Another sell-out year for 'the nation's village hall'

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The Independent Online

These are heady times for the Royal Albert Hall. Now dwarfed by the vast expanses of the O2 and Wembley arenas, the 5,500-seat venue, once nicknamed "the nation's village hall", is nevertheless enjoying a renaissance and this year promises to be among the most successful yet.

The Hall, which opened in 1871, is on course to match last year's tally of 359 performances, just six short of the 2004 record of 365. The breathless itinerary ranges from the guitar virtuosity of Mark Knopfler to the Mozart festival orchestra and all but a handful of performances are already sold out.

The success comes amid a climate of financial uncertainty for venues of its kind as well as a host of early closing theatre productions in the West End over the past 18 months.

The Hall's chief executive, David Elliott, said: "Five or 10 years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the live concert but the opposite has happened. The O2 has just had a series of headline acts but some of those artists would probably never play here and some prefer the intimate feel of the Royal Albert Hall."

The hall underwent a rolling programme of renovation from 1996 to 2004 when it was able to undertake 30 discrete projects without disrupting events. The works included a major rebuilding of the great organ, which is the second largest pipe organ in Britain.

Last year, it held the first in a series of events called Hush aimed at presenting younger, edgier artists to appeal to new audiences. It also introduced lunchtime and Sunday brunch concerts in its restaurants.

However, ticket prices, which are normally set by the artist rather than the venue, are rising. For the Hush series, the Hall aims to keep prices at £17 to £20 but big-name acts can command £70 for the best seats. Mr Elliott justified the pricing structure, saying people were happy to spend on the higher end tickets. "Prices are creeping up north of £50 even for non-charity events so the big question is whether audiences hold up. It amazes me they keep on buying and it's the most expensive tickets that sell first," he said.

Highlights for 2008 range from a new show by the Canadian circus troupe, Cirque du Soleil this month and next, to a performance of Tosca, Puccini's opera presented by Raymond Gubbay with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as concerts by Sugababes and Chris Rea, in March.

Traditional events such as the St George's Day Gala in April, and a Grand Organ Gala in June, are ranged against a more youthful agenda of shows including a gig by Katie Melua and a music project in which the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will play scores from films including Zulu and Harry Potter in May.

Mark Knopfler, the lead singer and guitarist from Dire Straits, will perform at the end of May followed by the hugely popular BBC Proms, the annual classical music festival from July to September.

A concert by the Liverpool band Echo And The Bunnymen, is already sold out for September. Other events which have aroused enormous interest is Carl Orff's masterpiece, Carmina Burana, a gig by Michael Bolton, the Grammy-winning American balladeer, and a Mozart Festival Orchestra, all taking place in October.

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