Simon Rattle’s return to LSO marred by squabble over new London concert hall

Plans for venue near St Paul’s slated for poor acoustics, high cost and ‘concrete monster’ design

When Sir Simon Rattle returns to Britain to pick up his baton in front of the London Symphony Orchestra, can he rely on finding a British concert hall fit for the world-beating music he hopes to make?

The plans for a new venue on a site near St Paul’s cathedral, due to be made public next month, are already dividing music experts and performers and threatening the most discordant of overtures to Rattle’s reign at the LSO.

“The cost of building in the middle of the Square Mile is prohibitive – half a billion pounds, at current estimates. [A] ridiculous amount compared to the general global cost of a concert hall,” the veteran critic and music writer Norman Lebrecht fumed in his online blog as word leaked out last week of the content of a long-awaited £1m feasibility report.

The proposed hall on the current site of the Museum of London would, Lebrecht added, simply be replacing “one concrete monster with another”, while music promoter Raymond Gubbay told the Observer the scheme is unnecessary since London is not “so badly off” for concert halls. “Rather than build yet another one, may I suggest they consider transporting Symphony Hall the 110 miles from Birmingham to London? It’s by far the best concert hall in the country,” he said.

Rosemary Johnson, the director of the Royal Philharmonic Society, welcomed any new spending on classical music, but said her organisation had not been consulted. “It is vital for everyone in the orchestra world to combine our resources on this,” she said. “I just don’t think you can bolt something new on that will just serve one community, if some of the money is coming from the government.”

World renowned cellist Julian Lloyd says the money for a new London concert hall would be better spent on musical education.
World renowned cellist Julian Lloyd says the money for a new London concert hall would be better spent on musical education. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Observer

The draft proposal for a new Centre of Music was drawn up under the chairmanship of Sir Nicholas Hytner, the former artistic director of the National Theatre, and is being privately considered by the mayor of London and the Treasury before it goes before the public. Yet presentations made in the city in the past few days have made it clear the feasibility study has settled on the London Wall site, which will be vacated when the Museum of London moves to Smithfield market. The new hall would then be likely to operate as an extension to the Barbican, where the concert auditorium is widely regarded as not good enough to be home to the LSO. Rattle, one of the world’s leading conductors, will return from Germany to lead the LSO in 2017 after a 15-year stint conducting the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic.

Among groups gathering to fight the recommended site are those worried about an expensive new facility that might come to be dominated by just one London orchestra and those who think the City of London is the wrong place to attract new audiences. Timothy Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, welcomed any move to invest in London as the cultural capital of the world, but said: “If we have only one chance for a state-of-the-art concert hall then it should benefit all five London orchestras. I am realistic enough to understand that if all the funds are raised from, and it’s operated with, non-public sources, then that wish is unlikely to happen.”

Some musicians and classical concert-goers are also concerned about the poor sound quality provided by the potential fan-shaped, or “vineyard”, design of the auditorium. An oblong, or “shoebox”, hall is thought to give a truer sound. Amsterdam, Birmingham and Vienna all benefit from shoebox halls.

“If you want to play in the best concert hall, it should be a shoebox,” said Julian Lloyd Webber, the renowned cellist who runs the Birmingham Conservatoire. “Birmingham has the best halls and when it comes to London they should have rebuilt the Queen’s Hall in London 60 years ago. But why do we need a legacy building as a grand gesture? What I would do instead is put the money into music education.

Jonathan Rose, a trustee of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra who hopes to build a hall elsewhere, is also perturbed by the proposal. “If we are to make a once-in-a-generation investment, then this really is not good enough,” he said.

The ambitious draft proposal for London Wall will go out to wider consultation at the end of the year and is an attempt to harness investment in the city’s cultural infrastructure along the tourist and commuter corridor that runs from Tate Modern over the Thames to St Paul’s. If approved, it is thought it would not be completed until 2020 at the earliest, but Mark Boleat, chairman of the City corporation’s policy and resources committee, told the body’s Court of Common Council last week that the proposals are already supported in principle “by government, the Greater London Authority and other organisations such as the Arts Council”. He urged the City of London to do its bit to provide more funding.

Although proposals for a new building were announced just before Rattle agreed to move to the LSO, the conductor has since said that a concert hall was not a condition of him taking up his role.

Fiona Maddocks, the Observer music critic, said: “However fond we are of London’s two main concert halls – the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall – the best acoustics are to be found outside the capital: Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle. Several halls with good acoustics have been built around the world in the past few years – Paris, LA, Miami, the far east. London, a world leader in music, is lagging behind.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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