With 12 days to go before the official opening weekend on 8 June, followed by a gala concert on 11 June (See News, 6 Mar 2007), Southbank Centre chairman Clive Hollick and chief executive Michael Lynch both described how a project of such huge complexity has not only returned the concert hall to its rightful place as one of the world’s greatest concert venues, but given new life to the foyers, ballroom and other public spaces on the 21-acre site.
“We were determined to realise a dream of 20 years to revive the Southbank site,” said Lynch. “We decided to make it our priority to restore the jewel of our estate, the Royal Festival Hall, first. Working with a great team, we have been able not only to focus on the hall, but also on transforming other key areas of the Southbank Centre estate, breathing new life into the public spaces to the north, south and west.”
Describing the hall’s significantly upgraded acoustics and facilities, he added: “We will once again be able to play leading role in London and the UK’s cultural life and are proud to be a flagship site in London’s artistic community.”
The refurbishment has created an extra 35 percent of space in the hall for public use, with almost every surface of the 2,788-seat auditorium painstakingly removed, adapted, restored and reinstated, to create an improved acoustic space for both audiences and performers. The original seating has been completely refurbished, with improved comfort, more legroom and under-seat air conditioning. Riverside cafés, rooftop terraces, a flagship Skylon restaurant, and significantly larger interval bars and outdoor balconies have also been introduced, with panoramic views of the River Thames.
Surrounding public spaces, which were previously used as service lanes, have been returned to the public realm, although the teenage skateboarders who have colonised the cavernous space beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall, will eventually be found alternative accommodation.
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The opening weekend, The Overture, curated by artistic director Jude Kelly, begins at dusk on Friday 8 June with massed choirs arriving by candlelit river barge at Festival Pier, and will continue with music, open air dancing and other spectacular events across the Southbank Centre site.
Over the weekend, 24,000 free tickets will be distributed for special performances in the hall continuing until dusk on Sunday night, before the official First Night Gala Concert on 11 June, featuring all four resident orchestras, the London Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the Phillharmonia Orchestra.
Kelly, who is directing a new production of Carmen Jones by Oscar Hammerstein II, with music by Georges Bizet (from 25 July), a major feature of the reopening season, told Whatsonstage.com that she hoped to see the Southbank Centre exploring more musical theatre in future: “I am formulating ideas at the moment, but I hope we’ll look at the crossovers, perhaps producing semi-staged work of the great composers of lyric theatre. We will certainly be looking to make musical theatre more part of what our resident orchestras do at appropriate times. Being able to put on really good work with great orchestral forces is what musical theatre deserves.”
- by Roger Foss