Dawn Till Dusk:
A Performer’s Guide To London’s Live Music Scene
She plays classical saxophone, but Jess Gillam appreciates every type of music from punk to pop. London has something for everyone, if you know where to look, she reckons…
“London represents possibility,” says Jess Gillam. “It’s a place where things happen.” She should know – the saxophonist, now 24, left her home on the edge of the Lake District to move to the city to make a career in live music. It paid off, big-time: She became the youngest ever soloist to perform at Last Night Of The Proms (the iconic final night of the London concert series billed as “the world’s greatest music festival”), she’s a TV and radio presenter, both of her albums reached no. 1 in the UK classical music charts, and she’s recently been honored with an MBE for services to music.
To a girl growing up in a small, quiet, rural town in Cumbria, the world of live performing arts seemed very far away. Jess first picked up a sax aged seven in a community center where her dad played the drums – and fell instantly in love. “I couldn’t believe I could make this amazing sound out of this weird tube of metal,” she says. But a trip to the Royal Albert Hall when she was 11 was her moment of realization: Performing live was her destiny.
“I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of it,” she says. “It’s like a massive living room but it carries all these stories, all this history behind an incredibly grand exterior. When I finally played on that stage, it was such a privilege and an honour. I was so nervous as I did the walk from backstage, but as soon as I start playing the saxophone, the nerves go.”
Jess doesn’t look like your typical classical musician – she has a quirky, punky dress sense, influenced by teenage trips to Camden Market where she bought her first pair of bright red Doc Martens. She credits the city she now lives in as a major formative influence; her career couldn’t have happened anywhere else. “London is unique. It’s really hundreds of villages put together to make a city; a living, breathing place. There are so many communities across the city, built around geographical areas or around an interest, an art form or a sense of creativity.”
“Playing music creates a connection and a bond. You may not have the same language or the same opinions, but together you can create a beautiful sound.”
She thinks London’s world-renowned and architecturally significant concert halls, such as the Southbank Centre and the Royal Albert Hall, are critical in pushing the city’s music scene forward creatively, spurring on edgy, fresh venues such as Peckham Levels, which sprang up from an old multi-story parking garage. “Those well-established venues invite an underground scene and a counter-culture because people want to rebel,” she says. “That means as an artist, you can always find an audience.”
Jess believes music is a huge force for good, a connector that can transcend barriers. “Music unites people. When young people play, it forces them to co-operate, to have empathy and listen to other people’s ideas. It’s a connection and a bond. You may not have the same language or the same opinions, but together you can create a beautiful sound, a community that other people can enjoy and be part of.”
So, what advice does she have for someone who doesn’t know their Bach from their Britten, but is keen to learn about classical music? “Experiment. Be open-minded and see stuff you’re uncomfortable with. In music there’s no right or wrong; it’s abstract – colors, shapes, an alternative reality people can exist in for a while. It’s electrifying, if you’re open to it.”
A Musician’s Tour Of London
Expedia: Most iconic music venue in London?
I’d always wanted to play the Royal Albert Hall. Its construction is unique and it’s amazing to be a part of its incredible history. I still pinch myself every time I play there: It’s never not a spectacle.
And the venue you've had the most fun in?
I love venues that make you feel involved with the stage like The Roundhouse [in Chalk Farm]: It sets up an intimacy so wherever you are, you’re part of the action. I saw Jarvis Cocker here, which was unforgettably brilliant.
Best place to see affordable live music in London?
I feel really passionately that music shouldn’t cost a fortune. Everyone should know about “Promming,” when you buy a £7 Prom ticket (less than $9) and either stand up or go into the gallery and see some of the world’s best classical musicians. It’s a British institution and an incredible atmosphere.
English National Opera is serious about accessibility: It has tickets starting from £10 (less than $12), and operas sung in English. Lastly, Wigmore Hall has a £5 ticket (about $6) scheme for the under 35s – a really affordable way to try something new, if you’re new to classical music.
Your favorite underground music venue?
Peckham Levels is just the most unusual place. It was a car park and now has music venues on different levels. I played there and it was one of the strangest juxtapositions I’ve experienced: this beautiful, grand piano in the middle of this slab of concrete. You can see the sun setting over the city and hear people, trains, the Tube. It couldn’t feel more London: everything smashed together in one place.
Best venue for bold, diverse programming?
Southbank Centre has a multitude of events: You can go to an exhibition in the morning, a classical recital at lunchtime, and then something weird and experimental that you’d never expect in the afternoon. This is a space where anything can happen.
Best live orchestra in London?
There are so many. I love Aurora, a virtuosic chamber orchestra which performs lots of interesting concept pieces in cool spaces across London.
Best chamber music venue?
Wigmore Hall is one of the finest in Europe. A really beautiful hall, architecturally amazing, steeped in tradition but with wide programming, from jazz trios to chamber music.
What's the best music festival?
The UK has lots of amazing festivals and Womad is Peter Gabriel’s world music event. It moves around but it took place in London this year. I would recommend it to anyone interested to discover something new: You’ll get an amazing line-up handpicked by one of the best musicians of all time.
This is the second installment of “Dawn Till Dusk,” an Expedia-produced series that digs into the buzzing creative cultures of some of the world’s most fascinating cities. Each episode reveals some of the most delightfully unexpected facets of urban creativity that make each city worth your much-coveted vacation days. Find the first, third, and fourth installment here, or check out our complete London guide for even more tips and inspiration.