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Does London need a better concert hall?

February 19, 2015

There is much speculation in the classical music world about the future of Sir Simon Rattle. He has not renewed his contract with the Berliner Philharmoniker and so will leave in 2018. And since Valery Gergiev is leaving the London Symphony Orchestra later this year, much of the speculation is focussed on whether Sir Simon will return home to Britain and replace Gergiev. Read Sinfini on the speculation here.

However it seems that the price Sir Simon expects to extract before he confirms his appointment with the LSO is the commitment to London building a new (or replacement) classical concert hall with better acoustics than the Barbican, the current home of the LSO. There’s history here; he did the same in Birmingham when he was with the CBSO, and the city built him the Symphony Hall. This is reputed to be one of the finest concert halls in Europe. Its acoustics are, in my experience, magnificent. It kept him at the CBSO for a further 10 years and sparked the regeneration of both the cultural and commercial life of the city.

So is this going to happen in London?

Last night’s Evening Standard reckons that the burghers of the City of London have heard the appeal and are considering ways they can fulfil Sir Simon’s request. And London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is apparently also minded to hear the appeals favourably.

But Ivan Hewett in the Daily Telegraph adopts a contrary view, believing that while the major venues in London (Royal Festival Hall, Barbican Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Wigmore Hall) may not have the best possible acoustics, the audience doesn’t go to concerts just for the acoustics but for the whole ambience and experience. His conclusion is that spending millions on a vanity project to bring Simon Rattle home to London isn’t necessary.

Unlike most of those commenting on Hewett’s article, I like Simon Rattle and his approach to music. I particularly like his interpretation of his, and my, favourite composer: Mahler. And yes, I went to two of Sir Simon’s concerts last week with the Berliner Philarmoniker, one at the Barbican and one at the RFH.

So is Sir Simon right? Well yes, I believe he is. I love going to concerts at the Barbican, but even I can hear that the sound there is “dull” compared to Birmingham Symphony Hall, or even the RFH since its recent refurbishment.

As he said recently, it’s an embarrassment that of all the major cities in Europe only London and Munich are without venues with great acoustics. Attending a concert at Birmingham Symphony hall with Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO is a delight. And indeed Nelsons is high on the bookie’s list of contenders to replace Rattle at the BPO – Birmingham as a feeding orchestra for Berlin?

But could there be something else involved? Sir Simon said recently in his video biography broadcast on BBC Two recently that a conductor doesn’t really reach their prime until they are in their 60’s (he said 60 on one occasion and 65 on another) and the recent London Residency celebrated his own 60th birthday. But as those of us of a similar age are only too well aware, our hearing deteriorates with age. We just can’t hear those higher frequencies any more.

A former colleague of mine (also 60) who is a part-time music producer pointed out to me recently that younger listeners found the tonal balance on the recordings he was making was much “brighter” than they liked. He realised he was compensating for his own diminishing ability to hear the higher frequencies.

Is this Sir Simon’s problem? Is his age, and his own physiology, encouraging him to believe that concert halls need to have brighter, livelier acoustics than they really need? Considering the audiences for classical music, perhaps he’s still right – the average age of those attending the London Residency concerts last week must have been in the 50-70 range, so they would all benefit from better, brighter acoustics.

I remain optimistic that the City of London, the owners of the Barbican, with the wealth available to them will seriously consider either redeveloping the Barbican Hall, or building a new venue elsewhere in the City, and that we will welcome Sir Simon to the LSO in 2018.

According the the Evening Standard, the search for a site is already under way.

UPDATE: Today (19th Feb 2015) the Evening Standard reports that chancellor George Osborne has “thrown his weight” behind the project and asked for a feasibility study.

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