Peter Phillips

The ideal place to hear classical concerts

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What sort of room do you prefer to hear classical concerts in? We have all got used to industrial-strength symphony halls and opera houses, capable of holding 3,000 people, with dry acoustics and omni-look interiors. As with art galleries around the world, once inside you could be anywhere: there is little to tell you which culture any particular one comes from, apart from the signs indicating the lavatories.

The general public have come to accept the implicit anonymity of many halls, where individuality has often been sacrificed to size and comfort. Three thousand is a lot of seats, each occupant requiring good sight-lines and good facilities. In recent years smart cafés and even restaurants have become part of the classical concert experience, and are now included in the fabric of the building. The remaking of the Royal Festival Hall has shown how a run-of-the-mill concert hall interior can draw big crowds if you package it right.

Apart from the look of these halls, with their vacant spaces and awkward furnishings, one might have thought that the sound would explain why they have to be as they are. But here there is a considerable divergence of opinion. Historically they have always been acoustically dry, in the belief that a symphony orchestra playing loudly will not come over clearly in anything less. Opera houses are notoriously but ubiquitously as dry as a bone, making them hell to sing into, but again the argument runs that very loud presentation requires clarity not only because the sound has to travel quite large distances — up to the gods, down to the last row of the stalls — but also because in making the sound a singer will produce a lot of vibrato, to which the hall does not need to add anything. The key is that everything is predicated on the sound from the stage being loud.

However, recently there has been a move towards more chamber-like values. Excessive vibrato, both in singers and players, is slowly being replaced with a gentler and finer sense of tuning, even over the wide open spaces. At the same time the really big modern halls, like the Birmingham Symphony Hall, have been built with sounding chambers at the top of the interior, involving doors which can be opened and shut. When open, they increase the reverberation below very usefully, and I am told that even the larger outfits are beginning to ask for them to be open, so that the ensemble sound will automatically be rounder and more blended.

Concert halls are where professional music-making takes place. They look and feel reliable. Yet many promoters would prefer to use a building of distinction and beauty, even if that means there is only one lavatory, the seats have a medieval impact and there is a constant fear of hypothermia. Churches also mean completely unpredictable and untamed acoustics. It is a modern myth that they all have endless reverb — many of them do not; and many equally have acoustical blank spots. Nonetheless, hardy concert-goers are prepared to make sacrifices while listening to sublime music — and churches are not just reserved for sacred music. Everything short of the most blatant operas are also staged in them.

Personally, I wouldn’t choose either the history-laden cathedral or the identikit concert hall for my listening pleasure. They are both too formal, in their different ways. I accept that very few spaces guarantee a perfectly balanced sound; and so I like to seek out buildings which make me feel relaxed while preserving the music as well as possible. These criteria admit all manner of alternative venues, of which I suppose the Albert Hall is the sine qua non. I like being in there and do not mind that the sound can be strange, to put it mildly. I like the fact that it wasn’t built as a concert hall, nor as a place of worship, imposing nothing on the visitor despite being imposing itself.

I recently conducted a concert in the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, built in 1893, whose central atrium is laid out on five floors, with balconies and parapets all over the place, giving the opportunity to perform from many different locations. This wouldn’t do for something immobile like a symphony orchestra, but for singers it was magic, replicating something of how Monteverdi would have staged his divided choirs music in St Mark’s, Venice. Not that he would have had the chance to use lifts for his plainchant group. The Bradbury appealed to me because it was fun to be in, added something exciting to the music, and reminded us that concerts are a form of entertainment, however serious, not a religious ceremony. Easter is as good a time as any to be reminded of this.