Friday, November 11, 2016

About that new concert hall...

The Paris Philharmonie. We want one too! Photo: Charles Platiau

It's dead - supposedly. Theresa May's government recently decided Rattle Hall, or The Centre for Music to use its official title, wasn't "value for money" for the taxpayer (though this, one presumes, depends which taxpayers you ask). In today's Times, Richard Morrison points out that that doesn't mean it's not going to happen: it's just that it will have to be funded entirely by private money, and possibly by someone who might roll up loving Sir Simon Rattle enough to stump up a few hundred million. Well, we can dream...

The news has been greeted with a peculiar mixture of anger, relief and cynicism, and while the prevailing anxieties are Brexit and Trump, nobody seems able to get excessively worked up about it. Yes, we need a new orchestral concert venue in London because the acoustics in the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall really are several hundred light years away from today's state of the art possibilities, which are exemplified by the work of Mr Toyota. There's only a limited amount of good that their expensive refits could do them; the RFH is now over-clinical, with funny bass-treble balance in some parts of the hall, and the Barbican is louder without being warmer. But the Museum of London site is far from ideal. If we're to have a truly world-class new hall, please can we get it right this time?

What concerned me the most about the plans, as far as they went, was in fact not the location, nor the argument that the money would be better spent on music education - it never would have been in any case (different budgets). Arguably the hall would have been a major incentive to improve music education locally, if not nationally, since it would have provided top-notch facilities to be used by schools and young people and - crucially - sent out a positive and encouraging message about the value of the arts to society, the exact opposite of what pulling the plug does. Parties of children could have flocked there daily on "enrichment" projects.

No, the worrying thing was the implication for the rest of London - indeed, the rest of the country. A new hall has to be built. After that, it has to be run. And where does the money come from to do that?  Yes, government. What is the government doing to the arts? It is cutting their budget. Is there any prospect of that changing? Not while this lot is in power. So where would that money come from? Other organisations, run from the same budget, being slashed, obvs.

Musicians and audiences in London want, need and deserve a hall to match the finest in Tokyo, Berlin and Paris. What we don't want is an organisation that comes to life by snuffing out the competition. Whatever their limitations, we wouldn't be happy to see the Royal Festival Hall stripped of its orchestral programmes, which are already somewhat reduced, or the Barbican put entirely out to pasture, or ENO killed off; if that were the price for the Centre for Music, it would indeed be too high. Arts in the "regions" are to be a greater priority now - and quite right, too - but London is a massive city, and growing fast (unless we lose a six-figure number of bankers as they shift to Paris and Frankfurt post-Brexit, which could happen), and can easily support as many arts organisations as it has, and more. Especially since we expect a steady influx of tourists who can now come over more easily because of our tanking currency, and are definitely not heading here to bask on a beach.

If the new hall were to be built, with private money, in an ideal world it would be an "as well as" rather than an "instead of". As long as that is the case, it would be much better that it happened than that it didn't.

But we can't predict anything now, things being as they are, so the whole idea may yet remain one more vape dream: an empty gesture, stripped of substance.