An old friend rediscovers its youth

The building sings. It breathes again. And yes, it resonates. That was the important bit. No matter how pristine the Royal Festival Hall looked after its two-year refurbishment, no matter how respectfully its 1951 interiors had been restored, it would have defeated the purpose if the sound of the music had not been significantly improved. London musicians have long complained of lacking a proper concert hall. Now they have one.

The weekend’s opening splash had been a people’s party: more than 250,000 thronged the building until 4am on Monday. It was a fine, democratic gesture, even if the new carpets were left looking much like the old. Then came Monday’s gala concert. This was the preserve of the privileged – people like me, the Duke of Kent, Ken Livingstone, the Begum Aga Khan and Sir Terence Conran. In addition to free music, the great and not-so-good feasted on unlimited champagne. Small wonder we felt so happy. But yesterday morning the fund-raisers – led by Dame Vivien Duffield, who chipped in £5m, and Lord Hollick, who gave a brilliant speech – woke with the same headache as before: having to secure the last tranche of the £115m it all cost.

Monday’s event, free of pomp or national anthem, wasn’t meant to make musical sense. It was designed to put the space to the test: 200 choristers in the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; the still, small voice of Ives’s The Unanswered Question; the sonic indeterminacies of Ligeti’s Atmosphères; and antiphonal drum rolls preceding Ravel’s Bolero, which merged the hall’s four resident orchestras in an orgy of hugely enjoyable banality.

The new acoustic was sensitive enough to project Ives’s silence, crisp enough to showcase Ligeti’s microtonalities, warm enough to gild the Act 4 symphony from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, mature enough to absorb Beethoven’s paean to humanity. It was as if, having reached the ripe old age of 56, the Festival Hall had finally understood the hierarchy of musical sounds.

Overhead canopies, looking for all the world like original features, have made a crucial difference. The reconstitution of the stage – narrower sides, adjustable height – has doubtless helped. In coming months, most orchestras will probably opt for a higher stage, and the sound can only benefit from weathering of the newly varnished wall-panels.

So a familiar friend has had a facelift, and who knows – we may end up loving it. Well done everyone, for keeping faith in a temple where the finest in music will continue to be celebrated, and for such expert stage-management of its comeback.

Bouquets to Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic for their vernal Stravinsky Firebird; to Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia, who brought more passion to Beethoven than they have ever achieved together; to the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for reminding us of their specialist skills; and to Marin Alsop and the massed choirs for being such troupers.

The conductors may have been Russian, German and American, but the new music was British. Julian Anderson’s Alleluia created siren sounds in the Daphnis mould, with a typically intelligent setting of its ecstatic 10th century text. In spite of some mushy choral writing, it made for an upbeat opener. Harrison Birtwistle’s Cortège should have been renamed “Diversions on a theme of democracy”: 14 players took turns to lead the musical argument from the front – a visually engaging mosaic that failed to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

But the building sang – joyfully. I can’t wait to go back.

www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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