London’s best concert hall?Comment Of The Day
Comment of the Day from Robert King:
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.
Surely the problem is ‘Croydon’? How much more civilised it must be for metropolitan music lovers to nip across or up to to the South Bank or down to the Barcican? I mean 13 minutes on a train out, not to mention having to get back, and 5 minutes walk! Is one safe? Rather than spend £20m to revive a perfectly good venue how much more better to spend £500+m on a new Hall somewhere in the City, which is much more in need of redevelopment,where few actual people live than some outer suberb where lots do but probably have no interest on the finer things of life?
20,000 people live in the City of London.
And 385,000 live in Croydon. Despite its reputation, some of which is deserved, the borough includes some nice parts.
The bit around East Croydon station is being regenerated actively, and the walk to Fairford avoids the worst of the town centre.
“best acoustics of all the larger halls in London”
If my memory serves, it would say “beyond London”.
The problem, in anti-elitist/white supremacy/etc times is, would those responsible be prepared to market the concert hall as a top class venue for classical music? It could be done, but it would need full commitment. Croydon has changed since the hall was built.
Sadly it’s run by the bankrupt Croydon council, London’s borough of culture for 2023. Let’s hope they manage to get it open again by then.
The council handed the refurbishment to its subsidiary ‘Brick by Brick’ which in turn was a major factor in the council bankruptcy and is now being sold off. Is the refurbishment finished now, the backstage area certainly wasn’t last time I played there? In the hall itself, it’s been repainted and the seats have been recovered but they still don’t all tilt properly and the aircon had to be switched off at the opening concert so the audience you could hear the music. The foyer has been updated, the hall retains its styling and acoustics but also its tattiness.
As to the operation of the hall, that was also disastrously outsourced to Bournemouth based BHLive but that didn’t stand the test of time, too much wrestling and not enough music!
“If Fairfield were to be given £15 million annually (a drop in the ocean compared to the funding of South Bank and Barbican)…”
This simply isn’t true, the SB received £19.7 Million annually from ACE for the years 2015-2018 and this dropped to below £19 Million for the following year.
A tenth of the annual grant which the SB actually receives would be about £2 Million which probably wouldn’t even pay for maintaining Fairfield and keeping the doors open.
One thing you are right about is that Fairfield is a lovely venue but it was modelled on post-war ideas. Croydon is no longer a leafy outer borough. It had a solid history of local theatres stretching back into the nineteenth century times have moved on. Incidentally, the “three minute walk” from East Croydon Station is given by Google Maps as nine minutes and takes one through not the most salubrious of areas.
Robert King is absolutely right about Fairfield Hall’s acoustic (though I can’t speak to the comparisons with SBC funding).
When I was managing the London Mozart Players I worked with Simon Thomsett (then running Fairfield) on a plan to have a season of concerts in which all of the major U.K. orchestras (CBSO, Halle, RLPO, etc) would come and perform – a chance for Londoners to hear these orchestras. But we couldn’t get the funding off the ground. If the Borough, ACE etc had got behind this I think it could have put that hall on the map, providing something unique for London which the other venues didn’t offer. I still think it could work…
If memory serves, a couple of “Andre Previn’s Music Night” shows were made there, as well as a couple of concerto videos with Previn, Rubenstein and the LSO. Distant history perhaps, but the place seems to have some merit, especially now. Any long-term thinkers out there?
I have said this before, but it bears repeating. When I was a boy – 50 or so years ago I went every Saturday night when which ever orchestra that was playing at the RFH on the Sunday afternoon played their programme at Fairfield first. I saw Klemperer, Giuliani, Kempe etc etc. There were also recitals – Menuhin, Rubinstein and many others. The concerts sold well, the audience was deeply appreciative. Yes, Croydon is not beautiful, but as suggested by Mr KIng – a little vision can go a long way.
I was there recently, in the brief period when it re-opened and the the acoustic was so much better than any other hall in London as to be embarrassing. Stokowski famously said that Fairfield had the best Acoustic in Europe – wouldn’t it be lovely for a new generation to be allowed to enjoy it? Bleating about audiences disappearing for serious music is nonsense – but they will disappear if we don’t give them quality work in decent venues – Even if the seats are still a bit ropey!
