Like Theresa May with her thrice-spurned deal, the London Symphony Orchestra is pressing ahead with plans for a concert hall to be achieved at a price that no-one believes and for which it has no visible resources. Like Mrs May, the LSO is relying on friendly journalists to distract the public’s attention from the huge black holes in the plan, hoping against hope that momentum alone will carry the day against all reasonable logic. You can see why they keep trying, though.
The LSO promised Sir Simon Rattle it would build him a new hall if he signed on as music director. Its players know that the dismal Barbican acoustic has cost them dear down the years in musical coherence, notwithstanding a £35 million acoustic refit which yielded no more than marginal improvements in some parts of the gloomy hall. The players argue, rightly, that a world-class orchestra needs a world-class hall and that the Barbican will never be more fit for purpose than any other peacetime nuclear bunker. In normal times, their argument might have carried weight.
Unhappily for a crack orchestra, however, it got the timing all wrong. Brexit has dried up any spare reserves of public cash, the bankers who might have backed a vanity hall have flitted off to Frankfurt and popular tolerance for elite distractions is at an all-time low. Still, the LSO press on.
Last week, the orchestra issued artist impressions of a fashionable ‘vineyard’ hall, a template taken from Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonie and borrowed latterly for a hall on a brownfield site in Paris (cost: 390 million Euros – twice its budget) and another in Hamburg (cost: 789 million – eleven times over budget). The LSO is asking us to believe that its proposed new hall in the heart of the City of London is going to come in at not a halfpenny over £288 million, all paid for up front.
Even in these days of fake news, the Times headline ‘£288m is good value for a concert hall and it won’t cost you a penny’ caused choking at breakfast. The headline topped a Friday arts column by Richard Morrison, a music critic who has been hyping the hall ever since the LSO gave his paper first dibs at Rattle’s signing-on. Morrison, who is also the LSO’s official historian, argues that ‘by world standards, £288 million is a snip for a concert hall.’ He’s right about that. Find me anywhere a world-class hall that costs less than, say, the British Library and I will eat a vegan millinery shop.
But let’s forget the money and look at the detail. The acoustician hired for the hall is Yasuhisa Toyota, a Japanese wizard who designed the superb Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and, most recently, the troubled Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, where players complain of black holes on stage and Jonas Kaufmann was recently barracked by audience members, shouting we can’t hear you’.
There are acoustic shortcomings to the vineyard design. A British practitioner, Rob Harris, maintains in a conference paper that architects cram too many audience members behind the stage to create an illusion of community. Human bodies work against clarity of sound. Hamburg has a lot to adjust before it can be reckoned among the world’s great halls. And the LSO will probably have to rip up its present plan two or three times before it gets a decent result, and that at a mounting cost.
But let’s assume all goes to plan. Let’s imagine the National Lottery (which is low on cash) drums up £100 million and the last remaining bankers on Cheapside find the rest of the money. Let’s dream that five years past Brexit Sir Simon Rattle will inaugurate London’s £500 million new concert hall. How will that go down in Newham, or Rotherham, or Oldham?
Rattle spent the first part of his career attacking London for sucking arts cash away from the rest of England. A spanking new hall would be a personal volte-face. Last week, I walked through parts of Liverpool, Rattle’s home town, and saw Dickensian levels of deprivation – derelict housing, grim unemployment, hopeless faces. If half a billion pounds is going to be spent on urban regeneration, many of us can think of better places to invest it than in the vineyard of Naboth that is Rattle’s new hall.