Saturday, 19 April 2014

London's South Bank - cutting thru the coterie

Priority case for Sajid Javid.  The South Bank should be the nation's cultural flagship, if only because it's gobbled millions. Since the South Bank management, The Arts Council England and the Guardian, formerly a newspaper, are far too cosy together, it will take a strong-minded Culture Minister to cut through the coterie.

From Douglas Cooksey :

"Dr Johnson is famously remembered for his quote that when a man is tired of London he is tired of Life. Having now lived in London for almost 50 years, I can say with some confidence that I am emphatically not yet tired of Life. However, in common with - one suspects - a great many genuine music lovers, there is a sense of total frustration at what has been happening at what we must now apparently call 'London’s Southbank Centre'.

"Of course all things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  It would be completely unreasonable and stultifying to expect them to remain the same. However, despite a renovation costing in the region of £100 million, the Royal Festival Hall has declined from its original status as one of the World’s great concert halls, spoken of in the same breath as Vienna’s Musikverein, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall or Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and has sunk into a sort of pervasive self-inflicted squalor.

"What other major concert hall in the World permits unfettered access to all levels to members of the public, even during concerts? Previously at RFH one had to show a ticket for an event before proceeding to an upper level. Now, however these uppe- level areas are used as free Central London meeting space for all sorts of unrelated groups, even amazingly on occasion for groups of people dossing down to sleep.

"During one of Lorin Maazel’s recent Philharmonia concerts there was actually a children’s party in progress with children screaming and running riot at every level. Prior to this concert my partner and I were amazed to find couples with buggies picnicking on the upper levels, even directly outside the main entrance to the Stalls. A new low came when the public address system announced the start of the concert in 3 minutes time and the voraciously picnicking couple next to us swore loudly because the announcement had woken their child in his buggy.

"The opening up of the Royal Festival Hall to all-comers has also had discriminatory and Health & Safety consequences. In the first place, totally free access at all times has meant that older concertgoers now have little or no chance of a seat before, during the interval or after a performance because every seat in the public areas tends to be already occupied by people working on their laptops or by ad hoc group seminars, frequently being addressed by a speaker. When an older person may have made a long journey from, say, Bristol to attend a particular concert, only to be denied a seat by freeloaders, it clearly discriminates against the elderly and infirm, and is a strong disincentive for them to attend.

"More fundamentally, with several times as many people as originally planned now using the building at all times of day, there are genuine Health and Safety concerns; for instance, earlier this week I took two Czech and German friends to a concert, one of them a former member of a professional all-girl punk band (and therefore probably well used to touring insalubrious venues), and they were appalled to be confronted with three out of five toilets completely blocked. (Incidentally Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, which holds around 60,000 people, is an object lesson in the matter of hygiene and I was going to say that RFH would do well to take a leaf out of its book!) With the hall now in constant use throughout the day, mountains of garbage regularly accumulate in its waste bins and - leaving aside the stench - this should surely be investigated by Health & Safety as a matter of urgency.

"What is so depressing is that this is no slide into genteel poverty caused by lack of investment or by an ageing infrastructure – after all we’ve just spent more than £100 million renovating the hall - but largely the result of a series of conscious decisions by a perverse and unpleasant management operating to its own agenda which appears to seek to turn the hall into a “People’s Palace”, available to all people all the time. Regular concertgoers clearly now come a poor second. One has only to look at the Southbank’s monthly programme, where classical music is now relegated to the last 4 pages of a 28 page A4 booklet, to realise where the present regime (for that is what it is) sees its priorities. When just before Christmas the Philharmonia Orchestra wanted to announce its forthcoming season at roughly the same time as the LSO’s at the Barbican, I am given to understand that the orchestra was ‘instructed’ by the Southbank’s Management that it could not do this until some 5 weeks later, thus putting the Philharmonia at an unfair competitive disadvantage with their main rivals.

"Serious music lovers are now forgoing the Royal Festival Hall in increasing numbers, put off by the unpleasant surroundings. Who wants to emerge from a concert as that sublime final paragraph of Mahler’s 4th symphony 'Kein Musik is ja nicht auf Erden' ('No music like this is heard on Earth') fades into complete silence only to be confronted with pounding rock music from a party on the ground floor or by the raucous din of drink-fuelled hordes of revellers on the terrace.

"The Royal Festival Hall was erected as a temporary structure and has never been a wholly satisfactory venue for orchestral music but despite its faults we grew to love it, not least for the memories of all those great performances and great performers we heard there  – Klemperer, Karajan, Stokowski, Barbirolli, Boult, Celibidache, Giulini, Carlos Kleiber and even those two legendary Toscanini concerts – but perhaps it should now be turned over to GLC Parks & Leisure and a new ‘fit for purpose’ acoustically satisfactory concert hall like Birmingham’s built at a location with good transport connections such as Kings Cross. Above all it should be managed by a team in sympathy with its primary purpose as a place for music, not as a public space. In the wake of various Parliamentary scandals and an upcoming General Election we are almost certainly on the point of ridding ourselves of a swathe of career politicians who have existed wholly within the Westminster bubble, impervious, even contemptuous of public opinion. Perhaps now is also the moment to see the back of career arts administrators and to appoint some new blood."

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