Thursday, February 27, 2014

Glass. Not that Glass, though.

Last night I took a trip to London's newest concert hall: Milton Court, a 600-seat, wood-lined venue under the auspices of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, across the road from the Barbican Centre. I hung around to talk to people after the concert, then set off for home (I don't have a car, so only use public transport) at about 10.20pm...and somehow got deeply and hopelessly lost in an area to which I've been trotting regularly ever since the Barbican opened in, er, 1982.

It wasn't pleasant. There was nobody around except for one or two speeding (and occupied) taxis; the giant new blocks housing financial and legal institutions all look the same when deserted by night - glass, glass and more glass, alleviating the surrounding concrete but creating more of the same problem in a different style; and these great piles seem to shake up the GPS on the mobile phone, which didn't seem able to show me where I was or where I was going. I know the way to Moorgate, honest guv. Yet somehow I ended up at St Paul's Cathedral. It is magnificent at night with its floodlighting, but it wasn't where one wanted to be.

Location, location, location? London's concert halls occupy some funny places. The South Bank has transformed for the better this century, but it took a long while to reach the status it has now and make the most of its riverside setting (and even now there'll be trouble until they can sort out the refurbishment issues with the mayor, who it seems prefers to placate a handful of skateboarders rather than encourage access to a varied feast of cultural activities for several million people). The Barbican's location has always been awkward and unwelcoming, and Kings Place is cursed in terms of journey and surrounds, though it's terrific inside. The Wigmore Hall is the one venue that is central for all. It's an issue of practicality, of course, London's land and property prices being as they are; the idea of "regenerating" an area by building a new venue, too, is admirable, but I'm not convinced it has yet been proven to work. The biggest mistake of London's musical scene was the decision not to rebuild the Queen's Hall after the war. It was just north of Oxford Circus.

The hall at Milton Court, though, is in itself wonderful. There's a resemblance to the auditorium of Kings Place, but the acoustic is a little warmer, the space bigger and perhaps more versatile, and the wood darker. It was a great forum in which to cheer on Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe in a delicious programme of Mozart, Fauré, Ravel and Franck. The Guildhall used to have the dubious distinction of being housed in one of the nastiest buildings in which I've ever spent time - it was (and the old building remains) right over the Barbican's car park, fumes and all, and you can't see much beyond the concrete. The new place is an improvement beyond recognition.