The Royal Festival Hall – 50 Glorious Years

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

The Royal Festival Hall is one of the most important venues in the cultural life of this country. A fiftieth birthday is one to be celebrated (not that you would think that from certain commentators in the press). The Golden Jubilee of London’s premier concert hall prompts regarding it as a barometer of the last half-century of Britain’s history, and – coming after last year’s Millennium debacle with another specifically-built venue further downstream – it is both salutary and heartening to think back over those 50 years.

Born out of post-war austerity, and conceived from the very beginning as the only permanent fixture marking the 1951 Festival of Britain, the Royal Festival Hall was always set to become the capital’s – and therefore the country’s – main music venue. With the Queen’s Hall destroyed during the blitz, and the Royal Albert Hall only occasionally used as a concert hall (it only became a major classical venue because of the transfer of the summer Proms after the bombing of the Queen’s Hall), London had been without a major orchestral venue for nearly ten years.

Although we may find it difficult to perceive it so now, the RFH was an astounding architectural statement, which stood in the heart of the city, on the south bank of the Thames, reclaiming a previously destitute area, in probably the most fantastic site that could have been chosen. It is interesting that, of the more recent concert halls, only Belfast’s Waterside Hall and the forthcoming auditorium in Gateshead, have a similar location (both on river banks), whereas Symphony Hall in Birmingham is hard to view as a separate entity, coupled as it is with the Convention Centre.

There are derisory claims as to the Royal Festival Hall’s plain, even austere, functionality, but there can be nothing as functional as being encased in a business centre, with individual identity completely subsumed – but that, of course, was just as much a product of its times (Symphony Hall was a child of Thatcher’s Britain) as the spirit of hope that gave birth to the Festival of Britain.

Fifty years later the story is regrettably – and scandalously – not as hopeful. Despite the eight-month closure period in 1964, which created the riverside frontage we know today, with the addition of two new concert buildings, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room – and the Hayward Gallery – there have been three attempts over the last decade to redevelop the whole site.

In retrospect the very nature of the site laid the foundations of future problems. With the Royal Festival Hall the single permanent building, the remainder of the site needed further construction. The National Theatre had a site earmarked, but it took a further 25 years to fulfil that promise and, in between (in both chronological and geographical senses), the two other halls and gallery created their own – very 1960s – statement.

The idea that art-centres could exist by themselves with no ancillary businesses or accommodation has proved to be a nonsensical one, and it was fortunate that the adjacent Coin Street area had such a vociferous local residents’ association, which at least kept some residential life going in the area. There is now a much more holistic view to the whole area and – with commercial factors seeing the massive shrinkage of Shell’s need for its two buildings between the riverside and Waterloo Station – accommodation (at admittedly ridiculous prices) has now become a more viable option. Pedestrian access is being addressed, not simply the re-siting of the pedestrian crossing between Waterloo Station and Concert Hall Approach, but also the major Hungerford Bridge work, which will result next year in a much more pleasant walk across the Thames to and from Charing Cross. Of course, the London Eye has also increased both public awareness and visits, and all these factors have breathed life back into the area. Now there are restaurants along Belvedere Road where once there was just the Archduke.

Yet, the Hall deserves more. There was the failure of two major plans for rejuvenating the whole site in one go in the ’90s – the first foundering in the boom-and-bust era of late Toryism; the other – Sir Richard Rodgers’s glass canopy – collapsing at the National Lottery and Arts Council’s joint failure to fund worthy projects. That’s a completely different story and was as depressing as the funding failure was disgraceful. If either had gone through, the Royal Festival Hall’s 50th-birthday celebrations would have marked the grand re-opening of state-of-the-art facilities.

How anyone can argue that it is not worth the money, given that three million people visit the Hall every year, seems incredible. One can only hope that the new plans, and the new fund-raising effort, which is launched in tandem with the birthday celebrations can at last resolve the desperate need for renovation and restoration that the Royal Festival Hall warrants.

There are those that profess not to like the hall. Norman Lebrecht in his weekly Daily Telegraph column makes regular claims not to do so, arguing recently that “no one feels much affection for the amenity”. How wrong can he be? I am perhaps privileged not only to have been a patron over the last 22 years, but also to have worked at the Hall between 1990 and 1993 and, since then, been involved with a number of promotions from organising the (now Harrods) International Piano Series, while working for the agency Harrison Parrott Ltd, including Maurizio Pollini’s chronological survey of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in the 1996-97 season to marketing the visits of both the Vienna Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestras. I can refute Mr. Lebrecht’s claims: I love the hall – it is my second home – and I know of no other concert hall I would rather visit.

