Why the South Bank Centre lost its head

Take a look at the website for London’s South Bank Centre, once a magnet for classical music.

There are no classical concerts at all this weekend.

Over the next five days, there is just one – an amateur performance of Britten’s War Requiem.

And that’s it.

The Centre has been in headlong retreat from its core purpose for several years.

This, we hear from board members, is why artistic director Jude Kelly lost her job – by mutual agreement and with the usual expressions of mutual esteem.

The board is presently redefining the next director’s role.


share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
    • So for “years” you have boycotted the Southbank Centre entirely because you disagree with the use of the premises for activities other than classical music? The recently announced 2018/19 classical season comprises “close to 200 concerts”, including performances by the Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Aurora Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, St Petersburg Philharmonic, and Mahler Chamber Orchestra, as well the the International Piano, Chamber Music, and Organ Series, featuring absolutely world class talent such as Mitsuko Uchida, Maurizio Pollini, and Angela Hewitt. But you won’t go to any of that because you don’t like the fact that sometimes the Southbank Centre puts on events that aren’t classical music. It sounds like you’re missing out.

      • Just compare the number of classical music concerts – the many corporate events, weddings and graduation ceremonies are just not listed, unlike the endless festivals and celebrations of ethnic diversity – with what was on offer thirty or even fifty years ago. The Royal Festival Hall was once the home of classical music. Now that it has been subsumed into the umbrella designation Southbank Centre it could be the home of anything, from reading circles occupying space in the foyers, to geeky computer club get-togethers, with a special buggy park for all the mums who have nowhere else to go. There is currently no building of any similar standing in London which people can identify as the place to go to if you want to hear classical music, opera galas, chamber concerts, recitals, lectures on the historical background to concerts series and much else besides. Why do so many of the chattering classes begrudge lovers of classical music such an exclusive home? The real tragedy is that Jude Kelly was allowed to pursue her “women first” agenda to the detriment of all else for as long as she did.

        • I have no issue with the plethora of other events at Southbank Centre. If anything they benefit classical music as they demystify the space for people who might not have set a foot inside otherwise.

          Between the Southbank Centre, Barbican, ENO, ROH, Wigmore, Kings Place etc etc London is incredibly well served (possibly over served) for classical music.

          • Yes, a couple of years ago I read a statistic that London has more live classical music performances than any other city in the world, Berlin coming in second place and New York third. Given that classical concerts are rarely sold out events, especially in the RFH and Barbican Hall, I wonder whether London actually has the capacity to have even more classical concerts at the Southbank Centre.

            By my reckoning we are served by three concerts halls at the Southbank, two at the Barbican, two at King’s Place, then Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall, St John’s Smith Square, almost daily concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields (some of world-class professional standard), the Proms all summer at the Royal Albert Hall, plus occasional classical concerts throughout the year, performances from time to time at Union Chapel, countless performances at churches and at the three major central London conservatoires, Blackheath Halls beyond central London (now incorporated into Trinity Laban), and in due course the reopened Fairfield in Croydon, and of course two opera houses at least two major dance venues at Sadler’s Wells and the Peacock, and that is before one even begins to think about commercial musical theatre venues.

            I also quite agree that, contrary to Alexander Hall’s comment, one of the great things about the Southbank Centre these days is that it is open to all. Do we really want classical music venues to be forbidding elitist places that one enters only to attend a concert? I also don’t understand the sneering reference to ethnic diversity. London is so ethnically diverse that white British people now represent a minority of our population (most people are either white but not British or British but not white). And predictions are that in the coming years this situation will only intensify, with London set to become a truly global city in the sense that we are moving towards a situation in which our population is more representative of the world than of the UK. If classical music is to survive in London it may well be that our audiences need to begin to better reflect the people who live here.

          • You are obfuscating the central argument here with a number of very sound and worthy aims. But the quality of classical music programming in all the venues of the SBC must be the main priority of any effective management and since I have been attending the SBC since the late 1960s I have witnessed a decline. This may reflect a decline in classical music as part of modern culture generally. But even taking changes to the business and cultural environment into account the SBC management has seriously opted for too many Rite of Springs (with light shows) popular classics and fairly odd allication of venues as I mentioned with piano recitals in the RFH and a Rossini Petite Messe Solonnelle which would be more appropriate in the specifically designed Queen Elizabeth Hall with its acoustic and size.
            Take this festive season – both Halls are more or less commandeered for Las Vegas style pantomine shows! Come on justify that!!!!

          • “the Southbank Centre these days is that it is open to all.”

            Yes, but open to people doing what exactly? If the “all” are not attending concerts, what’s the benefit? “Open to all” – just warm words that mean nothing.

            And are jazz and rock venues “open to all”? Do the people who run them give it a second thought?

