The Barbican’s new Centre for Music – the case against

(The first in an irregular series of musical blogs.)

From now on, every time Simon Rattle raises his baton at the Barbican he will offer a hostage to fortune: the more musically successful the concert, the shakier will seem his argument that the Barbican Hall needs to be replaced by something infinitely grander, with state-of-the-art acoustics.

Last Sunday Peter Sellars’s semi-staged Barbican production of Pelleas et Melisande at the Barbican– with Rattle on the podium – was outstandingly successful. Quarter-staged would be more accurate, since the only props apart from lighting were two bed-sized platforms around which the orchestra was thickly ranged. Sellars’s idea was that the violins should be the forest in which the characters lost themselves, but the drama he extracted from his cast was grippingly theatrical.

Singing under her husband’s beat just three feet away, Magdalena Kozena made such a feisty Melisande that the usual balance of the love-triangle was completely reset. She exuded hungry sexuality in her initial encounters with Golaud and his brother Pelleas, and as her pregnancy swelled she brought to mind a love-satiated figure in a Pre-Raphaelite painting; she fought tigerishly with Golaud before his mortal blow.

The performances of the rest of the cast were no less impressive: Christian Gerhaher as a driven but diffident Pelleas, Gerald Finley bringing desperate vulnerability to Golaud, and Franz-Joseph Selig as a sweet, world-weary Arkel. Bernarda Fink’s Genevieve was a compelling presence, while young Elias Madler, as Golaud’s reluctant spy, sang with warm-toned expressiveness.

To check out the acoustic question, I sat at the back of the stalls and missed very few words; the London Symphony Orchestra were on top form, and the detail in their playing emerged with brilliant clarity. OK, if they had been playing in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall – built to satisfy the demands of the CBSO’s then music-director Simon Rattle – the sound would have been even more pellucid. But here one had no sense of acoustic deprivation.

There is currently much talk about a new Centre for Music, a proposed replacement for the Barbican Hall whose champions – egged on by those lovers of flashy grands projets, George Osborne and Boris Johnson – are pushing ahead with their plans. It has been plausibly alleged – and only half-heartedly denied – that the prospect of this new auditorium was the carrot to entice Rattle back home, but its scope extends far beyond acoustics.

Concert-hall technology can now do wonderful things, and this hall would do many of them: infinitely flexible in how audience and performers would interact, every seat equipped with the latest digital bells and whistles. Listeners at the Centre would apparently have ‘touch-screens offering programme information and social media content before and after the performance, enhancing the concert and creating communities of interest among the audience’ – all of which sounds as much a threat as a promise for those whose interest is the music itself. Out go fuddy-duddy printed programme notes.

More seriously, under pressure from this shock of the new, the virtues of the Barbican Hall itself have got overlooked. Yes, it always was a pretty dreadful building, but history has conferred on it patina and spirit, as it did with the old Sadler’s Wells building, and such things are important – they warm the heart.

News that the proposed ‘repurposing’ of this building will turn it into ‘a home for innovative and popular contemporary music’ prompts memories of all the things it has been host to: the piano and song recitals, the superb Purcell and Monteverdi operas, the great visiting orchestras and the maverick experimentalists – none of whom have been discernibly hampered by acoustic problems. Rattle may disingenuously declare that London ‘deserves a great concert hall’, but in the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall – imperfect as they are – it already has two.

Yet the bandwagon for the new Centre is rolling fast. Likened to a Tate Modern for music, it’s being touted as a ‘beacon’ for what the feasibility plan hopefully but implausibly designates as the City’s new Cultural Hub (the Museum of London and St Paul’s being the other elements). And it would (in theory) spread its benign influence, via virtual reality, to every corner of the land. The plan is peppered with the usual buzz-words (‘inspirational’, ‘inclusive’, ‘innovative’, ‘interactive’) – plus some queasy new ones (‘tourism spillovers’, ‘wellbeing benefits’) – but its leitmotiv is anxiety: London is in danger – shock, horror! – of ‘losing its pre-eminence’ as the world’s musical capital.

But behind that virtuous talk of outreach lies a hard calculation. The Centre’s projected cost of £278 million (£400 million is generally thought more likely) would be City money, and what the City wants is a prestige project to rival the shining new Philharmonie de Paris: that prospect is what will release the dosh.

If this were public money, everyone would have the right to argue how it was spent: disbursed throughout the regions, £400 million could utterly transform Britain’s musical life. But this Centre would reflect arts funding on the American model. If the project goes ahead, and if – as is very likely – the public purse will be raided to finance its upkeep – there should certainly be some strings attached. Public funders should insist that it honours its promises about outreach, and that it supports, rather than undermines, London’s precarious musical eco-system: the other London orchestras – each excellent in its own way – must not be damaged by LSO dominance.

Meanwhile there is the little question of where the Centre might be built. The present plan, to shoehorn it into the space to be vacated by the Museum of London, amid a dense tangle of narrow streets and tall buildings, seems absolutely barmy, because this area – just a glorified traffic island – is dismal by day, and worse by night. I can quite see why the MOL is desperate to escape and relocate to Smithfield.

A big concert hall needs room to breathe, which could only be achieved in this case by nuking all the surrounding buildings, some of them new office blocks, and by reconfiguring the entire district – which might well cost a further £400 million of somebody’s money. And even then there’s no chance – because there simply wouldn’t be the space – to allow the creation of a buzzing cultural precinct to rival those of Kensington, the Southbank, or (very soon) King’s Cross. The Philharmonie de Paris sits in the Parc de la Villette, already a popular and richly-endowed cultural quarter: in this respect alone the Barbican’s new Centre could never compete.

No, a more realistic strategy would be to follow what the feasibility plan itself identifies as a shift of London’s centre of gravity, and find a suitable site further east (after all, this is what Crossrail is supposed to be for). This would demand ambitious blue-sky thinking similar to that which led to the original creation of the South Bank quarter in London, but it would bring real social benefits, and would make an appropriate base from which to launch outreach operations, as well as constituting a brand-new musical power-base. But since not even the writers of the feasibility plan believe that this would satisfy the City’s craving for cultural glory, it’s a non-starter.

Nobody in their right mind would deny the desirability of a state-of-the-art hall per se, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this one – sited where it is proposed – would be a monumental irrelevance. If Rattle is serious about wanting to trigger a revitalisation of British musical life, he and the LSO should now be using any extra cash which comes their way to plan a series of tours to those (increasingly numerous) parts of Britain where live classical music no longer reaches. This is what’s needed – not a platinum-plated vanity project.

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