Bury finds itself at the apex of new performance spaces
It’s not often that a town gets a new concert venue. Not a brand new, built from the ground up, state-of-the-art concert venue. Usually buildings have been adapted from other multi-purpose uses or are old concert venues given a bit of a refurbishment.
Not-so with The Apex in Bury St Edmunds. It is a genuine, all-singing, all-dancing modern entertainment venue which promises to revolutionise the way not only concerts are staged but how see them.
The venue is being run by Nick Wells, St Edmundsbury’s arts officer and director of the renowned Bury Festival, along with venue director Tony Doherty. Both men said that it was important that people saw The Apex as an integral part of the local community. Cafes and bars within The Apex and its central location means that it should serve as a fantastic place for people to meet friends for a drink.
Tony said: “We will have performers providing free entertainment in the bars during the day and evenings. Also I am hoping on occasions to persuade people who are performing concerts here to come and give a little acoustic session in the bar – it all helps to make this venue special, providing something which people can’t get elsewhere.
“We are also hoping that local performers – jazz bands, singer-songwriters will use this as a platform to reach a wider audience and showcase their talent.”
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Nick and Tony both said that The Apex will complement and not compete with existing arts provision. “We have good relations with Theatre Royal. We are not looking to steal their audience away. We are primarily a music venue with a bit of cabaret and comedy thrown in. The Theatre Royal remains the place to see plays and musicals. We are not seeking to take that away from them. Possibly the only area where we will overlap will be dance. They have staged dance in the past and with our open, clear stage we would like to stage some top class dance, but are not seeking to poach anything from them. It’s a question of talking things through and working something out together.”
During my tour of the building with Nick and Tony, it was clear that both men were passionate about the fact that, in their eyes, it was so important that community was at the heart of the building. Rehearsal rooms and dance studios with sprung floors and adjustable partitioning are available for local groups and societies to use.
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“The rehearsal space and the dance studios, like the rest of the building, are incredibly flexible. They can be re-arranged to suit the user with the minimum of fuss and are designed to allow the space to be redesigned for the use of the hirer.
“We have three studio spaces which can become one if you fold back the doors. They disappear and you can have one big space or three smaller spaces.”
Flexibility lies at the heart of the �18.5 million development.
Flexibility which is immediately apparent in the main auditorium - a wood, brick and concrete visual feast which can be reconfigured in a dazzling number of ways to suit the event being staged.
The stage can hold an 80-piece orchestra or it can be reduced down to hold an intimate evening with a singer-songwriter or a string quartet. The auditorium can be an all seater, partly seated, partly standing or all standing. The stage can be at one end or the other or even in the middle if the performance needed to be staged in the round. Balcony surrounds the auditorium. The stage can be lowered to floor level if necessary or even sunk to form a mosh pit.
Tony said: “It’s as flexible as we can possibly make it. The turn-around time from one layout to another is about 45 minutes. The seating in the stalls is mounted on movable wagons which have built in air cushions like mini-hovercraft. So if we want to clear a space or the whole floor we can push these units onto the hydraulic lift, which doubles as an orchestra pit, and it can take the seating down to a storage area beneath the stage. It then allows the floor space to be completely clear which is what you need to for rock events.”
The seating can also be tiered to allow everyone a clear view of the stage. There is also seating in the balcony areas. The Apex can hold between 500 and 750 people depending on the configuration of the seating/standing area.
The auditorium has been acoustically designed with special “decoration” on the walls to improve the acoustics as well as baffles which can be raised or lowered depending on the event being staged. The auditorium is also a sound-proofed sealed unit, so the venue should not disturb the neighbours.
“We had a hard hat concert shortly after the building was finally fitted out. We had the acoustic experts in with their monitors and machines and we had two acts entertaining the crowd which we kept on the move, so they could test the sound and the view from various places within the arena. We had a string quintet and we had a full-on- heavy metal rock band. I am delighted to say that once we had adjusted the screens the sound for both acts was the best I had ever heard in a venue. Absolutely brilliant. And just as importantly when the heavy rock band were blasting away, when the doors were closed you could hardly hear a thing in the bar let alone outside in the street, so we are very pleased indeed.”
