For many long years a cloud hung over the South Bank. What was to be done with the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room? Widely derided as architecture, they were looking ever more shabby and unloved. Should the buildings be hidden under a giant glass wave, as one master plan proposed? Or would it be kinder to put them out of their misery and go for demolition?
The dithering continued to 2015, but now — lo and behold! — the skies have cleared. After a nearly three-year refurbishment the Queen Elizabeth Hall has reopened, looking fresh and classy inside, its 1960s style carefully preserved, and its roof ringing to an exuberant concert by the Chineke! Orchestra.
A lot of the action has been behind the scenes. Backstage areas have been enlarged and remote corners housing technical equipment reminiscent of 1960s sci-fi Doctor Who have been updated.
An exhibition at the Purcell Room called Concrete Dreams, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will trace the history of the brutalist 1967 complex and those heady early days of its artistic programming, when Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells rubbed shoulders with Du Pré and Barenboim, the newly formed London Sinfonietta with Pink Floyd.
There have been periods when one looked back ruefully at that kind of adventurousness, but this spring clean has not been limited to the buildings. The next two months promise a resurgence of the old flair. There will be no fewer than 32 premieres, a Ligeti festival, a “Concrete Dreams” weekend celebrating the halls’ 50-year heritage with cutting-edge contemporary music and dance, and (for those who have not already had their fill) late-night gigs in the 1,000-capacity foyer.
The eye is on the future and Chineke! Orchestra’s opening event offered another slant on that. An associate orchestra of Southbank Centre, which made its debut at the QEH in 2015, the fast-improving Chineke! might well feel this is home. As the first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra, it has its own eye on change for the next generation.
The concert presented an ethnic mix of composers as well as performers. Two contrasting works — Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A Minor for Orchestra and Britten’s The Building of the House overture — gave the players a healthy workout. In between, Dream Song by Daniel Kidane, lighting the fuse as the first of the 32 premieres, ambitiously aimed to mark two occasions by setting words from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech on the 50th anniversary of his funeral. It was a step too far: though the orchestral writing was vivid, the famous words seemed to lose their expressive power when set to music, however nobly they were intoned by baritone Roderick Williams. They have enough music in them without.
To end, Chineke! Orchestra and its conductor, Anthony Parnther, gave a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.4. If it is going to play as well as this, Chineke! sounds ready to start writing the next chapter at the QEH.
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