So who, exactly, needs a new concert hall?

In the April issue of Standpoint magazine, I have a stab at assessing who actually needs a new concert hall in the second decade of the 21st century. Paris has just built one, amid ongoing controversy. Munich has baulked. Warsaw has green-lit a project. And London has got a ‘feasibility study’.

But a good orchestral hall costs half a billion in hard currency and public support for a declining art form is getting harder to rally.

All agree, for instance, that Nouvel has built Paris a modern marvel (even if the architect removed his name from the building over its over-hasty completion). The questions are whether the new Philharmonie is worth the money—does it represent £300 million of added value?—and whether it is needed at all. Paris took a political decision to stop orchestral music at the Pleyel because its audience was ageing and bourgeois. The Philharmonie is meant to attract young couples who live around the city’s periphery. But can they afford the tickets? Will tourists find it? In an age when people access concerts online, regardless of acoustic distinction, can a new concert hall be justified at the expense of a children’s hospital or an old-age home?

Read the full essay here.

Paris Philharmonie04

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  • Graciela Araya says:

    There should be a Law from the start of Youtube,etc,that say clear that a reproduction of sound or painting or any artistic form,is merely aproximative to the Original.So the Internet Public,know that the Original is Always Better!
    THANKS ,Graci

    • Anon says:

      What is so great about recordings is that they can – keyword is *can* – actually be much better than what Joe average is hearing in row 20 in the back in reality.

  • NYMike says:

    Norman, you’re statement regarding A. Tully Hall in NYC bears correcting. First, comparing an 1100 seat hall mostly designed for chamber music to Carnegie’s 2800 seat configuration is comparing apples to refrigerators. Second, you failed to note Tully’s transformative 2008-09 renovation, resulting in a visual and acoustical gem. See here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/29/arts/music/29tull.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • Brian says:

    Norman, thanks for a great site, but in this instance I don’t find your questions concerning the Philharmonie de Paris very convincing, to be honest.

    Did Paris need a new hall? Yes, and it has world-class acoustics!

    “Can they afford the tickets?” Like Salle Pleyel, the new hall in Paris offers a contingent of 10-euro seats for all concerts, including the big ones (Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouworkest, the American orchestras etc.). Virtually everyone who might be interested can afford that. Granted, it’s good to have internet access on the day the tickets go on sale, and one also needs a bit of luck. But it’s an example other halls should follow.

    “Will tourists find it?” Well, yes, if they’re not sub-mental, if they can find line 5 of the metro and if they have a map.

    Personally, I think there can’t be enough halls!

  • Henry says:

    A sure sign of civilisation is a celebration of art for the enrichment of the people. That means part of our tax should be spent in this.

  • Halldor says:

    In the last quarter century, in the UK, major new concert halls or arts complexes have been built in Belfast, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle/Gateshead and Birmingham; they’ve all paid for themselves in terms of renewed audiences, increased income and greater public engagement in the arts; they’ve also acted as engines for economic renewal.

    In terms of concert halls, it’s London that’s the provincial backwater in the UK. If the civic authorities are now about to address this, all to the good; no-one in the rest of the UK is likely to have any problem with this (the general opinion in this particular corner of the benighted provinces is “about bloody time they caught up”). We’re well used to London justifying expenditure on itself as being in the national interest (Crossrail, anyone?). If the cost of a half-dozen bankers’ bonuses actually gets spent on something artistic: good.

    Meanwhile, in as far as London’s venues have “national” status, it’s a national embarrassment that major international orchestras visiting the UK are reduced to playing in halls as mediocre as the Barbican, RAH and Festival Hall. Meanwhile it’s becoming faintly comical to read the arguments with which dyed-in-the-wool metropolitans try to justify and excuse their current embarrassment.

    • Anne says:

      “no-one in the rest of the UK is likely to have any problem with this”

      I think you’re wrong about that. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be built and London generates more than enough tax revenue to pay for it, but it won’t be universally welcome. The carping has already started.

  • George Murnu says:

    Add Bucharest to the list of cities that needs a concert hall. The Romanian Athenaeum is an acoustic marvel and is the postcard symbol for Bucharest (take a look in Google images: http://tinyurl.com/ot6rh4b), but it only seats about 800 or so spectators. The Romanian Radio Hall also has good acoustics but it only seats 1100 spectators.

