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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Tomorrow's hall today

By Norman Lebrecht / March 30, 2005


Budapest has built a brilliant new concert hall in three years. Why does London build bad halls and take decades?

The world’s newest concert hall has opened on the banks of the Danube. It is, in many ways, everything a modern hall should be. The lobbies are imposing without being palatial, the interior décor is wittily pastel and the acoustic is inherently flexible and infinitely better than any in London or Paris – as is only to be expected of a work by Russell Johnson who, past 80, is still striving for the perfect sound.

That such a paragon could be built in Budapest, capital of a struggling post communist economy, is a striking reproach to western complacency. The Berlin Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony orchestras are in for an ear opener when they visit in the next few weeks.

More interesting than the gallivanting of giant orchestras is the manner by which the hall was built, a formula which could unlock the future for other cities. Historically, concert halls have been built by one of the following methods: either a rich man makes a monumental gift, or a state puts up a hall and makes the citizens pay, or a group of moderately wealthy people club together as a tax-deductible association.

None of these mechanisms seems to work any more. The world is full of men who are many times richer than Andrew Carnegie, but no Gates or Google mogul has emulated the Scottish steelman's everlasting philanthropy. State and city halls that were built under communism are concrete monstrosities, ripe for demolition; municipal facilities like the Royal Festival Hall were disabled by official interference and musical ignorance.

The third method, recently prevalent, is failure prone. Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall, Russell Johnson’s 2002 creation, fell so far short of an acceptable sound as a result of a shortfall in funds and ‘construction deficiencies’ that the acoustician was summoned back this year to advise how it might be repaired (answer: expensively and without guarantee). The million-here, million-there school of fundraising has lost its appeal to middleweight donors, who feel unappreciated. It also tends to leave last-minute budget holes.

What the Hungarians have done is tear up the rulebook and build a hall on the never-never. A patch of industrialised riverbank beside the faux-bourgeois national theatre (opened in 2002) was turned over to a local developer who, with cash from Hungarian expats in Canada, knocked up the new Palace of Arts – 1,700-seat concert hall, art gallery, small theatre – for a mere 31.3 billion Forints. That, by my reckoning, is about £87 million, or rather less than it is costing to restore London’s main concert hall to a semblance of its original inadequacy.

Giving the project to the private sector eliminated years of political obstruction and public tender. The architect, picked by the developers, is a local music fanatic, Gabor Zoboki; the acoustician is the world’s best. The catch, and there had to be one, is that taxpayers will have to pay back the full cost, with interest, over 30 years. The Government is gambling that, by then, Hungary will have been restored to its rightful prosperity and no-one will feel the pinch, or remember who authorised the expnediture.

Governments come and go in Budapest with Danubian fluidity. I met five culture ministers of the present century at the formal opening and all congratulated the others on supporting the project across party lines. That, however, is where consensus ends.

A plan to name the hall after Bela Bartok, the country's most important composer, was stamped on by rightwing politicians who branded it the National Concert Hall. The word ‘national’, round these parts, resonates terrifyingly with nostalgia for lost territories and unfinished wars.

The renamed National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zoltan Kocsis, was appointed resident ensemble. A former state orchestra of unsackable players, the NPO lacks the zest of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, headed by Ivan Fischer and championed by the late Georg Solti. Most consider the festival orchestra superior in tone and outlook; but Fisher's players are obliged to rehearse in a suburban cinema and, while they will play in the new hall, most of their concerts take place in the smaller Franz Liszt Academy. "The new hall needs Ivan," muttered one disgruntled musician on opening night.

The inadequacies of the national orchestra were cruelly exposed in Johnson’s unsparing acoustic. Sludgy textures in Beethoven’s op 124 overture were followed by an ill-balanced piano in Liszt’s second concerto; amends were made in the second half by a pinpoint performance of three Bartok pieces orchestrated by Kocsis, and by the serenity of the Psalmus Hungaricus, the Kodaly masterpiece that has all but faded from western ears. During the interval I patrolled the empty hall, listening two two harps tuning up on stage: the sound was steady and pure at every level of elevation.

Johnson is staying on in Budapest to tweak the acoustic for for the world's loudest orchestras. After that, he is heading for Paris where the lovely Salle Pleyel, an acoustic white elephant, fell into liquidation after the Credit Lyonnais banking scandal in the1990s. It wound up in the hands of a developer, Hubert Martigny, who is married to a conductor, Carla Maria Tarditi. With a wad of state finance they renovated the Pleyel and want Johnson to work on the sound. The Martignys will own the building for the next 50 years but each year a bit of it reverts to the French government.

The model is similar to Budapest. It's the new painless way of making a fitplace for music. Building a good concert hall, Johnson insists, is not a question of money. ‘At college, a friend and I put one up for four hundred dollars,’ he laughs over a lunchtime beer. All you have to do it get the priorities in the right order - acoustics first, all else behind.

Imagine what might happen in London if a developer took over a derelict power station or telephone exchange and put up a concerthall without consulting the cultural authorities - a private attraction sustained by a public buy-back guarantee. The hall could be built in three years, as distinct from the twenty it took to erect the Barbican, and the further twenty that the RFH has spent on its refurbishment debate. It could be run on sound commercial lines without obeisance to political correctness. It could have, uniquely for London, a treasurable acoustic.

Sounds too good to be true? It happened last month in Budapest, and it’s moving ahead in Paris. Why do we always have to be losers, and last?

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001