I took my four children to hear Sir Simon Rattle conduct Sibelius’s masterpiece last week, played by the Young Orchestra for London at the Barbican Hall.
The tickets were free; the orchestra, which had been working on the piece for six months, comprised 100 children from all musical levels, from every borough in London. It was brilliant, socially inclusive, and musically wonderful. If you wanted to see arts outreach at its best, this was it. In beautiful surroundings, too. My children remarked on the grand ease of the Barbican Hall, where the seats are spacious and the rake relaxed.
It seems, however, that the Barbican Hall, which for 33 years has triumphantly hosted musical geniuses from Valery Gergiev to Mitsuko Uchida (and extensively refurbished in 2001 at a cost of £35m), is not up to scratch. Sir Simon, whose time at the Berliner Philharmoniker is shortly to end, has let it be known, ever so gently, that if he is to be tempted back to conduct a London orchestra, he needs a brand new concert hall to play in. Because, acoustically, the Barbican Hall just won’t do.
Well, to my untutored ears, the concerts at the Barbican always sound amazing, but then I am just a straightforward member of the audience. Parking the thought, just for now, that straightforward members of the audience are surely the people who count, it appears that the musical cognoscenti in large and Sir Simon in particular are not happy with the Barbican Hall. Its rivals are not much better, namely the Royal Festival Hall (refurbished in 2007 at a cost of £111m), or the Royal Albert Hall (refurbished in 2004 for £70m), where annually the Proms have been making everyone smile and enjoying global acclaim for quite some time.
Luminaries are brilliant at arts campaigns; one thinks of Laurence Olivier banging the drum in post-war London for a National Theatre. Except, back then, London was a different story. People are not now living in a darkened city full of bomb sites and in dire need of a boost. Ours is a glittering capital bursting with glorious arts venues and thousands of events. Daily.
That is not the point. Sir Simon is discontented and we must avert that. Can we bear the thought that he might pack up his baton and march off elsewhere? It appears not. Rather like a Bernini sculpture, Sir Simon must be saved for the nation, and Things Must Be Done.
First, there is to be a feasibility study, headed up by Sir Nicholas Hytner, which will, apparently, cost £1m. A site has already been earmarked. It seems that the charming Museum of London, which this year has had its most successful attendance figures ever, is to be sacrificed and the new hall (the Rattle Hall, anyone?) built on the site. Let us overlook the fact that the Museum of London, built as it is on a roundabout, has issues with access – issues that a gallery can just about deal with, but which become quite different when the strict timetable of a concert hall is brought into play. Maybe the feasibility study will advise moving the road.
At any rate, the new hall won’t come cheap. The estimated cost is “at least” £200m, at a time when the Arts Council is facing a third being sliced off its annual budget, and cash-strapped arts organisations across the country are anxiously awaiting an unsure future.
Oh, but that is irrelevant, because the new hall will be funded “mostly” from the private sector. Mostly. So none of the Arts Council’s clients will be affected? No arts body can rely on subsidy alone and philanthropy is not a bottomless pit. Wealthy donors, having already stumped up for a lovely shiny new hall, will perhaps not be so keen to seek out other deserving causes, particularly outside London. No, they will be polishing their shoes ready for that first night with the famous conductor.
The top and bottom of arts funding
I must urge you to listen to today’s Radio 4 Front Row debate, which comes from Hull Truck Theatre, where the show – a debate about state funding for the arts – was recorded on Friday. Things hotted up when the free-market economist Philip Booth, who perhaps should get out more, took exception to arts journalist Ekow Eshun talking about “the big blue cock” on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth – “public sculpture at its best”. Spluttering slightly, Booth commented that while Eshun might welcome the appearance of “pornography” in Trafalgar Square, he himself did not. At which point it was clear that there was a slight misunderstanding about Katharina Fritsch’s bright blue cockerel, which did indeed stand proudly on the Fourth Plinth until last week. After a few minutes of general mirth, and explanation that there were no publicly funded sculpted penises at large in Trafalgar Square, presenter John Wilson tried to regain control. “Can we now talk about a bottom-up approach to arts funding?” he suggested. The audience dissolved.Reuse content