This article is as much about the venue as the event and I must say that both elements were excellent. I was at the newly refurbished Howard Assembly Room for its first concert in over two years and to celebrate the occasion three performers had been assembled to showcase their considerable talents and introduce the public to the new space.
When I said that the building had been refurbished it was a lot more than a tube of Polyfilla and a lick of magnolia emulsion, in fact it has been almost totally rebuilt, especially the entrance and foyer.
On passing through the new front door, which once led to the less than salubrious Plaza Cinema, you are faced with a cool reception desk worthy of the twenty-first century. In the years BR (Before Refurb) tickets were obtained in a separate office and entry to the Howard Assembly Room was via the staircase of the Grand Theatre. This meant that if there were productions at both auditoria a certain amount of confusion could reign, although the skill of the front of house staff usually prevented this.
On passing through reception, a short flight of steps brings you to the main foyer, and what a foyer! The combination of light sources and materials was stunning.
There are three floors in all, the first houses the cloakroom and toilets, the second is the stalls section of the auditorium, with bar, and the third is the gallery seating, again with bar. All storeys are accessible by lift, be it a Stannah for the short ride from ground to foyer, or a full size model for the rest.
The auditorium itself is a mixture of wood. The floor, the rear of stage and the gallery frontage are all made from light varieties whereas the magnificent ceiling was much darker with the most incredible decoration. Although reminiscent of much older buildings, there was the same modern twist which will keep it looking current no matter how fads and fashions change.
The lighting rigs are always going to be exposed but by making them into a feature and giving the gantry a coat of dark paint they are not too obtrusive.
There were tiered seats to the rear of the auditorium for this performance with cabaret style tables and chairs at the front meaning that the configuration can be changed to accommodate different types of productions.
All that was left to assess was the sound quality.
At 7.45 Thabo took to the stage. He is such a self-effacing young man that he didn’t introduce himself until much later on when he regaled us with his performance. Originally from Zimbabwe but now a Huddersfield resident, he told us that the show was a way of stress-testing the new building. He asked us to make as much noise as we could so we gave it a shot. Being the reserved people we are it was not exactly thunderous so we were implored to try again, but as well as applauding and shouting, we should stamp our feet. You have probably deduced from my being able to write this piece that the structure held firm.
The first performer of the evening was Vijay Venkat, a multi-instrumentalist from Madras and a regular performer at Howard Assembly Room. His instrument for the evening was the bamboo flute on which he improvised before playing a South Indian Folk melody. The effect was mesmerising, with the etherial tone of his instrument weaving sound patterns echoed by a simple abstract light show projected on the wooden screen behind him. It was obvious at that point that the acoustics matched the excellence of the architecture. Each performer was allocated twenty minutes which, in Mr Venkat’s case flew by.
After rapturous applause, even louder than the round we were instructed to give at the beginning, Thabo returned to the stage. He told us that there would be a fifteen minute interval during which we should put the bar through its paces to see if it could cope. It would have been rude to have refused so I grabbed a beer.
The second artist of the evening was NikNak, aka Nicole Raymond, who is an Oram Award winning turntablist and sound artist. She had a couple of turntables as well as lots of other electronica and began her session of mixing. This set was in stark contrast to the first as it was much louder and the light show far more elaborate but the one thing they had in common was the summoning of the sounds of nature and our surroundings.
NikNak’s piece began with the sound of what seemed to be heavy rainfall which soon morphed into an array of effects taking us to places both dark and light. Another triumph. Cue even louder applause.
Back came Thabo who was speechless for a minute as he reacted to the previous set. Fortunately he soon recovered his vocal ability and said that during this second break it was up to us to put the toilets to the test. He is nothing if not logical.
Duly relieved we took our seats for the final performer of the session. He introduced Aron Kyne, the jazz pianist whom he said he would be accompanying on vocals. I told you he was self-effacing.
Here we had two incredible talents combining to give us a fusion of jazz piano and a version of soul the likes of which I had not heard before, and I am a big fan of that genre. In one instant Thabo was singing in such a quiet whisper that he was barely making a sound at all, and the next, rattling the crockery. If this was another test of the Howard Assembly Room’s acoustics, it passed with flying colours.
After a couple of songs he began one, a portion of which was in his mother tongue. It was very melodic and quite basic in structure so halfway through he asked us all to join in. As there were not many fluent speakers of Zimbabwean present, especially as the country has 16 official languages, he gave us a crash course. It was like being at the pantomime, except so much better, with the audience being split into two factions, each singing their own part. I would normally be wincing at this point or shouting that we had paid to hear the turn sing so shut up and get on with it – except that this gig was free so it was the least I could do. The ploy worked a treat and everyone was soon in full voice.
It goes without saying that the ovation for Thabo tested the sound tolerance of the hall more that anything else last night, and quite deservedly so. He had a really neat way of getting off without doing the showbiz thing and coming back two or three times. He said that Aron had to leave to catch his train home and as he (Thabo) was only accompanying him on vocals, he had to finish too.
Had you told me I was going to see a bamboo flute player and a turntablist, who would be improvising for 20 minutes each and it would end with audience participation in a foreign language song, I would have approached the whole thing with trepidation but it was a blast.
I am writing this with mixed feelings, however, as the main benefactor of Howard Assembly Room, Dr Keith Howard, passed away aged 89 on 12th August, 2021. His Emerald Foundation not only makes grants of over £1 million per year to West Yorkshire based charities in the field of sport, performing arts and animal welfare, but he also made a personal donation of £11 million towards Opera North’s Music Works redevelopment project. It is so sad that he could not see the opening of this amazing building which bears his name.
For more on Howard Assembly Room, including the shows and how to obtain tickets, please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/howard-assembly-room/
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs by Stan Graham