MY letter to the Luftwaffe came back stamped ‘no longer on active service’ – more’s the pity, since it offered the only holistic solution to London’s concert-hall woes. What I had proposed was that our German allies should mount a ceremonial fly-over in this Battle of Britain 60th-anniversary year, dropping precision bombs on the Royal Festival Hall and Barbican Centre, and thereby enabling us to build an acceptable symphonic environment.
It was the Luftwaffe that, on May 10, 1941, knocked out London’s last acoustic marvel – the Queen’s Hall, on Upper Regent Street. Neither of its replacements is remotely satisfactory. The RFH, erected in 1951, dispersed sound so thinly that 168 wall-speakers had to be implanted to help an orchestra reach all parts of the hall. The electronic aids are now cracking up, and so is the sound.
The Barbican was beset by external noises and internal black-spots. Claudio Abbado, who led the LSO in March 1982, ordered wooden cladding for the stage walls to improve resonance. Rafael Kubelik reorganised the players in serried tiers in a vain attempt to let them hear one another. Abbado, since leaving the LSO in 1987, has not been back to the Barbican.
Both halls have tinkered endlessly with acoustics. In 1994, the Barbican spent half a million pounds with the Chicago acoustician Larry Kierkegaard, producing a perceptible improvement in echo control and sound absorption. Next week, it will announce a £6 million refit that will rip out the stage canopy, drop adjustable acoustic reflectors from the ceiling and generally take measures to soften the ambience.
It’s a Herculean effort to redeem an architectonic calamity. This is a hall where they have to put up scaffolding to change a light-bulb, and where the heating is pumped downwards through the ceiling. Both air-conditioning and lighting systems are being replaced, but acoustics are top dog in a major project that will shut the hall from June to September next year. ‘I’m not pretending we’ll become the [Vienna] Musikverein,’ says artistic director Graham Sheffield, ‘but we will come out of it significantly improved.’
Would that the same could be envisaged at the South Bank, where inertia appears to be the principal art form. Contrary to recent upbeat assertions, an ‘important announcement’ due today will amount to little more than a modest retooling of the latest ‘masterplan’, following an attack of consultationism. Expectations that rose when the property developer Elliott Bernerd took charge of the riverside eyesore 30 months ago have bogged down in cultural diplomacy. Bernerd, to his credit, scrapped the £170 million Richard Rogers glass roof that would have turned the South Bank into a mini-Dome, but subsequent board decisions to knock down the Hayward Gallery and build a new chamber-music hall have been subjected to grotesquely excessive consultative processes.
The RFH, the raison d’être of the site, was to have been given priority, but nothing, I’m now told, is going to happen to it for at least four years. A £30,000 acoustic model of the hall was commissioned from Kierkegaard, who submitted a restoration plan which is now being second-guessed by a Munich acoustician, Karlheinz Müller, and by an Arts Council-appointed expert. ‘We’re awaiting word on whether to proceed with our concept, or to take a different approach,’ is the line from Kierkegaard’s office.
‘Everyone agrees that we can, in the end, get a first-class hall,’ says the South Bank’s chief executive, Karsten Witt, ‘but it now seems that we will build the small hall before tackling the RFH, perhaps in 2004.’ Meanwhile, people visiting the South Bank on a rainy day sink up to their ankles in puddles and steam through an indistinct symphony. To the left, Tate Modern heaves. To the right, the Millennium Wheel attracts day-long queues. In the middle, the nation’s foremost concert hall moulders.
Should renewal ever start, there is no guarantee of satisfaction. Russell Johnson, the American acoustician who created in Birmingham the best concert hall in Britain and in Lucerne the finest in Europe, has refused to get involved with the South Bank. Even at the Barbican, the bold measures being taken still fall short of Kierkegaard’s original plan, which proposed an extra phase of work, costing twice as much, to add wall-boxes that would shorten the time-delay for sound to reach the audience.
The Barbican cannot afford the full whack at this stage, but does not rule it out in future. As always in England, we muddle along, doing what is possible and practical and averting our eyes from comparison with the very best. In the absence of Luftwaffe favours, we eventually learn to love our acoustic disasters – look at the Albert Hall, a national monument if ever there was.