Fine Times at Town Hall

Town HallHigh praise in this weekend’s Times newspaper for the redevelopment of Birmingham’s soon to be re-opened Town Hall, location for the Flamenco Festival in November …

From The Times
September 29, 2007
Richard Morrison

Hall’s well
Birmingham’s revived Town Hall is a world-beater

After an 11-year closure and a £35million makeover, one of Britain’s great Classical buildings reopens for business this week. Or rather, for pure pleasure. It’s the Town Hall in Birmingham – that wonderful marble-pillared edifice that looks as if it has been uprooted from Nero’s Rome and plonked in central Brum as a perpetual reminder to the planners of Britain’s second city that architecture can be massive yet graceful, functional yet beautiful. Even its limestone is fascinating: you can still see fossils of animals and plants embedded in it.

It isn’t quite Roman, but it is venerable by Birmingham standards. Built in 1834 by Joseph Hansom (of hansom-cab fame) for musical performances and political debates, it is said to be the oldest surviving concert hall in Europe, predating by decades such illustrious 19th-century venues as the Royal Albert Hall and the Musikverein in Vienna. Dickens strutted his stuff here; so did Mrs Thatcher. More to the point, so did a host of musical luminaries, from Mendelssohn and Elgar (the former’s Elijahand the latter’s Dream of Gerontius were premiered here) to Count Basie, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

But when Simon Rattle persuaded Birmingham’s councillors to build Symphony Hall for the city’s reinvigorated orchestra, the Town Hall’s future looked bleak. It was closed on safety grounds in 1996, and even placed on English Heritage’s register of “buildings at risk”.

So how wonderful that, after a renovation largely paid for by Birmingham City Council and the lottery, its looks have been stunningly restored. The auditorium has been converted back to its single-balcony configuration, the 6,000-pipe organ has been spruced up, and a new acoustic canopy installed. The result is a breath-taking 1,100-seat hall that can house everything from pop and jazz to medium-sized orchestras.

That eclectic sweep is captured in the reopening festival. Thursday’s gala brings together gospel choirs and big bands for a revival of Quincy Jones’s exuberant reimagining of Handel’s Messiah. Next weekend the hall has an open day and a reggae carnival. Later the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the city’s top choir, Ex Cathedra, perform great Romantic pieces associated with the venue. And, with the stalls seats removed, the old place will be turned into Britain’s most elegant ballroom for a “day of dance for all” on October 9. There’s indie, folk and world music too, as well as an evening showcasing the talent in local schools.

I’m excited, and I don’t even live in the Midlands. But can Birmingham support two concert halls offering 600 events a year? Well, the good news is that they are being run as one venture by the Symphony Hall manager Andrew Jowett, one of the most astute impresarios in the business. The bad news is that classical concerts in the city haven’t always been too well attended since Rattle packed his bags for Berlin.

Now is surely the time for music-loving Brummies to get back in the groove. Coming from a city (ie, London) that can’t boast one world-class concert hall, I can only envy their luck in acquiring two.

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