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Let's Make London's New Concert Hall Into a Cathedral

24/02/2015 15:46 | Updated 25 April 2015

Some people will tell you the last thing London needs is another concert hall. In truth, the last thing we need is another article about whether London needs another concert hall. This last week, there have been hundreds. For the first time in decades, it's even put classical music on the front cover of the Evening Standard. Some people I hugely respect think it's lunacy. Some people I hugely respect think it's a great idea. But who's right?

All those against the notion observe that London already has two large dedicated halls - the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall - plus several sizeable others. There's also the Royal Albert Hall which hosts the BBC Proms every summer. It's well documented that none of these has quite the acoustic quality of certain other halls in the UK and Europe, so this has become the driving argument for why London needs a new one. Yet folks largely seem satisfied with how things sound in the halls we have - so why squander millions on that when the nation's malnourished music education ecology could dearly benefit from the equivalent kind of cash?

Any blogger who poses the latter question quickly gets a deluge of responses, noting that whatever money might be amassed for a posh new hall uptown wouldn't be so available to plug cuts to, say, the wonderful Bromley Music Service. This is true. So technically, they're separate debates. But some commentators persist that by bringing the dream of a new hall to London, conductor Sir Simon Rattle has got his priorities wrong, and should be championing the kids first and foremost.

That's a rather uncharitable view. It's not Rattle's responsibility to fix music education, and yet, around his day job, he does a tremendous amount towards that. Wasn't it him conducting the brand new Young Orchestra for London last week? Wasn't it him who established an integral education programme at the bourgeois Berlin Philharmonic?

It seems to me that all those against the prospect of the new hall have a limited vision of what it could be. We are not, ladies and gentlemen, talking about building a new hall that just sounds a bit nicer than our current ones.

As Kathryn McDowell and Nicholas Kenyon, who run the London Symphony Orchestra and Barbican respectively, said last week: 'This is a once-in-a-generation chance to explore how to create a state-of-the-art performance and education facility for the digital age that offers outstanding learning opportunities for all.'

None of us know yet what that means, but it sounds promising to me. A few months ago, Gerard McBurney - dedicated to drawing new audiences to classical music through his role as a Creative Director at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - was interviewed by the website Sinfini. This had nothing to do with the current London concert hall debate, and yet so much. He was asked 'If you had an unlimited budget, what would you do to change the way we experience classical music?' And he said:

'I would completely rebuild the spaces in which classical music takes place. I would make them much more porous, adaptable, beautiful to be in, accessible, able to accommodate any collection of musicians under any circumstances, and above all I would insist that the design of these spaces be not only incredibly alluring so that everyone wants to go there, but that they would bring everyone in the hall really close to the musicians. Because I think we have to get away from the bourgeois culture pattern of the 19th century. Everything to me is about bringing people close.'

I love London's concert halls. I've treasured countless performances at the Barbican and Southbank Centre. Only last week, as the latter was packed with families at half-term (some of them getting their first taste of a live orchestra by taking 'passenger seats' in my own ensemble), I was struck by how much the tireless team there has opened up the once-arid premises, making it a buzzing destination for aficionados and the uninitiated alike. But at both venues, the vision will always be constrained - for better or for worse - by their Listing.

Now, a rare opportunity has arisen to see how far we can go, free of limitation, in achieving what Gerard rightly believes music deserves. London didn't need another stadium prior to 2012. It didn't need another gallery prior to Tate Modern. But look what those innovations did to transform the profile, public engagement and national pride around sport and art respectively - without adversely affecting anything that was already here.

Strangely, buildings have this power. Right now - with the exception of the Royal Albert Hall, which is only seasonally loaned to classical music - I cannot think of a concert venue that stands out on the London skyline. We all know how hard it is to find the Barbican and, once you're inside Southbank Centre, I bet loads of people have no idea there's a concert hall upstairs. We have rather brilliantly hidden classical music from the public eye for years.

Now is our moment to get out and proud. Statement architecture is rising fast around the City and beyond. What if suddenly one of the truly awesome jewels of the London horizon was a building devoted to classical music? The 17 million annual visitors to London would see classical music as a central, visible part of the city - as a central, visible part of our lives.

Doubtless when St Paul's Cathedral was built, occupants of London's myriad churches saw little call for it. Look what an enduring emblem of Christianity it remains as modernity rises on all sides. Let's have the equivalent for classical music: a cathedral for our faith in why the music should never be buried.

We could have that now, or we could just wait till one of our current halls falls into disrepair and wonder then where we might find an advocate like Rattle or a groundswell of support like we have now for the hall we then desperately need.

There's been reasonable concern that all this benefits London when classical music provision is still patchy nationwide. This is a fair point, but again we're only thinking of a new concert hall in the same vein as the old ones. The watchword in Kathryn and Nicholas' statement is digital. Again none of us knows what this could portend, but imagine building a space that's fundamentally designed with the digital possibilities of the future in mind.

It's baffled me why concerts have as yet failed to establish a vast new audience in UK cinemas the way theatre and opera have. Perhaps because we're limited in how we can draw material from within our extant halls (if nothing else, where we place cameras) then transfer it powerfully and intimately to film. How we might do this still eludes my tiny mind, but I bet if you put Richard Slaney (who pioneered the Philharmonia's bold digital projects) and David Sabel (who established NT Live for the National Theatre) on the consultation process, something ingenious will emerge.

And there's another word so far fairly absent in the debate about whether music education needs the money more: aspiration. Yes, without question, we need better investment to galvanise what's happening nationally to get children into music, but infrastructure is nothing if you don't have aspiration. We need great teachers to inspire, we need great platforms for young people to perform but, with that, those young hearts and minds need palpable assurance that getting into classical music doesn't mean getting into a dead-end artform. A truly iconic building would go a long way towards shaping that certainty.

As a kid learning the violin in the Lake District, I'm sorry to say I never aspired to keep playing in the hope I one day might get to perform at the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall. They simply weren't on my radar the way my friends who loved football kept at it with half an eye on getting to Wembley. With a vibrant new approach to digitisation and engagement, the new hall could be that dream destination that helps children believe music can be their passport to exciting destinations.

On which note, having a future-proofed landmark classical venue isn't an end in itself: its very presence will give funders the confidence that classical music at large is worth investment. It could even be the kickstarter our industry craves: every day we strive to show potential donors that the music we make has a robust future. Seeing evidence of that, monumentally manifest on the capital's skyline, would hugely boost their conviction.

So here's where we find ourselves: imagine your dream concert hall. What might it be that no concert hall has ever been before? What could it ignite? That is what's up for grabs. Now it's coming, let's start positively lobbying for what this new vision of a concert hall could comprise, instead of being bitter that it's coming at all.