I am not blind to its faults and problems – indeed, I am perhaps more aware of those having been so closely associated with the Hall for over a decade – but Mr Lebrecht’s continuous carping is usually wide of the mark.

There may have been bad management and uneven policy decisions by both national and local government, but the reason why this anniversary is worth celebrating is because of the great quality of concerts the Hall has hosted. No other Hall in Britain can match the roster of artists and conductors that have graced its platform.

Such traditions continue, although today’s critics seem to mistake the excitement of their own first experiences of the Hall as a benchmark for performances, and extrapolate that today there are fewer great concerts than those ’halcyon’ days. I suspect I may one day subscribe to this view, but I will regard my benchmark performances as the ones I first saw and heard – Muti, Tennstedt, Haitink and Rattle in the early 1980s; today’s first-timers will probably remember an even younger generation.

Those past performances are detailed in the Hall’s Archive. Tended by Mala Jones, the Archive has an almost unbroken record of concerts in the form of printed programmes, mostly the back-stage copy, which is annotated with the exact timings of each piece. Up until 1984 there was a card index kept – from which one could check which artists appeared when, or, for example, how many times Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony had been played. The information post-84 is there (in individual programmes) but it was not index-input and, subsequently, it would take much longer for Mala to unearth the information – yet the speed in which she can locate something is impressive.

An article intrigued me earlier in the year written by Richard Morrison for The Times, the main focus of which was the centenary of the Wigmore Hall. While noting that ’centenary’ is something of a spurious notion for a hall that only became the ’Wigmore’ in 1917 (for the previous 16 years it had been the Bechstein building – admittedly built in 1901 – but commandeered in the First World War as being owned by nationals from an enemy country), my main cavil with Mr Morrison was his comparison of the Wigmore and the South Bank.

Whilst the former remained purely for classical music, said he, the South Bank had to put on things like Cuban music to get an audience. That supposes that non-classical music is new to the Royal Festival Hall, but a quick response from Mala proved Mr Morrison incorrect.

In the thirteen years before the Hall’s first period of rebuilding, many of the greatest jazz stars appeared on its stage – Louis Armstrong, George Shearing (1962), Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson (1961), Jack Teagarden (1957) and the Modern Jazz Quartet (1957) – dates are their first visits. Even in the first year, such British jazz artists as Humphrey Lyttelton and George Melly appeared, with Ronnie Scott following in 1954 and Stan Tracey in 1958; and, don’t forget the skiffle-bands. In the ’60s and ’70s this ’popular’ tradition followed with the Bee Gees, Miles Davis, Neil Diamond, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone (she came in 1969, 1979 and – as part of Nick Cave’s “Meltdown” – returned in 1999). Perhaps the most intriguing names include David Bowie (he did the Purcell Room before moving up to the RFH in July 1972), Jimi Hendrix, T Rex (in 1968 and 1969), Yes (1970, 1971), Frank Zappa (1968) and someone entered as ’John Elton’ who appeared three times – in 1971, February ’72 (with the RPO!) and May ’74 with Princess Margaret in attendance.

Under the Greater London Council, before that body was petulantly shutdown by Mrs Thatcher, the Hall instituted an open-door policy, which opened up the foyers during the day (previously the foyers were only accessible shortly before the concert). With shops and eating-outlets the place feels bright and alive. In effect, apart from the stepped ceiling above the long bar in the main foyer you could walk through without realising that there is a 3,000-seat concert hall suspended above you. Often have I come out of a concert to walk past tables pushed together with what looks like a committee meeting happening. Britain is often criticised as not having the café society that typifies, say, France, but you can find it in the Royal Festival Hall foyers. Its significance as a public resource is probably wildly underestimated, if recognised at all.

The open-foyer policy continues to this day, with free lunchtime music and ’Commuter Jazz’ on Fridays before the evening concert, but the financial constraints that the hall operates under has meant the steady reduction over the years of foyer exhibitions anywhere but the ballroom floor, and now, even those exhibitions have been scrapped, with the staff who organised them let go. There are always calls that the whole Centre gets too much grant, there are too many staff; but the comparison with the Barbican Centre, 20 next year, is instructive. That building is solely funded by the cash-rich Corporation of London, but the two resident companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company and London Symphony Orchestra receive substantial Arts Council funding.

