Friary is heaven sent for musicians

Laura Davis reports on the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s hidden musical gem in inner city Liverpool

THE late Jon Lord described his links with Liverpool as “a musical umbilical chord”. The Deep Purple organist recorded with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra four times, most recently at its rehearsal space and studio in west Everton.

Since opening in the abandoned St Mary and the Angels Church in 2009, it has been used by major recording labels including EMI Classics, Decca and AVIE and rising stars of classical music, among them trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, Benjamin Grosvenor (piano) and Korean pianist HJ Lim.

But as well as playing host to famous names, The Friary is as welcoming to the local people, who live in one of the most economically deprived areas of the country.

“It’s becoming a really important building in the music industry,” says Simon Glinn, executive director (Philharmonic Hall and events).

“There are now a lot of recordings out there that say ‘recorded at the Friary’ or ‘recorded at the Friary and Abbey Road’, which is quite nice.

“When Jon Lord died the other day it made us think about the fantastic photos of him rehearsing down there with the orchestra.”

The decision to set up a rehearsal space away from the Philharmonic Hall was both commercial and musical.

With the Hope Street concert hall free, it could be rented out to non-classical touring musicians, helping to subsidise costs. Before the launch of The Friary, the orchestra would rehearse in hotel function rooms or at Pacific Road theatre in Birkenhead, neither of which met their exact needs.

But where would be suitable?

The Philharmonic management began taking walks around Toxteth and parts of south Liverpool, searching for disused churches or warehouses. They considered and dismissed an underground reservoir on Park Road, Toxteth Town Hall and the Florrie, before its renovation, when a board member suggested talking to the Liverpool Archdiocese.

Empty for 12 years, St Mary and the Angels Church, with its wide nave big enough to fit a full orchestra, was just what they had been looking for.

More than £500,000 of funding, most of it European, was raised by the Archdiocese to transform the Grade II*-listed building, who now rent it to the Philharmonic at an undisclosed but “very favourable but realistic rent”.

The Phil are responsible for covering the bills and pay £100,000 in running costs each year, of which some 25% is rent.

The church’s interior is little changed – the orchestra rehearses flanked by Italian marble pillars and religious paintings. Cloth drapes and panels control the acoustics and double glazing blocks the sound from nearby industrial estates.