Thoughts on a new concert hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: what kind of venue does Edinburgh really need?

First published in The Herald on 30 November, 2016

A fortnight ago the Scottish Chamber Orchestra announced a plan that’s been hatching backstage for years. It will get its new concert hall in Edinburgh. The statement comes now, the orchestra’s Chief Executive Gavin Reid told me, because next step is to launch an architecture competition and he’d be hard put to do that in secret.

Major details are yet to be finalised but here’s what we do know. The venue will be located behind the Royal Bank of Scotland at 36 St Andrew Square. (A 1960s RBS office block will be flattened to make way) The land will be leased long-term from the RBS to a charitable trust set up by the new hall’s major donor Carol Grigor and by Ewan Brown, former deputy chairman of the Edinburgh International Festival. This trust is called IMPACT Scotland and it will own and run the hall; the SCO will effectively be a tenant.

The space will include a 1,000-seat main auditorium plus a rehearsal studio that might or might not double as a public venue. Initial guestimates put the capital cost at £45 million, a ‘sizeable’ chunk of which comes from Grigor’s philanthropic Dunard Fund and the rest of which will be raised through private donations and public funding from Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government. The orchestra’s notion is that the hall will be self-sustaining in the longterm through various lucrative activities including conferences. I’ve heard mention of completion dates in 2020 or 2021.

All sorts of questions arise from the above, the most fundamental being whether the SCO actually needs a venue. Its argument is that that Usher Hall swamps a chamber orchestra and the Queen’s Hall is outdated: bum-numbing pews, cramped foyers, dingy backstage. “Having a hall with fantastic acoustics will allow us to increase our range of repertoire and will bring management and musicians under one roof,” Reid said. “It will allow us to reach new audiences and make new partnerships.“ He stressed the new central location, with its tram links and “proximity to Harvey Nichols”, though didn’t elaborate on why an orchestra should be associated with luxury shopping. Neither did he mention the status factor: that in certain circles, usually moneyed circles, there is still cultural clout attached to an arts organisation with its own real estate.

There is a bigger debate to be had around the notion of ‘need’, about whether that sense of classical music entitlement is justifiable and whether an orchestra enshrined in an expensive box is a relevant and sustainable and exciting model in the 21st century. Certainly a new arts venue in the heart of commercial Edinburgh could be a marvellous statement about what culture brings to the city — socially and economically, locally and internationally — but only if the venue becomes a genuinely vibrant and useful place. To be that, it must open up to musicians and audiences beyond one orchestra alone.

The SCO has stated that it wants other musical groups to use the space. Actually, this isn’t so much a voluntary choice as an imperative: one condition of National Company funding in Scotland is that the orchestra uses its resources to foster the cultural community around it. Yet the seven-strong board of IMPACT as yet includes only representatives from the orchestra and other classical-music people — nobody from the popular, jazz or folk communities that the SCO says it wants to get through the door.

So what do those other communities make of the proposals? What kind of venue do they want and need in Edinburgh? Alfonso Leal del Ojo, Chief Executive of the period-instrument Dunedin Consort, welcomed the prospect of a new performance space but worried about an ‘it’s-our-turf’ attitude. “You see concert wars going on” he said, “with institutions getting territorial over their audience, their repertoire, and, if they’re lucky enough to have one, their venue.” John Harris, artistic co-director of contemporary music ensemble Red Note, said he struggles to programme concerts in Edinburgh because the city lacks a flexible and well-appointed 300-seater. Same goes for other kinds of music. The Herald’s jazz and folk critic Rob Adams said that both a 1000-seat and a 300-seat hall could be useful — so long as they had excellent in-house PAs and could adapt to feel intimate for smaller acts and audiences. “Even better would be a promotion budget for the venue to receive tours and market gigs.”

Jane-Ann Purdy, folk music manager (Shooglenifty, String Sisters) and co-organiser of Soundhouse concerts, agreed that the inclusion of a second hall is crucial to improving folk and jazz provision in Edinburgh. She dreams of recording, rehearsing and hotdesking facilities — of the venue becoming “a real hub for music and musicians”. And for that to happen, “it needs to feel vibrant. The bar should have sessions and affordable drink prices. It can’t be too sleek and corporate. It has to have soul.” Look at the SCO’s most visible member, she added, meaning the inexhaustibly eclectic cellist Su-a Lee. “If you could design a building equivalent of Su-a, that would be ideal.”

Inclusivity does not have to mean compromise. One excellent model is the Sage in Gateshead, whose main auditorium is routinely cited as one of the finest concert venues anywhere — conductor Lorin Maazel declared it one of the top-five halls in the world. What’s interesting is that it was built for a traditional music organisation, Folkworks, as well as for the Northern Sinfonia: its success is thanks not only to orchestral acoustics and that gleaming steel-and-glass Norman Foster facade, but also to the fact that, from the off, the Sage managed to make a proper range of musicians and audiences feel like they belonged.

Ros Rigby is a founder of Folkworks and was the first programme director at the Sage. “We came in as musical partners with the Northern Sinfonia from the start,” she told me. “We had an equal seat at the table at design stage, even before architects were involved, which meant we were there talking about how to make the acoustics work for amplification, where to put a sound desk and so on.” Did the Sinfonia worry about ceding control? “I think they had their eye on the prize. They needed a business plan to make the building sustainable and they knew classical music wouldn’t be enough. They also recognised that most people don’t listen to just one kind of music, and they wanted the place to feel alive and their audience to be as broad as possible.”

The impact of that partnership has been tremendous. The Sinfonia got its glamorous new home and folk music provision in the North East of England was transformed, resulting in more touring bands, more local acts, more education, even the launch of a folk music degree at Newcastle University which, says Rigby, “came directly out of the association with a prestigious building.”

Could that happen in Edinburgh? A couple of days after our initial conversation, Reid phoned me to say that the board of IMPACT would, after all, be looking for trustees from outside of the classical community. Would he be open to partnerships, to sharing the building? For example, could the hall be a centre for traditional music — something that Edinburgh or indeed Scotland does not have — as well as a home for the SCO? “Certainly I’d be open to it,” he answered.

Reid also acknowledged that a venue designed for and presided over by an orchestra is a different beast than one intended as pluralistic from the start. Alasdair Campbell — director of Counterflows and co-curator of Tectonics, a festival that has been notably successful at gathering orchestral and alt-pop music audiences under one roof — had voiced concerns to that extent. “Even if I could afford to hire the new place, would my audience come?” He questioned. “Probably not if the hall was seen as SCO territory, if we’d been invited as an afterthought or to tick some kind of funding box.”

It’s now over to the SCO to make good on its word and for Edinburgh’s various music communities to present the orchestra with viable partnership plans. Like the Sage, the right ethos of pluralism needs to start before any designs are set in stone: specifically, that means before the parameters of an architectural competition are declared. The new hall must be for many, and many must be involved in making it theirs.

Final thought goes to the dear old Queen’s Hall: can it survive as a venue after its most regular tenant has decamped? In a nutshell, yes, says QH development manager David Heavenor. “We’re not going to roll over and give up the ghost. It’s too loved. The acoustics are too good, the history is too rich.” The SCO moving out might just make way for more lucrative acts with audiences who are thirstier at the bar. EIF relocating its morning recital series is “a bit of a blow,” but Heavenor says that “also frees us to become a full Fringe venue. More comedy acts and so on.” In the long term there are plans to refurbish the bar, snazz up the foyers, possibly turn the backstage into a second venue. But that’s a story for another day.