Let’s not ‘get back to normal’: the Southbank Centre will reflect our changed world

From postponed Meltdowns to melted icecream, shutting down an 11-acre multi-venue site has made for a challenging 15 months at London’s Southbank Centre. But, as it reopens, there have been gains as well as losses

Perhaps not right at the top of the list of the things that most people remember about 2020 is the fact that it was the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. But on the afternoon of Sunday 16 March 2020, I was in my seat in the Royal Festival Hall for a mammoth Beethoven birthday concert. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra were re-enacting Beethoven’s famous 1808 marathon performance. Unlike the 1808 concert, by all accounts a chaotic affair in a freezing cold theatre with an under-rehearsed orchestra, Salonen’s performance was brilliantly polished and the heating was on in the RFH. But the concert was haunted by a sense that the world was about to change. In the words of one critic, it had an end-of-days feel.

Covid-19 was stalking the world and we were hearing of cancelled concerts and festivals in Beijing, in New York, in Helsinki. The Philharmonia’s concert was a sell-out at the box office, but the hall had a gap-toothed appearance – a significant number of people had decided to play it safe and stay at home. Stephen Fry, who was narrating the concert, thanked those who had come for being there and predicted that this could be “the last mass gathering we see for a while”. That turned out to be a major understatement. Afterwards, backstage – usually the site of much professional hugging – I had my first experience of the elbow bump.

The next day, the UK government announced that people should “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other social venues”. It was clear that public concerts were no longer viable. And thus began the painful business of cancellations, reschedulings, ticket refunds and of putting an 11-acre, multi-venue site to sleep.

Chineke! Orchestra, here conducted last autumn by Roderick Cox, will reopen the Royal Festival Hall this week.
Chineke! Orchestra, here conducted last autumn by Roderick Cox, will reopen the Royal Festival Hall this week. Photograph: Mark Allan

From then until now, although many performances have been streamed from our venues, the three Southbank Centre concert halls have not hosted audiences on the site. This has been a psychological shock for anybody who works here. The Southbank Centre is a place of congregation. When I think of a great performance in the Royal Festival Hall, I think of 2,700 people focusing on one wonderful thing, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, almost breathing together. When I think of summer, I think of heaving masses dancing at Pride on the outdoor terraces by the river. The stillness has been deafening. And I’ve been stalked for over a year by a phantom procession of cancelled and postponed projects that I’m reminded of daily as the long-ago input calendar alerts ping up my phone: Ravi Shankar’s centenary festival, Grace Jones’s twice rescheduled Meltdown, a premiere of a work by Australian composer Liza Lim, Vladimir Jurowski’s complete Ring Cycle.

Closing a major venue involved so many practical questions: how do we ensure that the sleeping giant was not vulnerable to break-ins? How to keep the 12 grand pianos and the 7,866 pipes of the Royal Festival Hall organ at the right temperature and humidity? Some things went wrong; early in the lockdown, the entire Southbank Centre stock of ice cream melted when the huge walk-in freezer malfunctioned.

But there were more serious problems to come. This past decade, the Southbank Centre has reduced its reliance on public subsidy, replacing it with increasing earned income, not just from box office and hall rentals but through the restaurants and shops on the site. When that earned income – 60% of total revenue – disappeared overnight, the centre became vulnerable. What was once a strength became a weakness. In May 2020, chief executive Elaine Bedell went on record to sound the alarm about our severe financial predicament and indicated that the multi-arts centre might be closed to the public until April 2021. Some criticised these claims as outlandish but they proved, sadly, to be true – and not just for us but for venues nationwide.

Royal Festival Hall … loss of restaurant and shop revenue hit hard.
Royal Festival Hall … loss of restaurant and shop revenue hit hard. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Drastic action was needed and there was no other option but to reduce our cost base. In common with other major cultural organisations, this led to redundancies affecting many colleagues. This was a dark and painful period, particularly for an organisation that relies so much on the passion and commitment of its workers. Financial support from the government was at last confirmed right at the end of 2020 and a £10.9m repayable loan from the culture recovery fund has helped ensure a more stable future for the Southbank Centre.

In the meantime, one year ago this week, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and the world changed again. The global protests that erupted quite literally reached our doorstep when the image was beamed around the world of Patrick Hutchinson, a supporter of Black Lives Matter, carrying counter-protester Bryn Male to safety outside the stage door of the RFH. We were in the midst of planning the return of concerts, working with our partner orchestras designing programmes for streaming. Classical music planning cycles are usually fixed years in advance, but since most plans had to be ripped up – conductors couldn’t travel, orchestras had to be smaller to accommodate social distancing on stage, choirs were forbidden – here was a unique opportunity to respond to the world as it was right at that moment. One third of the works presented in the autumn digital season were by composers of colour.

We’re living through a moment where performances have been put on record on a previously unimaginable scale, and streamed around the world. We may not have had Jurowski’s Ring Cycle, but we will have a glorious film of him conducting Swan Lake with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. And the digital version of our Unlimited festival, celebrating disabled artists, has been accessible to many who may not ever be able to travel to our venues. The potential for digital reach is another lesson to take into the future.

Streaming success … Abnormally Funny People, released in January as part of the Unlimited festival.
Streaming success … Abnormally Funny People, released in January as part of the Unlimited festival. Photograph: PR

But on Friday, the doors of the Royal Festival Hall will finally open to the public with a concert by Chineke! Orchestra and soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Yes, the concert will be celebratory; but it will also respect the devastating times we have lived through. At its centre will be a powerful work commissioned from poet Yomi Sode and composer James B Wilson in response to Patrick Hutchinson’s demonstration of humanity last summer.

Meticulous planning has gone into keeping everyone safe. Less than half of the available seats have been sold to maintain social distancing; there’ll be face coverings and no intervals, one-way systems and careful organisation of toilets. As the concerts over the next few weeks unfold we hope that the Covid restrictions will gradually relax. But please let’s not call this “getting back to normal”. We must bring with us into the new world all the thinking we’ve developed over the past year: new ideas about diverse voices, about reach, about flexibility and about collaboration. We must not unlearn what we’ve learned.

• Gillian Moore is the Southbank Centre’s director of music and performing arts. Summer Reunion at the Southbank Centre opens on 28 May with a concert by Chineke! Orchestra.


Gillian Moore

The GuardianTramp

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