Charles Wright: Post-Brexit London needs a new cheerleader for the ‘world-class concert hall’ Boris Johnson once backed

Charles Wright: Post-Brexit London needs a new cheerleader for the ‘world-class concert hall’ Boris Johnson once backed

February 20, 2015: a different time. Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Chancellor George Osborne shoulder to shoulder in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, announcing their backing for a new “world-class concert hall” in the capital. 

The plan, for a new home for the London Symphony Orchestra, had the “full support” of celebrated conductor Sir Simon Rattle, they said. The Berlin Philharmonic maestro was confirmed as the LSO’s new music director, and chief cheerleader for the project, just a month later.

Six years on, Rattle is heading back to Germany, this time to Munich– where a new, state-backed concert hall is also on the drawing board – and prospects for London’s new Centre for Music look bleak. The search for symbolism began almost immediately, with commentators veering between putting Brexit in the dock or welcoming a “levelling up” reversal for the over-mighty capital. Or both. 

The truth may, of course, be more prosaic and personal. Rattle, 65, who still lives in Berlin and was always going to be spending just four months a year in London, has insisted, “My reasons for accepting the role of Principal Conductor in Munich are entirely personal, enabling me to better manage the balance of my work and be close enough to home to be present for my children in a meaningful way.”

Brexit (of which Rattle was a notable opponent) clearly plays a part notwithstanding, inevitably making cross-border working more difficult. Rattle is now seeking German citizenship. And although he has always denied that it was Osborne’s 2015 pledge of £5.5 million pump-priming money for the new hall which clinched his transfer from Berlin, the post-Referendum government pulling the plug on that funding just a year later may have been influential too.

The conductor nevertheless continued to bang the drum for the project when the City Corporation rode to its rescue, putting in £2.49 million and earmarking the current Museum of London site for the new venue when the museum completes a £337 million move to Smithfield meat market. 

Eye-catching designs unveiled by US “starchitects” Diller Scofidio + Renfro gave the £288 million project a further boost two years ago, but the scheme remains dependent on the relocation of the Corporation’s historic markets, including Smithfield, to Dagenham Dock, and reliant on private money – an ask getting no easier given the twin impacts of leaving the EU and the Covid-19 pandemic.

And the argument that the capital simply didn’t need, or, perhaps, deserve a new venue has continued. As the Guardian opined last week: “‘Build a new concert hall in London’ feels like the wrong answer to pretty much any question at the moment”.

Classical music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and debates over the relative acoustics of the Barbican and the Berlin Philharmonie may seem somewhat niche, but the current debate seems reductive at best.

The capital’s creative businesses as a whole generate £47 billion a year to the UK economy, employing one in six Londoners, according to Sadiq Khan’s culture strategy, while the government estimated the 2018 contribution of London’s cultural sector alone to the wider economy to have been £23 billion. Four out of five tourists say the capital’s culture is their main reason for visiting; new venues, and the opportunity to see star performers like Rattle, keep that important income stream growing. 

However you measure it, culture is big business, “attracting millions of visitors, creating jobs and driving our economy,” according to City Corporation chief Catherine McGuinness. Or as one City manager put it more succinctly last year: “London without the culture and the restaurants is just a more expensive Frankfurt with more congestion.”

Pre-Covid, Rattle was taking the “not now” argument head on. The new venue would be a “sign of London as a dynamic cultural city, at a time when we are going to need this more and more”, he said. In current circumstances, it’s not hard to imagine that his appetite for the struggle may have waned.

Now, a new cheerleader is needed, with eyes turning again to the Guildhall. “The City of London Corporation fully recognises the importance of the City’s contribution to the cultural life of London and the nation, and it remains committed to investing in it,” a spokesperson told On London“Discussions about the proposed Centre for Music are ongoing.”

Image from Centre for Music.

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