London’s concerthall disaster: some solutions

London’s concerthall disaster: some solutions

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norman lebrecht

February 19, 2021

The City’s abandonment of plans for a new concerthall provides an opportunity for a total overhall of London’s concert life.

1 Reprogramme the Barbican under new leadership to focus on younger, diverse audiences in east London.

2 Privatise the South Bank Centre, placing its artistic directorship in the hands of the resident orchestras to provide a clear blue line between its outut and the Barbican’s.

3 Recognise Kings Place and the Wigmore Hall as the natural residencies for chamber orchestra. Provide funding to KP, increase it for the Wigmore.

4 Integrate the Royal Albert Hall into the city’s concert schedules rather than treating it as an outlier. Provide funding for an international orchestra season to be shared with Cadogan Hall down the road.

5 Utilise the excellent concert halls inside the Royal Academy and the Royal College of Music.

6 The Arts Council should appoint a single commissioner of concerts to oversee all classical venues.

 

Comments

  • Ulrich Brass says:

    The London concert halls disaster is that not a single symphonic hall in the city has decent acoustics

    • Rogerio says:

      I submit that this is one of the rare cases where LYING to people is a totally acceptable solution. Just tell people that the acoustics are GREAT. 99% of them will be totally fine with that.
      If the Principal Bassoon has the inclination to say that the hall has bad acoustics – tell him to shut the f**k up and do what he is paid for.
      Acoustics problem solved. No new concert hall necessary. No hiring of Japanese acoustics expert-who-will-place-the-orchestra-in-the-middle-of-the-venue necessary.
      Voila.

      • Rogerio says:

        You can also buy scientific proof that the acoustics are great.
        If you search in the United States, you will find many renowned Engineers and Scientists who will supply such a study at a reasonable price.
        Come on Brits, put your thinking caps on.

    • Allen says:

      “not a single symphonic hall in the city has decent acoustics”

      Not true. Fairfield Hall is outstanding, it’s just in the wrong place.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    The LSO already does excellent outreach work with young people in the East End and is well aware of its remit to do this the Barbican Centre would never break even without the diverse selection of concerts it gives which are not just classical.

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      My last visit to the Barbican in June 2019 was to see Andrew Bird, the indie-rock singer/songwriter/violinist/guitarist/whistler/
      glockenspiel-player.

      Come to think of it, my last visit to the Southbank Centre was to see kd lang, the Canadian rock/country/western singer.

  • M says:

    agree completely. and cardogan hall is great, too. and the LPO and Philharmonia should not have to chase all over London and only get in the RFH on the day of the concert. it is ridiculous.

  • Adrienne says:

    Your idea of a “disaster” must be very different from mine. A strange choice of word during a pandemic.

    I don’t spend a lot of time in the UK these days but I’m going to comment anyway:

    1. Waste of time. Target those who are most likely to attend, not the least. Orchestral musicians are not social workers.
    4. Confusing. If London’s main problem is the lack of a first class concert hall (outside Croydon), why promote the Royal Albert Hall of all places?

    In my opinion, London should build a new concert hall using a tried and tested design, and should avoid attempting to create another overpriced architectural masterpiece – glass and steel buildings are two-a-penny and nobody cares about them anyway. Just try to avoid an eyesore, that will do.

    As for location – I’ve no idea. There must be an old office block due for demolition somewhere central.

    • William Evans says:

      Sounds a great idea. Use a relatively straightforward medium-sized ‘shoebox’ design (never surpassed) with decent acoustics and auditorium soundproofing, and (if possible) recording infrastructure in the form of built-in cabling and parking for external recording vehicles and orchestral transport. Site near public transport links and set ticket prices at a level that’s affordable for most music lovers. Anything more would be purely optional.

  • Richard Stevens says:

    Sounds a highly sensible start, as long as it is centralised coordination, not central control. The missing element is acoustic quality, which plagues the larger halls. They should be modified if that’s feasible and destroyed and replaced if they can’t be brought up to standard – and internal acoustics should be the design priority, not architect-led exteriors

  • french horn says:

    Boris should name Mr Lebrecht as Minister of culture !

  • Robert King says:

    London does of course have a wonderful, 1800 seat concert hall with a great stage and a fine auditorium which many musicians would say has the best acoustics of all the larger halls in London.

    It’s just undergone a £43 million refurb (and the front and backstage facilities are now excellent), it is 5 minutes’ walk from East Croydon station – a mainline train station which has excellent and very frequent connections, ie just 13 minutes from London Bridge (and is on a main train route which quickly connects north and south).

    It’s Fairfield Halls.

