Once you’ve found it (tucked away in the cramped, confusing whorls of buildings and alleyways near the Monument) the diminutive Christopher Wren church of St Clement Eastcheap is like an old-fashioned kid’s treasure-box, hidden in a chest-of-drawers. Small but perfectly-formed (and bearing the decorous marks of its mid-Victorian refurbishment), it perches pertly between two well-known architectural schools – “enchanting” and “cute”. Tidy pillars spring up hopefully at the sides of its nave. That creamy yellow tint in the immaculate plasterwork of the walls sets off the lovingly-worn mahogany of choir stalls, pews and the massive pulpit. It’s tiny enough for a smallish art-rock audience to squeeze into and feel cosy: and there’s a nursery-rhyme connection too, if you know your oranges and your lemons.
Really, the North Sea Radio Orchestra couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue. For the music of this retrofitted, romantic-progressive chamber ensemble, St Clements fits like a glove. It shares those hints of modestly-mingled English eras of scaled-down splendour, the atmosphere of nostalgic time travel and aan affectionate polish of traditional heritage. Once you’re inside, both of them also tempt you to blissfully engulf yourself in a luxurious dream of old England – open fields, spinneys, bright stars, sunlight and green thoughts – while all around you the ruthlessness, frenetic urban pace and concrete encroachment looms and sprawls. This may all be an imaginary, selective stance. On a superficial level, you could also get suspicious of well-spoken contemporary white musicians in London warding off angst by cooking up a hand-crafted pre-industrial daydream. But this does the NSRO a disservice. You could accuse them of forcing their innocence – and maybe yours as well – but whatever else they’re doing here is done entirely without malice.
Twenty people settle onstage and get a grip on their violas, cellos, trombones, bass clarinets or whatever. Familiar London art-rock faces abound. Conductor-composer Craig Fortnam and the ensemble’s soprano singer Sharron Saddington used to bob up and down on the fringes of the Cardiacs scene, first in the psychedelic tea-party of William D. Drake’s short-lived Lake Of Puppies and then in the bumptiously charming folk-pronk of The Shrubbies. James Larcombe (Stars In Battledress’ elegantly-tailored smoothie of a keyboard player) is soberly fingering a chamber organ. His brother and bandmate Richard is boosting the numbers in the eight-strong choir, right next to the wild Persian afro of onetime Monsoon Bassoon-er (and current Cardiac) Kavus Torabi. Out in the audience, the aforementioned Mr Drake sits next to Tim Smith, his old friend and former boss in Cardiacs. Across from them, there are various Foes and Ursas and Sidi Bou Saids. There’s a sense of occasion. We get a beautifully designed arts-and-crafts-styled programme to take home. It’s a long way from Camden pub gigs.
This isn’t solely because of the surroundings. North Sea Radio Orchestra might carry their assorted historical splinters of psychedelic rock, folk, and even punk along with them, but they are unabashedly classical in intent. Even the twistiest and most abrasive of the art-rockers in the lineup are sporting the sober concentration of churchgoers, and Sharron has traded her former outfit of cosy specs and jumpers (though not her artlessly warm smile) for a modest diva gown. Craig, his back turned, conscientiously conducts the ensemble. When he sits aside to strum a little polite guitar, he has to crane his neck round anxiously, making sure that the music is still running smoothly.
He needn’t worry. Despite the shades of complex tonality which inform the NSRO’s compositions (Frank Zappa, Benjamin Britten and Tim Smith have all left their mark on Craig’s inspiration), the music flows readily. Sometimes it’s a simple organ drone as a base for Dan Hewson’s trombone expositions. At the other end of the measure, there’s the rollicking Occasional Tables: a dancing interplay between clarinets with a gloriously drunken, attention-switching Frank Zappa/Henry Cow approach. With its mediaeval echoes, and an additional infusion of the peculiar darkness of post-Morton Feldman Californian conservatoire music, it’s given an edge by the astringent, atonal vibraphone shiver (and by Craig’s strict, almost military turn on bongos).
Intriguing as these are, it’s the NSRO’s orchestration of poems which connect deepest with the audience. Mostly these are Tennyson settings (with a sprinkling of Thomas Hardy and other contemporaries) but even Daniel Dundas Maitland’s modern Sonnet looks back to ornate Victoriana. So does Craig’s music, swirling its Early Music and contemporary classical influences together to meet halfway in a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details. Sharron’s vocals – sometimes piping, sometimes emoting in keen, theatrical wails – make for exquisitely brittle sugar-sculpture shapes, while rivulets of strings and woodwind launch themselves from the melody.
The heavenly sway of Move Eastward Happy Earth sets Sharron’s winsome soprano against the lazy, streaming clarinet of Nick Hayes and against Ben Davies’ slow waltz of trimmed-down piano. The choir (with a hearty, clever enthusiasm that reminds me of nothing so much as Gentle Giant) leaps in for stepped, skipping choruses and glorious vocal resolutions. For The Flower, drifts of strings slip from the vocal line and weave busily like something out of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Onstage, everyone who isn’t smiling looks happily dazed, as if drunk on the sunny harmonies.
And so it continues, with parts of the NSRO dropping in and out to suit the music. For Thumb Piano, Craig trims it down to a revolving arpeggio of guitar harmonics in trio with the blues-tinged fluting of Hayes’ sweet’n’wild clarinet and Katja Mervola’s pizzicato viola. Harry Escott provides a cello improvisation, impressively-voiced chordal melodies sliding on top of a slithering bass drone. James Larcombe sketches out a collage of beady, kaleidoscopic chord progressions in his studious organ solo. The chorus, for their part, sing lustily in a London melting-pot of diverse accents. For the canon setting of Yeats’ He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, the whole orchestra sings its way through Craig’s pop-folk melodies.
When the whole ensemble is running at full strength, St Clement brightens with music. Shelley’s Skylark, in particular, is profoundly ambitious – semi-connected cello lines swing like foghorns, thick Michael Byron-ish string parts disgorge dominant melodies, and the chorus is a rich blur of voices, pumping resolution into Hardy’s words. But best of all is a generous Fortnam orchestration of a piece by his former bandleader William D. Drake – a setting of William Johnson Cory’s Mimnermus In Church. With Richard Larcombe stepping out from the chorus to duet with Sharron, and the North Sea Radio Orchestra performing at its fullest stretch, the results are captivating. The voices of Sharron and Richard move around each other in dusty, reedy, yearning harmonies (he floating up to countertenor) while strings, piano, clarinets and brass open out like a delicate night-bloomer, fragrantly illustrating Cory’s salute to flawed and transient life in the face of a perfect yet chilly heaven. “All beauteous things for which we live by laws of time and space decay. / But O, the very reason why I clasp them is because they die.”
Yes, in pop culture terms it is music for an ivory tower, or for a detached oasis where you can secrete yourself away from the world. Only a mile or two to the west, I’m sure that electric guitars are roaring out rock, garage clubs are spinning off beats and bling, and someone’s delivering tonight’s definitive urban hymn. But emerging into the City of London – all higgledy-piggledy with glass skyscrapers, Renaissance guildhalls and mediaeval street names, a ragbag of congealed history in parallels – I couldn’t care less.
Like the best musicians, North Sea Radio Orchestra tap into timeless things (beauty, transient joys, the shift of seasons). But like the stubbornest, they also know the colours and shades of the times which they’ll want to employ, finding a way to make them mean something whenever and wherever they’re played. And though an antique church and a Victorian altar cloth made a beautiful frame tonight, this music – at its peak – would’ve sounded good even if the whole ensemble had been balanced atop a Docklands trash-heap.