A hall for London? Ask the actuaries

A hall for London? Ask the actuaries


norman lebrecht

November 06, 2016

It’s only a matter of weeks since I heard Sir Nicholas Kenyon, head of the Barbican Centre, and Kathryn McDowell, ceo of the LSO, tell a crowded room that, come what may, they were pressing ahead with a new concert hall for their new music director, Sir Simon Rattle.

Well, come what may just came. Mrs May, the prime minister, killed off the plan for a new hall with a late-Friday afternoon press statement, designed for minimum public attention. And she was right to do so.

Because, as we have argued before, this was the wrong hall, in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with entirely the wrong motives. Yes, London needs a good concert hall, but not as a vanity object for a celebrity maestro not as something that would be pushed through without public consultation or assessment of civic need.

The half-billion pound hall would have aroused fury from most of the rest of the country, from underprivileged citizens whose benefits have been cut to the bone and from all whose respect the democratic process. This was a stitch-up between a Tory councillor, a Tory Mayor, a conductor’s agent and a few other in the music business. It was not a rational decision in any shape or form.

And to build it on the Devil’s Island site of the Museum of London, a concrete hell in a no-go area, was similarly ill-judged, an act of convenience on a site the City wanted off its hands.



That said, London still needs a decent concert space. The Royal Festival Hall sounds (and smells) worse each time I go there, likewise the Royal Albert Hall. Both are beyond further acoustic repair. The Barbican, poor as it is, has been further damaged in the public perception by recent disparagements from Rattle, Kenyon, McDowell and Co.

But where should that hall be?

Before any further consideration is given to the matter, what is needed is an authoritative assessment of population trends over the next twenty years. In which part of London will the young professionals be living in 2040? Where is the next hot area after the one after Hoxton? Government consults actuaries on all such decisions. Let’s have a fine-tuned, professional,mathematical assessment. Then we can start thinking about a hall.



  • John Borstlap says:

    Entirely agreed with Norman on all points. 200%.

    And then, Leon Krier’s ideas come-up for consideration again:


    A humane approach on an excellent site. Krier – father of ‘new urbanism’ – built most of Poundbury, the experimental town supported by Prince Charles in Dorset, where the human measure reigns supreme, and where traditional beauty is not derided as ‘sentimental kitsch’ (as modernist star architects would have it) but reflecting the holistic nature of human perception (the architect Steven Semes). Krier, who is also a classical music connoisseur, said of classical art in general, including music, that it is atemporal, like mathematics. People like Krier would understand the requirements of a new hall in London perfectly well.

    • borech says:

      In the meantime, perhaps The Barbican can find £200,000 to construct some additional and much-needed toilets (male and female) on all floors above the basement and a few hundred pounds for CLEAR signage, showing its visitors, clearly, which floor they are on. There are acres of public space there and no excuse for these lamentable failings, which make it an uncomfortable place to visit. The refit of a few years sgo failed to address these issues.

      Once one is in the Hall or the Theatre, its not unpleasant.

      There should be plenty of time for planning a new hall,if this were done.

  • MacroV says:

    I have not followed this matter closely, but I still wonder if Sir Simon’s role is fairly characterized. He’s a conductor of great prominence, and therefore an ideal advocate for a great, world-class venue. Of course any organization pushing for a new hall would want him on their side, whether or not he was going to be leading the city’s flagship orchestra.

    • Halldor says:

      You’re exactly right – it’s not been remotely fairly characterised. Rattle is simply the only classical musician in the UK with enough fame and clout to say something which is self-evident to every London concertgoer: London does not have an orchestral hall of international quality. If he saw a political opening and threw his weight behind it, he deserves our thanks, even if the outcome waa unsuccessful this time. There’s long been a sort of ”tall poppy syndrome” towards Rattle from a handful of (mostly) older and more reactionary London-based critics and commentators; most interested parties value his contribution, look forward to his time with the LSO and view this latest setback with dismay.

      • Allen says:

        “There’s long been a sort of ”tall poppy syndrome” towards Rattle from a handful of (mostly) older and more reactionary London-based critics and commentators;”

        I think that’s a British attitude problem, not confined to music or London. Americans frequently comment on it.

        • Halldor says:

          It’s an easy mistake to make, especially if you’re looking in from outside, but London-based commentators and critics don’t necessarily speak for the whole of Britain, though many of them like to present themselves as being “national”. Rattle’s regarded as a hero in Birmingham and Liverpool; there even used to be a mural of him in the city centre in Birmingham. Taxi drivers talk about him. Few credible classical musicians in the UK regard him with anything other than respect and affection.