    If Fairfield were to be given £15 million annually (a drop in the ocean compared to the funding of South Bank and Barbican) to spend on fabulous programming, another £5 million to launch a huge marketing campaign, here is the best concert hall in London. Stage and acoustics and economics are suitable for a significant range of top-class music making (symphony and chamber orchestra, period instrument, chamber, choral – they all work really well in there).

    When people mention that the surrounding area is rather dowdy, note that Birmingham used to be grim around Symphony Hall: and look now (except of course during Covid) at the bustle and economy that the hall generated.

    Fairfield Hall is ready and built, the transport communications needed to get the audience there are all in place. The hall just needs vision. And a tenth of the grant that – say – the SBCH gets given annually. There’s a challenge for Arts Council England which, with vision, could be translated into a success story.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Nice thought, Robert, t no-one goes to Croydon unless they live there. It’s too far away from the heartland.

      • Tony Britten says:

        Heartland-shmartland, Norman. Needs must. I grew up going to sold out concerts when the major orchestras played Croydon on Saturday night and repeated the programme on Sunday afternoon at the vastly inferior RFH. Stokowski said that Fairfield had the best acoustics in Europe and at the one concert I attended recently before Croydon Council realised they had boobed by asking summer season and cruise operators to programme the newly re-opened venue, the sound was as glorious as I remembered. And since when was the Barbican anyone’s heartland?!

      • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

        I think you may be too quick in dismissing Robert King’s suggestion. In the 1970s, before the Barbican Hall opened, the LSO often repeated their RFH concerts at the Fairfield Halls. Indeed, if memory serves, Claudio Abbado insisted that the BBC broadcasts of his LSO concerts should come from there rather than the RFH, whose acoustics he hated. Are today’s Londoners really more snobby towards Croydon than their 1970s predecessors?

        I attended one of the all-too-few orchestral concerts played at Fairfield between its grand reopening and its premature closure–an RPO event which included the Eroica Symphony. It was a rare pleasure to hear a London orchestra play in a first-class acoustic, and Croydon (whatever one thinks of it) is much closer to Central London than Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

        • Allen says:

          I don’t think it’s snobbery. Croydon has changed demographically since the 1970s so the local audience is probably not what it was. Secondly, people who don’t live in S London would probably have to catch a train into central London and then out again. As the trains don’t run all night, there’s the fear of being stranded if trains are delayed or cancelled. It’s doable, but not very appealing.

          The trams are a possibility for people on the route between Wimbledon and Beckenham, but I doubt if driving is an option for most people.

          • SVM says:

            East Croydon is a hub station on the Thameslink train routes, with direct trains to four major central London interchanges on both sides of the Thames (St Pancras International, Farringdon, London Blackfriars, and London Bridge) and cities as far north as Peterborough, Cambridge, and Bedford. And the trains run through the night on the Bedford – Luton Airport Parkway – St Pancras Int’l – London Bridge – Gatwick Airport – Brighton route (or they did before COVID-19). Quite honestly, the train connections to/from East Croydon are as good as almost anywhere in central London.

      • Robert King says:

        It’s strange, isn’t it, Norman, that people are perfectly happy to sit for up to an hour on a couple of trains to get from wherever they live to reach one of the “central” London halls, even if the acoustic is not great: but the thought of the last 15 minutes being spent on a train going to the best concert hall in London, but which happens to be a taddle south of “central” London, is the off-put.

        Hence my suggesting a £5 million PR campaign to get people to change their habits and actually choose a great hall and a great acoustic. For if Fairfield Halls also had a great programme (and I mean a *really* great programme – hence the putative £15 million programme budget, which is a small proportion of what is given to Barbican and SBCH), do SD readers think it is completely impossible that a “London” classical audience will go for the best programme in the best hall?

        Fairfield acoustically is the finest hall in London, and the £43 million they’ve spent upgrading it has made it into a really classy venue which is [post-Covid] crying out to be used fully. With a really classy classical programme they could do it. But it would take faith – and persuasion.

  • Tony Britten says:

    I have tweeted about this. Seems to me that there must be enough huge retail buildings in Oxford Street that are likely to remain permanently closed for one to be purchased as a shell for a completely new, floating structure to be built inside it. Total freedom to get the acoustics right, a much more audience-friendly location than the City and Part of a solution to the major problem that unused retail units are going to present over the next decade.

    • zither says:

      What an idiotic idea! You clearly have no conception of arts, let alone the potential costs involved. Who on earth would want to go to a “Debenhams concert venue” – a bargain basement failed retailer for your bargain basement arts? There are enough smaller / struggling venues out there already for artists have partially filled their calendars for years that are on the cusp of making it on the major circuit. St Johns Smith Square, Conway Hall, etc., for example.

      • Tony Britten says:

        Three suggestions, Zither.
        1 have the good manners to post using your actual name.

