Fitting way to bring down the curtain - RFH closes for refurbishment
Saturday, May 28, 2005
By Andrew Clark
Classical music lovers in London this week bade a fond but far from tearful farewell to the Royal Festival Hall, one of the world's busiest concert venues, as it prepared for a £71m refurbishment over the next 18 months. The closure will virtually halve London's capacity for symphony concerts, forcing visiting orchestras, resident ensembles and audiences to seek out smaller and less convenient venues. No date has been fixed for the reopening in 2007.
The 3,000-seat landmark on the south bank of the Thames is to receive an extensive upgrade, including an acoustical refit by Kirkegaard Associates.
In recent months, the hall's access areas have increasingly resembled a building site as work went ahead on its Thames-side frontage. The refurbishment, including the renovation of the Harrison and Harrison organ, is being paid for by Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and private donors.
The festival hall, opened as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, has already lost some of its headline events to the rival Barbican Centre across the Thames. Its resident orchestras, the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic, face a loss of income as they prepare for a peripatetic life during the closure. They are hoping to hold on to regular customers by promoting a series of smaller-scale programmes in the adjacent Queen Elizabeth Hall, which has a third of the capacity. They will also undertake extended foreign tours. The upside of the changes is that London's orchestras have discovered some attractive alternative venues, such as Cadogan Hall in Chelsea.
The festival hall will be much missed. In spite of imperfect acoustics and dated facilities, it has served London well and hosted many notable performances - not least Wednesday's swansong by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, its principal guest conductor. Over the past two seasons
Jurowski and the LPO have forged a potent partnership, and this concert was a superb illustration of their combined skills. It also served notice of how fast Moscow-born Jurowski, who is still in his early 30s, is maturing as an interpreter. His programmes are widely recognised as the most intelligently conceived and thrillingly executed in London's highly competitive musical environment. So it is good news that Jurowski will have the lion's share of LPO programmes next season.
At Wednesday's concert it was by sheer force of personality that he prevented the applause that usually erupts after the bombastic third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the PathÈtique. Baton held aloft, Jurowski barely paused before ushering in the surging desolation of the finale - symphonic music's most powerful and most misunderstood juxtaposition. It was one of many features distinguishing a performance that added up to the most satisfying I have ever heard of this much abused music.
Jurowski's PathÈtique was lean and all-of-a-piece. The opening movement's development section worked like a coiled spring, with sensitive contributions from the LPO woodwinds. The cello theme of the waltz-like second movement was explored with infinite grace. The march had a brisk, light touch, all the more powerful for being kept strictly in tempo. The finale eschewed sentimentality.
Symphonic concerts do not come much better than this, even when, as here, the theme is death. It began with a crisply articulated account of L'Ascension, Messiaen's most compact meditation. Then came Berg's Violin Concerto, conceived as a requiem for a young family friend. Christian Tetzlaff's beautifully "sung" account took us to the heart of its Viennese idiom, its waif-like tenderness and pain.
At the end of the concert the capacity audience seemed reluctant to leave. In a speech from the platform, Jurowski reminded us of how well the LPO had been served by the festival hall and said it would not usually be appropriate to follow the Path&eacut;tique with an encore. Exceptionally, however, he and the LPO ended the evening with the ruminative Act 3 prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg. There could be no more fitting way to bring the curtain down on the festival hall as it prepares to go dark.