Alexis Ffrench may not be known by the majority of households in the UK, but he is nonetheless a British gem in the musical crown of contemporary classical music, sitting alongside names such as Italian, Ludovico Einaudi and Japanese, Ryuichi Sakamoto. His use of modern production technology and the inspiration he draws from a variety of genres allow him to compose beautiful pieces that push long-established ideas of classical music. Having signed to Sony Music in September, his track Bluebird was streamed over a million times in seven weeks and I was fortunate enough to see him playing live at The Elgar Room last Monday night.
You can find The Elgar Room on the third floor of The Royal Albert Hall. It seats less than two hundred and proved to be the perfect, intimate venue for the evening. The audience was arranged on candlelit tables of four, with a bar at the back and portraits of musical icons hanging from the walls as if to impress upon the crowd, the rich history of the building in which we sat. The dimly lit room slowly filled with people and chatter, giving the atmosphere of a classic jazz bar before Ffrench sat down at the bright red piano that had been waiting for him in a spotlight at the front.
The setup made for a dramatic entrance, as the pianist entered silently and seamlessly began two introductory pieces, acknowledging the crowd with only a bemused smile at the applause between them. For some reason I had not expected a modern classical musician to look quite so modern. The piano was not equipped with sheet music, but with two iPads, while the man himself wore a black velvet shirt, with a grey trilby hat and earphones very visibly, though not very effectively, taped to the side of his head.
Yet once Ffrench pulled up the microphone, I was also pleasantly surprised by his personable and modest nature. He seemed genuinely excited to be playing The Albert Hall, describing it as an honour to be in such an iconic venue and addressing the crowd as his friends as well as his fans. You hear this from most musicians, but the intermittent introductions and shared insights into his writing process, set a genuinely amiable tone for the duration of the show. A tone that made for an enjoyable evening as well as a better appreciation for the music itself, which was of an exceptionally high calibre.
After greeting the room, Ffrench played a beautiful first set for around an hour, which included Carousel, Truth Vibrations and an instrumental composition of Pray by Sam Smith. Each was performed eloquently and his rendition of Bluebird was particularly emotional after he spoke of his his daughter, Savannah, who is the dancer in the music video, and has also been inspiration for other pieces. This was aided by the accompaniment of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, whose intertwined melodies on strings, made several compositions so engaging that I was fighting the urge to sway in my seat.
Fortunately, Alexis felt no need to fight such an urge and it was apparent how much he enjoys performing from his expressive movement as if the music was flowing through his arms and onto the keys. Being only one table from the piano, I also spotted his leg jubilantly lift in the air before the break, during the melancholic September Song, from his 2016 album The Piano Whisperer.
The second set rivalled the brilliance of the first with the most recent additions to his catalogue. Ffrench performed eight more pieces, eventually involving the audience for an improvised encore. It was a fun way to end the evening yet somewhat diffused the dramatic impression of the penultimate four pieces, which included two current singles, Radiate and a cover of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, as well as his next single, named Waterfalls.
Waterfalls had a pretty composition and if you are a fan of Ffrench, you’re guaranteed to love it. But given the time of year, I have to say that the Christmas tune was my favourite. Jazzy embellishments add flare to the classic melody and it gave the audience a warm festive feeling for their journey home in freezing cold London.
Overall, I feel very fortunate to have been there at The Elgar Room on Monday. Given the recent success of Alexis Ffrench, chances to catch him live in such an intimate setting will only become more rare. He played his heart out, sharing personal insights and showing true appreciation for the prestige of the venue. But with Sony Music behind him and a new album approaching in 2018, I would not be at all surprised to see him performing in the big hall some day.