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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Sounding off on the South Bank

By Norman Lebrecht / February 24, 2005


Thirty of the world’s top conductors have signed a petition calling for the restoration of the acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall to be the chief priority in the coming refurbishment of London’s South Bank.

The roll of names includes such sworn enemies as Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann; Riccardo Muti and most other Italian maestri; Simon Rattle and several of his less guarded professional critics. What unites them is a concern for London’s premier concert venue and a fear that it may suffer as a result of declining political regard for classical music and the general decay in British arts policy

The sheet bearing these 30 names is a rare, if not unique, testament of baton solidarity. Offered for sale at Sotheby’s it could raise enough money to pay … oh, I’d guess, the undisclosed salary of English National Opera’s inauspicious new music director.

Conductors don’t come cheap, and they don’t come wholesale. If you think that 30 of them appealing for the renewal of a concert hall is like footballers voting for better pitches and turkeys for the abolition of Christmas, think again. A hall, to a conductor, is just a place of work, not something to get worked up about. You can count on the fingers of two hands the halls conductors value, and it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the Royal Festival Hall, with its deficient sound and Balkan levels of backstage comfort, would come out as one of their favourites.

That it does is a mark of London’s enduring centrality as a capital of orchestral music, and to the inadequacy of the Barbican and Royal Albert Hall as first-choice facilities for touring bands. The Barbican is too small for profit – 800 seats fewer than RFH – and the Albert is not and never will be a place where symphony seekers will throng year round. Like it or not, the Festival Hall has history, geography, good sightlines and a sense of occasion. It’s the best of a poor bunch and the world’s swagger-sticks are united in its defence - to the extent that some of them, I gather, have privately offered to make a financial contribution towards the acoustic refit.

Nor are they alone. Over the past year, 14,500 members of the South Bank mailing list have dipped into their hard-earned and sent donations, some as modest as £10, towards the £91 million restoration project. After grants from the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Hamlyn and Clore Duffield Foundations, plus a spare £5 million that Tessa Jowell just found knocking around in her Department’s petty cash, all it will take is another £10 million to re-equip the site for cultural habitation. Dame Vivien Duffield is leading the appeal, as she ebulliently did Covent Garden’s. The heavy machinery is rolling.

So, after two decades of shilly-shally and dither-dabble, three chief executives in as many years and any number of architectural masterplans, the Royal Festival Hall is finally heading for shutdown this June and may be expected to reopen in January 2007. The acoustician Larry Kierkegaard promises a miraculous transformation. Most of us will be satisfied with modest clarity and a high standard of performance.

And that is where attention now turns. The South Bank is advertising for an artistic director, a person who will take charge of programming in three concert halls, appoint a new curator for the collectionless Hayward Gallery and generally take command of the site’s sprawling activities which, for a ragbag of incoherent historic reasons, range from poetry to skate-wear design.

The new job is one of the world’s cultural powerpoints and there ought to be a rush of applications. Names already in the hat (not necessarily of their own volition) are Nicholas Kenyon, director of BBC Proms; Peter Alward, former head of EMI Classics; and Jude Kelly, cultural commissar of London’s Olympic bid.

There is, however, a catch or two. Jobs of this importance are usually autocracies, answerable to a board but not to a superior manager. At the South Bank the artistic director will be number two to Michael Lynch, the chief executive. Lynch is a jolly Aussie, halfway through a five-year term and missing sun-kissed Sydney Bay where he used to run the magnificent Opera House.

Lynch is committed to stay as long as it takes to push the restoration through. He has his budgets in place and will not be budged on basics. But any self-respecting artistic director will demand the right to rethink budgetary priorities. The situation is fraught with conflict potential. In a tiny talent pool with several bluechip posts up for grabs – Edinburgh Festival, Barbican chief exec, head of music at Salzburg – the crème de la crème is unlikely to float down a sluggish river to the hamstrung South Bank job.

Within the outline plan, there is another hitch. The Festival Hall was built in 1951 primarily for symphony concerts and classical recitals. Until about a decade ago, classics accounted for nine-tenths of its content. When it reopens, only 60 percent of events will consist of classical music. The rest will be world, jazz, pop, rock, dance, garage and what-have-you.

The change has been made under pressure from the Arts Council, which wants to earn multicultural brownie points for its £16.7 million annual grant, and it recognises an undeniable decline in classical attendances. But it does redefine the hall’s core purpose and it limits the freedom of any artistic director to regenerate tradition.

The world’s orchestras have taken note and are splitting their visits between the RFH and the Barbican, weakening the South Bank’s grip on a vital art form. Conductors are rightly concerned about the future of the hall and their manifesto – rallied by an American board member, Gilbert Kaplan, who is on close personal terms with most maestros – is as much a warning signal as a gesture of support.

Whatever tears are shed and sentiments indulged when the centre reopens two years from now, classical concerts must remain the raison d’etre of the Royal Festival Hall. There is plenty of space outside for multicultural summer fun, as the National Theatre has ably demonstrated. But within the hallowed hall, it is Brahms and Birtwistle who must prevail, or the entire effort will have been in vain.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001