London’s newest concert hall gave its first performance at the weekend – courtesy of the Guildhall School, the internationally renowned conservatoire adjoining the Barbican. Concert halls do perform: they are instruments that need to be fine-tuned and played sensitively. On first hearing, the £89m Milton Court Concert Hall appears incapable of containing a sound any bigger than a chamber group, so it is worth asking what specification was given to the designer, David Walker Architects, and acoustic adviser, Arup. If, as seems reasonable, they were asked to produce a hall flexible enough to showcase the symphony orchestra and chorus of the facility’s principal occupant, they have failed.
And failed miserably, for the sound produced in Elgar’s Cockaigne overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was congested, fierce and horribly undifferentiated. And yet the 600-seat hall was perfectly capable of containing Come Forth to Play, a celebratory piece by Julian Philips (born 1969), the Guildhall’s head of composition. Unless the acoustic can be adjusted, the hall will be suitable only for recitals.
Occupying a site less than a minute’s walk from the Barbican, Milton Court also houses two theatres, three rehearsal rooms, a TV studio and other useful facilities. It looks fresh and elegant. The public areas are finished in dark wood, attractively minimalist in style. The concert hall, an oddly proportioned box, has 50 more seats than Wigmore Hall and 200 more than Kings Place.
Philips’ antiphonal piece treated the space adroitly and said quite a lot in a short space. After a Rheingold-type brass awakening from either side of the gallery, it gave the organ a playful solo before adding a carillon for a tumultuous climax.
The Elgar and Beethoven were exhausting. American conductor James Gaffigan treated Elgar’s evocation of London as if Cheapside had transferred to Broadway: it was brash and blowsy. In the Beethoven, taken at speeds better suited to a crack period ensemble, it was hard to decipher what was going on inside the tsunami of sound clogging up the auditorium. Chorus and orchestra, with four distinguished Guildhall alumni as vocal soloists, acquitted themselves admirably. All they need now is a hall capable of showing off their talent.