The Critics: The importance of being generous

classical; Seattle Symphony Orchestra Seattle Benaroya Hall Stephen Hough Wigmore Hall Dalibor Scottish Opera
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The Independent Culture
Whenever the figures appear for international public spending on the arts, two things are predictable: (i) that Britain will be near the bottom, and (ii) that the American position will be even worse. So when the Arts Council published its new league table a month ago, there was the usual consolation of discovering that, although Britain spent pounds 16.60 per person per annum on cultural activity (as against pounds 56.50 in Germany; pounds 59.20 in Finland), America spent a derisory pounds 3.80. But scratch the surface of the figures and you find that cultural America isn't so poorly off as it might seem, largely because here's a positively moral force applied to private giving - encouraged, of course, by tax-breaks. This means that if you're rich and not manifestly funding your community, you lose face. Seriously.

Last weekend, I came across a fine example of these principles in action at the opening of Seattle's Benaroya Hall: the first new, dedicated concert hall in the US in a decade. It's an impressive building on a prime site in the centre of the city, clearly destined to be a flagship venue for orchestral performance throughout the Northwest. And the opening concert - with Jessye Norman as the centrepiece - took place with such ceremony and celebration that the whole city seemed alive with civic pride.

Well, fair enough. Seattle is famous these days for Frasier and foul weather. But not long ago, it was famous for poverty, home of the original Skid Row. In a short time, it has come a long way; to the point of being now, officially, one of the most desirable American cities to live in. Cultural regeneration has played a huge part there.

But what interested me was the list of donors to this new $118m hall. Their names are plastered everywhere, attached to foyers, bars and backstage rooms. Conspicuous among them is Bill Gates - Seattle resident and the world's richest man - who must have donated a fair amount because he gets a whole chunk of the building named after him. But almost everyone I spoke to in Seattle told me, scornfully, that he had not given enough. He could have easily afforded more. His neighbour, businessman Jack Benaroya, did give more. Hence the Benaroya Hall: it's how the system works. And it could hardly work better for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which now occupies the building on a lease of $1m a year. Seattle's isn't the best band in the world, or even in America; it ranks well after the Ivy Leaguers in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and New York. But it is long-established (1903, before any of the current London orchestras) and celebrated in certain areas of repertory. Gerard Schwarz, the music director, is a leading champion of American symphonic writers, with a discography to prove it. And the orchestra has carved a niche for itself with Wagner, as the pit-band for the Seattle Opera's famous Ring cycles. Accordingly, the opening night featured a new commission from David Diamond (the Michael Tippett of American music) and excerpts from Gotterdammerung (with Jessye Norman prowling grandly in for the immolation scene).

As galas go, it was commendably strong stuff. But the big issue on the night was, naturally, the hall's acoustic. And I'm glad to say it works. The shape is shoe-box, which is the right shape for a concert hall - along the lines of the Musikverein in Vienna and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. But the problem remains that modern halls are invariably bigger than those classic predecessors - the Benaroya seats 2,500 - so there's still an element of chance involved in getting it right. And getting it right means an ideal balance between clarity and bloom that diffuses low frequencies evenly (so wherever you sit it's roughly the same sound) and settles to a decay-time of about two seconds.

Benaroya is probably less than that, favouring clarity over bloom, but it's still good. And with its help, you can expect the Seattle Symphony's stock to rise in the same way as our own City of Birmingham Symphony rose to the standards of a new home some years back. Not that Gerard Schwarz compares with Simon Rattle. But he is now in charge of premises superior to anything in London, with a hall that any London orchestra would sell its soul to have.

Of course, there's one good hall in London, but it's small. The Wigmore. And on Wednesday, it was hosting an American celebration of its own, with pianist Stephen Hough, who was born in this country but has lived most of his adult life in New York. Earlier this year, Hyperion brought out a fascinating recital disc on which Hough paid tribute to his adopted city, playing works by fellow-residents including Copland and John Corigliano. But the most compelling item on that disc was an epic score by George Tsontakis - a score like nothing else I know written for solo piano in the last 20 years.

On Wednesday, Hough gave its European premiere, with characteristic brilliance of technique and colouring. Called Ghost Variations, the piece sustains, through half an hour, a sort of dialogue - sometimes more like a balloon debate - between the hypnotic circularity of Eastern processes and the linear directness of the West. The ghosts are many, though principally, it's a reminiscence of a Mozart piano concerto which breaks disarmingly into the first movement and haunts much of what follows. The whole piece charts a course of strikingly symbolic drama which ultimately drives that fragment of Mozart off the end of the keyboard; it plays itself out for the last time purely as a rhythm, knocked by the hand against the side of the piano.

Some of its gestures, I'll admit, stray into cliche. Some are stolen outright, like a falling arabesque figure straight from the piano accompaniment to Britten's Winter Words. But even so, it's one of the most curious, compelling and disturbing new works I've encountered in a long while. An important score, superbly played by an intuitive and powerful advocate of all things off the beaten track in concert repertory.

Finally, a note on Scottish Opera's Dalibor, which amused me when I saw it in Edinburgh the other week, but maybe for the wrong reasons. Smetana's Dalibor is an imposing Czech National opera on the Fidelio-like theme of an imprisoned knight and a woman who dresses as a man to rescue him.

But whereas Fidelio is noble, Dalibor is creaky. This is a knight who lives for music, so when the woman comes to his cell (where he is being starved to death) she brings not food but a violin; cue some stirring sentiments about what any decent Czech wouldn't give for a good tune, etc. If this were light-hearted, it would be fine. But Dalibor takes itself very seriously. And David Pountney's production seems set to teach the piece a lesson - to the point where the whole show becomes (I think?) a joke at Smetana's expense.

Ralph Koltai's designs are absurdly Sixties-abstract, like a Barbara Hepworth installation: severed by high-tension wires that presumably symbolise the strings of a harp (music again) and built around what looks like a hydraulic surfboard. The costumes are silly. And I assume the point is parody; if not, it's an extraordinary miscalculation. Otherwise, the singing is variable, with a coarse Czech tenor in the title role but a fine Canadian soprano, Kathleen Broderick, as his would- be rescuer. Richard Armstrong conducts. And once was enough.

'Dalibor': Glasgow Theatre Royal (0141 332 9000), 20 October to 4 November.

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