To revitalise classical music, build fine venues
If I had a hundred quid for each time someone in the past 100 years had proclaimed the death of live music, I could pay for a new concert hall myself. And claim the naming rights! Mmm, the Morrison Hall has a nice ring to it – at least in my ears. Whether musicians would enjoy playing in a venue named after a critic is another matter.
But enough of improbable whimsy and back to the main point. When the gramophone first became popular, just over a century ago, gloomy musicians said it would kill live music making. Similar jeremiads were issued a few years later when the BBC started broadcasting music: why would people pay money to go to concert halls when they could crouch round the wireless and hear orchestras for free?
The same fears were voiced with each subsequent technological advance – stereo, in-car cassette players, CDS, ipods and, more recently, streaming services and ‘digital concert halls’. Now we have the whole of music available online, we are warned, concert halls will inevitably empty and audiences grow more and more ‘grey’ until they disappear.
Which, I’m glad to say, is complete horlicks. It’s the people staying home watching telly who are getting greyer. The average age of a BBC TV viewer, we were told last month, is 61. Meanwhile, new concert halls are springing up everywhere. In the past couple of years I have reported on the opening of two in Paris, the fabulous (if also fabulously over-budget) Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, the beautifully rebuilt hall in Antwerp and the spectacular, all-purpose new Opera House in downtown Dubai (which has just hosted a cutdown version of the BBC Proms).
Paris’s Philharmonie and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie were old-style ‘grands projets’, funded by enormous state subsidies. By contrast, the £250m cost of the Dubai Opera was met entirely by one private developer, Emaar, in return for being allowed to build huge residential towers and hotels in the same district. The point is not so much where the money comes from. It’s that governments and private corporations alike are willing to finance new classical music venues because they believe punters will flock to them. And they are right. The Elbphilharmonie is sold out for the next 12 months. It’s easier to book a table on a Friday night at London’s Ivy restaurant.
And now, it seems, even Munich has decided to build a new hall. ‘Even Munich?’ I hear you ask. A little context is needed to explain that sentence. Munich is home not just to a fine Philharmonic and an excellent opera orchestra, but also to the band considered by many to be one of Europe’s finest: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which has reached new heights under Mariss Jansons. Unfortunately, however, the city has no concert hall worthy of these musicians. And despite a dogged 15-year campaign by Jansons, the politicians seemed implacably opposed to building a new one.
All that changed last year when an offer came from a most unlikely quarter. A foodstuffs magnate called Werner Eckart – scion of the mighty Pfanni dumplings dynasty – offered the gift of a site for a new concert hall in the east of the city. The family’s potato processing plant was relocated in East Germany in the 1990s, and since then Eckart has revealed a hitherto latent talent as a cultural impresario by turning the vacated Munich site, replete with its silos and warehouses, into an unofficial campus for artists and clubbers. Now he is redeveloping it again, as a hip new inner-city quarter of artists’ studios, children’s climbing walls, apartments, restaurants, rock clubs and hotels. Astonishingly, he wants a concert-hall complex – with three different sized auditoriums – to complete the mix.
Despite complaints from Munich’s stuffier music lovers, who moan that Eckart’s site is on the wrong side of town (ie, the working-class side), the offer has been joyfully accepted by the city authorities. There’s to be an architecture competition later this year, and insiders tentatively suggest that the hall will open in 2024. Don’t hold your breath on that – take a look at how long after its intended completion date the Elbphilharmonie actually started welcoming visitors – but at least Jansons’s wonderful orchestra will finally get the home it deserves.
All of which raises the question of what is happening in another city with many top-rate orchestras but no great hall. I mean London, of course. On the negative side, the UK government has other things on its collective mind right now, and quite a lot of commentators seem to have written off the Barbican/lso proposal for a new hall as a ‘Simon Rattle vanity project’, which I don’t think it is. On the other hand, the City of London has a site ready and waiting, with the Museum of London vacating its old premises in the south-west corner of the Barbican – and that site will be redeveloped anyway. Raising the money for a new hall shouldn’t be an insuperable problem in the world’s biggest financial centre. I just wish they would get on and build it. Everybody else is.
Governments and private corporations alike are willing to finance new venues