        2. have the good manners to check me out before you accuse me of having ‘no conception of the arts’.

        3. Know what you are talking about. St John’s Smith Square and Conway Hall could be revived – but neither can accommodate a full symphony orchestra.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Yes, a splendid idea. I’ve often thought the same walking down to Wigmore Hall and seeing the huge blocks of Victorian architecture on either side of the street, behind the facades of which all kinds of enterprising activities could be imagined. After all, when you stand outside Carnegie Hall you wouldn’t for one moment conceive of the jewel of a concert-hall deep inside that huge block of Big Apple architecture.

    • Micaelo Cassetti says:

      I am much relieved that someone has mentioned Oxford Street; London needs something central, which the Barbican isn’t. I ask my question purely objectively: is anything available in Langham Place?

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Norman’s sixth point: an arts “tsar” appointed by notables within the Arts Council? That’s the very last thing we need. Not another of these all-knowing bureaucrats wielding the pen and deciding what we should hear and when and where. No, if you follow the logic of Norman’s second point, there should be no “oversight” by anybody. Orchestras will soon discover that if they all programme Tchaikovsky 5 in the same week, they would be on a hiding to nothing.

    • SVM says:

      Well said (although I think I would be quite interested in hearing the same work performed by different orchestras in the same week).

      But the elephant in the room is that concert venues in London are hideously expensive for independent promoters to *hire* for an evening. This stifles innovation and inhibits artistic diversity (because an “off the beaten track” programme becomes too risky financially).

      So, my recommendation would be to make subsidies for concert halls conditional upon said halls charging affordable rates for external promoters mounting /bona fide/ classical-music events open to the public (by “affordable”, I mean a tariff that does not require charging minimum £25 per seat and selling at least 80% of the seats just to break even… I do not mean that halls should run a loss on an external hire that proves to be extremely profitable to the promoter). Where demand for external hire slots exceeds the supply, decisions as to which external promoter gets the slot could be based on artistic merit rather than budget.

  • This says:

    What should be done is what should have been done long ago. Rebuild the queen’s hall that was destroyed in ww2 which was the hall with great acoustics by all accounts where many great musicians performed. Just find a location where it fits, and isn’t too noisy and acceptable transport and build that- hey presto a historic hall with great acoustics but also all modern cons. The globe theatre has been a great success- why do we need a concert hall to be some “cutting edge” design that doesn’t care about how it sounds when we have a proven and tested one endorsed by Elgar, ravel and toscanini? We’ve tried and failed for 70 years already to build an adequate substitute- so maybe just build the real thing somewhere that can be got to?

    • Adrienne says:

      “why do we need a concert hall to be some “cutting edge” design that doesn’t care about how it sounds”

      Exactly. Unfortunately, we are constantly bombarded with images of the Elbphilharmonie, La Philharmonie in Paris and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and assume that this is the only way. “Cutting edge” ceases to be cutting edge when everybody is doing it, and how many people (other than architects) actually like the Maginot Line on London’s South Bank?

      As I said above, just try to avoid an eyesore and get the acoustics right.

      • Tristan says:

        so right as none of them have acoustics like Vienna, Amsterdam or similar – we don’t need cutting edge but atmosphere and certainly a good sound. Not size is important (look at the MET Titanic) but quality
        Oxford Street is a good idea as those shopping centres will be dying anyway…..

  • Anthony Mason says:

    Why not have (another) go at modifying the acoustics at the Festival Hall? I realise I may be in a club of one, but I rather like the building and its location is superb. As a fairly regular London concertgoer who lives in the Midlands, it’s easy for we plebeians to get to.

    • Christopher Clift says:

      I’m really surprised that anyone from the West Midlands would want to go to the RFH in preference to Symphony Hall, or even the Royal Hall in Nottingham (same acoustic designer of both halls incidentally.) Unless there was some world-beating performers appearing there – I’m talking about Berlin, Vienna, Gewandhaus, and I bet they won’t be coming near the UK in the forseeable future if the Brexit visa/permit row is not settled soon.

      • Iain says:

        Perhaps because people go primarily to listen to an orchestra/soloist, not a building and, shock horror, they might prefer a concert that is delivered by a London orchestra.

        Some Birmingham fans are becoming insufferable.

        • Christopher Clift says:

          And some halls have such awful acoustics they make even the best ensembles sound average – unfortunately that description applies to the three main (large scale) venues in London – Barbican, RFH and RAH.

      • Anthony Mason says:

        I spend more time (or used to) in Symphony Hall than any other hall, but I work (or used to) in London often – as that’s in the nature of the way the UK functions – and catch concerts before home. I’d love to use Nottingham more as I live on a line between that city and Brum; but it’s an utterly dreadful city to move in. I can sometimes get to London faster than from the outside of Nottingham to the city’s centre. I take the point about RFH’s listing, but, as Norman so often suggests, without imaginative action, the South Bank centre is in jeopardy anyway.

