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.


Why? Waitrose, Why?

January 19, 2014

Is encouraging shoppers to carry hot liquids around the supermarket really a good idea?

Normally I avoid supermarket shopping (unless it’s for alcohol… which is one of “my jobs” in our family). However my lovely wife and I dropped into our local Waitrose supermarket for a few bits the other day, and I was surprised to see people wandering around the store clasping cups of what appeared to be hot coffee.

UPDATE: Waitrose replied to my post by email within minutes of my posting it. See end of full post below.

I must say I generally abhor people eating and drinking while walking around in the street. This is a trend I blame entirely on Starbucks. But do we all lead such busy lives that imbibing our caffeine fix must be done literally on the run? If you must do it in public why not find a seat, a public bench, a shop window ledge, or better, a real café in order to sit down and drink it? I’m sure it’d be better for both your blood pressure and your digestive system.

But now people are doing it in the supermarket.

coffeeThen I discovered the reason Read the rest of this entry »


Olympic traffic hell

July 25, 2012

OK, it’s not that bad yet. And I mostly commute by bike from Marylebone Station to the City, so I’m not trying to drive around London.

But two issues really concern me:

More danger

First, the only dedicated bike route from the West End to get to Marylebone Station has been closed – just to save a few seconds at the lights on Marylebone Road. Now, in order to legally cycle to Marylebone Station I have to turn right onto Gloucester Place – the main northbound route in that part of London – and do battle with dozens of buses, lorries and motorists – and the bus lane has been painted out so no protection there. At least I can cross Marylebone Road easily because left turns have been banned, and then I have to turn left into Dorset Square. Read the rest of this entry »


Sort out passports, UKBA, for the country’s sake

April 28, 2012

The news today is full of reports of 2-hour queues at Heathrow to get passports inspected.

I remember the halcyon days of international travel, back in the 1990s, when getting back into the UK after a trip abroad was a breeze. You stood in line for a few moments with a queue of maybe 10 or 12 people ahead of you. The passport official (now the UK Border Agency of course) took a cursory glance at your passport and you were in.

Back in the halcyon days of travel only getting into the United States was tricky and time consuming. Today getting back into the UK, Read the rest of this entry »


It’s hard being young

October 28, 2011

It was George Bernard Shaw, that most quotable of authors and playwrights, who said, “Youth is wasted on the young”. He had a point, but the young don’t have it easy, and while I wouldn’t mind having youth, I wouldn’t want to be young again today.

Getting an apprenticeship isn’t easy

My nephew has not had the easiest start in life. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he grew up as part of a loving family, has a doting mother and four gorgeous siblings, and a fantastic auntie and uncle who took him on all sorts of adventures (guess who that might be). But he suffered with “glue ear” when he was young, ended up having to have grommets and now has mild hearing loss; he also has mild dyslexia. So his education wasn’t the easiest. He dropped out of sixth-form college after having been badly hurt in a car accident – as an innocent pedestrian I should add.

Since when he’s had a series of jobs, none of which really offered him the career potential that he is capable of. Earlier this year, inspired by a friend of his, he decided he’d like to qualify as an electrician, and started looking for an apprenticeship. Read the rest of this entry »


Is F1 really a sport?

July 29, 2011

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching motor racing, and I particularly enjoy Formula 1 when the outcome of a race is being seriously contested. But this season the introduction of DRS (drag reduction system) following on from KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) in 2009 makes we wonder what’s going on, and whether F1 really is a sport.

While all sports can suffer rule changes during the off season – rugby has particularly suffered from this, and football (soccer) notably had the controversial offside rule changed a couple of years ago – changing the rules and introducing technology that gives the slower driver an advantage over the chap infront doesn’t seem like cricket to me. Read the rest of this entry »


George Washington’s PC?

May 12, 2011

In early 2007 I decided my Windows XP Home PC had to go. But I hated Vista. I managed to buy one of the very last Acer Aspire desktop PCs running Windows XP Media Edition. I used it until two weeks ago. I always felt it was a good purchase and a good, reliable and decently performing computer.

But it started blue-screening sporadically, complaining about disk and memory errors.

Read the rest of this entry »