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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Classic Follies on London Concert Halls

By Norman Lebrecht / August 4, 2004

Here is how to build a concert hall in London. First, locate a site and allocate a reasonable amount of time – between one decade and three, on average – to secure the necessary consents and cash from the appropriate authorities, elected and self-appointed.

Then go ahead and build, knowing that the outcome will have been disabled from the start by all the pen-pushers and do-gooders who had their say before a sod was turned. When the finished hall turns out to be a camel designed by committee, acoustically opaque and incurably malodorous, dedicate the next decade or three to getting consents and cash for its improvement which, you may be sure, will be impaired by the selfsame meddlers who undermined it in the first place, or by their descendants.

Take, if you please, the Royal Albert Hall. Erected in memory of the lamented Prince Consort some ten years after his passing, the vast mausoleum was opened in 1871 by a fanfare in which no note could be distinguished from the next. So reverberant was the acoustic that the Prince of Wales’s inaugural speech was reportedly ‘heard in all parts of the building; in many parts it could be heard twice’. Sir Thomas Beecham used to quip that any musical work which received its first performance in the Albert Hall was instantly assured of a second.

In 1949 they tried to muffle the swimming-pool echo by lifting off the dome and stuffing it with cotton-wool. In the 1960s, they hung spaceships from the ceiling. Latterly they have swung a canopy over the stage, vaguely suggestive of an Edwardian four-poster bed. The sonic results are just about satisfactory. Unamplified orchestral sound resonates distinctly around the hall, though far from brilliantly.

The latest refit, which began in 1994 and was reopened by the Queen in March this year, cost almost £70 million, of which £40.4m came from the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Money well spent? Well youmight ask. The amount is precisely twice what it took to knock down the old Glyndebourne Opera House in the 1990s and replace it with a state-of-the art 21st century facility.

Glyndebourne did not receive a penny of public subsidy towards its £35m outlay and consulted no-one but the county council. The Albert Hall conferred with everyone: from the Queen, to the music industry, to the scientific institutions, to the tiniest environmental pressure group, to your own humble correspondent (whose advice was minuted and ignored). In the course of these worthy and stimulating conversations, the ultimate purpose of the project must have gone astray because the final results fall far short of reasonable expectations.

The thundering organ has been restored and the south porch reopened, and both are much appreciated. But the artists rooms in the bowels of the building were upgraded from sepulchral to merely miserable and the ladies’ loos still extrude a 50-metre queue at interval time. Most aggravating of all on these sweltering summer nights, a decision was taken to instal what the website nicely calls ‘auditorium ventilation’, not to be mistaken for full-blown air-conditioning.

A hall packed with 5,000 gently glowing Prommers can turn by mid-evening into a cauldron of body odours and neighbourly resentments, freshly simmered at just below boiling point by the television arc-lights of BBC4’s commendable live relay, which beam up before and after each item on the programme.

Why, when they were spending the price of two opera houses, did the RAH skimp on air conditioning? I have tried and failed to obtain a credible answer. My guess is that human need simply got buried beneath the mound of submissions and permissions, of adjustments for special interests, that attend the construction and inevitable reconstruction of any concert hall in this over-consulted metropolis. Good sound and good atmosphere is all you need in a concert hall; the RAH fluffed it on both counts.

Let us quickly gloss over the Barbican which opened in 1982 after a mere 30 years’ deliberation and is now spending £31.2 million on amending an appalling acoustic and obtuse design. The Barbican is starting to look and sound a lot better, which is not to say it will ever be half as splendid as halls that were built more or less concurrently in Birmingham, Cardiff, Nottingham, Basingstoke and Glasgow. My darkest fear is that 20 years from now, when it’s time for another refit, a duke and two old mayors will liks hands with the nostalgia lobby to slap preservation orders on this design disaster, preventing us from blowing up the Barbican and building a better one.

Which would, in retrospect, have been the best solution for the Royal Festival Hall, a facility with sound so dry it had to be electronically boosted. The RFH was built as a temporary adjunct to the Festival of Britain in 1951. It is now plastered, within and without, by so many Grade-1 listings that the carpets, which are the colour of dogs’ diarrhoea, cannot be cleaned without official inspection.

The hall is about to undergo a £71m refurbishment (yes, that’s the cost of two Glyndebournes) at the hands of Larry Kirkegaard, a remedial acoustician who aims to furnish the hall with variable panels for different decibel levels, classical or rock. There is no cast-iron guarantee that Kierkegaard's sound will be one degree more pellucid than anyone else's for the past murky half century, or that the site will be less of a concrete jungle. In a rational world, the RFH would have been replaced long since by a new hall that delivers decent sound. Here, however, on top of the usual constraints, the Festival site is drenched in sentimental value for Labour, which chose it as their party spot the night they returned to power in May 1997. Demolition was never an option.

The South Bank Board is now chaired by Lord Hollick, a Blair crony, and Downing Street wants to see some action after 19 years of stagnancy. But, hang on, what’s this last-minute hitch?

No sooner was the refit announced last week than Peter Mandelson, Blair’s closest crony, collared the South Bank chief executive, Michael Lynch, and warned of dire consequences if so much as a wall panel was moved from themarvel that his grandfather Herbert Morrison built. Morrison was the force behind the Festival of Britain, a brawny machine politician of modest historical impact.

Turning a deaf ear to Lynch’s stuttered rationalisations, Mandelson bragged to a weekend newspaper that he would ‘remain hawk-eyed and, if necessary, militant’ in defence of preserving the hall, faults and all. Something akin to panic rippled though the South Bank.

So here we go again. First we build bad halls. Then, when we try to repair them, some meddlesome Mandelson pops up to disrupt the plan with false and worthless traditions steeped in sickening sentiment.

Someone should tell Peter Mandelson that it was not his grandfather who built the Royal Festival Hall. It was the ratepayers of London who shelled out willing shillings to have, at last, a world-class concert hall. Those who hoped for glorious sound were instantly disappointed. Many of the world's finest musicians regard the hall as a disgrace. Only a radical acoustic overhaul can redeem it, and that remedy is now under threat of blatant political interference.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001