Egos, bad sums and fake news in Rattle’s new concert hall

Egos, bad sums and fake news in Rattle’s new concert hall


norman lebrecht

January 28, 2019

I have written a post for the Spectator’s Coffee House. Among other things, I point out that ….

Last week, the orchestra issued artist impressions of a fashionable ‘vineyard’ hall, a template taken from Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonie and borrowed latterly for a hall on a brownfield site in Paris (cost: 390 million Euros – twice its budget) and another in Hamburg (cost: 789 million – eleven times over budget). The LSO is asking us to believe that its proposed new hall in the heart of the City of London is going to come in at not a halfpenny over £288 million, all paid for up front.

Even in these days of fake news, the Times headline ‘£288m is good value for a concert hall and it won’t cost you a penny’ caused choking at breakfast. The headline topped a Friday arts column by Richard Morrison, a music critic who has been hyping the hall ever since the LSO gave his paper first dibs at Rattle’s signing-on. Morrison, who is also the LSO’s official historian, argues that ‘by world standards, £288 million is a snip for a concert hall.’ He’s right about that. Find me anywhere a world-class hall that costs less than, say, the British Library and I will eat a vegan millinery shop….

Read on here.



  • Jim says:

    Why do those responsible keep going for the well-intentioned but faulty orchestra-in-the-middle approach? Who wants to sit way up high behind the orchestra, and barely be able to hear? If Sir Simon likes this design so much how come I have seen him sitting in block A at the Philharmonie (in front of the orchestra where you can actually see/hear, especially singers) and not behind the orchestra? Better to stick with the boring old shoebox design that actually works for the whole audience.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The vineyard model has already proven long ago to be unsatisfactory. And a shoe box does not need to be ‘boring’ (is the Musikverein in Vienna ‘boring’? It is a spectacular venue). The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester has been able to bring balconies close to the stage so that an intimate atmosphere is realized even when the hall is only half-full, with chamber music for instance. The point is, that the symphony orchestra is constituted with the idea that listeners sit in front: heavvy brass at the back, then the woods, and the strings at the front, so that the sound will blend in the best way. Sitting at the back or the side distorts the balance (and creates the chance that things may fall into the tuba).

    • C Porumbescu says:

      Rattle had a large personal input into the acoustic design of Birmingham Symphony Hall – the best modern orchestral venue in the UK and probably Europe. He also worked for two decades in the very differently designed Berlin Philharmonie. He’s better-informed on this subject than anyone who isn’t a professional acoustician or a conductor and we’d do well to respect that. He knows what he is doing.

      And Mr L’s accusations of “vanity” make good copy – assumptions of bad faith are the default position of so much modern discourse, sadly, in art as well as politics – but they are simply laughable to anyone who’s ever actually worked with Rattle. As are his comments about Liverpool – which recently spent £8.5 million refurbishing its own historic concert hall, to considerable local pride.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Rattle may well know best but in my (admittedly limited) experience, being on stage and judging a hall is almost always quite different (and leads to very different opinions about the acoustics) from sitting in the audience and judging a hall.

        I also know that I have rarely if ever played in an orchestra with a chorus where the chorus members did not complain that they could not hear us play, or could only hear the brass, and so on. Given that, to me it seems odd to seat the audience more or less where the chorus stands.

      • Tamino says:

        My direct experience with Rattle is not so positive as far as acoustical knowledge is concerned. Surely he has a musician’s empirical knowledge about this, nothing more sophisticated or even scientifically sound though, and also a very big ego (as they usually have).
        And a good point was made here, that how come he never is seen in Berlin in the seats behind the stage, but always in block A, good old seats in front of the orchestra?
        Guess what, the seats behind the stage a horrible acoustically.
        People there pay for their tickets, to please the conductor’s ego, so he can feel surrounded by spectators, being in the center of attention.

  • Allen says:

    Norman, you have predicted that the hall will never happen and now it appears that, shock horror, you might have been wrong. You criticise London’s halls for years and then, when somebody makes progress towards a new one, you call it a vanity project and invoke the deprivation card. To suggest that there’s some link between arts spending and deprivation, when you consider the vast sums being spent elsewhere, is pure cant. Isn’t running it down just your own “vanity project”?

    Perhaps Richard Morrison’s approach is just generally less negative.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    What a hideous space. When people are listening to classical music, they need something to look at, artwork, decorative architecture, columns, sculptures, all of which help disperse soundwaves. That looks like an oversized lecture hall, a claustrophobic nightmare. And disgusting halls drive away audiences. So think again. When the Philadelphia Orchestra moved into their monstrosity by Rafael Vignoly, they lost more than 25 percent of their audience, permanently.

    • Carl DiOrio says:

      Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall took some early acoustical tweaking, but it is now a wonderful place to hear a concert. It reminds me a lot of Disney Hall, which I also love.

  • Anon says:

    Norman, it’s apparent you’re not a fan of the LSO so quit your sniping. Let them get on with building the hall, which London needs. Thank you.

  • Nick2 says:

    Is there any vineyard or other shaped concert hall where the acoustic is as good behind the stage as it is elsewhere in a symphony orchestra venue? With most instruments facing forward and much of the acoustic design putting emphasis on ensuring those in front of the orchestra hear the sound reverberating and balanced as ideally as possible, this is something I find hard to believe. In the artist’s sketch the over-stage canopy clearly projects forwards. So what will make the balance as similarly ideal for those seats in the large blocks above what would normally be the choir seats?

