Max Hole is right about the Royal Festival Hall: Tear it down

Max Hole is right about the Royal Festival Hall: Tear it down


norman lebrecht

July 23, 2014

For twenty-five years, in all forms of media, I have argued that London’s Royal Festival Hall is not fit for purpose as a classical venue. Over that period some £200 million of public money have been pumped into futile upgrades. The hall operators are presently asking for more.

Sometimes I felt like a voice in a wilderness as the entire classical establishment chorussed the glories of the hall.

So it’s nice to find a kindred spirit in Max Hole, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International, who has just said on Classic FM: ‘Going off to the Royal Festival Hall and seeing a wonderful concert of music where the lighting was like the accident and emergency unit of a hospital.

‘There were no screens to show the musicians up close, the conductor had his back to you, he didn’t speak to you. I thought this was all wrong.’

So true. The RFH is a misery shed of browns and yellows, too much distance between stage and public and visually null.

Max is right. Get rid of it.

You can listen to his comments here.



  • Petros Linardos says:

    No screens? Good!

  • Anne says:

    Objectives should be achievable. This isn’t going to happen, not now.

    Waste of time.

    • Anne says:

      BTW, I think the rest of Max Hole’s comments are nonsense as well.

      I think he’s confusing a concert with a circus.

  • David Ward says:

    On lighting, I might almost agree with Mr Hole, as for at least 60 years I’ve felt most concert lighting might be more effective and atmospheric. But: ‘the conductor had his back to you’ – how else is he supposed to conduct, given the crucial importance of eye contact between players and conductor? And as for ‘screens to show the musicians up close,’ surely an important part of many (not all) classical concerts is that they are genuinely live and unaided by electronics. Screens may occasionally be appropriate, but they are on a par with amplification and should be used VERY sparingly. Usually, it is best both to hear and to see what’s being performed without the aid of gadgetry.

  • George says:

    What a ridiculous post.

  • David Pickett says:

    I agree with the comments so far. BUT…

    In my opinion, the RFH HAS been unfit for purpose since it was built. It has been “improved” several times since then, but still remains substandard for the purpose of orchestral concerts. The major modifications and refits have demonstrated beyond a peradventure that only way to provide a concert hall worthy of London is to start from scratch. If the RFH can be used for something else, fine: build a real concert hall elsewhere in the capital.

  • George says:

    Perhaps my priorities are just different. I have heard countless amazing performances at the RFH over the years, great music played by great musicians. I couldn’t care less what the lighting is like.

  • Gav says:

    i think this says more about ‘universal music’ than the RFH. sure the RFH is not the ideal place to hear music, but its not THAT bad! its the best london has. another new full sized london concert hall? only in your dreams ….

  • Cross-Eyed Pianist says:

    Old news. Mr Hole made these comments ages ago in a speech while revealed a significant lack of understanding about classical music and concerts. I wonder if he has even set foot inside the RFH….

  • Sixtus says:

    The main problem with RFH is its dry and cramped acoustics. This cannot be remedied without drastic architectural changes initiated by a wrecking ball. And get it right, unlike the halfassed acoustic revamping of what is now Avery Fisher Hall in NYC. Acoustical science and technology can now reliably deliver what is needed.

  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    The refurbishment was a mistake they should have torn it down a built a new hall with a superb acoustic ( the refit did not achieve this) and it would have been cheaper.

  • Erich says:

    Oh, pleeeese…..we all know London cannot compete in the ‘great concert halls of the world’ stakes. But trying to tart up the RFH with screens and artist close-ups is certainly not the way to make things better. Mr.Hole should please not confuse Pop and Rock concert tactics with the classics. Rather, he should prevail on the top Universal classical artists to petition the London Arts ‘powers that be’ to improve the situation and provide London with a top-of-the-range concert hall.

  • a fan says:

    Surely a discussion about the rfh should revlove around the acoustics primarily……. rembering what ‘classical’ music has and not try and compete with movies/musicals etc. where we will for sure come last.

