MUSIC / A sound judgement: keith Potter on Basingstoke's new concert hall at the opening of the Anvil, Basingstoke

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The Independent Culture
Until this week, Basingstoke meant little to me as a centre of musical endeavour. Now, however, the town has its own purpose-built concert hall, the Anvil, which opened on Tuesday with a concert by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox. And very fine the hall is, too, particularly acoustically. At pounds 12.5m, it is cheap by current standards. Remarkably for post-Thatcherite Britain, it is the product of local public funding. Though the building itself is limited by its setting in the middle of the town, it responds with great ingenuity to the available space.

Most importantly, the Anvil has been designed as a concert hall, rather than as a multi-purpose space that might, with luck, be tolerable for classical music. The experienced architect, Nick Thompson, has devised an adaptable auditorium (seating up to 1,400) which, on Tuesday, placed the audience on roughly three sides of the hall and the Basingstoke Choral Society (for the concluding Anvil Chorus from Verdi's Il trovatore - what else?) in choirstalls behind the platform.

The orchestral platform and stalls therefore occupied a 'well', which seemed a little claustrophobic to me, due in part to the large, red tilted panels that surround it. From the stalls the predominant colour is red; the seats are dark blue. From further back, the blues and purples that light the steel roof structures offer some of the most beautiful and imaginative lighting I have seen in a concert hall.

The BSO - on a high after its recent debut tour of the USA - offered Elgar as the main fare to demonstrate the acoustics. The opening Cello Concerto suggested a commendable combination of warmth and clarity; you could hear every fleck of woodwind decoration, and sadly almost every breath, never mind groan, from the soloist Julian Lloyd Webber, who played for the most part coarsely and with little feeling for line. Later, a sensitive, well-paced Enigma Variations filled out the impression of the acoustics: orchestral solo viola and cello were clear without being forced, there was an easy, natural balance throughout, and only rare harshness from brass and percussion at climaxes suggested any problems. The hall should be an excellent recording studio.

In between came the premiere of John Tavener's Theophany, a BSO centenary commission. This 'attempt in musical terms to 'redefine' the presence of God in all things, as seen from the earliest days of Creation, through to the Psalmist' could have suited the occasion well. Everything about this half-hour piece, however, from its ineptly produced, almost continuous tape of vocal sounds to its predictable structure, based on separation of the orchestral families, failed to conjure Tavener's unique sense of mystery. It's just possible that his 'uncreated energies of God' and 'cosmic tidal wave' would come to life in a highly reverberant acoustic. But I doubt it.

Concert sponsored by IBM