sun 21/07/2024

Opinion: The new London hall - 10 Questions we need to ask | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: The new London hall - 10 Questions we need to ask

Opinion: The new London hall - 10 Questions we need to ask

What a new concert venue for London should be – and what it must avoid

Sir Simon Rattle – shaping the new London concert venue?

So the feasibility study for the new concert hall – The Centre for Music – has finally surfaced, a little later than planned. It’s being greeted, generally speaking, as if it’s to be the next London Olympics. “A global beacon,” declares the Evening Standard...

Nicholas Hytner (he who said that building the Southbank Centre extension would spoil the view from his National Theatre) compares it to Tate Modern, which he says enlarged audiences for other visual arts rather than taking them away. This should, he says, be “a Tate Modern for music”.

Having written more times than I can count that it’s a disgrace London has no world class concert hall, on one level there’s nothing I’d like better than to see it materialise. But there are an awful lot of questions to ask first.

1. Who’s going to do the acoustics? If £278 million is to be spent on this thing, it does have to be world class. World class has to mean putting its purpose first, its functionality as a hall, ahead of architectural concerns. Please, George, can we have Mr Toyota? Musicians in the know tell me that his halls are the finest in the world.

2. What are we going to put in it, besides the LSO? We have a name in this country for building boxes and then having trouble with content. It took a long time for the Millennium Dome to find its purpose in life. Waterloo Station, the busiest in the country, has a row of platforms that have sat disused since Eurostar shifted to St Pancras. Yes, just sitting there. And so forth. “The LSO” is not answer enough to this question: no orchestra performs every night of the week, and while visiting recitalists and international orchestras will welcome the venue, can they fill it every remaining evening? Dark nights would make it difficult to stack up the sums of money involved.

3. Assuming the £278 million is found – and we can probably add a few extra million to that, as few projects are ever realised for the planned amount – that’s one matter. The money for actually running the place day to day, year after year, will come from a different budget. That’s where ACE competition is likely to kick in. If extra filthy lucre isn’t forthcoming, this place is going to be competing for the same, dwindling pot of cash as the Southbank, the Barbican, dear ENO and the rest of it. This project would appear to be the darling of all concerned in creating it. What happens to everyone else?

4. Will London in the end be culturally better off or worse? Will this be an excuse to axe classical music at the Southbank, the Barbican and one of this 10-million-people city’s all-of-two (two!) opera houses? Is the price of running the new hall and its Orchestra going to be the lifeblood of the Philharmonia, the LPO, the RPO, the OAE and more? If so, that price is too high and it will leave London with worse musical provision, not better.

Today the battle to include music as a core subject in schools is raging more than ever before. America has apparently elected to do it. As yet, we have not – despite the case having been made again and again and again, and thoroughly proven

5. Where is Sir Simon going to take his shower? (Or his bath. Apparently he had a bath installed in his dressing room at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, during his CBSO years.) There’s a good dose of hot air around: “There will be no ‘formal’ front and back of house areas dividing the musicians from the audience,” the Standard reports. So, er, how do we think performers work? They need to change, wash, do their hair, rest, eat, be recorded and, above all, practise. The backstage facilities in London’s current delights are currently woeful – when one big visiting orchestra was in town not long ago we found them changing in the corridors because they’d arrived with their concert clothes in their usual wardrobe trunks and there wasn’t room for them all in the school-gym style dressing-rooms. There’s no space for anyone to rest between rehearsal and concert, let alone practise.

You’ll find, if you visit a “state-of-the-art” hall or a great historical one in Germany or Austria or Moscow, that the soloist and conductor have roomy rooms to themselves, usually with a grand piano. Most halls also have a good staff canteen, rather than making people who work there queue for hours at fancy sandwich bars in the foyer. The backstage facilities at this new place need to be better, not non-existent. This clause raises a question about what planet the planners are living on.

6. Does that piece of hot air indicate more of the same? 

7. When are we going to have proper musical education in this country? Space and inspiration for education projects is very nice. All arts organisations need education departments these days (not least because they can thus access funding to run them). But isn’t it time to take a long, hard look at what they achieve long-term? I do know people who have been inspired to discover their musical vocation by visiting orchestra education projects – the composer Tansy Davies is a case in point. But essentially, education departments were invented back in the 1980s as a sticking-plaster to hide the wound left by the axing of peripatetic instrumental teachers throughout the school system.

Today the battle to include music as a core subject in schools is raging more than ever before. America has apparently elected to do it. As yet, we have not – despite the case having been made again and again and again, and thoroughly proven. The problem is that music needs to be taught consistently, week after week, by dedicated, qualified teachers, and practised daily by disciplined young people who want to learn to play or compose or both. Otherwise they can’t become musicians. Dangling a great orchestra in front of a child for a day and taking some photos is no substitute and it never was. It may look wonderful – but what’s left for the children after the orchestra goes home, unless they can be provided with instruments to play and teachers to show them how, regularly and consistently?

Learning music is like taking care of your teeth every day. A once-a-year visit from someone’s education and outreach department is like going to the dentist once a year without flossing or brushing in between.

Music needs dedication and that’s why some of the most musical kids in this country end up being home-schooled. For this young prodigy, Alma Deutscher, 10, no tests, no TV and no classroom: just fresh air and a magic skipping rope...

8. Location, location, location? The Museum of London site is a miserable place surrounded by City concrete and busy roads. On the other hand, I have no sensible ideas for a reasonable alternative... Battersea Power Station? Um, the London Coliseum? (Also... the riverside area around the Mortlake brewery could use some brushing-up. The brewery could come down, the hall could go up, and I could walk there in 10 minutes. We can dream, can’t we?)

9. How come funds go to buildings, but not the people who produce the art within them? Our performing artists are not paid adequately. They are subsidising the art themselves by accepting levels in some cases a quarter of those afforded for artists elsewhere. Musicians are struggling – most orchestral players can’t afford to live in London any more – and if we think they have it bad, just try dancers, who have it even worse. As for extra individuals such as guest speakers, just the other day I was asked to do something at a distinguished concert venue which sounded fun, but when I asked what the fee would be I was told: “This event does not have a budget. We are looking for volunteer’s who we believe have a lot to offer people...”. (That’s pasted in from the email, apostrophe and all.) I won’t be the only one who faces this situation. How come a top venue is so starved of funds that it must refuse to pay its project participants even a tenner? Before we spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a new venue, we should ensure that its content is going to be provided for, and at levels that match those paid in comparable places in other countries.

10. Please, can we just get our priorities right? Yes, we want a great hall. Yes, London deserves one. But a civilised society also deserves the arts to be supported at every level, for every age, because if you don’t nurture children with education in the arts, and if you don’t present adults who have trained for an artistic profession since they were five-years-old the opportunity to make a decent living at it, and if you don’t make the arts a daily part of life in a way that will help maintain the audience, then who will be left here to perform and listen to music in that snazzy new hall in any case?

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