Per­form­ing Arts

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

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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)

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