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Hey, Boris! Why can’t we have a new concert hall like Paris?

London’s South Bank is going nowhere. Every ten years or so we throw another £150 million at it by way of marginal improvement and still it fails to impress as a world-class venue for music and the arts. It ought to be privatised. But that’s another argument.

In the new issue of Standpoint magazine, I describe what Paris is doing – building a brilliant, revolutionary concert hall for no more public outlay than we spend on periodic relaunches of the sinking South Bank.

In Paris, the Mayor calls the shots. Hey, Boris: this is your patch. I’ve got an idea for you. Click here.


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  1. Alexander Hall says:

    The trouble is that the UK, for all its many other virtues, has always been iffy and sniffy about the whole idea of getting the state to support anything cultural. Remember Mrs T’s heyday when she used to rail against anything the state did? The fact remains that continental countries, whether republics or monarchies, have long realised that when human tissue biodegrades cultural heritage is the only thing that still stands supreme. Look at the Pyramids! Look at the Coliseum!
    Attitudes among politicians – and there are very few people in any party like Edward Heath who genuinely care about the arts and classical music in particular – need to change quite radically before anything happens. It has already been remarked in these columns that the German Chancellor regularly goes to Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival. All Blair could do was strum his stupid electric guitar, Brown never went anywhere near any cultural temple, and the same is sadly true of his successor.
    Having said all that it is a myth to suppose that you can get any kind of new concert-hall on the cheap. Hamburg has been struggling since 2005 to get its much-vaunted Elbphilharmonie up and running. It’s off the ground, to be sure, and too far up in the sky for some. However, costs have spiralled completely out of control. Latest estimates come in at 900 million euros, but as the building isn’t scheduled to open until 2017, six years behind schedule, the chances are it will end up costing over a billion. Would taxpayers in the UK, used to the incessant cries of the need to lower taxes from all major parties, put up with that?

    • “continental countries, whether republics or monarchies, have long realised that when human tissue biodegrades cultural heritage is the only thing that still stands supreme. Look at the Pyramids!”

      The continent to look to is Africa?

      • Alexander Hall says:

        The other example I gave was The Coliseum. As far as I know, Rome is not yet part of the African continent.

  2. Mark D. says:

    “Why can’t we have a new concert hall like Paris?”

    Answer: Because our ruling political elite is pig-ignorant. The nitwit Left thinks classical music is elitist; the idiot Right thinks it’s expensive.

    • Well, it *is* expensive (especially at the highest levels, and to say nothing of the cost of buying and learning an instrument to a high standard), and it *is* elitist (in the same way as your football team strives to be the best and doesn’t put up with crap playing, so does any classical music group wanting to perform in public).

      But being expensive and elitist is only a bad thing if you’re stuck in your own dogma (Not *you* Mark D., I’m being rhetorical!)

      If it’s OK for us to spend squillions on an Olympics and to be elitist and expensive about training our cyclists and other athletes, while still encouraging all-comers to have a subsidised go, why is there such a hang up when we propose to do the exact same thing in classical music?

    • I don’t know that the French govt is much less ignorant , building their new hall out in the middle of a really bad neighborhood. That pretty much condemns the project since it will be barely accessible, It’s social engineering that will prove a point, but not the one they were hoping to prove.

      • Mathieu says:

        I could not disagree more.

        1° The Cité de la Musique has been in the neighborhood for almost 20 years, and it is a huge success. Not only the usual audiences have “travelled” all the way through Paris to hear the late Gustav Leonhardt, Jordi Savall or Pierre Boulez, but it has attracted new audiences as well. I do not see why the Philharmonie would fail where the Cité de la Musique has succeeded, even if it does not have its eclectism — the Cité de la Musique programs not only classical and contemporary music, but also jazz, pop, world music, and so on.

        2° The neighborhood itself — porte de Pantin, which is near the end of the “orange line” (line 5) of the metro, and not, as Norman mistakingly writes, the “pink line” (line 7), which gets you to the other side of the Parc de la Villette — is not that bad. It has undergone an impressive renovation, and the whole Pantin area is attracting more and more of the middle class who cannot afford to live in the center of Paris anymore.

        3° The Philharmonie IS as accessible as the Salle Pleyel (aforementioned line 5 of the metro, line 3 of tramway, lots of buses, etc.); it is within Paris’s boundaries, although not in the historic center (of which the Salle Pleyel is itself borderline). I remind you that Paris is a small city (105 km2) — compare with Inner London !

  3. Mark Pemberton says:

    To give it its due, the government is funding the Tate Modern extension (though the Tate does have to raise a lot of private money to complete the project). But then again, that is (a) because the funding was committed by the Labour government and (b) governments love contemporary art because it looks groovy and sells for huge sums of money. There will never be government funding for a new symphony hall in London because they will be petrified by accusations of elitism, dead white male art form etc. If however there was an economic argument that selling off the prime riverside site of the SBC to developers and building a new complex of concert halls in an area in need of regeneration (cf Cite de la Musique in Paris), with up-front commitment from private funders, it might just be possible. Though what scuppers that is the Royal Festival Hall, of course, which is a listed building.

    • It is more than possible, Mark. It’s viable. Privatising the South Bank would pay for a world-class new concert hall.

      • Interesting. I always get the impression you know more than you’re letting on. Would it include the site or just the building costs?

        • Most of what I know of the numbers is in the Standpoint piece. The bigger picture is a longer story…

          • If there’s even a remote possibility of this coming about, in my opinion it’s essential that the orchestras, and people like yourself, press for a tried and tested shoe box design, not some architect’s ego trip.

