Thursday, 17 December 2015

London's new concert hall - the wider perspective

Plans for a new, world-class concert hall for London reach a further stage, with the approval of funds for a more detailed business plan.  Even before the initial feasibility study was made,  there were strong indications that the new hall would be connected to the Barbican, on the present Museum of London site. So the news isn't really "news" .  However, now that more details are emerging, it's time for more analysis.

Since the new hall will cost £278 million (at least), the public and media will be up in arms protesting.  Serious music isn't taken seriously enough in this country, so already there's opposition from many quarters. More worrying, though, is the opposition from within the industry itself, riddled as it is with balkanization and special interests. What we really need is a coherent national arts policy that deals with things from an international perspective.

London doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is a key part of the global arts ecology. Mess London up and it impacts on the world. Should we care? Yes, because the arts are also part of the economy and play a huge part in maintaining Britain's political credibility.  Britain is still perceived as a civilized nation thanks to its  progressive, generous cultural heritage

 For decades France had no real national arts policy, but the new Philharmonie has dramatically changed things. The Philharmonie is a stunning building with superb acoustics, and back-up facilities. It's so good that it could well revitalize the French arts industry all over, not shifting the balance so much as opening up new possibilities all round.  Paris was once the heart of  European culture.   Berlin has always been way ahead, part of the German-speaking musical ecosystem, to the extent that the Austro-German tradition eclipses the French contribution to music in many minds. This is what London is really up against. Stop swimming and you sink.

London's new concert hall won't, one hopes, be just another concert hall, but a genuinely innovative facility designed for the next 100 years. Sure, London has lots of venues but small venues like the Wigmore Hall, Milton Court, etc, serve niche audiences.  The South Bank was a flagship sixty-five years ago, but it's now overcrowded, its artistic purpose drowning under under other priorities.  A Philharmonie-type venture would be altogether in a different league.  It would be world class, attracting musicians and visitors from all over the world.  The arts market is now global. Listeners are as likely to be in Ulan Bator as in Pontypridd. One  huge international community linked by the internet and telecommunications, which render obsolete the boundaries of space and time. If you stop swimming, you sink. Britain's got to keep pace.

So the new centre will cost  £278 million?  Compare that with Boris Johnson's Olympicopolis, partly funded by the Smithsonian but also requiring £141 million in government funds, in theory offset against a supposed £2.8 billon income.  It's basically just another college site with museum attached.  At least the new concert hall would be something genuinely different, as opposed to another way of milking the Olympics' so-called legacy.  Keeping Boris happy is one thing, but what about the overall impact ?  Governments have a way of discovering money, as we've seen in the sudden decision to fight another, possibly unwinnable, war in Syria.  As Churchill supposedly said, what would be fighting for if we didn't have the arts? Bombs make enemies, culture wins friends.

Capital projects always attract funding, for various reasons, but it's also false logic to assume that the money could be better spent on  existing facilities. A sudden injection of funds like that that would be reckless, without a great deal of careful planning. You don't just divvy up goodies willy nilly.  As for austerity, the reasons behind that are ideological, not financial.

 Could the money be used towards music education?  But music education isn't just schools and music colleges.  Excellence in performance is in itself an important form of education. It raises standards and expectations, which, long term, also expand opportunities.  Music education was eroded long ago, by successive governments and a public that thinks of education as vocational training.  Besides, everyone is, or should be, learning all the time, but listening and experiencing the best on offer. You can't separate education from performance.

So the next stage in the process will cost £5 million?  Better that money be spent on good planning, like working out the acoustics, a business model, transport infrastructure and so on, rather than making mistakes that would cost more to fix in the long run. From what I've read so far, some ideas seem OK and others much less so, like the idea of listening pods (why not stay home?) and the lack of front  and back-of-house facilities, which could prove fatal.  Abandoning the Barbican is all very well, but is it actually suited to jazz and world music ?  The South Bank does that, diluting its committment to classical music.  What happens to the BBC SO and the BBC source of revenue ? What about the LPO, the Philharmonia, the London Sinfonietta and the OAE ?   The Paris Philharmonie builds upon existing arts ventures, eg IRCAM, and provides a home for many orchestras. Like all big projects, it was controversial, but it's worked. A good new centre needs to be flexible enough to allow for the future. Short-sighted savings are foolish. Remember the decision to keep the M25 narrow.

The new concert hall for London is big and will take years to come to fruit. Instead, the level of debate is so low that some think it could have been dashed off to bring Simon Rattle back to London (where I suspect he'd like to be anyway). The project is so big that it needs sophisticated evaluation, pro and con.  But while we have arts thinking that predicates on piecemeal and special interests, I don't know how that will come about.

Photo : By Acabashi (Own work)

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