Headline: Yes, we have no pianos.
This from recent minutes of Croydon Council is relevant.
Councillor Oliver Lewis asked in July 2020 the following questions to Councillor H. Pollard. In vain it would seem.
The Fairfield Trust operating the venue before it closed was responsible for the Steinway pianos. What happened to the two Steinway pianos that were in the venue before it shut for refurbishment? Were they sold, and if so, what was the price? Who held/holds the contract with Phoenix Pianos? Has the contract with Phoenix Pianos ended? If not, will the pianos be returned to the venue? If the contract has ended, what pianos will be put in the Concert Hall and other parts of Fairfield Halls? If the contract has ended, what was the reason for the termination? Will the name of the Phoenix Concert Hall be changed again if the contract with Phoenix Pianos has ended? Has BH Live pulled out of the agreement to act as the Operator for Fairfield Halls? Of have they given notice of termination of the agreement to act as Operator?
BHLive is responsible for any contract with Phoenix Pianos, all current and future provision of instruments in the building and all matters relating to this.
BHLive has not pulled out of the agreement, nor have they given notice of termination.
So that’s all right then.
The Paris Philharmonie is not so far out as Croydon but it is a longish bus or metro journey. There are free buses after the concert back to the centre. The hall seems to have built a younger audience than the average classical audience at the old Salle Pleyel and I have enjoyed many concerts there, not least Sir Roger teaching the Orchestre de Paris to play Elgar 1 (even finer than when I heard him do it with the Vienna Phil).
It is an hour door to door from central Paris, by tube, on the
fastest line, with a change at the unsavory Gare de Nord or Gare de l’Est. The younger audience is in large part due to the Orchestre de Paris offers for the young — indeed many people who have never been to a concert of classical music before, come.
The OdeP sells out on their subscriptions.The hall’s program proposes much that is not classical, so as to assure its maximum use.
It’s not Croydon per se, although it has a reputation, but it’s a hall for south of the Thames with the usual south London mentality involved, and the lack of the Underground which you have north of the River. Maybe the new Northern line extension is going in there? But having to get the overhead from London Bridge or Victoria from Bow, and all the walking around to hear just another Beethoven Fifth, always felt like hard work. Great place now for anyone living between Croydon and Gatwick or wherever on those overhead train lines into East Croydon. Granted, even before, it is a wonderful hall albeit a bit of a dump. I was the soprano soloist in there for Elijah in the early 90s and some other thing I can’t remember, but I do remember how lovely it was to sing in there and made the trek at times to hear colleagues too. So after the refurbishment, it must be even better and look so good. It will all depend on what is played in there on the programmes as to how it will take off as part of ‘London’.
Pre-pandemic and indeed post-pandemic programmes offer a choice between a Tribute to Queen, the Illegal Eagles, Arsenal Legends in Conversation, An Evening With Snooker Greats, and All Star Wrestling. Can hardly wait.
It does not help that on the two occasions I have been to Fairfield Halls, the front of house staff were surly at best, if not downright unwelcoming. If they clearly did not want to be there, then why should we, as paying patrons, want that either. Compare that with, say, Wigmore Hall and it’s clear why Wigmore has an enthusiastic, knowledgeable, loyal audience.
The biggest issue with Fairfield (as you’ve pointed out) is the programming. When it was being redeveloped, the creative director promised no more tribute acts. Instead, they ended up booking little else.
Furthermore, the seats in the main auditorium are the same ones the Beatles played in front of when they were there, including rips, tears and scuffs, and cannot be removed to make way for a ‘standing’ audience. As such, no large bands will go near the place.
Another Titanic £60m success for Croydon Council.
Added to which is the fact that the underground car park and backstage delivery area issue was never solved. No room for the larger rock group equipment vehicles of the 21st century. BH Live, which is based in Bournemouth (obviously) ostensibly still runs the venue, claims on its website that it is “all about people”. But there was no real information about the team or contact telephone numbers pre-pandemic. Even less now. It is not actually possible to make an enquiry about a future booking of the Fairfield Halls.