By Anthony Tommasini
From the New York Times - June 13, 2007
All four of the resident orchestras at the Royal Festival Hall — the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment — took part in the grand and substantive gala concert on Monday night to reinaugurate the hall after a major two-year, $234 million renovation. The refurbishment was both keenly and nervously anticipated. When the Festival Hall opened in 1951 on the south bank of the Thames, this formidable concrete building, rising almost literally from the ashes of World War II, was embraced as a symbol of British fortitude and renewal.
The center had a populist mission: to bring diverse cultural events to an inviting modern concert hall. But from the start the place was plagued by troublesome acoustics. Repeated attempts to fix the deadness of the sound proved unsatisfactory.
Moreover, the neighborhood around the Festival Hall in the Southbank Center deteriorated badly over time. Just five years ago a report from a select advisory committee to the center described the area as “squalid, seedy and menacing.”
No longer, it would appear. The renovation of the hall and its public spaces has created excitement all over the city. Offices, storage areas and shops that had claimed much of the building have been moved out, creating space for airy foyers and a grand ballroom. There are fine new restaurants and 35 percent more public space in the hall, most of it with great views of the Thames.
On the east side of the building, next to dark railway arches, a pedestrian walkway that not long ago was popularly known as “mugger’s row” has been turned into a strolling boulevard, with inviting restaurants on the ground floor. Full-length windows in the new offices of the Southbank Center on the top floor reveal the administrative bustle inside.
As a gift to the citizenry, and to emphasize that the renovated Royal Festival Hall and 21 acres of the Southbank Center are back in business as accessible resources, Monday night’s gala was preceded by “The Overture”: a full weekend with 48 hours of free, nonstop public events.
There were concerts of classical, ethnic and popular music in the hall and its ballroom, on the plazas, on the banks of the Thames and even on the Thames, with shipboard concerts. Some 18,000 musicians, dancers, artists and filmmakers took part. More than 250,000 people attended.
The refurbished auditorium looks recognizably like the old Royal Festival Hall yet seems completely different. The stage has been thoroughly modified, with rows for choristers or audience members behind. The flooring and seats in the hall have also been redesigned. New carpets replicate the original 1951 designs. Elm and Australian walnut interior wood has been restored. The 2,780-seat auditorium feels more intimate than it did.
So often gala programs are festive to a fault. This one was both challenging and entertaining. It opened, as all inaugural programs should, with a premiere: “Alleluia” by the English composer Julian Anderson, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, led by the brilliant 35-year-old Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who becomes the orchestra’s principal conductor this fall.
Mr. Anderson’s 15-minute work is not some generically celebratory piece but a mystical, agitated, high-strung and complex score, filled with thick-textured Messiaen-like sonorities, spiky harmonic writing and jagged contrapuntal episodes. During one frenetic section the chorus breaks into a gaggle of shouted alleluias.
Next Mr. Jurowski conducted a lush, detailed and rhapsodic account of the suite from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” I have seldom heard the ruminatively lyrical sections of this score performed with such wistful tenderness. The orchestra sounded great.
In Part 2 Marin Alsop took the podium for Ives’s “Unanswered Question,” with members of all four ensembles participating. Then the London Sinfonietta gave the evening’s second premiere: “Cortege,” by the English master Harrison Birtwistle, a major 15-minute score for large chamber ensemble. The musicians sit in a circle but come forward one by one to play skittish solo lines, passing them on as in a relay race.
Mr. Birtwistle’s ingenious and engrossing score creates spans of astringent harmony and sputtering melodic riffs, suspended in a rhythmically rigorous yet somehow timeless space. After this Purcell’s Symphony from “The Fairy Queen,” elegantly played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, proved an ideal chaser.
So what about the acoustics? Lawrence Kierkegaard was the acoustician, and the improvement is remarkable. The sound came through with bloom, detail and richness. There is a bright, modern quality to the acoustics, which fits with the mission of the hall.
Still, to judge from this first impression, if the hall was too dead before, Mr. Kierkegaard and his team may have swung things too far in the opposite direction. High, full-volume sustained sounds — the soaring sopranos in Mr. Anderson’s work, the high flutes and brasses in the Stravinsky — were hard on the ears.
Maybe a little tweaking can remedy the problem. Or maybe we are just in a time when concert halls are conceived for people who spend too much time injecting music from their iPods directly into their ear canals.
For the final segment of the program, Christoph von Dohnanyi, the revered principal conductor of the Philharmonia, led his orchestra and chorus in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with a strong quartet of vocal soloists: Joan Rodgers, Patricia Bardon, Philip Langridge and Neal Davies. To make just this movement into a more musically complete statement, Mr. Dohnanyi, with his gift for juxtaposing old and new, preceded it with Ligeti’s nine-minute “Atmosphères.”
Segueing into the Beethoven without a break, the Ligeti, with its shimmering and cosmic sound clusters, seemed like the 20th-century fulfillment of the ethereal premonitions in the Beethoven, when the chorus and orchestra evoke the starry firmament. Needless to say, Mr. Dohnanyi gave masterly accounts of both works.
As a scheduled encore, Ms. Alsop returned to conduct members of all four orchestras in Ravel’s “Boléro,” with the relentless bolero rhythm in the snare drum impishly introduced by drum corps flourishes from the balconies. The performance was fun and also meaningful: a symbol that four distinctive ensembles are poised to share the hall for the public benefit.