It’s this kind of sentimentality that will be the death of our concert halls

It’s this kind of sentimentality that will be the death of our concert halls


norman lebrecht

May 27, 2020

Jessica Duchen takes a blast on her blog at some of the more thoughtful commentators who regard the present crisis as an opportunity to put right many of the things that have rotted and moulded for decades, especially in the larger, badly-run institutions like London’s Festival Hall.

After giving us a three-hankie guide to all of her happy nights front of stage and back, Jessica concludes with a blast at ‘those contrarian pundits who this week said a) theatre’s dying, “*whispers* good” (an actual tweet by a right-wing rag’s arts editor, who probably adored the massive outrage he caused), and b) kill off the Southbank and put it out to “private tender” (hello? this is the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe, with a mission to serve its public, so what are you even talking about?).’

She continues: ‘Can you imagine a sports editor saying “it’s about time we killed off football”? It’s a shoddy, miserable, wanton look to kick something or someone when they’re down; and at a time when an unelected aid gets to address the nation from the Downing Street rose garden to say why it is apparently OK for him to undermine the health rules, it also shows that arrogant squandering of hard-won advantage has become a way of life here. That’s almost as dangerous and destructive as the virus itself. But remember: every dog has its day. There is a thirteenth circle of hell ready and waiting to hand out its keys. Really we should all be pulling together at the moment.’

This kind of piffling unreality does no-one any service, least of all its soft-hearted writer.

The South Bank Centre has been sinking since 1986 when it became a sub-protectorate of the Arts Council, bolstered by £19 million of state subsidy. It spent in excess of £120 million in a site overhaul, which did little to improve third-rate acoustics, and has since dedicated much of its executive attention to milking its potential as a fast-food mall. Classical music has been pushed to the fringes.

Throughout, the Centre has been accountable neither to Parliament nor to the public. It is a bureaucratic anomaly that needs to be reined in, and the Covid crisis gives a democratic state the perfect opportunity to recontitute it from core principles.

I have been arguing for South Bank reform for three decades. Its time has now come. Those who think the SBC can resume as before are flailing in an advanced state of self-delusion.




  • Robert says:

    The Southbank Centre is a mess especially since the Royal Festival Hall was refurbished. The money would have been better spent building a new hall which is still not fit for purpose. Rubbish acoustics, dreadful backstage. Very badly run by amateurs, l expensive coffee bars and no seats to sit on in the foyers unless you are on the internet all day. It is a national disgrace. Many of the classical concerts are not very full a d only ine ir two foreign ir orchestras. I avoid the place aa much as ppssible.

    • I agree that the catering isn’t up to much, but you can always get a coffee and a sandwich. But the actual quality of the MUSIC can’t be’ faulted, surely.

    • Cynical Bystander says:

      “It is a national disgrace.” No, if it is anything it is a disgrace to London and to those of us outside of the M25 it may as well be in a different country, which I suppose it is in a way. The millions it gets can be put alongside all the many other millions given to so called National Institutions which are there almost exclusively for Londoners and tourists. It is with a certain cynical smile that I now marvel that now the tourists have gone the London Arts scene gives those of us in the ‘provinces’ the odd free viewing of their output on digital platforms in order to reinforce the dubious claim that they need extra money to keep open so that the people of the country can access their output. Failing to mention that to do do we will have to travel to see their output in situ when normal service is resumed. Aside of course from the odd trip to the cinema to maintain the charade of accessibility for all.

      • V.Lind says:

        Listen, those of you outside the M25. All countries have capitals and national institutions tend to be located there in most countries. (Not so much here in North America where neither Washington nor Ottawa is the arts centre of the nation, though each has its institutions. These are both huge, and new, counties — the capitals are the centres in most of Europe).

        Ideally national companies would be able to tour; here in Canada national companies that used to tour now do so less or not at all — the economics are prohibitive.

