Southbank Centre’s 2019/2020 season revealed

A nerdy survey of the Southbank Centre new season announcement plus some personal highlights

The moment a venue’s season is unveiled is a pretty daunting one for any self-proclaimed cultural commentator. The bigger the venue, the more impossible the task. Adopting an angle and crafting a narrative through the myriad of events is a difficult thing.

And its made slightly more complicated when its the Southbank Centre’s season, because its residents and associate orchestras reveal their season programmes the same day. In amongst all of this noise some of the detail is inevitably lost.

To make matters worse for the Southbank Centre, yesterday they were competing with the seven MPs who decided to (try and) seize the agenda by walking out on the Labour party.

All this pissing and moaning on my part aside, here are some thoughts and reflections arising from three announcements (the Southbank, LPO and Philharmonia) yesterday.

Top line messages

Looking at the audience from the top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Southbank Centre press team leads on anniversaries. Beethoven 250 (brace brace, there’s going to be a lot of Beethoven next year – I’m expecting to hate the man and his output by the end of 2020) and a Ravi Shankar retrospective.

They also trumpet (boom!) their ‘Contemporary Edit’, a fashion/interior design world-inspired collection of contemporary music infused events illustrating one of the audience groups the SBC perceives to be important to its future success. Something reflected in the median age of their audience posted in the 2016/17 Annual Review: 30-35 (though it could be the case that I’m making a sweeping generalisation there that younger audiences are more ‘into’ contemporary music than older).

Sean Shibe

Their list of artists is impressive to regular concert goers and listeners, but seeing the likes of Vladimir Jurowski, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Alice Sara Ott makes me question to what extent newcomers are influenced by the big names or whether (as I suspect) the informed but irregular concert-goer is more likely to shell out for a recognisable name.

For my money, the interesting artists to watch are the electrifying Pekka Kuusisto, Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the LPO, Daniil Trifonov (I’m a fanboy), Mitsuko Uchida, and the fascinating Sean Shibe.


Southbank are also making a big play about their ‘innovative’ new scheme designed to bring newcomers to the concert hall in a series of Encounters classical music experiences. Leading artists perform to invited concert-goers who have received free tickets on the basis that they’re never been to a classical music event before.

The Southbank with then invite those concert-goers back for a second ‘taster’ on the basis that they bring another newcomer along with them. After which the Southbank will invite those newcomers along, and so on.

I’m slightly cynical about this.

It’s a reasonably nifty idea, of course. All done in the context of promoting the cause of classical music. At the same time its a wonderfully simple way of expanding the Southbank’s mailing list, helping them reach out to local communities, tackle the consequences of social inequalities, and meet their corporate and Arts Council responsibilities.

The Royal Festival Hall. Home to a stuffy private club, apparently.

But its a gamble, isn’t it? Speaking as someone who gives something away for free on a fairly regular basis, the challenge then becomes translating the free offer into ticket sales.

Where things went a little awry in the announcement was the use of pianist Stephen Hough’s quote:

Classical music concerts so often seem like a closed door (or several) to those who have never attended one. A stuffy private club: elitist, pompous and inaccessible. ‘Encounters’ is a brilliant, simple idea to destroy this perception and to fling those doors open. Classical music – with its passion, its emotion, its stimulation, its rich fascination – belongs to all of us and I’m delighted to be a part of this exciting new way of introducing people for the first time to its allure.”

Pianist stephen hough, southbank centre press release

Whilst this may seem like a rather negative point to flag, the intent is positive. My beef is the way in which the quote establishes the potential impact of Encounters from the perspective of their being a perception problem with the concert hall.

That perception is a construct, and even if it is proved its not a construct, stating it only serves to reinforce the stereotype and, effectively, slag off everything else in the past and present. It feels like an own goal.

Cheap(er) tickets

Elsewhere, the Southbank flags how 50,000 of its tickets across the 2019/20 season are priced at £15 or under.

If it’s assumed that there are 230 events across the entire season (the press release says 230+) and the capacity of the Festival Hall is around 2500, then their £15 or under offer amounts to nearly 9% of tickets sold (though the figure varies if you factor in the capacity of the QEH and Purcell Room next door – 916 and 293 respectively).

What would be interesting to learn (I’m not sure whether these figures will be) is the take-up of the Encounters initiative and the cheap tickets scheme.

A look over their Annual Reviews makes searching for specific figures predictably challenging. The review from September 2017 – December 2018 celebrates impressive milestones but doesn’t detail much in the way of specific ticket sales. I wonder whether this is a consequence of part of the site being closed whilst QEH and Purcell Room was refurbished. A look at the 2016/17 reveals a little more in terms of attendance to ticketed events: 591K but no specific line on what income was generated from ticket sales, only that 50% of events are free.

What’s raising my eyebrows

All of this nerding out about what goes on under the bonnet of my favourite concert destination overlooks the purpose yesterday’s announcement – to highlight next season’s concerts.

So, as a punter, what am I particularly looking forward to? A handy list follows.

Christian Tetzlaff playing Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia (September 2019)
British Paraorchestra with Charles Hazlewood (September 2019)
Weilerstein and the Trondheim Soloists (October 2019)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the LPO (October 2019)
Daniil Trifonov (October 2019)
Peter Grimes (November 2019)
Drumming (December 2019)
Sean Shibe (January 2020)
Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (January 2020)
OAE with Mozart 40 and 41 (February 2020)
LPO and Leila Josefowicz with Knussen Violin Concerto (February 2020)
Chineke with works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (February 2020)
LPO with Ingudsman and Joo (March 2020)
London Sinfonietta with David Atherton (March 2020)
OAE and Bostridge (April 2020)
BCMG and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla playing Varese (May 2020)
ROSL Annual Music Competition Gold Medal Final (June 2020)
Chopin and Ligeti from Julian Jacobson (June 2020)

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