          • “London is so ethnically diverse that white British people now represent a minority of our population”

            You need to remember that London does not exist for the sole benefit of people who actually live within its boundaries.

          • @Allen: That is true, but with a population of almost 8.8 million people, Greater London is now more populous than the entire country of Austria, representing almost 13.5 percent of the population of the whole of the UK, and, crucially, is very nearly as populous as the whole of the South East England region. That is a huge population from which to draw a potential audience for classical music. Just consider the fact that Greater London has almost five times as many people as Vienna, and yet our opera houses and concert halls, which are not five times as numerous, are rarely sold out. Yes, people do routinely travel into central London from all over the southeast of England (and further afield) for classical concerts, but central London venues surely ought to be making an effort to engage with the millions of people who live within Greater London but who have no contact with classical music.

      • Alex Davies – I have no objection to the space being used for activities other than classical music, but there hasn’t been enough of the classical music which I do like to hear, and certainly less than when I first became a regular in the 70s. I like the building, I like the surroundings, and it’s convenient to where I live. I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear.

        • Sorry, but I am still confused! You say, “We certainly haven’t been there for years, for that very reason.” You like the building and the surroundings and it’s convenient to where you live. There may be less classical music there than there was in the 1970s. I couldn’t comment on that as I didn’t begin going to the Southbank Centre until the 1980s. What is the classical music you like? Just a quick glance at the coming year’s brochure gives me Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Gruber, Vierne, Rheinberger, Howells, various film composers including John Williams, half a dozen English and Italian Renaissance composers, Stravinsky, Lutosławski, Adès, Wagner, Schoenberg, Bruckner, Mozart, Mahler, Schumann, Brahms… Those are just the highlights of page 1.

          • You are right – next year’s programme has some really enticing concerts. For all tastes –
            from Stockhausen to Uchida playing Schubert. And contemporary music too. Can’t wait!

        • Same here Carole having been attending sibce late196, s I see a very reduced classical music offer in the program and a great deal of industrialised footfall for commercial purposes.

      • Specifically because you mention Angela Hewitt who is a fine pianist and was quite happy to appear at the Bath Festival in the Assembly Rooms but seems to have been lavished with the 1800 seat Festival Hall when in the 1960s to 1990s she would have played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a more appropriate acoustic and intimate space for the solo piano recital. Angela Hewitt is no Pollini, no Argerich or any of the handful of current superstar pianists who could possibly qualify for such a large auditorium on the basis of satisfying market demand fir tickets rather than artistic quality. That’s what Norman is indicating here. A tradition of classical music performance is being broken on the wheel by the current SBC management.

      • How dare you come here with your reasonable, rational points. This site is reserved for over-reactions, ill-informed reactions, dog-whistling, click-bating, hearsay, gossip, nonsense, misleading headlines and guesswork. How. Very. Dare. You.

      • Re: “It’s half term. Professional musicians are entitled to have a break with their children and families.”

        Equally, it could be argued that “children and families” are entitled to have an opportunity to hear serious classical music during their “break”.

        More generally, music is not the only profession which is wont to leave its practitioners limited time to spend with “children and families” during school holidays, so “half term” strikes me as a poor excuse. Having said that, it is true that the combination of the high cost of living in/near London and the relatively low pay typical of the music profession elicits a corresponding need to take on lots of work to make ends meet.

  • So they finally got wise to that relic apparatchik of so-called New Labour…it’ll take a long time to undo the damage she caused…

  • Because a place designed primarily for Western classical music became viewed as an elitist ghetto and, as usual, hardly anyone stood up for it because it wasn’t “cool” to be seen doing so. Now it caters for everything, and nothing.

    • Sometimes things become viewed as being elitist ghettos because they are elitist ghettos and in case you haven’t noticed, being elitist is in fact very ‘cool’. However, use of that expression is not.

      I would also just like to add that in my opinion an amateur performance of the War Requiem is fantastic news. I know the intention on Norman’s part was not to disparage, but it did rather come out that way.

        • I seriously hope you’re kidding (even though I saw a nice Rattle performance of the Tippett at RFH in the 90s, in presence of the composer)

          • absolutely not. There’s something rather hollow about the Britten, to my ears. My loss/blind spot doubtlessly.

      • Really?

        An “elitist ghetto” that, as a student, looking like a student, and with a very un-elitist accent, I had no problem being a part of. At the time I knew plenty of people who wouldn’t be seen dead there. Their loss.

        Sometimes people create their own barriers.

  • Isn’t there a Mahler 5 performance this evening? I suppose if the 5 days starts tomorrow then it’s true that there’s nothing other than the Britten until the LPO’s concert next Wednesday.

    I could be tempted to pay a visit to the LPO; but they appear obsessed with Stravinsky, a composer whose music I find rather irritating.