        Economics also make it difficult for a lot of people in “the provinces” to get to London and the national institutions they pay for through their taxes as much as they would like, if ever.

        That’s all very well as long as the provincial arts scene is healthy, It has been in the north of England, in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales and Northern Ireland. The excellence developed outside London has something to do with funding and probably a lot more to do with regional spirit and determination.

        Stop bitching about funding for London-based operations, but lobby for a fair share of funding for the regions.

        And start praying that there is funding for any of them once Mr. Sunak contemplates his bills for the pandemic.

      • Allen says:

        Suggest you look into the ROH’s attempts to establish a base in Manchester. Local support not exactly overwhelming.

        And nothing wrong with providing music for tourists. You think people come here for the weather?

      • Una says:

        We don’t even have a concert halls in Leeds, yet the only city outside Lond8n with two major choral societies and of course Opera North with just the Grand. Quality of music always fantastic.

    • Richard says:

      Apart from that it’s not a bad place!!!

  • Jess says:

    I’m writing simply from my own experience, Norman. If you have had less pleasant experiences, fine (though sad), but I can promise you my postbag has been chock-full of messages of thanks and support today.

    • Tim says:

      Jess, I very much agree with your post. I grew up going to concerts there and have been lucky enough to play there lots. As with criticism of the Barbican, I don’t agree with a lot of it and much doesn’t ring true from what many friends and colleagues say.

      I entirely agree that if we take such resources for granted we risk losing them.

      Thank you for expressing what many, many musicians and audience members think.

    • Fritz Logan says:

      The Left always spends money they don’t have, begs for donations then screams for the government to hand them money they can’t manage.

      It’s good that some organizations aren’t coming back as snotty and wasteful as they are.

      Hopefully these people will get the mental health services they need along with some basic financial training whilst business realities of low ticket revenue vs excessive expenses settle in during the Chinese pandemic.

      • Miko says:

        The fascists are out in force in these days that stink of Tory Darwinians. Crawl back under your rock.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Neither the Right nor Left is shy about spending money they don’t have, as long as they’re the ones controlling the spending.

    • One of the messages of support came from me, and you will continue to have my full support.

  • Allen says:

    ““*whispers* good” (an actual tweet by a right-wing rag’s arts editor, who probably adored the massive outrage he caused)”

    Yes, no doubt. However, some blame must also be laid at the door of the Left who equally dislike the South Bank because the “wrong” people go there. That’s why it has to apologise for what it is or attempt to disguise the fact, much like WNO’s opera house – sorry, Millennium Centre.

    That’s the problem facing the arts in the UK and a few other places – unpopular with both sides.

    • Anon says:

      Yes, and Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, sorry – ‘Hall 2’ as it was originally called…

      • IC225 says:

        Weird comment
        It was called Symphony Hall long before it opened – the “Hall 2” ruse was only there at the planning stage in order to tick the right boxes on an EEC funding application form.

        It’s not really relevant to this discussion – it receives virtually no ACE funding, and only a microscopic fraction of the subsidy poured into the SBC: reflecting the wider London/Regions funding imbalance.

        • Anon says:

          Apologies, looks like it went over your head. When understood it’s not weird in the slightest.

          The previous comment spoke of hiding our culture behind names. My ‘Hall 2’ reference was only to further illustrate their reference to WNO’s home in the Millenium Centre.

  • Angry violinist says:

    That’s a new low. You can argue for any cause you want as long as you want. But leave alone Jessica. She is entitled to her opinion as much as you. It should be below anyone’s honour to attack a fellow musician and musicologist in such a low and despicable way.

    • SVM says:

      Lebrecht is not making an /ad hominem/ attack, and I do not see anything “low and despicable” in his article here. Rather, he is attacking Duchen’s sentimentality as expressed on her own public ‘blog-post. Both sides make reasonable points that are worthy of serious criticism and further analysis.

