City of London Festival 2014 reveals hidden treasures

The Square Mile is opening up its grand, historic buildings as venues for a feast of entertainment.
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City of London Festival, 22 June - 17 July 2014;

The City's sleeping gems are all going to get a bit of a shock when a gigantic inflatable bowler hat lands in Paternoster Square, bang next to St Paul's, on June 23, housing a 212-seat theatre for the City of London Festival.

With medieval guilds and Livery companies, vast corporate wealth and its own police force, the City of London, pumping heart of the capital's prosperity, is a mysterious and powerful place. While London spreads relentlessly into the suburbs, the City stays as firmly formed as a clenched fist.

It is home to many of the loveliest buildings in the capital. Among its huddle of ancient streets nestle small churches with magical names such as St Vedast alias Foster, and St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, some now shoehorned between big, modern buildings.

Nearby, the show-stopping St Paul's Cathedral, Mansion House, the Royal Exchange and Guildhall dazzle with their meant-to-impress architecture outside, and spectacularly opulent insides. But we pass these treasures so often that we scarcely notice them, their interiors hidden, either kept that way by the ancient companies that own them, or because we rarely stray from our usual routes to open an unfamiliar door. But the City of London Festival is the annual summer surprise.


(Above left) St Vedast alias Foster Church; (right) and music at Mansion House

The festival was set up 52 years ago by the City of London Corporation, which wanted to open the enclave's hidden riches to Londoners for a three-week programme of summer music. Soaring halls and intimate vaulted churches, richly decorated with panelling, carving, painting and gilding, make ideal surroundings for classical and chamber music.

The festival's fresh twist comes courtesy of its new director, Paul Gudgin, who, despite a classical music background, has just spent eight years running the Edinburgh Fringe. He says anyone crossing Paternoster Square on the way to work will be brought up short by the three-storey bowler perched nonchalantly on the paving — as if a Savile Row Goliath had just flung it off. Inside this inflatable building, and subject to all the City's stringent health and safety rules, will be a horseshoe stage and full kit for acrobatic flying shows. The bowler will host 100 events including comedy and cabaret as well as circus.

It is being put together in China by Inflate, the company famous for such structures, and will be erected over two days by eight people, before the innards are fitted. Inflatable buildings can last a decade, and Gudgin hopes the hat will become an ambassador for the City when it is deflated after three weeks, bowling along to other cities and even other countries.

There will be lots of more conventional treats in astonishing architectural settings, such as top pianist Sunwook Kim, from Seoul, playing Scriabin, Franck and Schumann in the Stationers' Hall on June 25. The history of the venue offers a fascinating glimpse into the City's past. In 1403, the mayor and aldermen of London approved a Guild of Stationers, which included booksellers and illustrators.

Later, they were joined by printers and so also became the guild of newspapers. In 1606 the expanding guild bought Abergavenny House in Ave Maria Lane for a then-massive £3,500 — only to see it burn to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666. A new hall was built on the same site. Taking three years, it was finished in 1673 and cost about £3,000. Records show Mr Pollard, the painter, charged £33.

Other marvels to see and hear include Merchant Taylors' Hall in Threadneedle Street, hosting the Nash Ensemble playing Stravinsky, Mozart and Brahms on July 7, while classical violinist Nicola Benedetti plays Guildhall's Great Hall in Gresham Street on July 14.

A whole section of the festival is dedicated to jazz in fabulous venues. On July 8, Colombian timbalero Roberto Pla plays Latin dance and brass on the roof at One New Change, Cheapside, and the Masonic Temple in the former Great Eastern Hotel, now the Andaz, built underground with a welter of showy marble by Charles Barry Junior, hosts several Duke Ellington concerts — Ellington was, rather surprisingly, a Mason.

There's also an excellent series of free lunchtime concerts in beautiful churches such as St Vedast. So explore the City on a cloud of quality entertainment.

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