You are passionate about great music. You love it all: opera, symphonies, concertos, chamber music and recitals. Where should you go to indulge your passions, and have a great holiday at the same time?

Try London, one of the greatest of the world's great music cities, alive with classical tunes all year round.

It has an astonishing 20 professional orchestras, the more famous ones being the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

There are also 45 amateur orchestras in the Greater London area, perhaps the most interesting of which are the London Gay Symphony Orchestra and the Lawyers' Music Orchestra and Choir.

The numbers for chamber music ensembles are equally impressive, and there are many dozens of professional soloists, both instrumental and vocal.

Not all who perform in London are English, of course. Far from it. World-class artists, orchestras and ensembles from the rest of the UK, Europe and just about everywhere else appear there frequently.

In any given month, people like superstar sopranos Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli, violin prodigies Jonathan Bell and Gil Shaham, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, tenor Jose Cura and others equally revered are likely to be performing in London.

Several famous New Zealand artists are among them, including tenor Simon O'Neill, bass Jonathan Lemalu, and of course Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

Venue is critical to the enjoyment of great music, and London boasts a variety of halls and other buildings ideal for musical appreciation.

Pride of place must go to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where you are likely to find the highlight of any music tour - whether by the Royal Opera or Royal Ballet. It can be expensive, though. Ticket prices can reach £200 ($437) for the best seats, especially when world-famous stars are performing, which is often.

However, you can get into the "upper slips" for just £4 if you are happy to just hear the music and get access to the champagne bar. Queuing for returns can also be fruitful, as wealthy patrons sometimes give spare tickets away.

The champagne bar itself is a gorgeous room where the sleek and the sophisticated, the well-known and the well-dressed, mingle with opera aficionados to eat overpriced sandwiches and drink excellent champagne before the performance starts. The atmosphere is congenial and redolent with excited anticipation.

An excellent service allows patrons to order, before the performance starts, the champagne and snacks desired during intermission, pay for them, and get a ticket which may be presented between acts for instant service.

The Royal Opera House, once one of the most inadequate of great city opera houses, is an extraordinary place with a warm and homely feel.

It was transformed into one of the finest houses in the world in the three years from 1996, when reconstruction began on the original site. It was reopened on December 4, 1999, and is a marvellous combination of history, architectural and aesthetic beauty, and acoustic excellence.

The first theatre on the current site was opened in 1732, and hosted pantomimes, operas and plays. In 1808 it was destroyed by fire, but reopened as an opera house in 1847. In 1856 it was again destroyed by fire. The third - and what remains as the present theatre, designed by E. M. Barry - opened as the Royal Italian Opera in 1858.

Then came wars. In World War I it was used for furniture storage. In World War II Mecca Cafes leased the theatre and some six million people visited to dance.

In 1946 Sadlers Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) reopened the theatre with performances of Sleeping Beauty. In 1946 the Covent Garden Opera Company (now the Royal Opera) was founded and gave its first performance there (Carmen) in 1947.

Now the redeveloped building covers 2 acres, a whole acre of which is taken up with the stage and backstage areas. It has two new performing studios, a new box office, shop, bar, restaurant and terrace, and a refurbished Paul Hamlyn Hall.

There is now state-of-the art backstage technology, offices, workshops, and additional rehearsal space for the three world-class performing companies the Opera House is home to: The Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera, and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera.

Backstage tours are immensely popular, as they deserve to be. Each year many thousands of visitors from all over the world take the tours. As the Opera House is a fully working theatre, there are often opportunities to see the Royal Ballet in class, to see rehearsals, production workshops, and watch scenery which can weigh up to 30 tonnes moved around.

If the opera house hasn't blown your budget, ballet buffs can follow a visit up with a trip northeast to the "new" Sadlers Wells Theatre in Clerkenwell. And opera enthusiasts eager for more can head a few hundred metres west to the English National Opera, where all productions are sung in English. The seats are cheaper than at Covent Garden but less comfortable and the ambience is also inferior.

