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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

London needs Russell Johnson

By Norman Lebrecht / March 27, 2002

After a break of two weeks, The Lebrecht Weekly resumes its regular weekly Wednesday discourse. Columnist Norman Lebrecht is now Assistant Editor of the Evening Standard.

If there is one thing that unites jet-lagged conductors across the date-lines it is the faith that there is one man on earth who can give them the perfect sound. His name is Russell Johnson and, over three decades, he has created a run of stunning halls from Seoul to Sao Paulo, Dallas to Dijon.

The little gem that Johnson designed for the Finnish boondocks town of Lahti has put its modest orchestra on the world map. In Lucerne, he fashioned a festival hall whose walls adjust at the flick of a switch to accommodate any range of decibels, from solo flute to Mahler's eighth symphony with 1,024 performers.

In Britain, he broke ground with two good halls in Northampton and Nottingham before presenting, to Simon Rattle's specifications in Birmingham, the finest concert ambience this benighted kingdom has ever experienced. That was in 1991. Since then, Johnson has not won another British contract.

Strange, you'd think, when London holds the triple crown as acoustic armpit of the universe. Odd that a man who knows more about the science of sound than the entire record industry should be shunned by all of our expensively renovating concert halls and opera houses.

Bizarre? If it weren't for fear of offending those lovely blokes and boards who run the Royal Albert Hall, Barbican, South Bank, Royal Opera House and English National Opera, I'd call it a flaming national scandal and demand a public inquiry.

Consider the evidence. London has been an acoustic black hole since the Albert Hall opened in 1871, with an echo so cavernous that you could hear a symphony twice. They stuffed the dome with cotton wool and hung umbrellas from the rafters, to no great avail. The RAH is undergoing a £70 million refit. The acoustics are being treated by Peutz, a Dutch firm. Russell Johnson was not, for some reason, contacted.

The Royal Festival Hall was inaugurated in 1951 to oohs and aahs for every beautiful aspect except its sound, which was dull and dry. A network of 168 microphones was secretly implanted in the walls to boost the resonance. Those mikes have since worn out and the sound is deader than ever. The RFH is facing a £54 million face-lift. Various acousticians have been consulted and Larry Kierkegaard of Chicago was commissioned to build a £30,000 scale model. Russell Johnson was asked for an opinion back in 1994; he has not had so much as a Christmas card from the South Bank since.

The Barbican, now in its 21st year, opened as Europe's greatest acoustic disaster. Traffic and toilet noises invaded the concert hall and musicians could not hear themselves play. Bypassing the original acoustician Hugh Creighton, others were called in to fix the leaks. Kierkegaard had a stab at it in 1991. His £7 million strip-down job last summer achieved the first audible improvement, but the quality of sound remains well short of world class.

It was the Barbican calamity that made Rattle insist on Johnson being given final say in Birmingham, choosing fabrics for Symphony Hall and prevailing over the architects in any dispute. The resultant marvel brought Johnson hatfuls of halls to design all over the world - everywhere except here.

He got a start at Covent Garden, insulating the old orchestra pit and rehearsal studios. But when the £214 million redevelopment came up, someone let slip that "in a project costing so much public money, we need to employ British expertiseî. ENO has engaged Ove Arup, a local firm once involved with both the RFH and Barbican.

There are any number of possible reasons for Russell Johnson's mysterious exclusion, and I think I have investigated them all. They range from institutional incompetence to insularity, to insider trading - which is what happens when an arts chairman employs his favourite architect who, in turn, brings along his pet acoustician. Covent Garden is not the only company which, faced with a choice between British and best, has settled for bangers and mash.

There is a canard doing the London rounds to the effect that Kierkegaard is the better " remedial" acoustician, while Johnson's genius is best applied to new halls. Stuff and nonsense. Johnson has worked over enough bad halls to give a weaker man clinical depression. He has virtually invented the modern concert hall and, at 78, is at the peak of his powers. Why settle for second best?

I traced Russell Johnson to Philadelphia, where he is tuning up the problematic Kimmel Center, and asked why he thought he had been excluded from Britain. He had no idea. "When someone rejects you in the arts," he sighed, "it's done in great secrecy and you only find out two years later."

Stealth and bureaucracy breed mediocrity. We appoint big men to chair arts boards, but then subject their spending decisions to five committees and the full Arts Council. "They want to be told you can convert a cowshed into the Musikvereinsaal for $350,000," complains Johnson, and he has a point. Rome was not built by penny-pinchers, and every pound saved on acoustic design gets spent 10 times over on interminable repairs.

The new South Bank chairman, Lord Hollick, has a last chance to put things right. I gather Rattle has begged him to call in Russell Johnson. If he needs the master-tuner's mobile, it's here for the asking.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001