      Personally, my position is somewhere between Lebrecht and Duchen. Like Lebrecht, I think the overall direction and management of the Southbank leaves a lot to be desired, and that it does not deserve its current level of funding **relative to other classical-music venues** (i.e.: I would be less bothered about the Southbank’s level of funding if other classical-music venues were funded at a higher level than they are currently). Like Duchen, I think that the Southbank has been the site of many valuable concerts and cultural events over the years (but not as many as the Wigmore Hall, a venue that receives far less public money). Unlike Lebrecht, I am not convinced that privatisation is the solution. Unlike Duchen, I feel that the inside of the Southbank Centre is more problematic than the immediate surroundings (her depiction of the walk from London Waterloo to the Southbank Centre is very entertaining, but it exaggerates the problems).

      To be honest, I am not sure about what is the best solution, but I think it must involve serious questions being asked about priorities (Lebrecht is right to take issue with the peripheral status of classical music at the Southbank), distribution of public money, and governance.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      All ok; as long as she isn’t a conservative in which case she’d be de-platformed, shamed and hounded for having – well, any views at all really.

    • John Rook says:

      Er, what about debate? Why should anyone who publishes their opinions enjoy a snowflakey ‘safe space’?

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    She needs to let go. This is a frightful piece of journalism (or rather, blogging)

  • Opportunistic privatization through disaster capitalism is one of the core practices of neoliberalism. Keep Reagan and Thatcher out of Britain’s social democracy and system of public arts support.

    • Adrienne says:

      Thatcher? Really?

      Tony Blair’s inane ‘Cool Britannia’ probably accelerated the rot more than anything else.

      • Macca says:

        “Our fashion, music and culture are the envy of our European neighbours. This abundance of talent, together with our rich heritage, makes ‘Cool Britannia’ an obvious choice for visitors from all over the world.” That statement was issued by the British government in 1996, when John Major was Prime Minister. ‘Cool Britannia’ was a term already extensively used in government branding when Tony Blair’ Labour Party won the election in 1997.

        Just on the off-chance you’re interested in facts…

  • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

    There are indeed things wrong with SBC, but most of them would be better served by improving its governance and the oversight from funders rather than flogging it (no doubt for too little) to the private sector.

    I know the food thing grates, but the reality is in a building that size that desperately needs more income (because, as we all know, state funding for the arts in the UK is insufficient, even for major flagships like this), any owner – state or private – has no choice but to maximise revenue streams.

    Sure, that may not be glamorous, but until the government commits to regular, sustainable funding such that proper commercial exploitation of space isn’t necessary (which I’d argue not only isn’t going to happen but probably *shouldn’t* happen as the arts need to maximise whatever is available to them), then the food places stay.

    It’s not clear what difference you imagine a private owner would make; you seem to have some bizarre idea that SBC should be dedicated to artistic purity rather than even trying to pay the bills. I think you know full well that the private sector is hardly going to be sympathetic to that attitude.

  • I, too, have warm & fuzzy feelings about the RFH. If you dig brutal, it’s a perfect example of that style and the hundreds of concerts I attended were enjoyable because of the music making, the event and meeting with friends.

    We all remember the good times.

    But other than fond memories, some incredible concerts, the location (which I love), and not understanding the ins and outs of Brit admin/funding, the place is actually a dreadful place to experience music.

    Refurb, whatever, it’s not appropriate for a city like a London.

    3rd rate, Norman? You’re being generous.

    When playing, you can’t hear a damn thing—you feel like you’re in one of those ‘Fridgidaire’ practice modules. Just awful. Collaboration and musicianship? Forget it. It’s amazing how great orchestras manage. Even the Berlin Phil were kneecapped in the place.

    The RFH is like a toxic relationship. And you keep going back.

    Get rid. Move with all speed to a new (unscrewed up) hall.

    • SVM says:

      The Southbank is not coterminous with the RFH. The acoustics and atmosphere in the QEH and Purcell Room are far better (moreover, in architectural terms, the QEH is a better exemplar of brutalism).