            We can’t afford any more mistakes.

  4. Mark D:

    Sums it up nicely.

    Alexander Hall:

    I understand that Gove and Osborne like Wagner. The sad thing, of course, is that they don’t feel able to speak up about it, which fits in with Mark D’s point. I believe Thatcher liked Bartok, but same problem.

    Blair and Cameron are lost causes.

  5. Mathieu says:

    As a French, I am always happy when a Briton sings the praises of my country. But I am sorry to say that the picture is a bit less pretty than how Mr Lebrecht describes it.

    Deciding to build a new concert hall in Paris was definitely not done “by two strokes of a pen”: it was a long-awaited and long-postponed decision. And even after construction started, it was held on during some time because of disagreements among the funding parties, and it was almost definitively stopped in 2012 because of budget cuts. .

    The problem with Salle Pleyel (which reopened in 2006) is actually its size : it is just impossible to perform Mahler’s 8th in it — to my knowledge the only times it was done in the recent era was by Gergiev and the Mariinski Orchestra and Chorus, and the stage was so packed that one was wondering how the string players could find enough place to hold their bows.

    Its funding being almost exclusively public, the new Philharmonie is being paid by French taxpayers. There is nothing wrong with that, but I cannot see how Mr Lebrecht can consistently claim both that cultural institutions are better off when owned by private entities and that the economic model of the Paris Philharmonie is wonderful.

    Re the South Bank : privatising is not a bad idea as such, but it assumes that someone would like to buy it! Of course I agree that London needs and deserves better venues than the RFH and the Barbican, but hey : having terrible concert halls does not prevent London from having top-notch orchestras. Paris shall have a wonderful new concert hall, but I’m not sure its orchestras are really worthy of it.

  6. Mark Mortimer says:

    I agree with Norman that London needs a brand new concert hall.

    I’ve been to a few concerts at the RFH since the refurbishment and supposed acoustic upgrade. To my ears, there’s little improvement on before- orchestras still sound one dimensional in there. Our world class players in the Philharmonia, London Philharmonic surely deserve better.

    Its a sad fact that our best concert venue in Greater London is the Fairfield Hall in picturesque Croydon.

    • Michael Smith says:

      I think you’re absolutely right about the Fairfield. It’s a grim-looking venue in a grim area, but the acoustic is better than any comparably-sized venue in central London.

  7. Michael Endres says:

    Brilliant article in the Standpoint magazine,Norman.
    And I am impressed that the French do all his for less than half what Hamburg has to fork out. The Hamburg Saga is a mess and an example how NOT to do this.
    An appalling waste of public money as nobody in their right mind can defend a close to 1 billion euro concert venue.
    The French are indeed proud of their culture,something I always found bizarrely underdeveloped in the UK ( I lived there for 14 years .)
    Which reminds me–sorry for trailing off the subject here–of those blank ,blaze faces when raving about English composers ( Bax, Bantock,Dyson ,to name a few ) .
    It sometimes felt like I had mentioned the war….

    And I still remember that unique smell in Southampton at the Turner Sims Hall…that specific mix of mothballs , moisture with a faint hint of urine…and it was cold as well….

    When in London these days I’d rather spend a night at my Club than in those RFH seats ,whose design seems to have been inspired by the Marquis de Sade ( that’s what my back tells me at least ) and the acoustics are dead and dull anyway.
    I wouldn’t put money on Boris for some better venues,he seems IMHO too much show and little substance…but time will tell.

  8. Privatisation may well generate funds and bring about some innovation, but it isn’t a cost-free option. Once you go down that route, you inevitably become exposed to more commercial pressures. Investors need their return; the bottom line must come first.. You can devise a framework to hold these pressures in check, but there is little guarantee that you would succeed in the long run. Ten, twenty years down the line, we might find the private South Bank drifting towards the provision of more mainstream forms of entertainment – musicals, popera, gambling and nightclubbing. In the final analysis, it isn’t about values or who likes classical music and who doesn’t: it is about ownership and incentives.

    You can’t just have privatisation, in other words: you also have to accept the Devil’s handshake that come with it.

  9. David Boxwell says:

    Mind you, London wouldn’t want Opera Bastille. . .

    • Mathieu says:

      We do not want it either. Horrid acoustics. Horrid.

      Take it. It’s yours. Please.

  10. Rosalind says:

    I’ve often wondered why on earth the Royal Festival Hall was ever “listed”? Hands up anyone who would shed a tear if it was razed to the ground and a completely new concert hall or halls equivalent of the Cité de la Musique constructed.

    Presumably it could be DE-listed?

  11. michael storrs says:

    I agree 100% Its such a shame and kind of shocking that London with all its amazing music making is without a larger great Hall. Both The RFH and Barbican were built at a time when the world seemed to have lost the recipe for good acoustics…since then endless brilliant Halls have gone up around the world.
    The 120000 million blown on the South Bank was a complete shocker. Changing the carpets and repainting will never make these good halls.
    The problem is that at this time I cant see any Government coming up with the cash…I guess a Tower block beside the RFH might cover the cost which is what I presume you mean by privatising as in the Carnegie Hall redevelopment.
    But one problem I sense is that the people who run these places don’t seem to hear how bad they are! I well remember years ago John Dennison, the man who ran the RFH,going on about ‘these fine auditoria”
    I always thought that a new hall would go up as part of the Kings Cross development but so far nothing.

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