          But there’s a lingering resentment in the capital that he built an international career without ever “paying his dues” there; and that by so doing, exposed quite a few of its failings as a major musical centre. The concert hall issue being a case in point. Uppity provincial (there are still people who use that term) daring to think that London needs him more than he needs London: there’s a definite impulse to “put him back in his box” now he’s due to work there again.

          • Halldor says:

            (Should have been clear – I don’t mean to generalise, and it’s only a small but noisy handful of curmudgeons in London’s classical music world who feel this way. Most are wholly behind Rattle, and excited to see what he can do. And if anyone can get the LSO back up to where it used to be pre-Gergiev, it’s him)

  • Costa says:

    Sir Simon, just stay where you are in Germany. Why leaving your family there to come to this wrecked country? Unfortunately Farage is in power.

    • Allen says:

      I think you’re mistaken. Mr Rattle is moving to the UK, not Greece.

      • Stephen Owades says:

        Mr. Rattle is not moving anywhere. He and his family will continue to reside in Berlin. This is not unusual: Solti never lived in Chicago, nor Karajan in Berlin. They even stayed in hotels when working with “their” orchestras.

        • Allen says:

          Missed the point. I was commenting on the suggestion of a “wrecked country”, not Mr Rattle’s domestic arrangements.

    • pooroperaman says:

      ‘Farage is in power’

      If he is, then he’s just saved us from the fate of Greece.

      • Mathieu says:

        Could you explain me, in concise yet precise terms, how Britain was ever in danger of sharing the fate of Greece?

  • cynical bystander says:

    “In which part of London will the young professionals be living in 2040?”

    Aside from the likliehood that the demographic of London in 2040 will include a substantial community, professional or otherwise, who on current evidence show scant interest in the legacy of european culture, we will not be talking about middle european cosmopolitan communites fleeing a singular form of racial intolerance who brought with them a history of engagement with enlightenment european values. Basing a decision on how things might be in 2040 assumes that the existing culture is inviolable or a high degree of naivety as to the future of a cultural paradigm already under massive threat.

    If London needs a new Concert Hall, the audience of 2040 will be highly unlikely to be queuing to hear the LSO or any other orchestra playing the music of a long forgotten and much derided european “hegemony” when the call will be not to pray at the alter of Bach, Brahms, Mozart but to a culture where “Culture” has an entirely different meaning.

    • John Borstlap says:

      If white cultural elites with long pedigrees into a European past would take the trouble to educate innocent immigrants, the only difference may be the skin colour of classical music audiences. Self-destructive elites who disdain their own culture are not the best preparation for a Europe of a more diverse composition.

      More worrying is the export of Western modernism to war-torn communities, where youngsters recognize in Carter their own despair, as shown in this utterly ridiculous video:


      • Jaybuyer says:

        Mr Borstlap, everyone who can read this blog (in German) should do so. It includes the word ‘Gutmenschen’ – so handy in German politics today. The do-gooder who forces Elliott Carter down the throats of a captive Afghan audience should be ashamed of himself. Had he asked me what his solo scrapings reminded me of, I would not have complied with an answer about ‘being tired of war, etc, etc’. I know what is good for me, thank you very much, and it certainly isn’t E. Carter and his ilk.
        On another point, will we ever be able to ‘educate’ Moslems about the value of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven? At what point in the Muslim cultural scale (hard to soft) can one expect decapitation for showing an interest in Western Culture?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Just for the record: extremists are not ‘muslems’ but psychopaths who misuse religion to justify their craziness. And then, it is not religion defining people but the other way around, there are immense differences in how muslems interpret their being ‘muslem’. The ‘lack’ of ‘muslems’ in classical audiences is not the result of immigrant culture, but the lack of education. Most muslem immigrants in Europe, when given the chances to develop (work, education, housing), quickly become European, in a general way, and if they have no interest in Western classical music, they simply share the non-interest of the majority of European locals. But children of immigrants exposed to classical music have the same receptivity or non-receptivity as the offspring of locals.

          • David Osborne says:

            Thoroughly agree. And there many of the Islamic faith already working in our artform at the highest level.

    • Milka says:

      Cynical Bystander presents the most intelligent observation so far ……..
      And the usual nonsense from Borstlap who is now “educating innocent Immigrants ”
      The ignorant arrogance of Borstlap is not to be denied.