At the other end of the musical scale - as it were - is Wigmore Hall, among the finest venues for chamber music in the world. It was built in 1901 by the German piano firm Bechstein, next to its showrooms in Wigmore St.

Originally called Bechstein Hall, it was designed by leading English architect Thomas Collcutt in Renaissance style, using alabaster and marble for the walls, flooring and stairway.

Its reputation for acoustic excellence soon attracted the giants of the time, among them Pablo de Sarasate, Artur Schnabel, Percy Grainger, Camille Saint-Saens and Arthur Rubinstein.

The world wars again gutted normal activities, but since then the list of world-class vocalists, soloists and chamber music ensembles who have performed there is almost endless.

It is a beautiful hall, underneath which are bars and a restaurant, its walls hung with portraits of famous performers by famous artists. And to add to the charm of the place, coffee or sherry is served free to guests at the very reasonably priced Sunday morning concerts.

Also dedicated solely to chamber music is the London Chamber Music Society's new concert hall at Kings Place, the first new hall in London for 25 years to be designed specifically for soloists and smaller ensembles.

Then there are the famous centres which feature other entertainment as well as classical music. The huge Barbican Centre, in the heart of the city, is Europe's largest multi-arts and conference venue. It is a hideous but fascinating concrete construction, established in 1982 by the City of London Corporation as a part of its contribution to the cultural life of the nation.

The centre is the home of the brilliant London Symphony Orchestra, but in any given month it will feature opera, classical and contemporary music, jazz, art and photographic exhibitions, cinema, theatre, dance and drama. Ticket prices are reasonable. Needless to say, there are several bars and restaurants, but they can be less than inspiring.

On the bank of the Thames is the Southbank Centre, which is almost as large. It comprises three iconic buildings: the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and The Hayward.

Its offerings are almost as varied and eclectic. The Festival Hall, home to the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its new principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski, has recently been refurbished. Cheap tickets are available most nights of the week.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall boasts two excellent chamber music auditoriums, and the whole complex has a lively atmosphere and many dining options.

Less well-known venues for the many other professional orchestras include Cadogan Hall in Chelsea, Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush and many churches, such as the lovely and recently restored church of St Martin's-In-The-Fields in Trafalgar Square. It is a magnificent music venue which specialises in classical music of all kinds, except opera.

During summer, the number of venues expands to include festival venues, like Hampton Court Palace, Somerset House on the Thames and Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. There are also open-air concerts at Hyde Park and the lovely Holland Park Opera, where you can enjoy a picnic beforehand.

Last but definitely not least is the Royal Albert Hall, which hosts - among other concerts - the world-famous Proms, officially known as the BBC Proms or the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. It is the single largest classical music festival in the world.

Starting in July, it lasts for eight weeks. There can be few people who have not seen it on television, especially the iconic Last Night of The Proms - the ultimate in joyful music participation, when patriotic songs like Rule Britannia and Jerusalem have the audience singing along exuberantly.

"Without music," wrote Wilhelm Nietzsche, "life would be a mistake."

If you love music and don't avail yourself of the treasures London has to offer, you're making a big mistake.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to London daily via both Hong Kong and Los Angeles. See airnz.co.nz.

London music: Finding out what's on at the major venues, and booking tickets, is an easy matter. Attractions are advertised well in advance, and these can be found on the respective websites. Bookings can be done online.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is at roh.org.uk.

The English National Opera, Covent Garden is at eno.org.

Sadlers Wells, Roseberry Ave, Clerkenwell is at sadlerswells.com.

Wigmore Hall, Wigmore St is at
wigmore-hall.org.uk.

The London Chamber Music Society, Kings Place is at londonchambermusic.org.uk.

The Barbican, Silk St is at barbican.org.uk/music.

The Festival Hall and Southbank Centre is at
southbankcentre.co.uk.

Further information: You can get general information on visiting Britain at visitbritain.co.nz.

Graeme Barrow paid his own way to enjoy London's music.