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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Much improved, and much to prove

By Norman Lebrecht / June 13, 2007

Quarter of a million people have thronged the Royal Festival Hall since its reopening at the weekend, many of them wondering how much added value £115 million (US $225m) can buy. As far as the sound is concerned – the key criterion for any concert hall – the verdict is intriguingly varied.

After four weeks of orchestral tests and a festively overstuffed opening-night programme, musicians and listeners generally concur that the sound is a quantum advance in clarity on the smog we used to know - a pea-soup whisked away by the maitre d’ and replaced with a golden clear broth.

So different is the present experience from past frustrations that musicians blink in disbelief at the sound they are making. Vladimir Jurowski, music director of one of four resident ensembles, has warned that it will take his players two years to relearn the hall – particularly to configure the adjustable stage levels and overhead canopies that are designed to accommodate every kind of act from solo piano to rock fest. The stage hydraulics failed on opening night and the canopies got stuck at quarter-mast. At this point, all that can be safely pronounced is this: the Festival Hall is much improved, and has much to prove.

The science, is, as ever, subjective. ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver,’ is textbook practice for professional acousticians who pack a pistol in their pockets to test the reverberation of a concert hall, the best measure of sound quality.

In an exemplary acoustic – Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal or Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, for instance – the crack of a gunshot takes between 1.8 and two seconds to fade away. Anything longer would suggest the room resonates like an indoor swimming pool, anything shorter amounts to a dull thud. The old RFH measured a deadly 1.35 seconds on average. The renewed space, stripped of absorbent cladding and streamlined at the flanks, checks in at 1.7 on acoustician Larry Kierkegaard’s meter, rising to a full two seconds when the stage machinery is properly utilised. On paper, it ought to be brilliant.

But acoustics, like homeopathy, requires a suspension of science for a cure to take hold. Kierkegaard, a Chicago specialist who earned vast respect for his 2002 repair of the Barbican’s numb space, asked the South Bank if he could bring in a couple of independent auditors - myself as one of them – to advise subjectively on the work in progress. Apprehensive of criticism, the board refused and the acoustician was left to rely on his own formidable ears. Leaving his gun at home – ‘it terrifies the musicians’ – he popped red balloons around the place. Balloons, he reckons, ‘give a better result in the bass registers’.

What I heard a fortnight ago in an empty hall during an Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment rehearsal was a clean, rich sound, evenly distributed around the ship-shaped room without any of the Bermuda Triangles of former times, when sections of orchestra went missing from certain areas. Sitting in all of my regular seats and straying up to outer extremities I last occupied in impecunious youth, I was struck by the immediacy of the noise, the instant translation of gesture into music. Now, a pizzicato cracks like a whip, no longer like a bank clerk shuffling tenners. In every part of the hall, the listener feels closer to the action. In a period-instrument band, the new clarity adds bloom to gut strings and tin horns and musicians feel better about themselves than this place ever let them feel before.

The reports from modern orchestras are, however, less conclusive. Despite pro forma acclaim from Simon Rattle and harmonised approval from the managers of resident ensembles, sour notes are being voiced by wind principals about sound diffusion at higher frequencies. On opening night, the London Philharmonic looked tentative and distinctly unsure of its sound. On the other hand, the filaments of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres were magically exposed in the Philharmonia’s performance and the finale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was numinous and cohesive.

What worried me that night were those red balloons. Contrary to Kierkegaard’s assertion, there was a deficiency in the bass which gave male choruses less impact than female and left Beethoven’s O Freunde! cry sounding faintly despairing, like ‘come on girls!’ on a distant hockey field. An eminent cellist confided that the lower strings sounded emaciated. Something needs to be done about the right hand of the stage and I very much hope Kierkegaard has delayed his return flight to Chicago.

On balance, this is beyond measure a better hall than it used to be, better than my fondest expectations for the refurbishment and better than London has heard since Queens Hall was bombed in May 1941. It is good enough to show up the limitations of resident orchestras and challenge their London swagger. It is also good enough to command admiration and renewed public affection.

What it is not, and never will be, is the equal of classic shoebox-shaped halls in Vienna, Amsterdam and Boston, or of modern marvels in Birmingham, Lucerne and Los Angeles. The RFH inhibitions are inbuilt. It was created in a 1951 rush, in an unorthodox shape and with austerity materials that were not designed to last. The £115 million refit will buy it two decades, three at most, as a premier concert hall. That, take it or leave it, is the bottom line. The hall is open. It looks good, it sounds pretty good, it feels right. Now let’s get on with the music.

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


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