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London's Festival Hall blasts into 21st century

June 30, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The Royal Festival Hall, London's first major public building erected after World War II and an iconic structure in British Modernist architecture, has long been a royal pain.

"An expression of a way of life in which we believe" was how one official in 1951 described what the 3,000-seat concert venue was meant to be. Designed with the goal of making all seats equally good (despite the inclusion of a royal box), it proved a magnificent symbol of Britain emerging from postwar austerity. But financial austerity, along with a gung-ho three-year timetable for design and construction, meant compromises, especially with the acoustics.

The greatest of the great -- Maria Callas, Bob Dylan, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Frank Sinatra, Thelonius Monk, Benjamin Britten, Jimi Hendrix -- gave the hall its memories. But the sound, especially when unamplified, turned out to be dry, cold, dead. Simon Rattle once said that it was an honor to perform in Royal Festival Hall but not a pleasure.

These days crowded, thriving, horrifyingly expensive London promises pleasure around every corner with its restaurants, art galleries, theaters and various hot spots. Austerity in concert halls is no longer acceptable. And it is suddenly far less in evidence at Festival Hall, which reopened this month after a two-year, $225-million restoration.

The wonderful site on the South Bank shores of the Thames has been made into the magnificent public space it was always supposed to be. The acoustics, redesigned by Kirkegaard Associates, have been much improved.

But perhaps most important, Festival Hall -- the centerpiece of Southbank Centre, which includes the Royal Theater, the Hayward Gallery, the British Film Institute and two smaller concert halls -- is being newly and smartly integrated into the artistic fabric of the arts complex. It serves as a symbol of vibrancy for the once seedy South Bank, and that means classical music -- the principal, but by no means only, programming of the hall -- is playing an important role in the area's transformation.

The result is an intricate balancing act between tradition and innovation in the Southbank programming in general and in the Festival Hall renovation. Powerful preservationists mandated maintaining the original architecture. The hall had to be taken apart and carefully reassembled. The wood-walled interior -- simple, clean, a tad bland -- looks essentially the same but feels new. Lobby space increased 35% with the removal of ill-advised changes that accrued over half a century. Windows are much expanded so that terrific views of the river are enhanced. But it was all done so seamlessly that it seems as if the venue was always this way.

I heard concerts Wednesday and Thursday by the resident orchestras: the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia. London has five major orchestras, and all compete to be the city's top band. The rivalry between the Philharmonic and the Philharmonia is fierce, though. Being similarly named and sharing a home, they can be easily confused. It didn't help that for the last several years, both had senior German music directors.

That's changing. At the Philharmonic, Russian Vladimir Jurowski, 35, is taking over from Kurt Masur this year. Esa-Pekka Salonen will be 50 when he succeeds Christoph von Dohnanyi at the Philharmonia next year.

On Wednesday, the Philharmonic, conducted by Marin Alsop, happened to be the model of innovation. Alsop began with the pristine Prelude to Philip Glass' opera "Akhnaten" but ended with something approaching virtual lap dancing during a digitally enhanced (very enhanced) performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." In between came Edgard Varese's noisy "Rite"-lite "Arcana."

The lap dance part was, of course, the attraction for a young, hip, presumably dance-world and techy crowd. In one corner of the stage, a dancer (Julia Mach) writhed on the floor. On a large screen over the orchestra, a German digital whiz kid, Klaus Obermaier, projected images of said dancer and a bunch of 3-D graphics. We watched though 3-D glasses.

Mach's hands traced figures that became red objects revolving in space. The ground on which she squirmed turned into curved, quivering space. Her hands reached out to practically touch us. Her image was also distorted and fractured into thousands of points of light.

The imagery was trite. The choreography, of little merit. Better artists may find a use for this technology. But I suspect pornographers will beat them to it.

Acoustics didn't matter much at this concert. The Varese blasted. Mach in your face made Stravinsky more for the eyes than the ears. The stage setup prevented the use of risers for the orchestra, and that probably caused the sound to seem on the flat side. The Glass opener, however, proved clear and detailed.

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