Given how little money there is these days to keep serious music up and running, it’s remarkable that wherever you go in the world somebody’s either building or campaigning for a glamorous new concert hall. Only the other week I wrote about the new one in Manchester. And now I’ve been in Germany for the official opening of Dresden’s Kulturpalast.
Dresden is a fascinating place: an architectural showpiece flattened during World War II and pretty desolate through the succeeding GDR years but restored, at last, to former glory. Baroque palaces now line its streets again (though their façades hide chic hotels and offices). And in the centre stands the Kulturpalast, which was an unlovely piece of early 1960s modernism, very GDR (with a great utopian socialist mural on one side) and burdened by a dry acoustic.
For a major music town it was inadequate, but lingering nostalgia for the GDR prevented it from being razed. So it’s been gutted – the exterior and foyers looking as they did, but with a brand new auditorium inside that signals certain issues in contemporary concert hall design.
Halfway between the standard shoebox shape and an alternative organic one with interlocking balconies, it looks good, with a sound more resonant than previously. But there’s a lack of focus. At the opening gala concert Matthias Goerner, singing orchestrated Schubert songs, sounded like someone in a distant bathroom with the door closed. And a period-style Beethoven Triple Concerto the next day, with the Dresden Festival Orchestra under Ivor Bolton, might as well have been a Double because only two of the soloists (violinist Nicola Benedetti and cellist Jan Vogler) registered. Alexander Melnikov, playing a fortepiano, was inaudible. In June the hall will close for “adjustments”, and I hope they work. Meanwhile, those who lobby for a world-class venue in London should take careful note.
The Riot Ensemble may sound like a police initiative to combat public disorder, but it’s actually a contemporary music group with a gift for presenting “difficult” new work in a compelling way. Last week they were at the Blackheath Concert Halls, south London, with a programme that included the star violist Stephen Upshaw in a haunting quasi-concerto by Jonathan Harvey, and the world premiere of an epic, 25-minute Chamber Symphony by a young composer of virtuosic promise, Scott Lygate.
Everything was memorably brilliant, and I came away elated. If contemporary music nights were always like this, they’d shrug off their ghetto status and we’d all be queuing for returns.