Does London really need another concert hall? Other countries are setting expensive standards, but, as Pippa Cuckson argues, architectural splendour must be matched by great acoustics
Does London need a new concert hall, asks Pippa Cuckson
ALthough hamburg has been elevated to the forefront of german culture with the opening, in January, of the Elbphilharmonie, the project has already hit a sour note. the world-class concert hall—a crystal castle perched on top of a warehouse—is the creation of Swiss architects herzog and de Meuron, the duo behind tate Modern. however, for all its acclaim, the Elbphilharmonie ran spectacularly over budget at €860 million and its contoured, stone-effect walls have left musicians such as Komische oper’s assistant chorus master Andrew Crooks ‘underwhelmed’ by the acoustic.
this was unfortunate timing for the launch last month of Sir Simon Rattle’s inaugural programme as principal conductor of the London Symphony orchestra (LSO). his imminent return to Britain after 15 years in Berlin is linked to ambitious plans for a new symphonic hall on the site of the Museum of London. Inevit- ably, anxious comparisons have been drawn with hamburg. the proposed budget of £278 million already seems excessive—what if its architects get carried away by form over function?
London’s Barbican (home of the LSO) and Royal Festival hall both fall short of the acoustic perfection of Symphony hall, Birmingham, which was completed in 1991 during Sir Simon’s tenure with the city’s Symphony orchestra. top overseas orchestras may support the BBC Proms, but they’re notably absent from the Royal Albert hall during the rest of the year. Sir Simon also emphasises that the Barbican is too small for 20% of the symphonic repertoire.
Justification for a new hall in the current financial climate has split the industry. Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber was a prominent opponent. At his own Festival hall debut in 1974, he was horrified to discover he could only hear himself—‘and that what you heard was the worst it had ever sounded’—but emphasised that the audience hears something very good.
Since then, Prof Lloyd Webber has softened his opinion. ‘Simon Rattle has a point that there aren’t any great concert halls in London, but I question spending huge sums when we have such a bad state of music education. It’s the wrong way round. If the money could be raised privately, I have come round to thinking there should be a new hall, but now is not the time to fund it from public money.’
the Barbican, completed in 1982, was funded by the construction of 21 apartment blocks; this is not an option at the new site. ten years ago, property developer and music buff Peter Millican sunk £100 million into purpose-building Kings Place in London’s regenerated King’s Cross. he placed two concert halls on the lower floors, which were subsidised by office space above for, among others, the Guardian. ‘It’s a strange anomaly that London doesn’t have a symphony hall with the same quality of acoustics as Sage gateshead,’ he observes. ‘there is certainly an opportunity.’
however, Mr Millican doubts the Kings Place business model would translate to a substantially larger hall and says access constraints will inflate the expense of redeveloping the Museum of London site. ‘I do know that a less complex site would reduce the costs significantly,’ he points out.
More than £100 million was spent improving the Festival hall’s acoustic 10 years ago, hampered by the listed status of its carpet and wall fabric. Similarly, Sydney opera house’s acoustically dull concert hall will close for 18 months for an upgrade costing AUS$200 million (£124m). getting it right at inception is certainly cheaper.
Last December, I attended Valery gergiev’s International Piano Festival at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, where, in 2006, Maestro gergiev persuaded Vladimir Putin to back this new Arts complex. he hired Yasuhisa toyota, who has since become the classical world’s ‘go to’ acoustician and, after a week of trying everywhere out, I can attest there is not a single ‘duff’ seat. As with Mr toyota’s work in hamburg, the Mariinsky has wavy walls, although they’re faced with heavily textured wood, but, although the Elbphilharmonie’s auditorium fans out almost 360˚, the Mariinsky’s stage is the hall’s widest point.
Musicians I canvassed all feel that you can’t fault the traditional ‘shoebox’. that was the shape of Queen’s hall near oxford Circus—bombed in the Second World War—which Prof Lloyd Webber understands was ‘superb’.
Mick Mulcahy, trombonist with the Chicago Symphony, the Elbphilharmonie’s first visiting orchestra, was ‘pleasantly surprised’ by its resonance, but he
still rates the rectangular 19thcentury salles such as the Musikverein. Vienna’s principal hall is also a favourite of Australian soprano Valda Wilson, who says: ‘I don’t fully understand the need for such a whizz-bang hall [as the Elbphilharmonie] when big wooden boxes also seem pretty spectacular for sound.’
But even the Elbphilharmonie isn’t big enough for everything. The Komische Oper performed Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which necessitated a chorus overflow into audience seats behind the stage. ‘Was this particularly considered in terms of acoustical properties?’ asks Mr Crooks. ‘The chorus sometimes seemed distant and hard to understand, in particular the lower voices.’
Leading Irish concert pianist Finghin Collins points to the rectangular shape of London’s Wigmore Hall, every soloist’s favourite chamber venue, and of Dublin’s National Concert Hall (NCH). ‘The NCH is still fit for purpose; it just needs some minor renovations—what Dublin urgently needs is a chambermusic hall,’ he observes.
Will the new London concert hall actually happen? The project relies on the yet-to-be-fixed relocation of the Museum to Smithfield. The promoters—the Barbican Centre, the LSO and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama—needed public funding to work up the business case alone. When the Government recently withdrew a £5 million contribution, the City of London Corporation (CLC) stepped in with £2.5 million.
CLC policy chairman Mark Boleat is upbeat: ‘This decision [to support] reaffirms our commitment to transforming the area surrounding the Barbican into a world-leading cultural hub. We have a long history as a leading investor in the Arts and recognise that culture is what attracts people to visit, work and live in London and the UK.’
In concert: Hamburg’s newly opened Elbphilharmonie
Although performers like traditional theatres such as the Mariinsky (above), venues need to pay for themselves, like the multiuse Kings Place (right)