    • Carl DiOrio says:

      There’s nothing wrong with 360-degree acoustics, and the concert experience in such halls when sitting in unused choir seats is spectacular — and affordable. But yeah, probably not a great idea to get carried away with extra galleys or it starts to look like a football terrace and I can imagine the acoustics taking a hit.

      • Tamino says:

        Sorry, but you have no idea. concert experience in such halls, when sitting behind an orchestra, and a singer is singing, is a disaster. Totally pointless and a travesty show, an insult to the composers and to the musicians on stage, at least to those who care more about how they sound than how they look.

  • Stephen Diviani says:

    Spot on Mr Lebrecht. Wrong time, wrong place. It illustrates one of the reasons 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU. Build it in Doncaster.

    • les whittaker says:

      The London Symphony Orchestra should build its hall in Doncaster because of Brexit, or something?

      I’m from Yorkshire but that’s ridiculous.

      • Stephen Diviani says:

        I live in London, where I was born, and even I am sick of everything being London – whether it’s a new museum, theatre, concert hall or a garden bridge! And, yes, because of Brexit, of course because of Brexit. Any new arts venue should be built outside London, in areas which need investment. So why not Doncaster? However the Brexit story ends, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a new arts venue in London is not the way to heal the rifts in this country between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, between the the South East and everywhere else north of Watford.

        • Wally Francis says:

          I’m afraid I have to agree with you. To be totally fair the most deserving Orchestra in the country today is the Bournemouth Symphony, they have no real concert hall to play in. The Lighthouse is a multi-purpose venue at best. London, as is usual, go for quantity rather than quality.

          No, there’s is a much more deserving case for a new Concert Hall.

        • les whittaker says:

          The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds hasn’t been a huge success. Why? Because Leeds doesn’t receive 19m international visitors a year to help support these things. The Popular Music Museum in Sheffield didn’t even survive.

          Do you really think that Doncaster could support a 2,000 seat concert hall? Yorkshire hasn’t even had a full time symphony orchestra until recently (following disbandment in 1955) and over the years I have encountered relatively little demand to acquire one. Imposing what is seen as a glitzy project on an area which has not asked for one, is not an answer to a shortage of jobs. In fact it is more likely to turn out to be a millstone for the local council.

          London, an important musical centre, should have a first rate concert hall. So far as ‘rifts’ and ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ are concerned, I don’t think that spending on the arts is the issue. And in any case, unlike £78m for the Factory in Manchester, Government money has been ruled out.

          If you’re ‘sick of everything being London’, feel free to move up here to Doncaster and learn something about the area’s real problems.

          • Stephen Diviani says:

            I don’t need to live in Antarctica to know that it’s cold. Of course it is about investment in jobs, in industry, et al, but it is also about investment in the arts and not assuming that London should get everything because of tourism and because private money wants the prestige of London. My own view is that there is no need for a new concert hall in London, which is already rammed with them, and that, even were one necessary, now is not the time. In a recent R4 programme on Brexit one man in Stoke-on-Trent, who still wants out, when told that leaving without a deal would cause enormous economic and social harm said, ‘Look around you, look around here, how can it get any worse?’. I don’t think spending millions on an unnecessary new concert hall in London is going to change his mind about Brexit or help heal the rifts exposed by the referendum result.

          • Stephen Diviani says:

            Incidentally, I entirely accept your point about arts projects failing, but such projects fail for any number of reasons in many different locations; they fail in London too, despite the tourism. Remember the Museum of the Moving Image, which opened in 1988 and closed for good in 1999.

          • Nydo says:

            What London really needs is a concert hall of Symphonic size that has excellent acoustics; Royal Festival Hall and Barbican are both quite poor, acoustically speaking. If they build a new one, let’s hope they actually get this part right.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Where is this bargain £288 million going to come from? Not the Corporation of London, having been stung already by the Barbican. Mr Khan’s budget? Friends of Sir Simon? Anyone who believes a project like this will be done in budget need serious help.

  • Ellen Jones says:

    I hate vineyard designs e.g. St David’s Hall in Cardiff and Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. You feel as a member of the audience that you are on a shelf divorced from the rest of the audience on other shelves and the performers.
    If the design you illustrate is correct how awful to be at the very top looking down on performing ants and I can’t help feeling sorry for the three people on their own at audience left. Dreadful, must try harder architects, like going to listen/see a concert in a variety of halls.

    • Nick2 says:

      Strange! I have attended dozens of concerts at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. Oddly I have never thought of it as a vineyard design, although of course it is. Yes it has choir stalls, and yes it has some of the audience above the sides of the stage. But not many. By far the bulk of the audience is in front Although I have never been seated behind the orchestra, I did hear Abbado and the Berlin Phil in a Brahms concert when seated at the side. Wherever seated, I always find the overall orchestral sound extremely fine.

      • Anon says:

        Most musicians will state that both Suntory and Boston are the best halls in which to play. Seems the comments here are from an audience perspective.

  • Rob Harris says:

    If anyone would like a copy of my Institute of Acoustics conference paper (as referenced by Norman in his Spectator blog) please fill in the contact request sheet at

  • Mark( London) says:

    With the Price of their tickets the LSO should find concert hall itself