    The maddening thing is that, really, these two halls are more than enough for the regular concert season. But a hall is badly needed for the costly yet widely popular Enescu festival that takes place every two years. During that time great orchestra (VPO, BPO, LSO, Concertgebouw, etc.) play in an embarrassing hall which was initially used for communist party congresses. Yes, there have been acoustic improvements but it’s a lost cause…

    • Greg from SF says:

      So, what you’re saying is, the two concert halls – in your description, good ones – now in existence in Bucharest are more than enough to handle the regular local music season, but the city should now build a new concert hall that will be needed only once every other year for a visiting orchestra?
      Seems pretty wasteful to me.
      SMH…..

    • Brian Hughes says:

      Having conducted a concert of the Filharmonie G. Enescu at the Sale Mare a Palatului (spelling?), the “Congress Hall mentioned in the comment, I have to agree that the hall is a disgrace. Nothing can be done to improve the acoustic in this 4500-seat disaster. But the question remains: is it economically feasible to build a new hall that is useful for a festival only every two years? And in Romania no less? Given the economic climate of that country, one has to decline.

  • Sam McElroy says:

    We should not be choosing between hospitals or concert halls. Nor do we have to. A complete society looks after the mental and physical health of its citizens, and I would argue that the arts are an essential and pitifully neglected element of the human experience, and therefore of the spiritual health of an entire society. To quote Sir Simon Rattle, “Art is a necessity, not a luxury.”

    It is true that concert attendance is on the decline, but that does not mean that the classical art from is loosing popularity. Attendance is a crucial problem for the industry to face, especially as the moral right to passive income from recording has been removed from artists as a consequence of creative destruction in the digital age. Creativity, reinvigoration and reinvention are at the core of the solution. In no field of endeavor can you hang on to the old models and expect continuity of interest.

    Architecture is central to that process of rebirth. A building is the physical representation of an ideal, a tangible flag-bearer of a nation’s aspirations, imagination and creative standards. The Sydney and Copenhagen opera houses show that if you build the building, especially in an imaginative and experience-enhancing way, people will be primarily and secondarily drawn to its activities. The opera house in Sydney was even forced to reconfigure itself to meet the unforeseen demands of those drawn to opera by the building and its particular nomenclature.

    So yes, build the building. But do so with the latest of technical specifications to permit the most imaginative, bold programming and staging to take place within its walls. The optics of a crumbling infrastructure do nothing for the opposing message that classical art forms are still relevant today.

    And don’t forget Steve Jobs: “Tell the market what it wants. Don’t ask.” It is time for creativity and adventure, I would conclude.

    PS. I entirely reject the “cost of tickets” argument. Any parent on this blog will know the cost of tickets to pop concerts or sporting events. For a seat in the nose-bleeds of a stadium for an experience that is anything but musical, people from the most humble of financial circumstances readily pay hundreds of dollars. Thousands, for something closer to the action. Conversely, a major promoter in Germany told me recently that his student freebies are left unclaimed these days.

  • MacroV says:

    As another pointed out, comparing Alice Tully Hall to Carnegie is faulty. Comparing Carnegie and Fisher Hall is fair game. Mr. Lebrecht doesn’t get into the plans to renovate (and rename) Fisher Hall, for about 0 million.

    One city nobody mentioned also might benefit from a new hall: Prague. The Czech Philharmonic plays in a lovely little (emphasis on “little”) hall, the Rudolfinum. It sounds great, but two problems: It only seats about 1,100, which seems too small for an orchestra, and it has a lot of seats with partial or obstructed views, thanks to some enormous pillars. I’ll be very curious to hear how a big Mahler symphony (#2) sounds there next week. But it’s a grand building in a perfect location; they can’t renovate it, and can’t tear it town, and there’s no other obvious place to build one. Nor the money, I imagine. There’s also the Municipal hall, which is bigger but with problematic acoustics. And it’s the home of the Prague Symphony.

    • Brian Hughes says:

      There remains this curious paradox that “bigger means better.” European opera houses are, by far, significantly smaller than those in the U.S. I have seen Don Giovanni in both the Chicago Civic Opera House (home of the Lyric) and at the Stavoske divadlo in Prague (site of the premiere). One is a behemoth; the other a lovely and intimate house. The choice is obvious…

      Yes, the Czech Phil sounds incredible at the Rudolfinum; one can hear everything from this orchestra that, according to the NY Times, “sounds like itself.” That said, one has to wonder whether or not large scale concerts might be (occasionally) be held at the Narodni divadlo (National Theater). Honestly, I don’t know if the size of the stage or the acoustical environment would be conducive.

  • George Murnu says:

    Well, as I pointed out, this is a dilemma. But one would hope that a new hall would attract more people to classical music concerts, would help increase the quality of the local orchestras and would host visiting orchestras not every two years but on a more regular basis.

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