    • Simple – lack of rehearsal time (ie public funding) to prepare challenging rarely heard works and bums-on-seats ticketing. The Rite with light show pulls ’em in. Hats off to Jurowski for his brave and adventurous concerts of Zimmermann etc. Bravo maestro! But where’ s the Honegger, the Boulanger, the Copland or Ives, the HENZE, etc etc?

  • I’m sure Mr Borstlap with be there in May for two semi-staged performances, by London Sinfonietta, of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus LICHT.

    First time done in London since ROH in Autumn 1985

  • I don’t think the amount of classical music at the venue has declined significantly. The LPO and Philharmonia have the same size seasons as always, as do the OAE and Sinfonietta. In addition Southbank has added new Associate Artists over recent years – Aurora and BBC Concert Orchestra for example.

    The Southbank’s own series are still there, though the visiting orchestras series seems to have declined somewhat.

    What has undoubtedly changed is that the venue seems very uninterested in promoting classical music, even though it is still a majority of the programming. A visit to their website would leave you with little impression that there is ANY classical music going on, let alone it being the majority of work on offer. I looked the other day and there was just one classical even listed on their home page, and that was WAY down the bottom. It has been this way a while, and I suspect it comes from the top.

    • Obviously, they want to go with the times and even anticipate future developments. It’s like helping the hangman with the rope. It would be much better to give-up the South Bank entirely for clasical music, and turn it into a pop temple, and build a decent, rather small but HUMANE concert hall somewhere else, one with a welcoming character like the one designed by Prince Charles’ favorite architect Léon Krier:


      • I think the Royal Festival Hall is wonderfully humane building personally, it’s a wonderful space.

        Also, incredibly well served by public transport, which the suggested site on your link isn’t

        • That is quite psosible…. but SouthBank is, to many people and I am one of them, a very ugly lump of concrete fantasy emanating the grave atmosphere of a crematorium.

          • I like the auditorium and most of the interior of the building but I think the exterior of the South Bank complex is one of the most depressing, ugly buildings I’ve ever seen – only Trellick Tower is grimmer.

          • I know, right? Couldn’t they at least paint the concrete with some cheerful colors?

            (I’m not entirely kidding about this: look at what a difference cheerful paint jobs made in Tirana. But of course all the architecture graduates who think Brutalism was wonderful and should be preserved would howl bloody murder.)

          • Consistent with your tastes in music. I’d have been surprised if you had a positive view on this building!

          • Entirely extreme snobbish and if I may say ignorant comment. I suppose the lack of a “royal” or pre-1900 connection means it is somehow less valuable than the the hundreds of ugly drab and depressing Victorian buildings with their fake “Gothic” given iconic status in the capital.

        • It will outlive us., our children and theirs…. now that’s a comforting thought, if we can preserve the quality of its music and programming.

      • This is the kind of snobbish philistine attitude critics of the architecture and civic aspirations that created this major world class arts centre by the GLC in the 1950s and 1960s has had to tediously contend within my lifetime. I suggest these comments are a reactionary throwback to those that protested over the decision to establish the National Theatre on the South Bank instead of a nice cosy site in the Royal Borough of Kensington! Disgraceful!

    • Exactly Will. I have been attending these venues since the late 1960s and have witnessed a decline from a fairly mixed offer with plenty of high quality classical music featuring international wirld class stars. Now I feel like a classical music ORPHAN at the Southbank Centre. I loved Jurowski’s brave efforts to programme little heard modern music evenings with the LPO. But this requires considerable more private sponsorship from large firms and public funding than the current management appears to have access if it were to be extended or even continued.
      I blame mean and miserable government support plus a lack of aspiration at the SBC itself.

  • It may have escaped everybody’s attention that this week is half term for most schools in and around London (and other parts of the UK). I should imagine that that is the reason why the Southbank Centre has a weekend of events mainly aimed at children.

    If you take another random block of days you can paint an entirely different picture:

    24 April: William Whitehead organ recital in RFH
    25 April: LPO concert in RFH
    26 April: RPO concert in RFH and Benjamin Grosvenor piano recital in QEH
    27 April: LPO concert in RFH and chamber music concert in QEH with all-star cast of Danielle de Niese, Sir James Galway, Mark Simpson, Menahem Pressler, and the Navarra String Quartet
    28 April: in RFH a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey with live soundtrack performed by Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices and in QEH a concert by Anna Meredith and the Southbank Sinfonia
    29 April: Philharmonia Orchestra all-Shostakovich programme preceded by a 4-hour insights day on Shostakovich

    Yes, there may be disagreements about the details of programming on some occasions, but let’s not begin making sweeping claims about the whole institution being in “headlong retreat”.

    • Re: “I should imagine that that is the reason why the Southbank Centre has a weekend of events mainly aimed at children.”

