New concert hall, new logo

Today, the Royal Albert Hall made public its new logo (above) for the central London venue.

This just a week or so after Boris Johnson, Nicholas Kenyon from the Barbican and Kathryn McDowell from the London Symphony Orchestra started talking up the possibility of a brand spanking new concert hall for the capital.

Johnson, Kenyon and McDowell, geed on no doubt by Simon Rattle’s interview with BBC arts editor Will Gompertz, were all terribly keen on the idea. The classical music fraternity has, as one would expect, got terribly animated about the possibility.

The idea of a new concert hall was folded into a HM Treasury announcement about improving the lot for Londoners, of which a significant nod in the direction of the capital’s cultural producers no doubt seemed like a good idea.

I’ve taken the precaution of reading Southbank Sinfonia’s James Murphy Huff Po blog, so won’t be making the schoolboy error so many others before me have made. Suffice to say, it wasn’t until last week I realised quite how many people were so unhappy about the current provision for concert halls in London. Nor did I realise quite how difficult people who wanted to go to classical music concerts (or any culturally-related events) found it locating the Barbican. Poor things.

I’ve always loved the Festival Hall and the cosmopolitan feel the Southbank Centre have managed to cultivate. The Barbican was where I first heard ‘a proper concert’ in person, so that location combined with its brutalist architecture (yes, really) also holds a special place in my heart. I don’t see how another venue could convincingly justify its existence with a sustainable business plan. Aren’t orchestral marketeers always bemoaning how difficult it is to sell classical music to new audiences? Isn’t another venue going to make it even more difficult for their ever dwindling budgets?

I’ll be honest and say that the Royal Albert Hall isn’t my first-choice destination for a pure classical music experience. The acoustics aren’t fantastic. But the lack of guaranteed acoustic is more than made up for by the overwhelmingly sense of inclusion I experience when I attend a Prom, for example. Pick the right seat – ideally in the choir seats, one of the boxes close to the stage or the first few rows of the arena, for example – and the music reveals itself in a way it can’t in say the Barbican. It’s also a breathtaking spectacle when I set foot in there for the first time at the beginning of the Proms season. Every time I visit I feel like I’m making a pilgrimage, and that for me as a classical music lover is important. I have a relationship with that building.

It is – whether you like it or not, or prefer to kick the venue because you’re a classical music snob – a venue which the majority of people who don’t relate to the genre, instantly connect classical music with anyway. If you’re looking to speak to people who wouldn’t consider classical music, that’s currency. It is a theatrical space – a visual treat on TV. And it’s quintessentially British too. A space to be valued, appreciated and not taken for granted.

The RAH’s new logo makes me appreciate the venue a little bit more. The design taps into the same love affair I have with nostalgia that the Festival Hall’s implicit narrative leans on from time to time. The RAH’s new logo doesn’t tap into a Victorian nostalgia however, but one from the 1970s – harking back to a time when the only other substantial concert hall in London was the Festival Hall. There’s a innocent optimism in the font used for the venue name, for example – something I remember seeing on the covers of endless recipe books and part-works my mother collected when I was a kid. The graphic above the name eschews the venue’s plush Victorian past, instead illustrating the hall’s versatility. And that isn’t some vacuous marketing aspiration. It’s a statement of what the Albert Hall really is. In the next month I’ll see Status Quo at the Royal Albert Hall. In its history, it’s played host to wrestling, tennis, boxing and the Eurovision. It’s a versatile space.

I’ve never felt as though London is lacking in concert halls. I’ve never been to a concert hall and felt dissatisfied by the quality of the acoustic. What matters to me is what I’m listening to or watching. Purity of sound is, for me at least, a mask behind which those with a superiority complex hide behind. I want the complete experience. I want an authentic experience when I go to a concert hall, not one which seeks to knock the competition dead.

So, I suppose I’m making exactly the schoolboy error James Murphy warned against. Why aren’t we just grateful for what we have? And why don’t we plough the money into something else instead?



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