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Opinion: How will London’s new world-class concert hall sound?

The process of giving London a concert hall with world-class acoustics has just got underway. Paddy Baker wonders whether electroacoustic technology will have a part to play.

Last month the project to build a new world-class concert hall in London re-started. The City of London Corporation, which owns the Barbican Centre, is funding the business case, following the UK government’s withdrawal; this has enabled the lead architectural contract to go out to tender.

The idea for this new venue came about a couple of years ago when Sir Simon Rattle complained that the UK capital lacked a concert hall with world-class acoustics. Sir Simon becomes principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra this September; he has called the Barbican Hall (the LSO’s home) “serviceable”, but has also pointed out that about a fifth of the classical repertoire can’t be performed there, because the stage isn’t large enough.

A location for the new Centre for Music, as it will be called, has been identified: the site of the Museum of London, which is due to move to new premises in Smithfield Market. The business case for the Centre is due to be completed by December 2018. I’m encouraged to see that the project is also due to seek tenders from acousticians and theatre consultants, among other roles, and the appointees will also contribute to the business case.

If the Corporation approves the plan, fundraising will begin; the estimated project cost, once £278million, is now £200-250million. (Let’s hope that budgetary control is better than at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, featured in last month’s issue; although architecturally stunning and acoustically impressive, it was finished six years late at a cost reportedly more than 10 times the original figure.)

As well as the LSO, the Centre will “host performances from the Barbican’s family of Associate orchestras and ensembles, as well as performances from touring artists and orchestras… across a range of genres,” according to the Barbican. I wonder how diverse those different genres will be – and if the hall will be equipped to adjust its acoustic response. If so, will this be by physical means (such as the reverberation chambers in the Harpa Centre in Reykjavik, which I reported on a few years ago) or electroacoustic, such as Meyer Sound’s Constellation or Yamaha’s AFC3 systems? I’ve experienced the former, and what it can do is both transformational and subtle – creating a natural-sounding acoustic, precisely suiting the musical style.

This is genuinely a once-in-a-generation opportunity for London. I’m jumping the gun somewhat, as these decisions won’t be made, even in principle, for a while. But I do hope that those in charge consider all the technology options in their quest to build a world-class performance space.