With the year-long closure of the Howard Assembly Room for a multi-million refurbishment imminent, the Leeds venue’s 10th birthday season offers not only a chance to take stock but also to look forward with optimism.
Jo Nockels, project manager for Opera North who’s been in charge of programming at the venue within Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House for the past decade, agrees that the new season of concerts and events “definitely has a flavour” of the end of one chapter and the start of another.
“It’s got a slightly celebratory quality to it,” she says. “We wanted to have quite a lot of music that was joyful and had a bit of a party feel to it to mark this 10 years and then through the last couple of seasons there’s been a real sense of asking back some of the people who’ve done amazing things here and reconnecting with them, and then looking towards a new chapter after a big gap. So there is a sort of summing up and celebrating what we’ve done so far.”
Nockels sees “several threads” running through the Assembly Room’s varied programme that’s embraced everything from chamber music and children’s operas to folk, jazz, Americana and world music.
“I think increasingly we’ve come to see the programme as kind of a year-round festival,” she says. “It’s got that quality of doing things that are special and doing things that are unique in Leeds, that wouldn’t come here otherwise, doing a really eclectic range of music that you might not see in many other single venues but you would see at a festival, and making our own work that I think is a really strong strand that runs through the programme.
“So as well as programming we’ve produced music that has appeared in that room throughout the 10 years across genres and that’s an essential part of the Assembly Room that I think will continue in its new phase.”
Nockels’ own highlights include concerts by Blixa Bargeld and Teho Teatro, improvisational group The Necks and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.
“Sometimes does an amazing show that is electrifying in the atmosphere and the way the audience feel about it and there’s been a lot of those,” she recalls. “The first time that Rokia Traore came to play was a really good example of that. She’s a West African singer who is amazing. I’d been working on bringing her here for a long time. When it finally happened it was just as good as we thought it would be.”
She also points to their own projects such as “a strong strand” of film music that’s run throughout the programme. “It often means new scores to old films or silent films. Quite a long time ago we commissioned Johann Johannsson and Hilda Gudnadottir to do a score to Pandora’s Box. That project which started here and went on to tour nationally I think was something quite special for us.”
Nockels sees eclectisism as the Assembly Room’s raison d’etre. “Diversity of music and also of audiences is the thread that holds everything together. You can have a song recital one night then KTL doing a really electronic, incredibly loud score to a film the next night then a folk musican playing solo and unamplified the next night. That range is what I think makes the Howard Assembly Room special. It has grown quite organically since we opened because you feel what the venue can do and the sorts of music it works for. That idea also that opera and classical music in general doesn’t sit in a hermetically sealed box away from all other kinds of music is really important to us.”
The fact that the Assembly Room has “different audiences that come to different things” is what makes it work, Nockels feels. “Events like Light Night, for example, where we do something that is related to classical music but turns it upside down and brings an audience right up close to it, walking right in amongst it, those kinds of events might have 2,500 people coming through the room in one evening.
“Many of those people might never have been in this building before, certainly might never have seen an opera, but they’re experiencing amazing singers right up close to them. So you change the relationship between the listener and the music in a way that makes it perhaps less intimidating.”
Renowned classical pianist Joanna MacGregor is to return to the Howard Assembly Room on January 11. “She’s one of those artists who’s stayed with us throughout the whole 10 years,” says Nockels. “She’s done a commission to a score to a silent film and a very contemporary graphic score project then she’s done some classical music recitals as well.” Other attractions include Icelandic band amiina performing a live score to the film Fantomas, Mali rock band Songhoy Blues, and jazz legend John Scofield. The venue will be closed from March 2019 for a year. www.howardassemblyroom.co.uk