  • Penelope says:

    I sadly agree with others here, that this post is quite senseless and useless. Yes, the lighting at RFH may be poor and could be warmer and less austere, but quoting Max Hole about the fact that a conductor doesn’t speak to the public, has his back to the audience while conducting the orchestra in front of him (!!!) and there are no giant screens, just because he occupies a key position at Universal Classics, would be like quoting a farcical politician, just because they are in a position. Max Hole has about as much of an idea about the core classical music audience as a barnacle on a ship. In fact, it is because of these corporate suits, who think that they will challenge and teach the world about things for which they have no background, no true understanding and no real in-depth knowledge, that the classical music business has fallen so low as it has.

    Message for Mr. Hole:

    Next time that you go on one of your all expenses paid business trips and stay in a five star hotel and are invited to dine at a five star restaurant, in keeping with your convoluted and simpleton logic, I would advise you to check-in to the hotel wearing a T-shirt with shorts, flip-flops and then go to dinner at the five-star restaurant in the same attire, order a hamburger, Coke and french-fries, put your now bare feet up on the table and show your dinner partners your latest home-made videos of you romping around by the pool half naked with your son’s rock band blaring in the background. You must express outrage when you are asked to leave the restaurant and vow to continue fighting on for this right to dumb down everything that you can get your hands on.

    How does a group like Universal allow such low level management?

    • Damian says:

      I couldn’t agree more! I have seen Mr. Hole on two occasions and he epitomises the quintessential English “suit”. On both occasions he was dressed in the “classic” English banker’s pin-stripe suit and looked like he could work at Barclays or Coutts. What hypocrisy! He speaks about classical music being stuffy and elitist and at the two classical concerts where I saw him, he was dressed in the most elitist and stuffy manner imaginable. Have a look at this photo, for it speaks a thousand words. Here Daniel Barenboim and Rolando Villazon are seen with Max Hole. The two artists are casual and not in suit and tie. Look at Mr. Hole! Who is the stuffy and elitist one in the picture?

      I’ve had enough of these charlatans, who have brought classical music to nothing and have coursed more harm and damage with their simplistic and hackneyed comments that “classical music is boring and elitist.” I heard that twenty years ago and Max Hole should really move on and realise that classical music is not pop music, is not Hollywood cinema and has, or rather had, a loyal following, until the likes of him started to ruin it.

      • Roland says:

        I also met Bill Holland. I don’t agree. Bill Holland was not pretentious and had a good natured attitude. He may have also subscribed to the dumbing down approach, but Max Hole really is out of his depths as the head of classics. I follow the industry very carefully and closely and I have not heard anything very inspiring nor original come out of Mr. Hole’s mouth. He just repeats ad nauseum the same outdated cliches, namely that he finds classical music elitist and that his objective is to make it attractive to a younger audience. Yes, yes, yes. We have all heard that before. It’s not by having chatty conductors and giant screens zooming in on the fingers of pianists that a young person will suddenly jump to their feet and say that they are now converted to classical music. How simplistic, how dumb. The lack of original and creative initiatives at Universal Classics is shocking. Having a festival in Bristol doing “cool things” like giant screens, etc., is all well and good, but it isn’t the trappings that get people hooked. Museums have succeeded at getting the masses out and they didn’t turn the national Gallery, nor the Prado, nor the Met Museum in New York into discotheques in order to achieve it. In fact, the haven’t done anything to the art at all. They have only tweaked the communication and left the art in tact. Mr. Hole is yet another, in a long line of overpaid “suits” who thinks that they will revolutionise classical music sales only to fail miserably and be replaced by another knight in shining armour. The difference between Universal Music and the great museums of the world is that the museums have management who know something about the “product”, surround themselves with competent people and have a united strategy. Universal Classics under Max Hole is a sinking ship as far as I and many of my friends are concerned.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Well, here is a conductor facing the audience:

  • Stephen says:

    Leopold Stokowski is quoted as saying when the hall first opened, “If you want my opinion, tear the whole thing down and start again.” At that time the orchestra sounded as though it was playing behind plate glass but the acoustics were improved and by the 60s the better conductors and soloists managed to provide many memorable occasions.

  • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

    Sorry Norman, but I think Mr Hole is talking nonsense and really seems as if he’s living in another dimension. His comments are obviously, judging by the reaction in “comments” here, inflammatory and desperately “populist”. Is there no one at Universal Music with a bit more intelligence, imagination and artistic integrity nowadays?

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I too have been seizing every opportunity that comes my way to attack not only the building itself, but also the persistent dumbing down by the current incompetent management of the Southbank Centre. It is nothing short of a major scandal that after spending £109 million on a much trumpeted refurbishment you can now hear all the trains on Hungerford Bridge even more clearly than before, and also admire the total mismatch of wooden pannelling around the platform area, to pick out two obvious instances of wasted public money. Allowing the “great British public” to decamp in all the public spaces and make rackets in the foyers adjacent to the auditorium before, during and after concert performances is all I need to send my blood pressure soaring. Go to the Barbican and for the most part you will be mingling with other concertgoers.
    As long as the UK is governed by philistines who have no understanding of their own cultural past, let alone anybody else’s, we are not likely to see any change in the current situation. Go to France, or Germany, or Russia (forget the politics please, just focus on what is done there to uphold their own cultural heritage), or any number of other European countries, and then come back to the UK. Jesus wept!

    • Anne says:

      I agree with most of that. The malaise doesn’t just exist within government though, it’s much wider. The MSM, education, local government and an aggressively philistine streak within the population. Look what happened to the original WNO opera house plans.

      It doesn’t help, of course, when the few Members of Parliament who are not philistines feel the need to conceal their true interests.

      We have a make do and mend attitude. This is partly to avoid having to justify to the culprits above why money needs to be spent on things which have a lasting value. The figures aren’t huge by government standards.

  • johnc says:

    Mr Hole unfortunately has no notion about classical music. He should concentrate on providing help and service for the customers who still buy music. The E-mail adresses of the labels are mostly not activated, there is no possibility of receiving customer support. I inquired about an upcoming new CD release. My E-mail message was returned due to a non-active customer support mail-address, the Editor of the newsletter publication Klassik- Akzente was unable to provide help regarding an upcoming release (6 weeks in advance), not having information on the content of the release. Amazon does no provide any help, it is not their business to do so.
    Universal seems to be earning enough through their bulk-sale of their catalogue to SPOTIFY streaming services, which they also own in part. Spotify makes no money and never will, it will probably cease to exist in the next 2 years.

    POOR Universal share-holders !!!!!!! No other industry would ever allow amateurs to run their business.

    RFH may not be perfect, there are many halls which are less suitable for concerts. During the concerts, the lighting is dimmed down, therefore it is irrelevant whether the lighting is bad or good.

  • Dave K says:

    The point about demolishing the RFH is correct; with apologies to Alex Ross, the rest is tosh.

    In an age where so many not-unattractive London buildings are being razed to make way for plate-glass monuments to architectural hubris and excess, how has the RFH survived for so long?

    It would fail tests of fitness for purpose on so many levels. The Barbican, apart from its atrocious back-stage facilities, is generally preferable.

    • Dave K says:

      Of course I forgot to mention that ridiculously small stage, which combines with health and safety paranoia/overkill to limit choir sizes…

  • Mathew says:

    The ‘great British public’ pay for places like the Southbank. They’ve every right to be there.

    • Anne says:

      Missed the point I think. Nobody is disputing anyone’s rights.

      If opera fans exercised their “rights” and invaded a pop/rock/folk music festival, or perhaps a sporting event, in a public space, and totally changed the character of the place, it would attract criticism, and rightly so.

      London has lots of public spaces. Their characters differ. It happens that the RFH, for all its faults, was designed for classical music. It’s entirely reasonable for patrons to wish to preserve that atmosphere.