The Apex will form the hub of a revitalised Bury Festival next year but Nick Wells said that the venue will only work if it is busy all year round. “It’s great place to see bands and listen to music. There’s no such thing as restricted views here and the sound is excellent.
“Wherever you are, wherever you are sitting, you can see everything that happens on that stage. There’s not a bad seat in the house.”
Tony added: “The idea is that The Apex will be programming quality acts. It’s an aspirational place where people will see some of the country’s best performers and hear some of the finest music. We hope it will inspire local people to go out and want to be as good as them. It will give local people more variety, more opportunity to see top acts and that has got to be a good thing.
“Bury’s a growing town. It’s well placed with good travel connections, it should appeal to both audiences and acts alike. We’ve invited a few promoters along to see the facilities we offer. We hope once they have seen the venue, witnessed a few gigs here, they’ll be looking to put us on their itinerary. As you have seen, the facilities are excellent.”
Although Nick is putting together a year-round programme for The Apex, he said he is particularly excited by the possibilities that the venue offers for the Bury Festival in May. “I see it becoming a hub for the festival with various additional venues extending out from it. One of the strengths of the festival is that it involves the town as a whole. We have long-standing venues like the Cathedral that we would not want to lose. It’s important that the Festival is part of the fabric of Bury but at the same time we have this fabulous new venue and we would be crazy not to take full advantage of it.
“I see events here every day and having a Festival bar here, having musicians play here in the public areas. It would be great to have a little session starting at 10 o’clock at night. Try and get that festival buzz going.
“But, as always there are some events which work better in some venues than in others. The cathedral or the Theatre Royal are fantastic spaces and we wouldn’t want to take anything away from there. We have The Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Garbarek coming for next year’s Festival – that’s one of my secrets out – but we will stage that in the cathedral because it needs that type of setting.”
Tony stressed that with the arrival of the Apex, Bury will become a major centre for music in Suffolk, drawing from Cambridge and from across the county. “The festival, as good as it is, only happens for two weeks of the year. With The Apex open Bury will be having top grade music throughout the whole year and that is going to make a tremendous difference.”
Nick said that the important fact as far as he was concerned was to programme a series of events that encompassed as wide a variety of musical and entertainment styles as possible, in order to offer something to as many people as possible. “It’s imperative that we reach as wide an audience as possible without sacrificing the quality of the work that goes on here. It’s important that The Apex is regarded as a venue which supports musical excellence in a wide variety of styles and genres.”
They said that they didn’t see themselves as a venue for cover bands – “It’s a gorgeous space. It’s just too good for that. We are looking for original artists, producing good quality music, in whatever genre you like. It’s what the hall and the people of Bury deserve.”
He said that they would like to offer a platform for schools in the Bury area to show the public what they can do. “There’s some excellent music being produced in our schools and it’s a pity that the wider community doesn’t really get a chance to hear it. The standard is phenomenal. It’s really important that they see this as their stage – that not only do they see inspirational acts here but they get to perform here themselves.”
Nick added that they would love to develop an educational or community support strand to the programming where acts who perform at the Apex in the evening, go out and work with students and community groups during the day.
“It would be lovely to hold some masterclasses here. The view is excellent from the balconies. You could sit there and see and hear everything in intimate detail. Even if you were doing something like a piano masterclass you could look down and see the keyboard without any difficulty.”
Among the acts that Nick and Tony have got lined up for the near future are: EUCO with Julian Lloyd Webber, performing works by Elgar, Haydn and Faure on October 21, BurySOUND heat two of the Best Band in Bury competition on October 22, City of London Sinfonia on October 28 at 11 am and 2pm, the Allegri Quartet on November 4, Fat Cat Comedy Club on November 14, The Magnets on November 16, BangBangs Burlesque on November 18, Steve Harley acoustic on November 30 and Kate Rusby appearing on December 3 has become the venue’s first sold out event.
For more information, including details of forthcoming events, visit www.theapex.co.uk