music to local music venues.

Ensemble Offpsring

The Night With...

While I was studying for my master’s degree in composition at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, I was collaborating with other students to get our music performed in bars and nightclubs around the city. Though our aim was to be open and inclusive, the concerts still ended up with a reverential air round the music. 

Many of the venues didn’t have a distinct performance space, so people who would come in for their normal evening pint were hit by a wall of silence which they found off-putting. They quickly walked out again – which wasn’t the plan! 

Fast forward three years, I was talking to Creative Scotland about the idea to stage concerts in pubs and clubs, but just hadn’t found the right venue. They introduced me to the Hug and Pint - a bar in Glasgow’s West End - which was interested in programming more ‘left-field’ music rather than the usual bands and singer-songwriters. 

I viewed their performance space – a downstairs room separate from the main bar – and it was perfect. Creative Scotland funded me to try it out over two concerts in 2016. I was granted further funding from them the following year to expand and tour the concerts in different venues. The Night With… was born.

Thirds not halves

From the start, the idea of The Night with… was to emulate popular music in its staging as much as possible, but in a way that worked for a more classical style of music. The fact that people can’t (or shouldn’t) talk over the music, since the detail would get lost, gave me the idea of having three 15 – 30-minute thirds rather than two, longer concert halves. 

This allows people to come in, grab a drink, sit down, chat to their friends, hear some music and know that, if they don’t like it, there’s a break coming up soon so they don’t have to listen to it for too much longer! 

The more intimate venues hark back to the salon style concerts of the nineteenth and early twentieth century where people came into a café, sat down, had a chat, listened to some music then carried on chatting. 

That mantle has been taken over by popular music, with classical music now having an almost pristine reverence around its performance, which strikes me as wrong. If the music’s good the format will work. I’d rather listen to music in a relaxed atmosphere, with a drink in my hand, than sitting in an uncomfortable concert hall seat.

Avoiding alien environments

Why we need more informal performances spaces – spaces which are suitable for classical music but still have a grungy, rock vibe – is to avoid an alien environment for those who enjoy classical music but have never been to a concert hall. 

They have most likely been to a popular music venue before so it’s easier than navigating the decorum of concert-hall etiquette. If they chat to their neighbour nobody is going to shush them or make them feel unwelcome. Everybody buys into the informal vibe. 

In a sense, it’s audience outreach. I know from talking to audience members that The Night With… can be a feeder into the concert hall experience. Being intrigued by what The Night With… has programmed, when they’ve seen an orchestra is playing a piece by the same composer, they’ve gone along and felt more at ease at a traditional classical concert than they otherwise might have been.

Covid has obviously had a big impact on us. Back in 2020, we’d just secured funding for the season and were about to announce it, when the world suddenly shut down. 

No to digital

My initial response was to move our concerts online, but I decided against that. The Night With… is all about is the social element, so giving online concerts would have reduced the integrity of what we were doing. It was a decision our board and funders backed.

Now that the world is opening up, I’ve reviewed our venue choices. I’d already considered moving to larger spaces – the Hug and Pint only has capacity of 100 standing – due to audience expansion. But with social distancing still a sensible, if no longer legal, precaution, it was imperative to find a bigger venue but with the same vibe. 

So, we’ve moved the Glasgow concerts to Drygate – a bar and brewery on the east of the city and Stereo – a vegan bar in the city centre. The Edinburgh series has moved to multi-purpose arts venue, Summerhall. The seating is cabaret style, spread throughout the space, so people can sit with who they want. If they feel uncomfortable, they can just slip out mid-piece without needing to squeeze past a row of audience members. 

I hope that post-Covid there will be more of this style of concert, especially ones which present new music. If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we need to nurture and support our artists, and one way the classical music industry can really get behind that is by championing and programming contemporary composers. 

Matthew Whiteside is CEO and Artistic Director of The Night With… 

 @mwhiteside | @thenightwith

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