      • David Osborne says:


      • Jaybuyer says:

        PS. I think JB (in his own inimitable way) was trying to be sarcastic.

      • Sally says:

        But here on the estate we live perfectly happily with the Syrians…. and enjoy a quite different type of meals on a regular basis. Most of them appear to be more civilized than the people in the village, and they care more about their little children than my own family, than myself I have to admit – my husband uses the example of the Syrians to criticize me, I can somehow understand when he has to look after them while I have my work here. (And one of the christians from Damascus plays the violin and practices Vivaldi late at night, which sometimes gets on my nerves.)

    • herrera says:

      In 2040, if Brexit goes its way (that is, hard), London won’t need a new symphony hall (nor a new mosque for that matter), because all of its existing concert halls are already perfectly suited for Gilbert & Sullivan productions forever.

      • Jaybuyer says:

        “I polished up that handle so carefully, that now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy.” Don’t knock it 🙂

  • David J Gill says:

    This is one of those moments when the fact that American orchestra’s have little public funding seems like a good thing. (A debatable point, at best.) Lord knows, there is a lot of money in London. Raise the funds privately and build the hall.

    • Una says:

      Exactly, those who want a hall let them build it, and leave the government out of it so they can sort out what is more important in British life, like the NHS, sickness, food banks and people living on the streets with a temperature that is about to drop way below zero tonight and tomorrow. And if they have any spare cash, then build a concert hall in Leeds where there is none and orchestral concerts all the time every week by professional orchestras.. And most of all, build the hall that is in central London and on a central London tube line – not Hoxton, which is also a pretty grim area. The Bridgewater in Manchester and the Concert Hall in Glasgow are bang in the middle of the city. The Lowry for Manchester stuck out on a tramline outside the city centre in another city called Salford, and away from mainstream transport.

      Opera used to be done in the Palace Theatre and the Opera House itself in the middle of Manchester when I lived there. As for London, there is plenty of wealth there. A new concert hall doesn’t mean the quality of the music will go up or the audiences, no more than when you have a top of the range fitted kitchen put in. All looks good but you wonder if the meals ever improve!

      • Allen says:

        “like the NHS”

        The virtue signallers’ dream. Much admired but never copied.

        Music provision in other countries is praised frequently on these pages. Perhaps we should copy their diverse healthcare provision as well.

        If the largest county in the country had shown a little more concern about the lack of a full time professional symphony orchestra since 1955, the case for a concert hall in Leeds might have carried more weight. It’s easier to justify a concert hall when you have an orchestra needing a home for performance and rehearsal in the same space.

        I read the Yorkshire Post for years, as well as various local papers such as Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus, but the matter was hardly mentioned. I’m sure that between them, Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield could have made a case if the demand had been there.

  • Will Duffay says:

    Right result, but for the wrong reason. May is a grim piece of work, a tabloid PM guided by the demands of multi-millionaire anti-democractic media owners, but unfortunately on this she has been told to make the correct decision.

    But it’s obviously not because May’s government is more interested in helping out the arts more generally, by building up school music lessons or spreading the money across the nation. And it’s not because May’s tabloid government is interesting in helping the needy in our sad country.

    No: it’s because the State is bad, the arts are a luxury, the economy is heading down the pan, we’re cutting ourselves off from our friends and neighbours, and life is only going to get harder. There’s no point building concert halls when businesses are moving to EU countries, GDP is down many %, jobs are being lost, and we’re all poorer because imports are so much more expensive.

    • Allen says:

      “jobs are being lost”

      Apart from anything else you say, that is pure invention, or are you confusing the UK with Greece, Spain etc?

    • Anon says:

      Hi Will, that would be the UK would it? Strongest GDP growth in the G7, reducing unemployment, Nissan and co. staying put, ability to not get poorer thanks to exports being more desirable for others, currency-wise…

  • Andrew Benfield says:

    With HS2, Brum will only be an hour away; the LSO and London concertgoers can borrow Symphony Hall. Rattle knows it well, too. The rest of the country is always expected to visit London to see anything culturally interesting, so let’s share the love…

    • Allen says:

      They could always visit the lavish new Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. But they aren’t bothering, apparently.

    • Jaybuyer says:

      By snailrail Brum is at present only just over an hour away. I wonder how many Londoners bought tickets for Mirga’s Mahler 1 on 16th November, which suddenly sold out just after her appearance at the Proms.