David Lister: The Week in Arts

A thrilling whiff of battle in the concert halls
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The Independent Online

Do I detect the welcome rumblings of some hard-nosed competition in the capital's classical music world? I wrote last week about how the arrival next Tuesday of the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev at the Barbican to head the LSO will reinvigorate both the Barbican and Britain's classical music scene.

But, as soon as Gergiev has conducted his first concerts, there will be a press conference on the other side of the river from the South Bank Centre, announcing the programme for the Royal Festival Hall when it reopens after its extensive refurbishment in July. One key ingredient will be the hiring of the talented, young Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski to lead the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Any Russian you can do we can do better, and younger.

Back at the Barbican, there are some seemingly elliptical statements emanating from its chief executive and publicity department. They stress how lucky they are to be funded by the City of London as it allows the Barbican's artistic chiefs to programme what they wish, and does not lay down any strictures on programming, access, education and whatever. Most people might think that a run-of-the-mill bit of sucking up to one's funders, or, as I say, an elliptical piece of artspeak. But over at the South Bank Centre, they know that it is neither of these. It is, as one insider told me, "a piece of positioning, to have a go at us". For, the South Bank Centre is funded by the Arts Council, which does have strictures about programming, access, education and the rest.

As both institutions gear up for the battle ahead, the Barbican under its canny retiring chief executive Sir John Tusa, has chosen to position itself as the programmer whose hands are not tied by bureaucrats. But they can do canny over at the South Bank too. Head of canny there is chief executive Michael Lynch, a highly affable Australian.

Lynch entered his role in a blaze of panic. He was interviewed by South Bank Centre chairman Lord Hollick at Hollick's headquarters by Blackfriars bridge. It was Mayday, and Lynch was warned not to wear a tie in case rioting anarchists should waylay him. He thought of the man who was hanged from the bridge a few years back, and arrived at Lord Hollick's office tie in pocket, his glasses blown off in the wind, and in a cold sweat.

Things have improved since then. The Royal Festival Hall revamp is near completion, the acoustics are apparently much better, and, even before the reopening, the river frontage is buzzing with restaurants and shops. At last there's more to do than watch the skateboarders.

But, it is second in command canny who interests me more. Jude Kelly, the South Bank's new artistic director, is in charge of the programme and will announce it next Thursday. Kelly, former head of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, is one of the most thoughtful, innovative, introspective and best connected people in the arts and could at last give the disparate venues that form the South Bank Centre one coherent, artistic thrust.

Though she is also an opera director, she is not a classical music specialist. The first leaks of her programme, productions of Carmen Jones and Sweeney Todd, indicate that we might get a fair bit of lateral takes on pure classical works and opera. But there's nothing wrong with that, and an injection of theatre at the Royal Festival Hall could be rather exciting.

The Barbican, I suspect, is worried by the coming competition from the South Bank. The battle of words is likely to get less elliptical, and the battle of the conductors more overt.

Give those spare tickets to schoolkids

I'm sure that the much hyped West End musical Wicked is drawing the crowds. So I merely repeat my conversation with a London taxi driver the other day. He told me he was going to the theatre that evening to see Wicked. He was taking five others.

"Six tickets! That must be expensive," I said.

No, he replied, the theatre had given him and many other taxi drivers a batch of tickets. "It often happens with shows that aren't doing very well," he added. He then reeled off all his freebie trips to the theatre over the last year. It was quite an impressive tally.

It is nice to learn that this hard-working body of garrulous Londoners is getting regular free tickets to the theatre. But, with the pressing need to attract young people to the theatre, might it not be a better use of those empty seats, if producers were to hand out the free tickets instead to schools and colleges, as they are clearly handing them out with regularity?

* One of the irritating things in newspaper articles written by correspondents in Hollywood is that they invariably talk about movies receiving "Oscar nods". It is a rather ugly and silly affectation, when the word "nomination" does perfectly well enough. Fortunately, it has never caught on over here ... or so I thought, until I turned on the BBC's Newsnight Review, and there was Kirsty Wark saying that a certain film had received "a Bafta nod". Not only has the word crossed the Atlantic, it is being applied to British awards as well as to the Oscars. Now that the BBC has embraced the word, I suppose that we are stuck with it. We can look forward to hearing about Helen Mirren's nod, speculating on whether there will be a nod in the direction of Mel Gibson, and reading about upcoming nods, and critics' predictions on what is nodworthy. Thanks a lot, Kirsty.