Thus the £6million restructuring of the Barbican Hall’s ceiling to create both a better acoustic and a more flexible auditorium has been funded without the need for a cap-in-hand campaign, which is the only way open to the South Bank, because Lambeth Council, in whose Borough the Hall falls, is one of the poorest London Boroughs, one which can’t afford ’gifts to the Nation’ in which the Corporation of London prides itself.

Given the facts, it is quite remarkable what the Hall, in partnership with its residents (the Philharmonia and London Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the New London Consort, the Alban Berg Quartet and the London Sinfonietta), produces each season.

The diversity and wealth of events may be seen in the range of forthcoming 50th birthday concerts. The Gala Celebration on the birthday itself – 3 May – rather bizarrely programmes opera arias (one thing the Hall has never claimed to be is an opera house!), and sports as its conductor the admittedly starry Valery Gergiev, when perhaps a conductor with a much closer connection with the Hall might have been appropriate. The newly-restored organ (added after the building originally opened) opens the celebrations (30 April) with Wayne Marshall in recital. On 4 May the non-classical tradition is quite rightly included in an evening called Total Meltdown, which brings together many of the artistic directors of the South Bank’s acclaimed summer contemporary festival including Elvis Costello, John Peel and Nick Cave, with music by the three ’classical’ composers that have so far been curators – George Benjamin, Louis Andriessen and Magnus Lindberg. The London Philharmonic contributes a performance of Britten’s War Requiem under Sir John Eliot Gardiner (replacing Kurt Masur, 5 May), prior to which the Alban Berg Quartet and the New London Consort combine in an afternoon celebration. Likewise the OAE and London Sinfonietta, with Martyn Brabbins and Sir Simon Rattle, collaborate on Sunday 6 May, before the Philharmonia Orchestra give the world première of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Antarctic Symphony, conducted by the composer (who is interviewed by Colin Anderson for The Classical Source – click here to read it).

There are various education events that run through the month, and celebrations continue throughout May, ending – fittingly – on 30 May with another birthday celebration, that of Alfred Brendel’s 70th.

The BBC is on hand to mark this significant moment in London’s history, just as it has been for many musical highlights over fifty years. The Gala concert is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, with a BBC2 retrospective on Saturday 5 May. There is also a live Music Matters debate on 6 May at 12.15pm on Radio 3. For those wishing to take a piece of the Hall’s history away with them, in addition to the complimentary book about the Hall, there is a CD, which features a number of live performances from the archives.

I was honoured to be invited to make the selection of tracks, mainly from the releases that IMG Artists have issued on its BBC Legends label. My criterion for the selection was to choose great performances from great occasions. Sibelius’s 90th birthday concert, on 8 December 1955 is the earliest recording on the aptly titled “Celebration” CD – provided both the National Anthem (de rigeur for concerts at the time) and an intense Tapiola, played by the Royal Philharmonic. The other two orchestras, once regulars at the hall, but now both at the Barbican are represented: the LSO conducted by the 86-year-old Pierre Monteux in excerpts from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Rudolf Kempe in the scherzo from Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, recorded only months before Kempe’s untimely death. The Philharmonia is heard in an extraordinary-detailed performance of Berlioz’s ’Witches Sabbath’ from the Symphonie fantastique (1968), when Leopold Stokowski was also 86.

One omission was the non-availability of a recording by the London Philharmonic. Thankfully, the Orchestra received permission from Klaus Tennstedt’s widow for the first-ever release of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Prelude, taken from a concert in October 1991. For many, this will be the clincher, but the closing item is equally special: Sir John Barbirolli’s last-ever concert at the Hall. The main work was Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, but the opener was Barbirolli’s only second-ever performance of Elgar’s Alassio (In the South). The performance is electric, a mixture of high-octane bravura and Italian warmth. A real winner!

1 thought on “The Royal Festival Hall – 50 Glorious Years”

  1. In the 1960s there was a ballet performance on a fitup stage built over the orchestra area with a “pit” on the reflecting slab in front of that area. That stage had been suggested earlier and it was stated that such a fitup would never be allowed!
    I can’t find any mention of the performances and that staging. Does anyone else remember them?

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