Please don’t stop at one concert hall, Britain!

The public debate has begun in earnest over the future of a new concert hall in London for the LSO and Simon Rattle. I have pretty high hopes for the hall itself, but I don’t expect too much from the debate surrounding it. Where big money meets the arts and government policy, one can be sure that most of what one reads is driven by tribalism rather than belief. It’s a good thing we’ve got blogs!

Everyone with ears to hear knows London needs and deserves a better concert hall. About ten years ago I sat with a legend of London musical life who spent an hour showing me the architect’s drawings he’d had made for a proposed new hall and telling me, in unassailable detail, why none of the existing halls were fit for purpose. Right as he was then, his organization has come out publicly against the new LSO venue because….. well…. um….. it’s not for them.

I sometimes wonder if some audience members are put off by the quality of the venues in which we perform?

I sometimes wonder if some audience members are put off by the quality of the venues in which we perform?

People are already talking a lot about cost. Note that a few months ago, the widely discussed figure was around 500 million pounds. With the feasibility study now released, the number has shrunk to a modest 278 million pounds. Well, what’s 222 million pounds one way or the other, anyway?

Actually, this is the classic way these things are always spun. You present the public (usually via leaking) with a crazy number (“we’re going to cut the Arts Council by ten billion per cent!” or “Simon Rattle’s dressing room will cost one zillion dollars!”) and everyone goes berserk with worry and rage. A few weeks later you “revise” the numbers (“Actually, we’re only going to cut it ten per cent!”) and everyone thinks they’ve been given good news, when , in fact, they’ve been given exactly the bad news you intended to give them all along. Well not quite- because you already know that the £278 million pounds will increase by 30-100% by the time the building is built, meaning the hall will actually cost….. um… about 500 million pounds!

That’s not to say the hall shouldn’t be built. Build it and make it the primary home of the LSO. Let them rehearse there. Let them work with kids there. Let them create there.

On the other hand, how about taking some of that spare 222 million pounds and building a hall in Worcester for the ESO? Wonderful orchestras all over the UK play all the time in venues that are worse than awful- with horrible acoustics, crumbling infrastructure and terrible artist facilities. Most are run by people with little or no interest in music. Yes, there are fantastic halls in Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, and Nottingham, but what about the rest of the country?

In a way, the most important signal that a new home for the LSO could send is one of empowering a performing arts organisation’s place within its home venue. Venues gain enormous prestige and marketing advantage from the orchestras who play there, and use that to drive their commercial activities, and yet, often, it’s the orchestras, choirs and chamber musicians who get the table scraps in terms of dates, marketing and investment . Even in the case of the new LSO building, folks seem sanguine about spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a hall that could be built to a world class standard for 50 million (the best hall in the country cost only £42 million), but are demanding a smoke and mirrors shell game of commercial hires to fund the ongoing operation of the building. Why not just build great concert halls for great concerts? Music Hall in Cincinnati is the home of the Cincinnati Symphony. Their offices are there, they have almost all of their rehearsals there. They’re not desperately trying to hire it out 6 days a week for pantos and Ken Dodd shows.

Back in my old days in Oregon, we spent years trying to improve the orchestra’s venue. We were by far the largest user of the hall, both in terms of hours and number of people we brought into the building every year. Nevertheless, the city never let us improve the acoustics, even when simple, cheap fixes where available (tearing up the horrifically ugly carpet to reveal the antique hardwood floors underneath, anyone?). To them, a multipurpose venue meant acoustics perfect for spoken word theatre (i.e. dead as a doornail), not live music, even though acoustic live music used the building something like 20 times as often as theatre groups or groups requiring amplification. As I was finishing my time at the Orchestra of the Swan, the council there started a major refurbishment of the orchestra’s home building. I’ve not seen the final result (I hope it’s turned out well), but a the time, it was one of the worst acoustics in the country, and the plan for the remodel was only to upgrade the lobby, the chairs and the backstage. This country has too many nice lobbies and not enough decent auditoriums.

If you draw a triangle from Birmingham to Bristol to Cardiff, you’ll find only one purpose built concert hall for orchestral music (apologies if I’ve forgotten any others, although that would be a sad commentary on the situation, too). That’s insane. Venues are a massive problem for artists in the UK. This is a RICH country. We could spend ten times what we do in the arts and education in this country and create hardship for nobody. One of the nicest sounding rooms I’ve performed in recently was a 500-seater built for a mere £12 million. How about taking some of that leftover £222 million and build 15 or so nation changing halls around the country?

And then properly supporting the work of the orchestras that play in those halls?

Is anyone talking about a living wage for freelance musicians in the nation’s chamber orchestras and regional orchestras?

Now that would be a good use of a couple hundred million pounds.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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