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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Chaos reigns on the South Bank

By Norman Lebrecht / November 29, 2000

As we approach the Royal Festival Hall's 50th birthday, there is still no discernible renovation has taken place there in 14 years

I HAVE tried biting my tongue, buttoning my lip and binding the fingers of my right hand. But, try as I might, I cannot keep mum any longer on the longest-running blot on Britain's cultural landscape.

As another year ends, it seems almost unimaginable that stagnancy still prevails at our premier arts centre. It has been 14 years since the South Bank, freed from the abolished Greater London Council, was handed to an unelected board of the great and the good.

Rapid renewal was promised, along with massive investment. To date, no discernible renovation has taken place. The Royal Festival Hall will celebrate its 50th birthday next May with every prospect of retaining its title as the seediest concert hall on earth.

While New York's Lincoln Center prepares to spend more than £1 billion on revitalising its 40-year-old facilities under a bustling new president, Gordon Davis, London's South Bank is bogged down in a leaderless dither, wondering how to raise one tenth of the munificence that the Lincoln Center so effortlessly taps.

The South Bank chairman, the property developer Elliott Bernerd, is in the United States recovering from cancer surgery and is not due back for five months. Bernerd, normally a man of action, has spent almost three years rallying local and national interests behind a rebuilding scheme. Much hinges on his return to full health.

In his absence, Culture Secretary Chris Smith has approved two deputies - the glamorous television presenter Maya Even and the establishment lawyer Edward Walker-Arnott, who last intruded on cultural woes with a 1997 report that absolved the Arts Council of responsibility for the Covent Garden catastrophe. Other board members are growing dismayed by inertia. Two have told me lately that they are hanging on for an issue of principle on which to resign.

Bernerd's priority, restoring the RFH, has been indefinitely postponed while architects produce designs for a permanent, smaller hall to be erected on the London Eye side of the Hungerford Bridge. This was unwelcome news for resident orchestras which, primed for a 2002 closure, had made alternative, touring plans. They are now having to unscramble their diaries and put on a London season.

Facing at least four more years in an unrefurbished, acoustically muffled armpit, musicians are incensed. Conditions in the RFH have deteriorated to the point where conductors have ascribed a stench in the air to suspected dead vermin in the heating vents. The Philharmonia's music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, was obliged the other night to manipulate a wire coat-hanger to keep his door open and his air fresh.

Soloists count themselves lucky to find the green rooms clean. They have given up expecting refreshments, or a greeting card. "When any London orchestra goes on tour, we come back so angry at the lack of common courtesies back home," fumes one manager.

The South Bank has a chief executive, Karsten Witt, who - though paid twice as much as his £90,000 predecessor, Nicholas Snowman - has failed to reverse institutional dereliction. He recently called in a team from BBC Music Magazine to relaunch the centre's listings booklet as Southbank magazine, featuring "freaks and futuristic clowns" on its next cover.

Core classical activities have been reduced to small print in the freesheet, with the result that classical promoters claim to have lost 90 per cent of non-subscription ticket sales. A famous soloist who would normally attract 300 ticket requests a week is now drawing 30. To fill the hall, orchestras are spending more on newspaper advertising and may have to raise seat prices.

The prospect of a new South Bank hall, replacing the QEH/Purcell Room block, fills users with gloom. The need for a 1,500-seater has not been market-tested in the delicate ecology of London's concert life. It is too small to be economically viable as a symphonic venue and too large for modest chamber-music audiences. Yet the plan is sailing ahead with Arts Council consent, while the burning issue of the Festival Hall is fudged.

With the wasteland unredeemed, the board's legitimacy is open to challenge. London once again has an elected authority and mayor. Funding for the London orchestras has been devolved to a local arts board. Given the history of stasis, there is not much of a case for preserving the South Bank as a national treasure under Arts Council control. Ken Livingstone is no friend of traditional arts, but he cannot do less than nothing. If I were him, I would march into the South Bank tomorrow with a repossession order.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999