Last weekend I went to Melbourne to check out the new recital hall there (but not the Licensed Desserts). Losing the two days I’d normally devote to mundane weekend-y things has put me even further off my blogging stride, but here’s a belated report.
Eamonn Kelly attended all the concerts of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s opening weekend (7–8 Feb) and festival for his report in The Australian. It’s ambitious and he comes across as if he’s saying too much on too little exposure, but it’s still a thoughtful first impression.
I heard only two concerts: string orchestra in the form of Kremerata Baltica, presented by Musica Viva, and the amplified Theatre of Voices in Stimmung, both in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. I won’t attempt to say much about the acoustics on so brief an introduction – just some observations about the venue generally. What I will say is that my first impressions of the Melbourne Recital Centre were, overall, much more positive than my first impressions of Sydney’s City Recital Hall. I felt (yes, felt) an intensity in the sound that I liked a lot and it seems to have the kind of clarity that doesn’t compromise on warmth of sound or genuine brilliance. But to be fair to CRH, you do get used to all sorts of performance spaces and learn to appreciate them for what they are and compensate for what they are not.
So, the building…
I fear the building exterior is going to look tired very quickly. Already the lower (white) portions of its honeycomb exterior seem grimy when viewed close up. On the other hand, the expanse of (also honeycombed) glass that opens the relatively narrow foyers onto the streetscape has a lovely informal appeal.
On a practical note, the MRC is similar to CRH in that its foyers are confined and narrow, and it’s difficult to move around them and navigate the different levels when they’re full. (It’s telling that the architect’s renders for these spaces show just a handful of people in them. Perhaps if they imagined and tried to render the foyers filled with several hundred people they’d design them differently.) But they’re redeemed by the openness provided by the glass wall. And on a really practical note: the toilets are a thing of beauty. Instead of having to negotiate traditional “airlock” style double doors, you enter the space through a cunning labyrinthine approach that allows privacy and discretion without the need for doors at all. No queuing patrons propping open doors with their bodies. (No queues at all, actually.)
I arrived early for the Kremerata Baltica concert to check out the pre-concert talk (more about that perhaps in a separate post). And my heart sank. On the trip down I’d listened to the CEO of the venue talking to Andrew Ford about how the MRC would be a place of discovery, with all sorts of extra-musical events and things to support the music-making and the programming. I was encouraged and expected all sorts of enlightened provisions for such activity.
No such luck. The space allocated for Musica Viva’s talk was even smaller than the reception room where talks are held at CRH. The latter seats about 90 comfortably, I would say, and can squeeze in another 10 to 20 more standing latecomers. The MRC’s narrow space would accommodate 60 at most. (Worse, it was tucked away behind two sets of doors.) Now perhaps the planners believed this is all that is needed – it’s true there were only 45 people at the talk I attended.
But it seems extremely short-sighted. Look around Australia… the cities where the talks programs are strongest are those where the talk venue is generous, non-confined and truly open to all comers, including casual listeners. In the Perth Concert Hall the talks take place in the corner of the first foyer level, with seating for about 180 people. Those seats are usually full before the talk begins and by the end the “standing audience” – including those listening in from the staircase and the upper balcony – has easily doubled the attendance. That’s more than 350 people who hear some if not all of the introduction to the concert. (The capacity of the hall itself is about 1800.) Better still, newcomers can literally stumble across the talks and either hang around to hear more or move away to another part of the foyer if they find they’re not interested after a few minutes. That casual accessibility, that ability to “taste” a talk, is hugely important.
The Sydney Opera House is much the same as Perth, in many ways even better: the talks are held in what is effectively an amphitheatre space at the top of the foyers. The immediate space will hold about 200 people (a mix of chairs and carpeted stairs), but is also open to the wider area of that part of the foyer, with stairs and balconies that can accommodate more listeners.
Now both Sydney and Perth have a downside: being open to the general foyer space means that you sometimes compete with ambient noise: glass at the bar, chatting, functions on the lower level, ships leaving port, etc. But this is a small price to pay in order to have talks achieve their true aim: of communicating, to anyone who wants to hear, about the program, its context and its reason for being.
So it made me really sad to see a brand new venue, a venue with “discovery” high on its agenda, isolate the pre-concert talk in a secluded, closed space – a small space that can’t be casually entered or “joined” and one where a premature exit will be marked by both audience and speaker. It sends the message that the talks are something formal, specialised and esoteric for a tiny dedicated group of followers. It discourages those who may just want to listen briefly or see what it’s all about. I could cry.
I was especially disappointed because my visit to the MRC website had led me to think that the talk might be in what they call the Salon: “a beautiful, flexible space that is perfect for intimate concerts, recordings, talks, receptions and dining up to maximum capacity of 130 people.” The Salon would have shared the disadvantage of being closed and secluded, but at least it’s a decent size. Then again, I don’t know the talk culture in Melbourne. The MSO’s talks (held inside Hamer Hall itself) were reasonably well attended last time I looked, but I hadn’t been to a Musica Viva concert in Melbourne before. So perhaps a space seating 60 people is adequate. That makes me cry too.
And the auditorium…
1. It smells divine. Given that I was already aware of what it looked like from photographs, this was the thing that struck me most on entering the hall. I fear it won’t last, but right now there’s the faintest, most delicious whiff of wood (Australian hoop pine is the timber used). For me, the smell evokes very personal memories of comfort, creativity and, above all, craftsmanship.
2. The silence is palpable. The whole space sits on huge springs, isolated from the main shell of the building. There is no external noise. Fireworks could go off, ships could blow their horns – you wouldn’t know. But there seems to be more to it than the simple removal of external noise. Inside the space itself, the acoustic is so “intense” that you can actually feel the silence. (And, of course, you can feel any sounds.) And I think it has an almost psychological effect.
An example in contrasts: Last year, at a concert in Angel Place, I heard a minute’s silence “in memoriam”. It was anything but silent; I was conscious of shuffling, of restlessness, of various tiny, soft sounds in the space. Last weekend, at the top of the Musica Viva concert there was a minute’s silence for the victims of the Victorian bushfires. It was intensely silent. It’s as if the feeling (not merely aural sensation) of the acoustic was such that we were, all of us, more quiet and still than we would have been otherwise. Having experienced that, I was attuned to it during the performance itself. Maybe the thousand of us in attendance were all more focussed on the act of listening in this new space, but we were a quieter audience than I have heard in a very long time, if ever.
3. It brought out the inner mapmaker in me. In high school Geography there was nothing I liked more than working with contour maps and drawing cross-sections. Before the concert began I wanted to map that entire space (even thought it’s quite misleading – giving the impression of more “contour” than in fact those beautiful panelled walls possess).
4. I really have only one complaint. The stalls are a little better, but the gallery seating is clearly intended for the agile, the slight and the short of limb. In most venues I can usually get away with sitting well back in my seat and tucking my feet under when someone needs to pass me in a row, but we all quickly learned that we’d need to stand. And after interval those of us sitting towards the ends of rows were hovering at the sides in order to avoid the inconvenience. I can imagine that seating-by-zones might work very well at the MRC: “Would those concert-goers sitting in seats 15 to 25 please board now; would those concert-goers sitting in seats 10 to 30…”