Elbphilharmonie – Barbican – concert halls go political

ON OCTOBER 31st, the lights on Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall spelled out “fertig”—“finished”. That heralded a monumental wave of relief, for the history of this crazily ambitious project had been chequered in the extreme. Conceived in 2003 at a projected cost of €77m, it finally cost ten times that amount (mostly in public money), and missed its completion date by seven years. It had survived disputes, lawsuits and a parliamentary inquiry. No wonder its architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron—creators of Tate Modern and the “birds’ nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing—feared at one point that the job would destroy their company. In 2011 Hamburg’s culture senator Barbara Kisseler neatly summed up her fellow-citizens’ ambivalence: “The Elbphilharmonie is very dear to us, in both senses of the word.”

The tallest building in town, its roof covered in giant sequins, it is perched on the end of a wharf in the busy port. It has been variously likened to a crystal on a rock, a bubble-wrapped ice-cube, and— most appropriately—a ship under sail. The hull consists of a converted cocoa warehouse, and the sails are a technical marvel: a thousand plate-glass panels, heated to 600°C to curve, bulge, or pucker, each imprinted with a seemingly random pattern of metal dots that respond to the changing light. As a result the building’s colour constantly changes. This is kinetic art on a gargantuan scale.

As part of a development including a hotel, luxury flats and a car park, the hall had to fit into a very small ground area, so the architects had to think vertical. And as their acoustics expert was Yasuhisa Toyota, a celebrated Japanese master, they had to accommodate demands that made their auditorium unique. Mr Toyota’s thirty-year-old Suntory Hall in Tokyo is still a benchmark for acoustic refinement and visual elegance, and his trademark terraced “vineyard” seating design—originally pioneered at the Berlin Philharmonie in the Sixties—is now widely adopted. The traditional “shoebox” design has good seats and bad seats, but the more democratic “vineyard” has no “best” seats; at the Elbphilharmonie no one is more than thirty metres from the stage.

Mr Toyota’s quest for perfect sound led him to isolate his hall from external industrial noise by hanging it like a cocoon from the roof, and surrounding it with feather pillows. His cladding of the interior consists of 10,000 distressed gypsum panels, each individually computer-designed both to diffuse the sound and to keep it rich. Hollowed-out like a cave, and conceived in curves and swirls with not a straight line in sight, the entire space has a hand-crafted feel.

The inaugural concert on January 11th, programmed to show how flexible the acoustic was, was a triumphant vindication. Whether for a small period-instrument ensemble or a massive Wagner orchestra, for Sir Bryn Terfel’s clarion baritone or Philippe Jaroussky’s ethereal falsetto, the sound was balanced and warm with absolute clarity of detail. The bare oak foyers, with their vast flights of (dangerously ill-marked) stairs, are spartan, reflecting the taste of a city elegant yet restrained.

But the main hall is only part of the Elbphilharmonie. There is also a smaller chamber hall and a substantial education department. The resident NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester is offset by a residency for Resonanz, a radical and street-smart experimental string ensemble. But what most impresses is the programme that the Elbphilharmonie’s general director, Christoph Lieben-Seutter, is putting into effect. It features not just glittering names, though there are plenty of those; but also breadth and variety, and a determined drive to bring in new audiences. “Salam Syria” is the title of a three-day festival devoted to the music of the world’s most strife-torn country, with players from the Syrian Expat Orchestra taking part. Since Hamburg is home to many migrants, this is more than a gesture. It’s telling that every concert in the opening season sold out within hours of going on sale.

Concert halls are increasingly a political matter. Angela Merkel and five other members of the federal government attended the birth of the already-beloved “Elphie”. Four months ago, the depressed Ruhr-valley city of Bochum opened a charming new concert hall which had been in part crowd-funded by 20,000 local residents. Two years ago the superb Philharmonie de Paris opened its doors to near-universal acclaim, after a three-decade campaign for its creation led by Pierre Boulez and other French musicians. In Paris the mainspring was left-wing politics; the Philharmonie makes a point of drawing audiences from poor areas, and encourages children to learn to play instruments from other cultures. And just this week Paris saw the opening of yet another hall: La Seine musicale, devoted to all forms of music, its building costs largely funded from the public purse.

But the biggest knock-on effect from the Elbphilharmonie has been in London. Lieben-Seutter has re-ignited the controversy over the proposed new Centre for Music at the Barbican (which might also be designed by Mr Toyota), by echoing many of the arguments deployed by its local backers. Yet the counter-arguments are no less cogent. These are partly financial, partly to do with the proposed site, and partly concern the ecology of Britain’s musical life, which is already unhealthily dominated by London.

But as events in France and Germany have shown, the critical factor seems to be not the theoretical need for such buildings, but whether politicians and the people actually want them. The Barbican’s proposed Centre, which would probably cost £400m from sources yet to be identified, has its cheerleaders in the press.  But the project, promoted with implausible bombast about “outreach” but increasingly seen as a metropolitan vanity, has few friends even in the music profession, let alone outside it. It would of course be nice for London to have its own state-of-the-art concert hall, but with the already-existing Southbank and Barbican halls, imperfect as they are, musical life is perfectly liveable without one.

Hamburg, like Paris, shows how a different city will weigh priorities differently. One of the richest cities in Europe, it has not hitherto been seen as a top-tier cultural destination. With the Elbphilharmonie, it is showing how a high-tech hall can trigger cultural and social renewal, with delays and cost over-runs overcome by political and popular enthusiasm.
This article appeared in The Economist on 14.1.17

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