Rhinegold Photo credit: Ian Dingle

Toby Deller

Cafe culture

2:09, 8th July 2020

Toby Deller visits Fidelio, the new London cafe opening its doors to musicians

Seen from the street, Fidelio looks like many another smart food and drink establishment: past the customers drinking coffee in the stretch of window seats, you can see an airy ground floor room with tables in front of an open kitchen, overlooked by a gallery. It is once inside, if the name has not tipped you off, that you get more of an inkling the place has a musical theme: perhaps there is a classical playlist running over the PA; there is concert publicity distributed around; the decor features music-related artwork and paperbacks.

Head downstairs and it is even more obvious: a salon-style performance space runs the length of the property, featuring piano and bar with lounge-style seating. At least, that is how it has appeared until now. ‘We are experimenting with that space to see what works best,’ explains owner Raffaello Morales. ‘I still think that we’re not using the space in the best possible way so we will be making some changes: we’ll be removing some of the bulky furniture and replacing it with more easily movable seating. But the idea has never been to have a concert hall there with theatre-style rows. It’s more like having an informal space where people are casually listening, and performances happen less in the format of a standard concert of 40 minutes-interval-40 minutes but more broken down and interactive.’

Fidelio opened in the latter part of 2019, since when, as well as operating as a daytime cafe/restaurant, it has hosted many concerts and industry social events. In the process Morales and his team have been gradually building up an awareness of its existence, although an official launch event in April has had to be cancelled while the cafe is closed during the coronavirus outbreak.

‘The way we’ve done it so far is that we basically wait for musicians to reach out to us, and so far there has been a demand. We then pick and choose what fits best with the programming. We’ve had a variety of repertoire, a variety of artists, a variety of ensembles from renaissance music to contemporary music; we’ve had string quartets to larger ensembles, small string orchestras, solos, duets, voice… really a very wide variety.’

The books that feature in the decor give a clue to Morales’s outlook, especially since his office walls too are lined with several shelves of musicology, philosophy, literature and so on. It suggests someone with an engagement with music beyond the commercial opportunity it might represent.

‘I have a diploma in piano, taken in Italy, but I decided not to do it professionally in my early 20s after about a year of more advanced studies. I went on to other studies in physics, then maths, and I worked in the financial industry for five years. During the whole length of time I was outside the music space I felt this pull to music and wanted to be in that field but somehow I never really had the courage, or maybe the determination, to do it. In 2018 when I realised my time in the financial industry was limited I decided to give it a go more concretely.’

His initial move was to set up an orchestra, called Fidelio, ‘with the idea,’ he says, ‘of not just being another very good standard symphony orchestra but of being somehow a force that tries to make symphony orchestras interesting for young people.’ A similar aim lay behind the bricks-and-mortar arm of the operation he opened once the orchestra had several concerts under its belt.

The idea of having a social space where a concert can happen but also where people interested in music can congregate and use as a hub for their social life could be an interesting way to catalyse interest

‘How do we ensure that classical music is somehow more appealing for people of my generation and the generations to come? I thought that doing it in a way that is a bit more direct and deprived of barriers for young people could be an interesting approach. Therefore, the idea of having a social space where a concert can happen but also where people interested in music can congregate and use as a hub for their social life could be an interesting way to catalyse interest: to get involved in music and start to understand that it is something we can actually appreciate and can actually get involved in.’

He found the ideal building a mile south of King’s Cross station, after only two months of looking. He had in mind an area that was not only central but within the orbit of somewhere musically relevant and with a concentration of music students, opting for Clerkenwell (because of the Barbican and Guildhall school) over South Kensington or Marylebone. He also seems to have recognised that London, though seemingly saturated with musical performance, offers proportionately few small club-style venues or similar that cater deliberately (if not exclusively) for classical music. 1901 Arts Club in Waterloo and the recently relaunched Red Hedgehog in Highgate are two notable exceptions; the Forge, which closed in 2017, and, the other side of Camden, the club Bartok a few years before that, are two other recent experiments in providing more relaxed performance environments.

Otherwise, it generally falls to local venues, churches and ad hoc sites, without a specialist supporting infrastructure or dependable audience network, to fill the gap for independent musicians looking for venues to play. ‘It was designed to provide a platform for musicians of all professional accomplishments to express themselves in a way that is simple, affordable and rewarding,’ says Morales. ‘We’ve tried to keep it extremely simple from the point of view of how we get musicians in: we ask for a basic evidence that a certain level can be met, of course, but that’s it. We’ve had a lot of students, a lot of early stages music professionals, some more advanced and accomplished artists. In fact one of the big dreams is having everything in this space: one day you have a string quartet of Royal Academy students, the next day a big name coming here and performing for an intimate audience, all in the pursuit of a social contribution that music can make outside of the most traditional concert hall.’

Needless to say, those plans have been interrupted for the time being. These included Up Close and Musical, a weekend-long festival over the May bank holiday but postponed until a later date. Directed by viola player Shiry Rashkovsky, it was to have taken over the whole venue and featured several well-known musicians and other figures in the industry in an exploration of the secrets of music-making from various perspectives.

‘The virus is a problem that the entire hospitality industry sector is going to be affected by, so we don’t really know what’s going to happen. Of course, that’s scary because it’s uncharted territory and running an establishment like this has got enormous costs. As much as you walk in and say: wow this is amazing, on my side it’s so much sweat! But you know what: I believe that at the end of the day you need to show people what’s worth pursuing and what’s really valuable, and I think that music has the power to communicate something. It’s the power of beauty, the power of emotions, the power of something that’s intangible but at some point you just realise is unique.’

Fidelio is at 91-95 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1R 5BX


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