      But the acoustic problems in some of London’s halls, whilst unfortunate, are less important than the affordability problems. London does not need more halls; it needs more affordable halls (from the perspective of promoters hiring them).

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Norman is entirely justified in calling for a major overhaul of the Southbank Centre and the structures currently in place. The rot set in some time ago. It was compounded by the reign of Jude Kelly, who was protected by all the Labour luvvies and those who should have known better who stood aside while this woman waged her campaign for a totally different kind of building, believing that setting up a buggy park in the main foyer was of far greater importance than expanding the key activities that have characterised the building since its inauguration in the early fifties. There was never any indication of the crossover she repeatedly referred to when questioned about the wisdom of her misguided policies. None of the computer nerds, the mums with their baby buggies or the bag men and women who decamped at regular intervals ever had the slightest intention of buying concert tickets. Just take a look (if and when the building reopens) at the scruffy state of the carpeting and the lack of basic hygiene in all the toilets. As Norman pointed out, an enormous amount of money was expended on making this building fit for purpose in the 21st century. Within a few years it rapidly descended into the “special measures” category. Classical music was left to look after itself.

    • Brian viner says:

      What about the roller skating near the queen elizabeth hall.

    • SVM says:

      An excellent summary and diagnosis. But the seminal manifestation of misguided priorities is surely not the “buggy park” (in itself, a good idea, if it had been positioned somewhere sensible), but the campaign to build a new “Festival Wing” that would have turned the riverfront into a shopping mall whilst offering very little for classical music. I still remember the public exhibitions in the RFH foyer lobbying people to write to the local council in support of the planning application — it was that unsubtle and cringeworthy! Is there any other initiative that has managed to unite classical-music audiences, theatregoers, and skateboarders (whose skate park had been earmarked for removal) in condemnation thereof?

      • Alexander Hall says:

        Even worse, I can remember a concert at the RFH given by the Philharmonia before which Madam Kelly marched out onto the patform and harangued the audience for the best part of ten minutes, telling her captive audience that it was their moral duty to add their signatures to the petitions she was organising. You really couldn’t make it up.

        • SVM says:

          And to think that some commentators on this very site become apoplectic when an artist makes a somewhat political statement for *one* minute at the *conclusion* of a concert (i.e.: a point at which the audience is not captive, unless determined to hear the encores, which are at the artist’s discretion in any case).

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Yes front of house is horrible a complete waste of a massive space and the shop and the cafes are bad but I have always enjoyed the concerts in the hall and some wonderful musicians have been there. Maybe they could do something with the FOH and try and get more funding?

  • Beckmesser says:

    I had an awful pre-concert meal at the South Bank. Centre. The concert by the English Chamber Orchestra was terrific, though. A very odd juxtaposition.

  • It just isn’t TRUE that ‘classical music has been pushed to the fringes!! Most of us still go to the Festival Hall to attend the concerts.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    If you need us Americans, just let us know.

    We saved you in WWII and we can do it again.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Maybe, but we’re a bit afraid that Trump won’t be able to find Europe on the map and will invade Africa instead.

    • SVM says:

      Are you offering a large sum of money if we rename the Southbank to “the Geffenbank”? If the sum is large enough to create an endowment that would obviate the need for any public funding, I would be in favour of such a move.

    • Bone says:

      Arianne Grande and Doja Cat are our latest contributors to great music in the world. You’re welcome!!!

    • Bigly says:

      I’m just hoping we Yanks can save ourselves.

    • Elizabeth Owen says:

      Late to the party. We could not have won without Russia who lost 20,000.000 people. But everyone chooses to forget that. You need to save yourselves at the moment.

    • Dave says:

      I think you guys need to save yourselves. We’ll wait until the Pearl Harbor equivalent; maybe see you then?

    • Brian viner says:

      Also the Russians they lost a lot of soldiers.