      Does Alex Davies mean to imply that serious classical music is unsuitable for children? Does Davies, furthermore, mean to imply that even a well behaved child could not possibly attend events aimed mainly at adults?

      • No, of course not. I forget how old I was when I was sitting through full-length concerts, but I believe from what I am told that I was about 4 or 5. But let’s be realistic, that is fairly unusual. I was exposed to serious classical music (including, in the early stages, concerts specifically aimed at children) and music education from a very early age. If the Southbank Centre wants to put on a series of events for children, it’s going to reach a lot more people by putting on child-friendly events during the daytime and late afternoon than it will by putting on regular classical music concerts that a small number of unusually musical and unusually well behaved children may or may not attend. If people want to bring their children to concerts they are able to do that year-round. The point of this week is to put on alternative events aimed at families with young children. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

        • They have a good schools programme, but that is not the criticism here as we are discussing the classical music offer for eveninf concerts in three venues, one refurbished about a decade ago and now already showing wear and tear due to industrialised popular “eventing” 18 hours a day 7 days a week. Plus two other very recently refurbished chamber music/recital venues which are likely ti go the same way and are certainly not being optimally used – in terms of their brilliant natural acoustics and intimate size – for the purpose they were designed.

    • I am sorry to disagree but even the slightest perusal of the current prospectus for the Queen Elizabeth Hall shows a real shortfall in the genres of chamber music, quartet and piano recitals and Lieder or choral. This is glaringly obvious and shows a decline from previous decades. I know because I have been attending these venues since the late 1960s!

  • I was saddened to read remarks regarding the use of the rfh to host events promoting ethnic diversity and family events. Having just returned from the southbank with my 10 and 8 year old sons to hear Chineke, I and they were truly inspired by their musicianship and ability to bring classical music to new generations and people of different backgrounds. It may be worthwhile remembering that these exceptional facilities will need to appeal to a new generation if they are to survive.

    • Not at the expense of musical quality and the western classical music traditions which seem to flourish across Europe except in the UK and specifically at the Southbank Centre.

  • This week the South Bank is running their annual brilliant Imagine Festival for children – we contributed to it a few years back with our guide to the orchestra with Michael Rosen. It’s always a phenomenal mix of events, and I notice this year features the little big sing and Aurora orchestra members exploring Tchaikovsky. Norman clearly thinks music for kids doesn’t count, but thankfully Southbank Centre management are more enlightened, otherwise there won’t be anyone to listen to ‘classical’ music concerts in 30 years time.

    • It’s not just Norman thinking this James, but the artistic leadership of just about every Opera House in Europe treats works for children as an afterthought when they should be a priority, precisely for the reason you mention. A big shout out though to Deutsche Oper Am Rhein for being the one exception, at least that I know of.

  • Does anyone remember the Robert Mayer Childrens’ conerts that were held at the Festival Hall all through the 70’s? And at Central Hall before that!

    • Yes Frankie, but if you want the occasional (usually free) concert designed especially for families and children you will have to travel to France, Germany or elsewhere on the Continent.

  • I am glad that this glaring shortfall in management at the Southbank Centre has been raised here as I thought of writing to them having donated some £1300 int seat sponsorship in the QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL only to see little or no music of the kind I used to enjoy there. We all remember Lieder (Fischer-Dieskau, Evelyn Lear, Rossini soirees etc) recitals, world class string quartet (Alban Berg, Tacas etc) and piano recitals. In addition chamber orchestras such as the Basle and splendid choral concerts.
    There is a lack of, for want of a better word, QUALITY, in the artistic aims and aspirations of the management which panders to a fake millenial definition of “cuulture” epitomised in the string of late night DJ gigs in this world class venue’s iconic venue with the tedious drug warning posters over the entrance! How essentially childish and disrespectful of this heritage – civic, architectural and musical – can you get!
    My patience really broke when I noticed recently a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle was scheduled for the inappropriate 1800 seater Festival Hall and not the QEH where it could have been ideally experienced in its first class acoustics. This is not a case of cash driven “bums on seats” planning but but bums for brains!
    As I write this I am happy to say that the brilliant young baritone Boje Skovhus is singing Schubert Lieder on a Sony CD recorded in Austria.
    In the 1980s I would have stood a more than good chance that the opportunity of hearing him live in concert at my beloved Queen Elizabeth Hall – abut alas in these pinched, pernicious culturally insular times, that chance seems to have gone.
    Writing to the Southbank would be a waste of time. The usual excuses would be trundled out, if they could be bothered: funding, art for everybody (a meaningless phrase) changing tastes and the market, ad nauseum…
    So why are these musical events, these strands in the Western classical music tradition, these cultural and learning opportunities still flourishing in Europe?

  • >