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Rotherhithe: How Debut’s classical concerts are returning to the Brunel Museum

Lizzie Holmes’ monthly series presents musicians performing in the historic Thames Tunnel Shaft

Debut performances take place in the Thames Tunnel Shaft

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Debut has returned to the Brunel Museum, bringing a fresh series of classical music concerts to the venue’s subterranean Thames Tunnel Shaft.

The monthly events – set to run this year from March until September, 2024 – combine the delights of cocktail pop-up Midnight Apothecary, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches from Lo Viet and performances by musicians for audiences of up to 65 people sat at cabaret-style, candle-lit tables.  

The vibe is welcoming and accessible, based on a format created by Debut founder – curator, host and soprano Lizzie Holmes.

“I launched the company back in 2015, with concerts in different locations,” she said.

“The Shoreditch Treehouse was our first regular series and it became really popular.

“I’d attended an acoustic pop gig there through Sofar Sounds and told the owner that it was an amazing experience but that they needed to get some classical pianists and opera singers in to match the size and volume of the venue’s Steinway Model D concert piano.

“We also did performances in places like the Old Operating Theatre and at the Cutty Sark, but that’s more challenging as there’s no piano. 

Debut’s Lizzie Holmes

“Then a friend mentioned the Brunel Museum – we went along and saw the Grade II listed Thames Tunnel Shaft and remarkably, there’s a piano that lives down there.

“The environment and the atmosphere are beautiful – the acoustic is like a church and it’s steeped in history.

“It dates to the 1840s and so much classical music was created around that time.

“With Midnight Apothecary on the roof, it’s a match made in heaven.

“It’s very exciting to be able to breathe new life into the space and to encourage audiences to discover it.”

A typical Debut evening begins at 6.30pm with botanical cocktails created by Brunel stalwart Lottie Muir and her team.

“At 7pm the Tunnel Shaft opens with the first performances starting at 7.20pm.

“There’s a half-hour interval at 8pm, with the second half finishing around 9.15pm with the bar (and its fire pits) open until 10pm.

“When people come to a concert, first of all they’ll be greeted on arrival and then encouraged to chat to the performers,” said Lizzie, who trained at the Royal College Of Music.

“In London, or any big city it can be hard to find connections and we want everyone to leave feeling they’re part of a community – that they’ve had a communal experience for an evening.

“The energy is electric. During the concerts the musicians will share anecdotes to connect with the audience – something we often don’t get the opportunity to do, having performed to thousands of tiny faces at bigger venues.

The Brunel Museum’s roof garden above the venue

“We make sure that audiences are never spoken down to – we just share the music.

“If a performer just enters a room and breaks out into an aria, people’s jaws will be on the floor. Sometimes you don’t need to do any more.

“It can be amazing and thrilling, but it has to be presented in the right way with the right story. 

“People like seeing that the incredible skills of an instrumentalist or a singer are coming from a normal person who you might see going to the shops or queuing up at the dentist.

“It’s about creating that sense of normality alongside the extraordinary.”

Debut’s next date at the Brunel is set for March 14, featuring mezzo Leila Zanette, flautist Rianna Henriques and pianist Przemek Winnicki alongside host Lizzie and resident piano improviser Sam Peña.

Lizzie said: “People love Sam, he takes lots of requests and is also a brilliant collaborator.

“Prezemek is a superstar from Poland who has a big following on Instagram – he’s flying over from Europe.

“The whole idea is that people get a real mash up of different composers and musical feelings throughout the evening.

Audiences sit cabaret-style in the Thames Tunnel Shaft

“Leila is a wonderful singer who I met six years ago and Rianna is a woman of many talents who is joining us for the first time – she also plays clarinet and saxophone and has just graduated from the Royal College.

“We’ve got Debussy, Chopin, a little bit of jazz, Offenbach, Bizet, Mendelssohn and Mozart, with the Flight Of The Bumblebee to finish.

“It’s nice to have that variety and a combination of rising stars and people who are firmly embedded in the industry and making waves already.

“We’ll always have a guest singer and a guest instrumentalist, and sometimes a duo, such as guitar and flute. It’s always a very healthy mix.”

Lizzie finds musicians for Debut through her extensive contacts, word of mouth and via direct application.

She said: “We get about one a week applying and our doors are always open.

“In 2020, we also ran an artists development programme called the Horizon Project, which attracted 150 applications.

“This year we held an open stage for the first time where we had 25 new musicians we hadn’t worked with before coming along to play a couple of pieces. 

“It was like a Debut night, but without an audience.

Midnight Apothecary’s botanical cocktails are available at the events

“To perform with us, you need to be a brilliant musician, but it’s also about personality.

“The audience will miss so much if you can’t show them that inner person and so that event was really helpful in identifying the right performers for Debut.

“For some musicians, it can be quite disarming to be that open with an audience – it’s an interesting balance.”

Lizzie often performs at Debut nights herself, but says her main interest is in providing a platform.

“I do a solo here and there – I love to sing – but I revel in seeing other musicians flourish,” she said.

“Discovering new talent and sharing it is such an amazing thing.”

Tickets for Debut’s March 14 concert at the Brunel Museum cost £32.

Other events at the venue and Shoreditch Treehouse are also available.

Find out more about Debut here

Audiences begin the evening in the roof garden

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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