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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Royal Festival Hall at 50 - A hollow-sounding birthday bash

By Norman Lebrecht / April 11, 2001

OF all the spurious, synthetic, depressing, self-seeking excuses for a party, the 50th-birthday bash of the Royal Festival Hall next month is just about as hollow as it gets.

The festivities kick off on May 3 with a gala concert, conducted by Valery Gergiev, to raise funds for renewal. The hall, as it stands, is a national embarrassment and an international joke. The acoustics are inferior, the comfort minimal and the ambience enveloped in a perma-pong of daylong kitchen smells. No one feels much affection for the amenity - least of all its performers, who complain pitifully of cramped dressing-rooms, often uncleaned.

So what's to jubilate? The RFH has never fulfilled its promise from the day it was opened by the King, Queen and Archbishop of Canterbury as "a symbol of the Age of the Common Man". It was built to austerity standards for £2 million, and its sonic deficiencies were instantly audible. The sound was adjusted, over time, with the help of 168 electronic boosters embedded in the walls, but these hidden aids have, like false hairpieces, lost their bloom and the acoustic is becoming scrappier.

When I was a small child, a visit to the Festival Hall (no one ever called it Royal) left on me an impression of dignified utility. The public spaces were uncluttered by ornament or commerce and the auditorium was elevated by the splendour of its artists. Toscanini, Klemperer, Stokowski, de Sabata - though more often Boult, Sargent, Fistoulari and Clarence Raybould - left soundprints in the superstructure. One went to the hall anticipating musical revelation. The rest was trivial. An interval ice was the standard refreshment and the nearest record shop was on the other side of the river.

As the novelty wore off, the hall aged alarmingly, a process accelerated by the addition, in grim Sixties concrete, of the ancillary Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery. The complex acquired a tattered look and a sub-stratum of skate-boarders and oppressive beggars. The site felt unpleasant, then unsafe.

The ending of local-authority control in 1986 brought no relief. An Arts Council-appointed South Bank Board has spent 15 years and millions of pounds dithering over what to do with the hall and how multi-cultural and unsymphonic it should become.

The Board has finally announced a five-year redevelopment plan, but there is no indication as to where the money is coming from, or much conviction that the rich will rush to endow the officially redesignated "People's Place for the 21st Century".

Money is the immediate issue. The actress Joanna Lumley is in charge of the fund-raising gala. If she recoups £80,000, it will be accounted a fabulous triumph. That sum, however, amounts to no more than a blip in a budget of £60 million - half of it Lottery cash - that is required to refurbish the public areas, restore the auditorium and erect a new admin block beside the Hungerford railway bridge.

This, in turn, is but a smidgeon of the so-called Masterplan that will ultimately demolish the concrete out-houses, cover the bridge in glass and develop Jubilee Gardens into a postmodern, part-underground haven of chamber music, movie history and visual arts. Where the rest of that cash is coming from is a mystery.

The Board has no formal responsibility for fund-raising. Its chairman, the property magnate Elliott Bernerd, aims to appoint a campaign committee with its own chairman - but who will want to run a whip-round without having a say in its disposal?

Bernerd, recently returned from five months' medical care in the US, may be excused for wanting to ease his burden. But in America he would have learned that the first duty of an arts chairman is to make the lead donation. So far, the RFH has no named benefactor.

The publisher Paul Hamlyn has pledged £17 million, but that cheque has yet to be signed and will be linked to the Masterplan, not the RFH. A professional fund-raiser, Julian Marland, has been recruited from the British Museum, where he looked after the nuts and bolts of a £100 million campaign vigorously spearheaded by the former Covent Garden chairman, Sir Claus Moser. No socialite of comparable calibre is coming forward to bang the drum for the Festival Hall. Unloved and ill-defined, the RFH is stumbling blindfold into quicksands. Its half-century brings no cause for public celebration.

29 November 2000: Chaos reigns on the South Bank
18 February 2000: [UK News] Architects try another facelift for South Bank
6 January 1999: Breathe new life into the Festival Hall

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999