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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The music revolution starts here

By Norman Lebrecht / May 7, 2008

They are choosing the carpet when I arrive, a magnificent hand-made Afghan whose rusted reds and vanilla clays will dull the sheen of brand-new marble. This is the reception area of Kings Place, London’s new £100 million office development with super-low carbon emissions and an education outreach programme for poor folk in the council flats opposite who, on a fine day, will get to watch the business classes sunning it with Chablis in open-air bars on the redeveloped canal-side banks.

So far, so socially responsible. But beneath Kings Place, 150 strides from Eurostar St Pancras, rumbles a cultural revolution. Peter Millican, the out-of-town developer who bought the land in 1999, has created an office block that will also present classical music concerts and art exhibitions, completely free of public subsidy.

Yes, you read that right. In a week when the South Bank has wheedled an extra £16.5 million from the Arts Council to cover its manifold shortcomings, here is an arts centre that works without public subvention.

This is the plan. Half of Kings Place is let to the Guardian newspaper, the rest to Network Rail and other tenants who pay a commercial rent. Restaurants, bars and other amenities will be open to the public from breakfast to midnight, just like any other gherkin on the map.

The difference, however, hits the eye as you enter the lobby. On the right of security is an open sculpture gallery with a fully-curated programme and a working artist, Abigail Fallis, in residence. Down one escalator flight is a visual art gallery.

Another flight down are the concert halls, one space with 420 seats, the other 220. They are testing the acoustics as I walk around. The sound-decay time in the larger space is a little on the dry side – 1.6 seconds, below the optimum 1.8 to 2.2 – but in a setting as intimate as this the gap is musically negligible.

Any instrument or small ensemble ought to sound perfect in a slightly off-square box that has been made from a single Black Forest oak, felled at the august age of 500 years on the full moon before Christmas 2005 (there’s an awful lot of New Age twaddle involved in building modern concert halls). Best of all, the hall is a box built within a box, shielding the music from ambient noise. Nothing short of a full-blown tsunami on the Regents Canal should disturb the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata.

Along with the art galleries, the music programme is filling up with famous acts. The opening in October will present 100 concerts in five days featuring Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Musick; the Brodsky, Duke and Chilingarian quartets; the Classical Opera Company and the pianist Jean-Bernard Pommier.

Two groups, the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, are moving onto the site. Both are officially resident at the subsidised South Bank but it’s the private developer of Kings Place who is giving them waterside offices at peppercorn rent, as well as a free hand with programming content. Without looking much like a Thatcherite firebrand in a collarless shirt and cord jacket, Peter Millican is threatening to blow up the consensus that has governed British arts since the end of the War.

A shy Northumbrian, so reticent that he almost leaps into the canal at the flash of a digital camera, Millican and his company Parabola Land built Central Square in Newcastle with a modest component of workplace art. For his next venture, he went looking to build commercial offices close to an international hub. ‘From the beginning,’ he explains, ‘I decided it should also be a performing space because there isn’t such a thing in this country – work and arts together. There are concert halls in Japan that are part of a corporate office block. We went to look at them.’

A concert hall, he reckoned, can double in daytime as a profitable conference centre, especially when it’s a hop and a skip away for business people getting off the red-eye Eurostar from Paris and Brussels. Conference revenue - ‘which will be significant’, says Millican - will feed the Kings Place Music Foundation which, in turn, will fund the artistic programme. Simple, really.

‘We were only going to build one concert hall,’ says Millican, ‘but the musicians told us they wanted rehearsal space so we built a second.’ Unlike the Barbican and South Bank, Kings Place has no artistic director or planning bureaucracy. ‘What I’ve done is to ask people I respect to curate individual weeks,’ says Millican. ‘When you float this idea to high-calibre musicians, many of them get very excited.’

That’s not surprising. Artists often complain to me of being shoehorned into artificial series at arts centres that make no sense except in terms of their competitive edge over other arts centres. At Kings Place, artists can play what they please.

The centre also fills London’s crying need for a receiving house that can present successful acts from around the country and across the Channel. A musical exchange has already been set up with the Louvre and there are partnerships in place with universities in Newcastle and Northumbria. Small beer so far, but watch this space.

Millican looks alarmed when I warn that he’s about to change London’s arts ecology. ‘I didn’t set out to prove anyone wrong,’ he protests. But the old model of state-funded arts centre is under threat, and not just from Kings Place. Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square is run without subsidy, as is St John’s, Smith Square, within earshot of Parliament. More and more small theatres flourish in London without state funding.

The litmus test is quality. Cadogan Hall cannot match the Royal Festival Hall in range and adventure and St John’s puts on slim pickings. Kings Place, full of good intentions, has no blazing stars in its opening line-up. If it is to challenge the Wigmore and Queen Elizabeth halls as a chamber music mecca, it will need to up the ante and attract a different audience.

That’s not as daunting as it sounds. Some 30,000 office workers will be moving over the coming decade into the former streetwalker district behind the railway terminal and the arrival of Central St Martins college in 2011 will give the area a student buzz. Islington is five bus stops to the north. ‘It’s an experiment,’ says Peter Millican. ‘If it doesn’t work, we’ll have to amend the plan.’

Whether it works or not at first, Kings Place represents a credible alternative to the state-funded arts elephant and its discredited zoo-keeper, the Arts Council. It marks the start of a cultural economic revolution. There is no turning back.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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