Royal Festival Hall set to reclaim its status as 'The People's Place'

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The Independent Online

Sir Simon Rattle, Britain's best-known conductor, once condemned the Royal Festival Hall as the worst major concert arena in Europe. But when it reopens after a £91m refurbishment this summer, Sir Simon will head a cavalcade of musical greats celebrating the lease of life given to the Grade I-listed venue.

Stars including Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Bryn Terfel and Brian Wilson have been lined up for the grand reopening season starting on 11 June.

And Michael Lynch, the chief executive of the South Bank Centre of which the hall is a part, said the willingness of the big names to be involved was a vindication. "We are re-positioning the South Bank Centre and the Festival Hall as a player in the international field," he said. "There was a feeling in the last 10 years that to some extent we had lost our way and the fabric of the building and its attractiveness to people had taken a bit of a pounding. [But] this is a world-strength classical programme."

The Royal Festival Hall, built in 1951, was conceived as part of the "tonic to the nation" offered by the Festival of Britain in the wake of the Second World War. But the acoustics were never the best and the public space around the hall became cluttered with later concrete accretions. Now the offices have been stripped out of the building altogether, bar space is being doubled and the number of ladies' loos has increased by 70 per cent.

The acoustics are being improved and the centre is embarking on commissioning instead of just receiving work from elsewhere. "We want to get away from the idea that we are a garage and people can just bring things to us," said Mr Lynch.

Jude Kelly, the artistic director, said there was an extraordinary renaissance on the site which matched the original idealism of dedicating 21 acres of land for the purposes of art. "It was 'The People's Place' and it should be 'The People's Place'," she said.

In that spirit, the weekend before the official reopening will be marked by 48 hours of free music. As well as Bryn Terfel appearing in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and a new production of Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones, the programme also includes Riccardo Muti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim in a two-month residency performing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, Daniele Gatti with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and a 70th birthday concert for the conductor and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The pianist Alfred Brendel will perform the first solo recital in the reopened hall.

Brian Wilson, the former Beach Boy, so enjoyed premiering his album Smile at the hall that he is producing a major new work while Scott Walker is working on a dance score. Artists as diverse as the jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch and the Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka will take part in the London Jazz Festival and a new London Literature Festival.

There has been some talk on the impact of a revitalised South Bank on the Barbican, marking its 25th birthday in March. But the South Bank leaders dismissed any idea of rivalry. "The fact that they are doing good things and we hope to be doing good things is something that makes London a fantastic place to be," said Mr Lynch. "I don't think there's any downside to that."