Old hall set to become star venue

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Hackney's Central Hall, which has lain derelict for more than three decades, could become one of London's best concert venues, says an acoustics expert.

Nicholas Edwards, who is currently working to improve the building's sound quality, said it could become the most outstanding place for chamber music and recitals since the Hanover Square Rooms - a much-acclaimed concert hall that during its heyday in the 19th century, played host to Franz Joseph Haydn.

So impressed was the Austrian composer by the acoustics that he later wrote a piece of music dedicated to the Rooms.

Mr Edwards said the hall's potential stemmed from the thick, solid walls and the combination of plaster and brick which reflect sound back towards the ears of the audience rather than absorbing it.

'I can look at a set of drawings and know if a building is going to be acoustically good. This one is.'

He said the 1,000-seat hall was one of the most exciting projects he had been involved in during a 15-year career that has seen him fitting out such high-profile venues as Birmingham's new concert hall for the city's symphony orchestra.

Along the sides of the Central Hall's auditorium he is building saw-tooth-shaped walls, a technique he developed in Birmingham and one that vastly improves the audience's enjoyment by allowing sound to arrive laterally instead of head-on.

Mr Edwards has worked on big projects on both sides of the Atlantic, including the giant 1,800-seat Dallas concert hall in Texas. He was keen to be involved in the Hackney project because of the time the hall had remained untouched and its acoustic potential.

'You get very excited if you find an old building which no one has used for a long time and has the potential for being a great venue,' he said.

'It is reminiscent of the original London concert halls of the 18th century.'

Already its acoustics are vastly improved, but it will take a few months to complete the fine tuning so that the full aural potential can be realised.

Tomorrow night's opening of the Central Hall, at which the jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine will play as part of the borough's first arts festival, will signal a welcome addition to the small clutch of such halls in the capital.

Now free of vagrants and pigeon droppings, the former Methodist meeting place will be a main venue in Hackney. Its rejuvenation is a key part of the festival, focus of many hopes for the future of the borough.

The hall fell into disuse when Methodist congregations dwindled in the early Sixties, and as the borough continued its post-war decline funds were never available to breathe life back into it.

Now its rebirth will also help to satisfy the need for good quality medium-sized concert halls, which are few and far between in London and throughout the country.

Those that are in the capital, such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall, lack the acoustic benefits of techniques like Mr Edwards' saw-toothed walls.

The sparsity of venues has forced acousticians to look abroad for work. 'You can't really get experience in this country because there haven't been enough concert halls built,' he said.

'In America there is so much of this stuff going on and there is a wealth of opportun-ity. But when we see what the Europeans and British are doing, we are horrified.'

With the average project taking seven years to complete, the skills and dedication of the acoustician are essential.

'It's a tremendous responsibility. The musical population of that city is dependent on you for their concert hall for the next 50 to 100 years,' he said.

'You get it wrong and, boy, do you get it wrong.'

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(Photograph omitted)

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