    • Allen says:

      Its Grade I listing limits what can be done, inside or out. I think it would just soak up more money with little or no benefit.

    • Sadly it’s not really feasible without demolishing and building something new. Apart from the fact that it’s listed (as is the Barbican), so the changes last time were already as much as they are likely to get away with, the hall is simply the wrong shape. It’s acknowledged that the best-sounding halls are shoebox-shaped (Konzerthaus, Concertgebouw, etc. Symphony Hall and all the other Russell Johnson-designed ’80s and ’90s halls) whereas the RFH is wide and fan-shaped.

      As much as I’m into hi-fi sound etc., I think too much emphasis is put on the acoustics of a hall. I’ve been to plenty of fantastic performances at the RFH, Barbican and the Proms. There’s so much more to a live concert than the acoustics of the hall, and we are lucky to have so many distinctive and unique venues in London.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    ==excellent concert halls inside the Royal Academy and the Royal College of Music.

    Now that it a good idea. Much more use could be made of both

  • Richard Stevens says:

    Get the requirements right first!. Start from a concert hall design that works There’s more knowledge on this site about what is needed than anywhere else, so maybe there os some way of collecting thwm. Architects, designers, acoustics engineers should be banned until we know what’s needed – acoustics, comfort, outside noise supression, sightlines, types of concerts, flexibility etc

  • Mathew says:

    What happened to the new concert hall in Wimbledon?

  • Matt says:

    I would be interested to know, Norman, how you propose the Barbican or SBC programming to be financially viable without its diverse offering beyond classical music? Artistic ownership of an arts centre by its orchestras fails to recognise that its gigs and summer exhibitions are its money makers. And to suggest the Barbican isn’t recognising its younger audiences overlooks vast swathes of the centre’s programming and ignores the community outreach work it does. They host National Open Youth Orchestra and have been running private community viewings, the Young Poets scheme, OpenFest and engagement schemes to target young film programmers for years now. And SBC has been running its community and education programmes for years and throughout the pandemic. It seems these points have been overlooked to fit the narrative that these multi-arts institutions are solely the rotting concert halls you want them to be.

  • Iain says:

    What does the London Coliseum sound like when set up for an orchestral concert? Anyone know?

    It seems to be too big for the ENO, so does it have any potential as a concert hall for larger scale works?

    Good location but probably too expensive. Just a thought.

    • James Fletcher says:

      On the dry side, as is usual for theatres of this kind. You can get an idea from ENO’s 2020 broadcast of Mozart’s Requiem on the BBC (if still available).

  • NIGHTFLIGHT says:

    What absolute nonsense Norman. If you “privatised” SBC, it would never hold another classical concert again. The Albert Hall is too big and has a dreadful acoustic. Whilst the suggestion to repurpose Fairfield is interesting, we should all just be patient and see how Covid impacts our cultural life and start planning when we have some certainty again. Now really is not the time.

  • Santipab says:

    London obviously needs a concert hall where all seats can hear well, not just the central stalls.

    The Royal Albert Hall should not be used for anything except tennis and performances of Berlioz’ Requiem and Mahler 8. The atmosphere is great but acoustic porridge. If any of the London orchestras start playing there regularly I won’t be going.

    • SVM says:

      The Royal Albert Hall is so expensive to hire that the prospects of any orchestra using it as a regular haunt are minimal.

  • John Borstlap says:

    We lost two aunts to the Barbican, they tried to find their way in for a concert (one for a Berlioz program and the other for a performance of ‘Lost Highway’ by Neuwirth) and were never seen again.

    Sally

  • Meridien says:

    Remove the Albert Hall from this list, and I’d agree with you. No way is the RAH a good concert hall, I compliment its acoustic by calling it ‘poor’. The Prom concerts are much better heard live on Radio 3 – I have 52 recordings of Proms I went to and the recordings provide a far better listening quality at the highest sample rate the software (Audio Hijack) provides. Now that the BBC broadcasts the concerts in ‘lossless’ quality, I’m looking forward to even better recordings. The Albert Hall isn’t even comfortable for the visitor, instanced by adequate leg/foot space only being available in the 11 rows of the stalls at most Proms. Surely audience comfort is important to enjoying music? It’s also very badly served by public transport and a swine to get to
    for the disabled, like me. As for the economics, how often, other than a Prom series, is the RAH going to put bums on 5,800 seats – 6,000+ seats if the arena audience are seated? Do orchestras book the Albert Hall for a London visit outside the guaranteed audience of a Prom concert? No – never.

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