The Pearls of the Business – Concert Halls and cultural Identity
Music does not live from sound alone. This knowledge suggests itself as soon as we look even a bit into the history of concert houses throughout the world. Curiously enough. For isn’t the need for concert halls everywhere justified precisely with the argument that only in a setting with the best acoustics does music sound as it should sound? Yet as regards the significance that a concert hall later acquires for a city and its cultural identity the acoustics are not so important. World famous halls such as the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Carnegie Hall in New York and the Olympia in Paris live rather from their aura of long bygone great concerts held within their walls. And a new concert house represents first of all a great hope: that there, one day, legendary performances will also take place. Whether this hope will be fulfilled is of course another question.
Hope and reality
It has never been disputed that culture needs to be housed: the painter needs a studio, an art gallery and eventually a museum; the theater, a stage; and music, a concert hall. And a city that adorns itself with culture likes to feel pride not only in its artists, but also in the right building to house them. Not for nothing do the cultural buildings that have been constructed in the last 200 years give the impression of being secular palaces. And since the end of the Second World War they have also been meant to be a signum of urban progressiveness, which not only serve functionally but also represent the avant-garde of architecture.
These requirements, however, can of course be difficult to realize, as currently the hanseatic city of Hamburg has painfully learned. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall has been abuilding there according to plans drawn up by the star architects Herzog & de Meuron since April 2007; its completion is now expected only in 2014 and its construction costs have risen from 77 million euros at the start to 476 million at present. That is the current prognosis. The numbers are quite relevant to the present debate about a new concert house for Munich. In Munich the world famous Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra finally wants to have its own, really good concert hall. The big philharmonic hall at the cultural center Gasteig, opened in 1986, is considered acoustically deficient and, moreover, is primarily engaged by another top orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic. So the Free State of Bavaria is now contemplating building a new, prestigious concert house on the Isar island near the German Museum.
Hamburg, München, Bochum
When everything is gotten right, a concert hall can shape the image of a city far beyond the national borders, and this of course is the hope of Hamburg and Munich. An outstanding example of such a development is Lucerne, Switzerland. Since 1998 the city has had among music connoisseurs a reputation like, so to say, a peal of thunder. In that year the KKL, the Lucerne Culture and Conference Center, opened its doors. The concert house, designed by Jean Nouvel, is considered one of the best in the world and has often been copied and paraphrased because of its ideal acoustics and the many possibilities it offers to control sound. The most important orchestras in the world like to perform there and regularly rave about the qualities of the building.
The importance of such a concert hall to the cultural identity of a city may be seen in the example of Bochum. For decades, people there had been fighting for a “Bochum Symphony Hall”. In 2008 the City Council decided to build a concert house, but then had to postpone it because of major financial problems. When at last a solution surprisingly presented itself in 2011 in the form of additional EU and state funding, the friends of the future hall, who had raised € 14.3 million in private donations, rejoiced: “This is something of a miracle. Bochum will now get its ‘Music Center’ in the Viktoriastraße!”
The concert house, it seems, is more than a hall for the Bochum Symphony Orchestra. It is also an example for how such projects can give even crisis-ridden regions considerable self-confidence. This remains true even if the construction of the new music center, scheduled for 2013, may be endangered by a citizens’ petition: the opponents believe that the city has exposed itself to unreasonable financial risks involved in the hall’s subsequent operating costs – a legitimate objection which, however, can be met by careful program planning.
Examples with signal effect
The music lovers of Dortmund have been spared such problems. They have had their concert house since 2002. It is considered one of the best in Germany and is frequented by many international stars, ranging from soloists to the major orchestras. The city leaders, who from the start attached great importance to the costs of construction not working to the detriment of schools and kindergartens, are today proud of their concert house, which, at a cost of € 95 million, was built relatively inexpensively.
The Cologne Philharmonic Hall has acquired a similar cultural-political attraction. The Hall, which lies between the Ludwig Museum and the banks of the Rhine, opened in 1987 and still functions today as a venue for the Gürzenich Philharmonic, the WDR Orchestra and three large private concert organizers. Cologne’s neighboring city of Bonn also hopes to gain some prestige from its planned new Beethoven Festival Hall. Of course, as in Bochum, here too there is opposition, especially because of anticipated subsequent costs.
One thing is certain: concert halls are also always symbols for the culture that cities can and want to afford, quite apart from the question of the extent to which they are artistically necessary to an orchestra or to the cultural climate of a city. It is also a question of prestige, of what a city wants to and can afford. The Berlin Philharmonic Hall, built in 1963 and called by the Berliners, with a fine irreverence, “Karajan’s Circus”, is rated by experts as good but not outstanding. Yet the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, led by charismatic conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and today Sir Simon Rattle, is considered one of the best in the world. Why is that? Because music does not live from sound alone.
Opening an opera or concert house is a challenge. To make it successful in the long term means far more than merely putting together a good program. More …
works as a cultural editor for the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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