When it was announced that Sir Simon Rattle will become conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017, there were suggestions of the need for a worthy concert hall for him and the orchestra. These suggestions attracted controversy, critics ranging from Julian Lloyd Webber (“an inappropriate use of funds”) to Timothy Walker (who wants it for his London Philharmonic and thinks it should not be in London).
One million pounds have already been spent on a pre-feasilibity study which “confirmed the concept” and the Barbican as the approved location. The government is to provide a further £5.5 million, to be spent on “a full business case”. The hall is estimated to cost £278,000,000. (Remember this non-rounded figure in 2023 when the hall is supposed to be up and running; no major public project in the past several decades has cost anything close to the original estimate.)
There is, quite rightly, controversy about the proposed site: that of the current Musem of London, a site of which Jonathan Rose writes: “One has to wonder, if their proposed site is seen as having failed the Museum of London, then why would it not fail as a music venue?” Despite attempts to dress it up, since the war the Barbican has been known as an unredeemably dreary and blighted area of London, and a counter proposal has been presented by a rival group, led by Jonathan Rose, director of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, of a hall on the north bank of the Thames, opposite Tate Modern.
This proposal does not seem to have any more merit than the original one, and the uninspiring mock up does not promise to improve the view of Blackfriars from the south bank.
And so it will continue as more and more people who rarely go to concerts add their opinions. Herbert von Karajan would never have got the Berlin Philharmonie or the Salzburg Festspielhaus built as he wanted, had he had his hands tied in this way — to say nothing of Wagner’s unique achievement that is his monument in Bayreuth.
I have a suggestion that is probably not original, but it deserves more exposure: reconstruct the old Queen’s Hall. This magnificent hall was destroyed during the war and the site where it used to stand has long been re-used. But if a new site were found, with easy public access, such a project could fire the imagination of the public and the phoenix could rise again.
Wikipedia has an excellent article on the Queens Hall. It held nearly 2,500 listeners — which might today be reduced to 2,000 to give more leg room. Interesting features were that the stalls were below street level, the building materials were Portland Stone, brick and wood, the orchestra was ranged on stage at different levels so that each instrument could speak directly to the audience, and could be seen easily by them and, most importantly, nobody ever complained about the acoustics.
Nearly every time a new concert hall is built, the opportunity is taken to reinvent the acoustic wheel — without any success. Why do this again in London? It would be an exciting project to reconstruct Queen’s Hall, exactly as it was and using the same materials — no concrete, please! (One of the best-sounding halls in England is the Maltings at Snape, also created by the vision of a single individual, and it is not accidental that this is built of brick and wood.)
Of course, if people start talking about this now, by the time it is built and paid for, it may well be appropriate to rename it King’s Hall…