  • Bill says:

    London is the biggest city in Europe? By what metric? Not population or area.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Debating on how to improve the venues and their programs seems to me like treating the symptom. The problem is education.

  • Wesley says:

    “(an actual tweet by a right-wing rag’s arts editor)”

    What a revealing comment; “right-wing rag” presumably meaning anything other than the Guardian. Half an hour perusing Ms Duchen’s blog reveals a severe case of Brexit Derangement Syndrome, an unhealthy level of liberal self-righteousness and an urgent need of a dose of what real-life people outside of the Metropolitan bubble think. A shame really, as her book on Korngold was rather good.

  • Dennis says:

    Hell now has 13 circles? I do hope she graces us with her cantos updating Dante for circles 10-13.

  • Geoff Cox says:

    Norman, I am surprised and disappointed by the nasty tone of your article . The Southbank Centre has never been perfect but it deserves better.

  • John Willan says:

    Spot on Norman. The trouble is, if all you get is mediocrity promoted by the mediocracy then those experiencing it for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that this is how it is and what it’s all about. It’s a really dreadful blob and lets down our musicians, people and capital city. It’s a monument to all that is second rate. I remember the time we won the sole residency for the London Philharmonic. Joanna Coles wrote in the Guardian on 23 July 1993, “Look out Berlin, the London Philharmonic was on its way.” She used the past tense because, 6 months earlier I got my head chopped off as MD whilst securing a doubling in funding for the orchestra from the Arts Council, which had been agreed subject only to changing the weak chair of the board. Not long thereafter, they lost everything – sole residency, Tennstedt, Muti, Mehta, Haitink, Jansons, Rattle, Masur, Gergiev, Sawallisch. There was even a battle to withdraw funding from the orchestra altogether, but the Arts Council backed down after legal threats. Pull it down, build London the hall it deserves on the finest site in the world, which is not a roundabout in the Barbican. Who knows what might happen at the Barbican when Munich builds a new hall for the Bayerische Rundfunk who need a new music director following the sad and untimely death of Mariss Jansons; and give our musicians a decent space to play in and see what they do with it… out Berlin, indeed! But it’s like Greggs delivering their fare by drone – pie in the sky……..

    • Allen says:

      “Pull it down, build London the hall it deserves”

      The problem, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that the RFH is a Grade 1 listed building, which means we’re stuck with it. IMO, the listing of the RFH is at the centre of London’s concert hall problem. However, I despair when I read comments like “the QEH is a better exemplar of brutalism”. I prefer dynamite.

      In principle, I’m in favour of preservation where it matters, but I think it goes too far. Widespread listing seems pointless when you look at the devastation of many of the UK’s town centres which cannot be lazily blamed on the Luftwaffe.

  • Paul Randall says:

    Gosh, what a load of hostile comments; and here I was, thinking how wonderful the Festival Hall is and how I long to resume my concert going there.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    I think what we all want to be reading right now is a British music critic grudge match….

  • Hilary says:

    What a refreshing and excellent piece, Norman! Bravissimo! I don’t read blogs or even Slipped Disc, but a friend of mine forwards to me your more irresistible pieces! So thank you! And chag sameach Shavuot!

  • Luca says:

    I object to anything written by that highly intelligent, well-informed writer Jessica Duchen, who is also a very nice person, being referred to as “piffling unreality”.

  • Luca says:

    I wonder if the “right-wing rag” isn’t the new monthly “The Critic”. It is truly awful, not least in its ignorant, philistine articles on opera, claiming Wotan is “the worst human of all time” and Verdi’s librettists were “drunken dimwits”.

  • Frank says:

    The problem with JD’s piece, which in itself I like a lot, is that politically it’s not terribly useful to say “SBC is indispensible because that’s where I met my husband”. I guess that’s what Norman calls “sentimental”. British, or rather, London’s classical music life needs to be defended at this time (Covid + Johnson) in a more persuasive manner.