Saturday, 11 October 2008

Day One at Kings Place

Attending the opening day of a major new venue is a fascinating experience. Everything works, more or less, but every activity is taking place for the first time, and nothing runs smoothly. Visitors are not sure where they are going and are greeted by an army of guiders on entering the building. No one has quite worked out how to use the touch screen systems on the cash registers or the volume controls for the public announcements. And the pretence that the construction work has been completed on schedule is soon dispelled by the sound of hammering and sawing from the floor above.
Teething troubles only, no doubt, but there is a sense at Kings Place that everyone is out to impress. This is the first day of a week-long opening extravaganza for the venue, with its two halls hosting 100 concerts running morning, noon and night. Those who have made it in early for the first, a 9.30 am concert by the London-based Endymion Ensemble, are in a receptive mood and are ready to forgive the minor inconveniences.
The opening of Kings Place is a significant event in London’s musical life. It is the first purpose built classical music venue to open in the city since the Barbican Centre in 1982. Its business model is markedly different to those of other venues. The project is privately financed, and the venue will be expected to pay its own way, without the government subsidies that keep most of the UK’s classical music afloat. The visual and performing arts part of the Kings Place project is intended as the welcoming public face of a building that will otherwise accommodate smart offices. Which is not to say that the music venues will rely on the office rents for subsidy. Peter Millican, the CEO and driving force behind the project is confident that conference and business events hosted in the halls themselves will provide the funding they require.
One variable in this equation is the future prosperity of the area. Kings Place is located just behind Kings Cross station to the north of the city centre. The location is central enough to prosper, and the public transport links offered by the twin stations of Kings Cross and St Pancras are among the best in London, with suburban, national, and even international trains (from the channel tunnel) terminating here. Besides Kings Place, the major development prospect for the area is a project called Kings Cross Central, a housing, shopping and entertainment complex planned for a site on the opposite side of the road. But work has yet to begin there, and for now Kings Place stands in splendid isolation with its elegant modern facade of rippling blue glass set against a background of dilapidated housing blocks, various rail sheds and a petrol station.
The first impression on entering the building (after having been copiously greeted and directed) is of a distinctly corporate environment. Not surprising considering this is the foyer of an office block. The ground floor is given over to cafes, a restaurant, a small gallery facing onto the street and a very small box office. (Online ticket buying is encouraged, with airline style dynamic pricing to encourage early booking with lower prices.) Escalators at the far end descend into the basement arts space. No Nibelheim this, but rather a well lit atrium consisting of an art gallery spread across two floors and doubling as a foyer space for the two concert halls. The upper floor of the gallery is a balcony stretching around the four walls, wide enough to be considered a mezzanine but leaving enough headroom for the lower floor to be considered grand. Each day of the opening week begins with a performance of Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes, with its clockwork performers lined up around the edge of the balcony. In this context, the work is more installation art than music, as the metronomes are virtually inaudible over the ambient foyer noise.
The metronomes could be considered a statement of artistic intent, but only in that they demonstrate the diversity of the music on offer. Another unusual feature of the Kings Place project is that no single artistic director has been appointed. Short concert series will be staged with relative artistic independence, each running to just a handful of performances. The hope is that, rather than being seen to lack artistic focus, the venue will gain a reputation for diversity and appeal to multiple audience groups. Western classical music will be the core element of the programming, but jazz, world music, dance events and the spoken word will all appear on the schedules. The initial programming matches this diversity with an impressive quantity of events, suggesting that the aim of this first season is to find a foothold for the venture in as many cultural sectors as possible.
The combination of diversity and quantity is also reflected in the use of the available space. The main hall has only 400 seats, but there is also a second hall of 200 seats and a variety of other rehearsal, education and, of course, conference spaces. Hall two is effectively a studio space and has been designed with diversity of use in mind; the seating is movable and the acoustics tailored for various forms of amplified sound.
But the excitement in London leading up to the opening of the venue has been generated by hall one and the acoustic it offers. There has long been a feeling in London that the city’s classical music is poorly served by the concert halls in which it is performed. There is a hope that Kings Place may go some way to putting this to rights.
Stepping into the hall, the first aural impression is of leaving the ambience of the resonant atrium behind. In fact, the hall sits on rubber feet to shield it from the inevitable vibrations from the major transport hub next door. The hall is a classic shoebox, making the acoustic easier to model and control. The walls are panelled with oak with a variety of angled surfaces in rectangular recesses to texture the sound. The seating is slightly raked, providing excellent sight lines, and a balcony around all four walls also offers a range of fine vantage points. The upper third or so of the hall in linded with large rectangular arcades, and the resonance can be controlled with movable curtains behind. The sound is both warm and clear, proximity to the performers being an obvious advantage of the small scale. Inevitably, the sound varies according to position, but for my money the front of the stalls and the side balconies offer the greatest transparency. The concerts scheduled for the opening day, ten in all, included chamber instrumental works in the morning, lieder recitals in the afternoon and 18th century opera excerpts in the evening. In the instrumental works, the detail of the sound is the most impressive feature. Even the keys of the new Steinway rising to their resting positions are audible. In the vocal music, the florid resonance was the key feature, not overbearing but rich and satisfying.
Kings Place is primarily a chamber music venue, so the natural comparison is with the Wigmore Hall, the undisputed home of chamber music in London. Thankfully, the Kings Place acoustic offers a very different sound. It’s certainly clearer and warmer, but the Wigmore’s dryer, more traditional sound is likely to remain the preference of many. Whichever way, the Wigmore Hall’s status as the centre of all things chamber music in London seems secure.
But unless the new venue draws audiences away from existing halls, it is difficult to see how it can remain viable. Discussion of Kings Place in the UK media has been split fairly evenly between praise for the acoustic in its main hall and concern over its business model. The audience base for classical music in London is estimated to be around 30,000, and many are of the opinion that existing venues can more than meet this demand. To succeed, Kings Place will have to either poach business from other venues or expand this core audience through innovative programming and marketing. The evidence so far is that they are planning to do both.
The odds may be stacked against the long-term viability of Kings Place as a music venue, but Millican and his colleagues have brought sound business sense to the project, with a number of impressive supporting strands weighing in its favour. The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta, the UKs leading period instrument ensemble and contemporary music group respectively have moved their offices to Kings Place, and each has been given a prime office space at a peppercorn rent. Both ensembles are now officially resident in the hall. This will bring excellent publicity, especially given how well the acoustic will match their respective sounds. Another cultural coup has been to sign up the Guardian and Observer newspapers as the first commercial tenants, papers with a reputation for thorough and enthusiastic performing arts coverage.
Kings Place is a venue with a distinctly corporate atmosphere, an arts project based on a venture capital business model. Peter Millican himself admits to having virtually no experience of arts management, but his track record with major business ventures is enviable. He is not expecting the Kings Place concert halls to make a profit, but he is expecting them to break even. Today’s financial climate makes any talk of long-term stability seem optimistic, and Millican is clearly an optimist. But he has shrewd business sense and creative ideas about how the project can work. The fine acoustic of his concert hall combined with the diversity and quality of the music he has planned for it make the venue a major asset for London. With any luck the books will balance and Kings Place will become a mainstay for classical music in capital for years to come.